Pro wrestling is everything great about sitting on the back of the school bus, going to your first live Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the summer I watched every episode of Desperate Housewives. It’s as larger-than-life as a comic book and as campy as a telenovela. It’s arguably as athletic as pro football combined with Olympic gymnastics. It’s more fun to live-tweet than The Bachelor. My regular viewing schedule often includes Monday Night Raw, Thursday Night Smackdown, Wednesday NXT, and monthly PPVs. And I’m not the only one.
Do you know how many people watched the Monday Night Raw episode after Wrestlemania?
Almost five and a half million.
WWE is probably the most popular thing that nobody you know is into. That’s part of what makes it so interesting to me. I am a feminist who watches a lot of pro wrestling, even though the treatment and depiction of women in it is pretty consistently appalling.
What I remembered of pro wrestling from the late 1990s, known as the WWE Attitude Era, was that it was racy, “trashy,” bad for you. Like sugary cereal, violent cartoons, and going outdoors without a coat between late August and mid-May, it was on the list of banned items when I was growing up. It was something fourth graders watched that made them seem, to third graders, undeniably cool.
Women’s wrestling back then involved lots of pudding, lots of mud, lots of hair-pulling and the word "catfight."
By 2010, women’s pro wrestling in WWE had been rebranded as the Divas division (men are the mysteriously gender-neutral ‘‘Superstars”) and had backed away from bra-and panties-matches in part to usher in a more “family-friendly” product, but also to push a competitive women’s division.
These women are strong, powerful, real athletes performing incredible physical feats. But they aren’t being treated as such. And some of us are really angry about it.
The Divas division is the focus of the E! reality series “Total Divas”, and women’s matches are consistently used to shill plotlines of the reality show. Divas’ “gimmicks”, which are the hook of a wrestler’s character that makes you cheer or boo them, consistently run the tired gamut from “bitch” to “hag” to “whore” to “crazy.” Color commentary on Divas matches pushes those gimmicks relentlessly, while harping consistently on the idea that women innately hate each other, as a matter of course. Respect for one’s opponent, a huge theme in men’s wrestling, is practically nonexistent in the ritual of Divas matches.
In addition to the lack of equity in match time and storyline content, a number of female wrestlers have spoken out against unequal pay policies, alleging that they are not paid fairly despite booking main events and selling record amounts of merchandise.
In February, during the buildup to Wrestlemania 31, these factors, as well as Divas matches that were significantly shorter than the rest of the match lineup, launched a vocal social media call for WWE to #GiveDivasAChance, spearheaded by multiple Divas title champion AJ Lee, whose appearances on Raw were consistently met by audience chants for her husband, CM Punk, a legendary Superstar who now fights for the rival promotion UFC.
#GiveDivasAChance focused on unfair pay, shorter matches, sexist audience chants, and problematic gimmicks and storylines. It quickly reached the top levels of WWE: CEO Vince McMahon tweeted in late February, “We hear you. Keep watching. #GiveDivasAChance.”
And then, something unusual and kind of amazing happened at Wrestlemania 31. A little more than halfway through the event, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, the heel power couple booked as “The Authority,” appeared onstage. They (mostly Steph, whose mic skills are worth tuning in for) ran through a litany of heel trigger statements, emphasizing their ownership of the WWE Universe and audience.
They were interrupted by The Rock -- yes, Furious7-starring, egg-white-and-cod-gobbling, decades-spanning-mainstream-pop-culture-phenomenon Dwayne Johnson -- and Steph McMahon threatened and shouted him right out of the ring. The Rock had to send for backup, in the form of the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time, UFC Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey.
Steph and Ronda’s faceoff was the buzziest part of the most watched Wrestlemania in history.
Then, on the Monday Night Raw after Wrestlemania, Stephanie McMahon kicked Brock Lesnar, who in the WWE universe is the toughest, craziest competitor currently on the roster, straight on out of the company.
Stephanie McMahon is the paramount authority figure in WWE. Booked as the ultimate bad guy in pro wrestling, her gimmick is simply that of a woman who’s great at her job. Who wields her authority unflinchingly. Who is nobody’s sidekick, girlfriend, mom, or punch line. She’s aggressive and loud and gets her way, and nobody would dare call her a bitch.
On the same Raw after Wrestlemania, the night after Ronda Rousey announced to Stephanie McMahon that “Every ring I step into is mine,” audience members spent the Divas matches subverting the standard “[Wrestler] sucks” chant, instead shouting “You suck [Wrestler]” at Divas who are married to or dating other professional wrestlers.
WWE doesn’t treat the rest of the women’s wrestling roster the way it treats Steph, as heir to the McMahon throne. And most fans still treat female wrestlers with the same deeply problematic attitude as ever.
This contrast tells me that the WWE knows what strong female characters look like, what they sound like, and how their stories go. They should show us more of them.