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“Women’s Wrestling is Back”: WWE Says Viva la “Divas Revolution”

Do you hear the people sing?

NXT attack

“A lot of wrestling sucks, but when it’s good, it’s fucking great.” That line from screenwriter Max Landis’ biopic about Triple H, called “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling”, pretty accurately sums up watching the WWE.

It felt like a spark of greatness back in July when WWE kicked off their “divas revolution” by debuting three new female wrestlers that basically started a war in the women’s division. Divas are what WWE calls their female wrestlers, and I’ll touch on that more in a bit, but first let’s recap for fans and newcomers alike why this revolution felt necessary to begin with.

Wrestling really can be great. It’s like watching a live-action superhero comic where all the strength and athleticism is real (albeit scripted). I still have fond childhood memories of stuff like the debut of the character Kane during a match for the world title. The lights went out, then fire lit up the arena to reveal this giant man stalking down the ramp in a mask that supposedly hid his horribly disfigured face. It was like Jason Voorhees had decided to become a wrestler. He climbed into the ring, stood nose to nose with his undead half-brother The Undertaker, and attacked him to ignite one of the longest rivalries in the company.

Then there’s the not so great. Like my dad coming home just in time to catch a match between two female wrestlers, and me having to explain why these women had decided to settle their grudge in a lingerie pillow fight. To say WWE oversexualized female wrestlers fifteen or even ten years ago would be a monumental understatement. There have been mud wrestling matches, bikini contests, strip teases, bra and panties matches, water gun fights in tight white t-shirts, and even a stinkface match at one point (if you don’t know what that is, don’t ask).

Again, I reiterate, Max Landis had it right: a lot of wrestling sucks. That’s not just in regards to how female wrestlers can get portrayed either. Nearly every on-screen personality gets involved in something stupid or embarrassing eventually (there was also a men’s stinkface match at one point). The difference is for most male wrestlers, it is rare occurrences. For some female wrestlers, it becomes their whole careers.

What makes it tolerable, though, is that there are genuinely good moments. Amidst all the oversexualization, there were also women who could put on great matches. One of my favorites growing up was Lita, who started out as a manager for a man, but was so acrobatic in the ring that she quickly outshone him and became the star between the two. And then there was Trish Stratus, who debuted around the same time and became popular with fans as they watched her improve in the ring and go on to become one of the longest reigning women’s champions.

The mixture of the good with the bad continued in the women’s division for years. Then that all changed when WWE’s rating switched from TV-14 to PG. That effected a lot of their content, and also meant the writers had to find something for every woman to do that didn’t entail stripping in front of children. So did they take the logical route of emphasizing more women’s matches and serious storylines?

No. Bizarrely, the WWE continued hiring models over athletes, and it made the female athletes they did have struggle to put on decent matches. The athletes saw which way the wind was blowing and many retired or left for other companies in quick succession. The match quality plummeted and the writers stopped caring, so women’s matches devolved into clusterfucks that could literally involve everyone in the division at once. There were some glimmers of hope that things might change every now and then, but they were short-lived. As the women’s division faded in relevance, their matches got ridiculously short. It reached a breaking point with fans earlier this year when popular newcomer Paige was featured in this match (give it a watch, it won’t take long):

That blink-and-you’ll-miss-it match was the only women’s match on that night’s three hour long show WWE does Mondays. It was also the top (and only) feud happening in the division at the time. Fans finally had enough, and took to Twitter with the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance to complain about WWE’s usage of female talent. Which finally brings us back to that divas revolution. These problems have been going on for years, so even summarizing why the revolution began, a sentence or two can’t really do it justice.

So WWE made it clear they saw #GiveDivasAChance. Then in July came a segment where Stephanie McMahon, one of WWE’s Principal Owners, declared that with the change going on with women in soccer, and women like Ronda Rousey in MMA, that it was time for WWE to change too. And that marked the debut of Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Sasha Banks, three women from NXT (WWE’s training roster).

bank statement

NXT’s current incarnation is still fairly new, so it doesn’t have all the baggage WWE does. No history of women fighting in lingerie or in mud. The only thing that happens there is plain old wrestling. And it’s quickly become quite popular, in no small amount thanks to its female wrestlers. Women like Sasha Banks have not only main-evented NXT in championship matches (something women last did in WWE over a decade ago), but they’ve also competed in matches so good that they’ve been called match-of-the-year contenders. Suffice to say, women like that getting called up to the main roster was a big shift from anything happening previously.

And the fans were thrilled. The three newcomers stood in the ring with many of the usual women of the main roster, and the crowd applauded and chanted “this is awesome!” Then the women of NXT attacked, signaling the start of the revolution.

nxt arrives

Surprisingly, the division actually has been a step up since then. The women’s matches have definitely been given more time, usually ranging between ten and twenty minutes now (though it’s not like it was hard to raise the bar above some of the thirty second matches from before). They’ve also been getting two matches per show now instead of one. The division is actually being treated like its important again.

But Max Landis’ video wasn’t called “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling” for nothing. Honestly, in pro wrestling, the matches aren’t the most important thing. The storylines are. In Kane’s debut, he didn’t attack The Undertaker to prove he was the better wrestler. He did it as revenge for The Undertaker setting the fire that mutilated him and killed their parents (The Undertaker was the hero of this storyline, by the way). And this is where the divas revolution still needs work. So far, there hasn’t been much reason given for why the women are fighting.

The storyline leading into the revolution was gothy Paige trying to win the championship from the Bella Twins (identical twins who are basically the WWE’s Kardashian sisters). It was a simple outcast versus popular kids rivalry. Then the revolution happened and now everyone has formed teams (one of which the WWE briefly and inadvertently named after a porn site) with the vague goal of “proving who the dominant divas are.”

There’s years of damage to undo for the division, though, so it can’t all change in a few weeks or months. I’m trying to stay cautiously optimistic that WWE will make the right decisions. Like maybe not calling the female wrestlers “divas” anymore. Beyoncé is influential enough to make diva an empowering word, but if anything, WWE has played into the negative connotations of the word with how they’ve depicted women for years. The fact that they made a reality show for the women called Total Divas says a lot. Oh, and how about not having women fight over a championship that looks like this:
divas title
The men’s championships are adorned with powerful symbols like Spartan helmets, the American flag, or the WWE logo. So why do the female athletes fight for a sparkly pink butterfly? Lita and Paige have both expressed distaste for the title’s current look even though it’s supposed to be the prize of the division.

There’s a lot that needs to be rethought, but it’s a work in progress. Right now, it’s just encouraging to see the WWE acknowledging the problems and trying to do something positive. Stephanie McMahon and her husband Triple H are in line to be running the company whenever Vince McMahon is ready to step down, and they’ve both been big advocates for the new female talent. And the division certainly needs advocates when they have detractors even from people who worked for the WWE.

WWE Hall of Famer Greg “The Hammer” Valentine had a lot to say about female wrestling at a recent Q&A session, and none of it positive.

“As far as girl wrestling, I would send them all out to the strip bar and fire them,” he said. “They take away jobs from men that need to support their families. They should be home washing dishes, and cooking, and pregnant, and barefoot…They’re not supposed to be wrestlers, they’re not supposed to be MNA (sic) fighters, they’re not supposed to be boxers. It’s bullshit!”

You can hear his full thoughts for yourself starting at 0:41:40. Then you can hear his backpedaling elaboration a few days later (where his excuses range from not remembering saying that, drinking too much, just being tired, that he was just joking, etc…) here.

Even former female talent have trashed the division. Hall of Famer Sunny recently took to Facebook to call Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch “buttafaces” and say “ive (sic) never been a fan of womens (sic) wrestling.. leave it to the men.”

Fortunately, retired wrestlers aren’t the ones whose opinions matter. It’s the fans who matter. And at the NXT event in Brooklyn, over 13,000 fans were on their feet after Bayley defeated Sasha Banks to win her first NXT Women’s title in what many called the match of the night.

That’s more of a crowd reaction than anything with the divas on the main roster has seen in years. That seems pretty clear that the problem isn’t female wrestlers, just the way WWE has been booking them. The women’s division has a long road ahead, but if management continues to stand by them, there’s no reason those great moments can’t become the new standard. The newcomers have made an impact and have the attention of the fans, so hopefully WWE understands that a revolution isn’t just one big moment, but an attempt to overthrow the old establishment and create lasting change. But Stephanie McMahon and Triple H are the future of the company, and it looks like they’re fully on board for making the change.

Chris Isaac is a pop culture and fiction writer from Philadelphia whose work has appeared in such places as the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA TODAY College. If staying up to date on his missteps in video games, stories about pirates, and pictures of a chubby albino ferret interests you, you should follow him on Twitter.

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