Today, representation is an extremely prominent force. The calls for media to feature people of different minorities, genders and orientations have grown into a movement in America. Films like WONDER WOMAN and BLACK PANTHER became massive box office successes, paving the way for future films. Even established fare like STAR WARS became more women-centric, adding a female protagonist as the main feature. I’m happy to see such moves being made, and I’ve had many interesting discussions about it. However, representation requires thought and planning as well. I know, because I’ve seen it done wrong, in a unique area. WWE: Women’s professional wrestling.

WWE Women: Tough Candy

I started watching wrestling, specifically WWE (previously called WWF), in high school. I realized how wrestling is unique from other sports (aside from being pre-determined). More than just athletic ability critiques wrestling. Fans judge events and performers on character and storytelling as well, which appealed to me. At the time I started watching, women’s wrestling was in a unique position. Women generally had been used as managers in the past or promoted for their sex appeal. However, another role was beginning to take shape.

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Women’s wrestling began a resurgence in the late 90s/early 2000s. Women began to emerge that were capable in the ring, putting on strong matches on a weekly basis. Initially, it was small, with a handful of wrestlers like Ivory and Jacqueline fighting for the Women’s Title. However, other women began to capture the interest of the fans.

Prominent figures were the female bodyguard Chyna and Sable (though her contract forbid her from taking ‘bumps’). The best of these women managed to blend their athleticism with strong character and (yes, even) appeal.

Fans gravitated towards grapplers like the wild Victoria, the sweetheart-turned-hardnose-grappler Molly Holly, and even the (at the time) underused future legend Gail Kim. WWE created a strong core of female wrestlers amid the ‘eye-candy.’ The standouts of this period were the acrobatic Lita and model-turned-wrestler Trish Stratus.

Lita became famous for her high-flying spots (which other women had not attempted). Stratus transformed from a manager into one of the strongest female grapplers of her time. The two women worked as both allies and enemies, even main-eventing WWE’s flagship RAW program in a Women’s Championship match. The matches were… memorable.

WWE wasn’t perfect, but it seemed to have balanced out the ‘grapplers,’ and ‘eye-candy’ in its women’s divisions. Unfortunately, it was not to last.

The Candy Overflows

WWE

Management changes in WWE led to a shift in how the women’s division was run. Some grapplers still entered the company at this time (such as Mickie James, the herculean Beth Phoenix, and Natalya (daughter of wrestler Jim Neidhart). However, WWE began running programs that seemed intent on pushing the eye-candy approach.

Their primary focus was the ‘Diva’s Search’ a reality-show-esque segment where women would compete for a WWE contract.  The women involved were fitness models, with little to no understanding of wrestling. That didn’t seem to matter, as the contestants were rarely tested on wrestling knowledge or ability.

WhatCulture.com contributor Michael Sidgwick reports the Diva Search selection as purely superficial. His book DEVELOPMENT HELL: THE NXT STORY describes Talent Manager John Laurinaitis hiring one talent off of a swimsuit picture. Fans rejected the concept as well, disliking the contestants and the inane segments.

Despite its unpopularity, the Diva Search ran for multiple years. The company hired many runners-up, putting less emphasis on ring ability. Many of the ‘grapplers’ left, either by retiring or moving to independent promotions. Those that remained were tasked with carrying (guiding) the ‘eye candy’ through matches.

As more ‘grapplers’ left the quality went with them. Women’s matches rarely went over five minutes, and the lack of ability was apparent. Some women did improve, but it was a far cry from the days of Trish and Lita. Fans decried women’s matches as ‘bathroom breaks,’ and the Women’s Title was symbolically changed to the Barbie-esque Diva’s Title.

WWE
A Butterfly. A Damn Butterfly.

The Backlash

Fans’ decried WWE’s de-emphasis on women, and other promotions took notice. Rival company TNA (yes, really), began promoting their women as serious fighters with sex appeal, similar to WWE’s earlier approach. They branded their women ‘Knock-Outs’ a more aggressive response to WWE’s ‘Diva’ term.

TNA earned praise for its female wrestlers, including WWE castaways like Mickie James and Gail Kim. Over time, this approach did begin to seep into WWE. The Diva Search ended, though WWE eventually ran an all-women version of its similar reality show NXT. The competition earned little praise but produced one star — AJ Lee.

Lee endeared herself to the fans with her enthusiasm and personality but also took her craft seriously. She did take on manager roles (as her small stature made it hard to sell her offense), but eventually became the Divas’ Champion, earning fan’s love by lambasting the Diva’s division (which was now featured on another reality show, TOTAL DIVAS).

NXT became WWE’s developmental system. The smaller brand wasn’t under the same upper-level WWE management and began crafting more indie-style storylines and wrestling. The women benefited as well, with wrestlers like Paige and Emma having well-received matches en route to the creation of the NXT Women’s Title.

Inaugural champion Paige debuted on the main roster after Wrestlemania, after Lee had retained her Diva’s Title in a massive battle royal. The two began feuding immediately, but the landscape presented problems. Both Paige and Lee won the Diva’s Title but were paper champions (since aside from each other, the division didn’t have a serious threat). Both women became overexposed in the company making any sense of representation feel hollow.

The Revolution Begins

The breaking point for WWE came on February 23, 2015. Patricia Arquette gave an Oscar speech the night prior to women’s inequalities in Hollywood. WWE Chief Brand Official Stephanie McMahon (also the daughter of company owner Vince McMahon) tweeted support of the speech. The company followed suit with a women’s tag match that night. That match lasted thirty seconds.

Incensed fans create the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag, while AJ Lee criticized McMahon on Twitter. Lee would unexpectedly retire from the company three months later. Meanwhile, NXT continued it’s strong women’s division. Four women (Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Bayley) were dubbed the Four Horsewomen (a nod to a legendary wrestling group) for their tremendous work in character and matches.

In July, after champion Nikki Bella (a product of the Diva Search) claimed there was no longer any competition for her. McMahon emerged to bring Lynch, Charlotte, and (then NXT champion) Banks to the main roster (Bayley was suffering a hand injury). WWE spread the new additions across three teams– Team PCB (Paige, Charlotte, and Becky), Team Bella (Nikki, her sister Brie, and main roster veteran Alicia Fox), and Team B.A.D (Banks and main roster heels Naomi and Tamina). The company dubbed this the Diva’s Revolution, but there were already problems.

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The Revolution Falls

The teams meant that the women fought each other in endless singles and tag matches. This meant that no one women were able to stand out and emerge as a real competitor to Nikki. Three teams made the overall goal seem unclear as well. Two teams could have been ‘athlete’ vs. ‘eye candy’ but the mix of stars, and only one title made it impossible for any one team to seem dominant. WWE’s mishandling of NXT stars continued as well.

NXT officials told Charlotte (daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair) not to emulate her father until she had proven herself in the ring. WWE saw Charlotte only as Flair’s daughter, as she consistently emulated and referenced her father. All NXT accomplishments vanished, as Becky and Sasha felt like third wheels, while champion Nikki said on air that wins and losses didn’t matter in WWE.

WhatCultuture.com called it WWE’s ‘look at the women’ approach– the company showing representation by having more women onscreen, but little purpose for them. Fans grew bored quickly. Some called the angle a way for Nikki to avoid having to defend the belt until she eclipsed Lee’s reign. The fact she was dating WWE’s biggest star, John Cena, only added fuel to the fire. The angle did, in fact, end when Nikki eclipsed Lee’s reign and Charlotte beat her for the title. The teams ended officially when Paige cut a heel promo that felt like an indictment of how WWE had mishandled the revolution.

The Aftermath: Its Lessons On Representation

Since then, WWE’s women’s divisions have been a mixed bag for representation. The company made strides by creating a new Women’s Title. They have given women matches that were previously men-only (Money in the Bank, Hell In A Cell, Royal Rumble, Elimination Chamber).

They have continued to mishandle NXT stars; Bayley went from being an uber-popular face to an afterthought on the main roster, and the company created new teams (Absolution, Riott Squad) that are again preventing any single star from emerging. I watched all of this and thought it was a waste of talent. It taught me something about representation. The Diva’s Search and Diva’s Revolution failed, but they got a lot of women onscreen.

WWE just used them in all the wrong ways. Having onscreen representation is only the first part of the journey; it’s what happens after that’s important. WWE mishandled great talent because they got them onscreen and presented them badly. As a fan, I held them accountable; that’s what all fans should do. To paraphrase film critic Richard Roeper, we cannot give these moves a pass because of diverse casts and good intentions.

BLACK PANTHER’s African-American cast was amazing, but only because the time and effort were put into making them amazing. If WWE had put the same time and effort into the Diva’s Revolution and their women’s representation, I wouldn’t be writing this. The lesson is clear for everyone, wrestling fan or not. We should all want to see ourselves represented onscreen. And we should want to see ourselves represented well even more.

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