This Sunday, the factions formed by WWE’s now-branded #DivaRevolution will face off in a three-team elimination match at SummerSlam, professional wrestling’s “biggest party of the summer.” The event is one of WWE’s Big Four pay-per-views, second only to WrestleMania in hype and bombast; the collision of this annual spectacle and the surging momentum of women’s wrestling promises to make it a party to remember. In an effort to temper my excitement, however, I visited the ghosts of SummerSlams past, to take a look at what the hazy days of August have held for women in wrestling over the years.
In the history of SummerSlam, women are more likely than not to be defined by their absence: from the card, from the ring, from the arena entirely. In 1990, the first women’s match at SummerSlam resulted in a forfeit, when Sapphire failed to appear for her contest against Sensational Sherri. (She was later revealed to have been “bought” by Ted DiBiase, in just one example—and boy, are there plenty—of the more-than-cringe-worthy storylines to which black wrestlers have been subjected.) The following year, the only woman in the ring—and the only woman ever to close a WWE pay-per-view—was Miss Elizabeth, glittering in a big-sleeved gown for her wedding with the Macho Man, Randy Savage.
Over the course of 27 SummerSlams, only 11 years have seen women face off in televised contests. Four of these were mixed tag-team matches; the women shared the ring with their male counterparts. Their counterparts, of course, are never stars but mid-card milquetoasts, often mocked, humiliated, and roundly scorned by announcers and audience alike for their association with—or dependence on—a woman. The female wrestler either carries the joke of a man she’s been saddled with—Beth Phoenix and Santino in 2008—or costs the man his title—Trish Stratus and Val Venis in 2000—or his dignity, as when Jacqueline landed face-first onto Marc Mero’s crotch, setting him up to take the pin. (That her dignity falls along with her body is of little concern to the announcers or audience.)
Jacqueline’s plight, however, pales next to that of SummerSlam 2000’s “first ever thong stink-face match” participants, two indistinguishable blondes in high-heeled boots and string bikinis, who spent the so-called match slapping their own and each other’s asses until one—I honestly can’t tell them apart—succumbed. The French critic Roland Barthes wrote the world’s greatest essay on wrestling, but I’m reminded of another piece of his, “Novels and Children,” in which he describes an Elle spread on female writers, each author’s name followed by how many of the titular items she has produced. “Such is the world of Elle,” wrote Barthes, “a world without men but entirely constituted by the male gaze.”
Such is also the world of women’s wrestling, I thought, watching SummerSlam 2000 and its historic first. For a long time, Barthes’s line was true more often than not, evidenced not by the skimpy clothing or unfailing beauty—the men, too, are overwhelmingly beautiful; the men, too, wear incredibly little—but by the prioritizing of that beauty over skill, of pouting over righteous anger, of heels over wrestling boots.
This prioritization rests on two assumptions: one, that wrestling’s audience is only heterosexual men and boys, and two, that those men and boys have no interest in female wrestlers beyond the sexual. Once true, perhaps (although I doubt it—see below), but it’s since become blatantly obvious that both premises are false. Just listen to the crowd at last week’s NXT event, as Bayley fought Becky Lynch to become the number-one contender: This is wrestling! was one chant to surge across the audience, Women’s wrestling! another.
Or listen to the crowd at SummerSlam ’94, when Alundra Blayze defended the Women’s Championship against Bull Nakano. Bull Nakano! 200 pounds of wrestling power topped with green hair molded into a Disney villain’s crown; blue veins trickling down her face and pooling in her lips; foot on Blayze’s chest and fist upraised while her comrade Luna Vachon screeches hoarsely, gloriously from ringside. In a recent interview with Steve Austin, current fan favorite Paige cited Nakano as an inspiration (Paige’s submission maneuver is a modified version of the one Nakano tries here on Blayze), and it struck me as impossibly sad that refusing to spray-tan is as weird as women get in the current WWE.
But back in 1994, Bull Nakano is weirder by a thousand-fold and terrifying, baring her teeth and shaking her fist. The crowd roars, the crowd chants (U! S! A! U! S! A!), the crowd loves Alundra Blayze in her pink-and-white romper, her scrappy athleticism, her good sportsmanship. She comes back from an impossible beating to win with a German suplex into the pin, and the crowd goes nuts. My beloved Bull might have lost, but score a point for women’s wrestling.
At SummerSlam ’95, Blayze defends the title again, this time against Bertha Faye, an enormous woman in a floral dress and curly pigtails piled like Minnie-Mouse ears atop her head. (“Bertha Fat” reads an audience member’s terribly creative sign.) Faye is accompanied at ringside by her boyfriend, Harvey, a wispy mustache of a man who distracts the referee when Blayze has Faye pinned long enough for the win. When Faye sidesteps a dropkick off the ropes and powerbombs Blayze to capture the title, Harvey scrambles into the ring and leaps into her arms; the crowd boos accordingly. Announcer Jim Ross tries to interview Bertha on her way out of the arena, but Harvey gets in the way. “You can look but you certainly can’t touch,” he snarls (inspiring, I’m sure, the Bella Twins’ entrance music two decades later). Faye and Harvey scoot down the aisle with the championship, hand-in-hand.
In our age of aspiring to body positivity, this archetypal battle between good and evil (thin and blonde, fat and not) might not sound like a victory for feminism of any stripe, but this is the nineties-clinging-to-the-eighties in wrestling we’re talking about. In wrestling, as Barthes wrote, “each physical type expresses to excess the role assigned to the combatant.” Male villains are ugly, are monstrous; they possess “the sickly flabbiness of dead flesh” and an “essential viscosity.” Why wouldn’t their female counterparts? Wrestling comes from the carnival; why can’t the women, too, be freaks?
The times have changed, of course—there’s less of that essential viscosity going around now than there once was, even in the men’s division—but the women’s division is nearly uniform in its beauty: thin and leggy, waist-length hair. If “it is the wrestler’s body which is the first key to the combat,” as Barthes claimed, that key has lost some of its teeth. So watching Bertha Faye wobble to the top rope in 1995 delights me: the sheer strangeness of her presence, the classical functioning of her form.
This delight dissipates faster than you can say “Attitude Era”; the next decade is not a good one for women at SummerSlam (or elsewhere in wrestling). Other than the aforementioned mixed-tag matches, be-thonged competition, and a Battle Royal, the only women’s bout in 14 years is a 1999 championship match between Ivory and Tori. The ‘90s have finally reached WWE: midriffs are bare, bellybutton rings glittering. The match doesn’t shine nearly as much as the skin in it: the action is slow and the crowd quiet, save for a Take it off! chant that gains a minute of momentum. The women fight their way to a few small pops—a big swing, a flip, a cross-body from the second rope—but none match the crowd’s approval when Ivory, emerging victorious, forces Tori to the floor and unsnaps her top. (The wrestler’s body is the first key to the combat, after all.)
In the course of this match, announcer Jim Ross calls Tori’s spear “almost Edge-like,” to the great consternation of his comrade Jerry Lawler. “Did you say Edge-like?” Lawler laughs. “What’s the matter with your eyes? What’s wrong with your vision, JR?” And the spear was pretty damn terrible, it’s true, but Lawler’s mockery (although a welcome respite from his usual torrent of audible ogling) hit like the real thing. The announcers, behind their charade of banter and character, are the voice of the company, and the company didn’t care if you knew that it knew the women could barely wrestle.
So it’s a small victory—aren’t they all?—to hear the same Jerry Lawler, his bombast limited since the passing of the Attitude Era, call the Divas Battle Royal at SummerSlam ’07. After a requisite amount of shouting over the pulchritudinous sight before him (“You’re gonna have to do most of the action calling here, JR!”), Lawler—and the company’s voice in his ear—turns face: “As beautiful as these Divas are and as much as we enjoy watching them in the ring, it’s no doubt how athletic they are and as [sic] much action as they bring to these matches.”
And matches they are given, at last: Alicia Fox vs. Melina in 2010, Kelly Kelly vs. Beth Phoenix in 2011, Brie Bella vs. Natalya in 2013, and, last year, AJ Lee vs. Paige in a solid, if brief, championship match and Brie vs. Stephanie McMahon in a killer bout that could have (it didn’t, of course) closed the show.
And this year? Let’s not predict but speculate wildly, impossibly, about what almost definitely won’t happen—but, oh, if it did. Brie Bella finally turns on her twin, celebrating the one-year anniversary of Nikki’s betrayal by exacting her own revenge. An abandoned Nikki succumbs to the Bank Statement. Sasha Banks stakes a claim to be the number-one contender, feuding with Paige over the next few weeks. Paige wins out, eventually scoring the title from Nikki (after she takes the spot as longest-running champion, of course) and turning heel on her team, no longer in need of friends.
And next year’s WrestleMania sees the possibility of three women’s matches: Nikki Bella vs. Brie Bella in a retirement match that ends with chants of Hug it out! Hug it out!, Paige vs. Sasha Banks in a clash for the championship and a killer ad for leather jackets, and Charlotte vs. Ronda Rousey for the title of Most Dominant Woman in the Ring. Unlikely-to-impossible, I know, but hey—a girl can dream.
Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.