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Twilight of the Divas: The NXT Revolution in Women's Wrestling Is Here

Illustration for article titled Twilight of the Divas: The NXT Revolution in Womens Wrestling Is Here

A revolution began Monday night in the world of women’s athletics. To be fair, the women involved are called divas, this particular realm of athletics goes by the winking nom de plume of sports entertainment, and the revolution was sanctioned—orchestrated, even—by those called, without a dash of irony, The Authority. I did not forget these facts as I screamed and leaped for joy in my apartment, but they didn’t matter. Change had arrived in the bikini-clad forms of three women from WWE’s developmental territory, NXT, who possessed all the wrestling talent in the world—women accustomed to putting that talent, not just the looks that accompanied it, to use. The promise that they might finally do so in a WWE ring made me giddy, and I wasn’t the only one. For the first time in a long time, a WWE audience roared for a ring full of women, blessing them with wrestling’s most sacrosanct chant: This is awesome! And oh, was it ever.

Women’s involvement in professional wrestling (yes, the fake stuff, the kind your hick cousin—hi!—is into) is almost as old as the sport itself. Women have long served as sideshow attractions to the men’s big-top event, and in the WWE itself, for the most part, they still do.

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But a Woman’s Championship once existed firmly enough for tiny, feisty Mildred Burke to win it in the 1930’s and hold it for nearly twenty years. Others followed, from long-lived broads like Johnnie Mae Young and The Fabulous Moolah to the mentally unstable Sensational Sherri and Luna Vachon. The ‘90s saw Valley Girl Sunny and leather-clad sex bomb Sable define the boundaries of what would soon be known as the Divas division; the oughts turned out grungy high-flyer Lita and blonde all-Canadian Trish Stratus, who hammered those parameters home.

There have been highs (Trish and Lita’s main-event Championship Match, Sable power-bombing her real-life husband) and there have been lows (too many to mention), but the last few decades have largely seen the same old, same old: pretty women limited in their storylines by the longtime head of the WWE, the McMahon behind the curtain. Burke borrowed second-wave lingo to advocate for “equal fights” in the 1950’s, but as of journalist Thomas Hackett’s writing in 2006, wrestling’s glass ceiling had yet to be built. “At best,” says Hackett, “a girl who dreamed of a career in wrestling—rarely as a wrestler but as what they called eye candy—could only hope to play a beard, covering the elaborate courtship rituals between men.”

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In the last few weeks of the WWE, as the “Russian” non-wrestler Lana manipulated her ex-boyfriend into a feud against her current swain, and Summer Rae (ethnicity: blonde) gave up wrestling for simpering, I feared that Hackett’s words remained as true as ever. Despite February’s #GiveDivasAChance movement, despite vocal support from Hall of Famer and hardcore legend Mick Foley, despite calls to reinstitute the Women’s (not Divas) Championship, and despite promises of understanding from CEO Vince McMahon and his daughter Stephanie, the division remained overlooked and underwritten, as stories fell by the wayside and matches fell short. When Ronda Rousey appeared for a spot with The Rock at this year’s Wrestlemania, her presence only underscored the vast distance between the capability of female athletes and the confidence, or lack thereof, WWE has in its own.

I don’t know if WWE has gained some faith since Wrestlemania or if the powers that grumble are simply latching on to what they see as the latest trend. (WWE loves nothing like a good trend.) “There is a revolution with women in sports happening right now,” said Stephanie McMahon last night, citing soccer, tennis, and UFC. “I want this revolution here in WWE.”

So do we, Steph. We follow sports—real ones—because we love the stories they tell, of triumph and redemption, of failure and revenge, as much as we admire the feats of physical ability displayed therein. But in the world of, fine, sports entertainment, triumph is scripted and failure is staged. We follow sports because we crave narrative—and if a sport allows that narrative to be crafted and re-crafted, perennially retooled? Then there’s no excuse for the flimsiness of its female parts.

Last night, the story of women’s wrestling took a beautiful twist, expected and still deliriously surprising. Stephanie’s feminist awakening came when she interrupted the current Divas Champion, Nikki Bella, who’s been doing a solid Regina George impersonation for the better part of a year. “I am the total Diva,” Nikki claimed, referring to the reality show in which she and several other members of the division star.

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But WWE seems to have realized that Divas no longer hold the fans’ attention: women who can wrestle do. (Nikki can more than hold her own, but one gets the sense that her athletic ability isn’t the asset that first drew her to the attention of the WWE brass.) The women of NXT have been going at it in wildly impressive matches, easily outshining their major-league counterparts.

These women are treated like the athletes they are—as deserving of respect and applause as the men. It’s a parity the WWE has been sorely lacking, and last night, the much-anticipated Raw call-up came. And it came in triplicate.

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Paige, the long-suffering goth kid to the Bellas’ mean girls, finally got some back-up, joined in the ring by Irish firebrand Becky Lynch and Charlotte, daughter of the limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’ Nature Boy, Ric Flair, and maybe the finest female athlete WWE has ever seen. These fist-pump-inspiring arrivals—the crowd still “Woooo!”-ing their approval—were followed swiftly by that of NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks, a bling-wearin’, flesh-tearin’ rock star with enough swagger to rival Charlotte’s dad. “Let me ask you, Nikki,” Stephanie gloated, “Is this what you had in mind when you said you were looking for a little competition?”

As Nikki, her sister Brie, and crony Alicia Fox were hemmed in by the babyfaces—Paige, Becky, and Charlotte—on one side and the heels—the excellent Naomi, Tamina Snuka, and Sasha—on the other, the chant began. This is awesome: a reward far more satisfying than any championship belt. It was a reward we shared, watching at home, feeling the sheer exhilaration created by the sight of nine fantastic female wrestlers gathered in one ring, full of potential, yet to be squandered. (Already, you see, we brace for disappointment. But hope’s always been a babyface about to turn.)

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A brawl broke out, as brawls tend to, and ended with Paige, Naomi, and Tamina scattered, the NXT arrivals locking the members of Team Bella into painful submission holds. The crowd switched to another, approving chant: N! X! T! N! X! T! “Team Bella’s tapping out in stereo,” growled one of the ringside announcers, delighted, and it felt, for a night at least, like something bigger than the Bellas had been knocked down, had finally given in.

Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.

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DISCUSSION

Full disclosure: Haven’t seen last night’s RAW/NXT but apart from that I’m pretty up to date.

The “Divas” division really needs to be taken seriously within WWE. NXT is WWE’s attempt at fostering future talent and hopefully this will come through into RAW and the pay per views. To put this in context for peeps who don’t watch wrestling, you will get hella boring dude matches- tag teams, half baked mid card “feuds” you don’t care about, and essentially wait two hours for the one (and only) Divas match, and then sometimes to build tension, you don’t even get one- i.e. Naomi and Tamina will just jump the Bellas, and they’re knocked out and we don’t even get a freaking match.

I think the problem is systemic in WWE and needs some serious commitment beyond “lol female footballers are getting some attention rite now.” When, now retired, AJ Lee (an incredible wrestler, probably one of the best of all time- she was a heel but not just a bitchy, slutty baddie which is kinda huge in female wrestling) tweeted #givedivasachance because of a ridiculously short Divas match and called out Stephanie McMahon on her bullshit, the Divas division was given a little more of a spotlight and air time for a few weeks. Then WWE went back to the same old, same old. Stephanie’s attitude to the Divas division is hella bizarre, considering the heel Authority figure she plays as owner of WWE is pretty damn feminist. She often shouts down the alpha male top card wrestlers beneath her, reminding them who is in charge and that words like “bitch” seem to be used when we talk about powerful women.

In the ultra conservative world of wrestling, it’s pretty darn good. It seems to be though that ultimately she does *actually* care about what she thinks is “best for business” over feminism. I’m guessing they still think that their target demographic of 18-30 year old males don’t care about female wrestlers beyond eye candy and “cat fights.” This not only ignores plenty of evidence to contrary, e.g. Ronda Rousey at Wrestlemania, the awesome, underused talent that they have now if given any decent amount of time to shine (the chants of “THIS IS AWESOME” in yesterday’s RAW.) I also think that WWE’s female audience is pretty much completely overlooked, and this flows in all directions, Divas get dismissed as eye candy, intelligent critiques of wrestling do not seem to realise we exist (*cough* Grantland *cough*) It’s kind of weird because we’re pretty visible in the audiences night after night. Maybe the WWE just think we’re they’re to gawk at dudes’ abs and don’t know our DDTs from our double D’s?

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that WWE is pretty terrible when it comes to race too and it struggles to write interesting characters for wrestlers of colour. As you can imagine, Black/WOC Divas are hit the hardest by this, falling on that horrible intersection of systemically oppressed race and gender. Naomi, the black Diva featured above, has her own big move like any other wrestler- it’s just that it’s hitting people with her butt. It’s funny how the Bella twins have actual finishers and not just crappy moves that are based on racial stereotypes.

Also Jerry “The King” Lawler, needs to go. The other day on Raw, he was horrified when I think Nikki Bella was compared to Celine Dion, who in his own words looks like a dog. Nice! In no way a disgusting thing to say, or a middle finger up to female fans. Remember ladies, you can be incredibly successful but if some old white dude doesn’t think you’re attractive, fuck you! He also seemingly can’t talk about any woman without sounding like he’s jizzing himself.

TL/DR
Wrestling is awesome, female wrestlers are awesome, WWE is pretty backward.