In August of 2016 the WWE released an episode of their short documentary series WWE 24 called “Women’s Evolution”. This episode celebrates the recent branding and language changes around women wrestlers, originally announced at WrestleMania 32 back in April of 2016. The changes included changing their language to call women “Superstars” like their male counterparts and referring to their division and championship as “Women’s” instead of “Diva’s”, as well as replacing the Diva’s pink butterfly Championship belt with one more similar to the men’s title belts. “Women’s Evolution” interviews various women wrestlers from the current and past rosters, including Stephanie McMahon, discussing how the WWE reached this moment and how women’s role within the company has changed over the last few decades. While the change indicates movement in a positive direction, “Women’s Evolution” makes the mistake of celebrating too soon. The language change is an important step in humanizing women wrestlers, but WWE has done little since the announcement to back it up with real actions addressing the sexism in their portrayal of women.
“Women’s Evolution” gives a brief history of women in the WWE, highlighting a few key figures. In the 60s and 70s The Fabulous Moolah and others like her had to fight to be taken seriously, but looks were not the primary quality in women wrestlers. Through the 70s and 80s, it was the female ringside valets who served the function of eye candy for male fans. This all changed in the late 90s during what the WWE refers to as the Attitude Era. At this time
WWE was locked in a ratings war with WCW, with each company turning to more and more shocking tactics to drive up viewership. Stephanie McMahon describes this period as being “a little edgier” and admits that “it was not easy being a woman in that period”. These were the years during which WWE held bikini contests, bra and panty matches (in which the loser was the first woman stripped down to her underwear), mud wrestling matches, and lingerie pillow fights. These type of matches were referred to as “gravy boat” or “sideshow” matches.
Trish Stratus discusses how, even after the Attitude Era ended, women wrestlers were expected to engage in cat fights, and when she and others like Lita tried to have serious matches they were told “that’s not how women wrestle”. Male trainer Fit Finlay, who treated his male and female trainees the same, says that he was “accused” of making women wrestle like men. Although a long-running feud between Trish Stratus and Lita resulted in genuinely athletic matches, following their retirement women’s wrestling remained largely ornamental. Over the next few years, Diva Search was an annual fan contest to select a new female wrestler. The contest was entirely driven by looks, and the Diva Search segments during RAW rarely had anything to do with wrestling ability.
“Women’s Evolution” gives this history leading up to a discussion of the phase of the “Divas Revolution”, the name given to the period over the last two years during which women’s wrestling became more serious. Following a tag-team match in February of 2015 that lasted a mere 30 seconds, the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance trended worldwide on twitter for a day or two. Soon after, Stephanie McMahon declared a revolution and welcomed Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks to the main roster. Women’s matches became longer, and featured more serious athleticism. During this same period, Triple H is credited with giving the women of NXT more ring time. This transition to more, if not equal to the men’s, airtime is the major concrete change accompanying the shift in language of this so-called Women’s Evolution.
The general implication is that the WWE is now taking women seriously as athletes and not mere sex objects catering to the male gaze. This belies a kind of White Feminist view of women’s empowerment; as long as women can access certain signifiers of power and influence (in this case, a main event match) then that’s all that’s needed for gender equality. This view is also revealed in the title of the episode; “Women’s Evolution” suggests that it was the women who needed to evolve, that they were not “leaning in” enough to be considered “real wrestlers”. In reality it is the WWE itself which needs to evolve in its treatment of women. But in-ring time, prominence on the ticket, and treating women’s matches as actual matches instead of cat fights are not the only differences in how women have been treated. While the time of bra and panty matches may have passed, the physical presentation of the female wrestlers is still inarguably catering to the male gaze.
Defenders of the WWE will often point to the equally skimpy men’s attire to defend the way women wrestlers dress in the ring. First, exposed male bodies are not automatically sexualized in our culture the way female bodies are. Case in point: the WWE has a policy of giving a 30-day suspension to a woman who has a costuming slip in the ring that results in an exposed breast. The fact that male wrestlers overwhelmingly wrestle topless while female wrestlers can be suspended for a month for an accidental exposure makes it abundantly clear that the WWE views female bodies as inherently sexual and therefore inappropriate. Second, there is a fair variety in the men of WWE. While the body-types tend towards large and muscular some of the men are small and wirey; some are stocky; some are cut and muscular; some are just enormous;
some have 6-pack abs, and some have flabby bellies. Their body and facial hair varies greatly from fully waxed bodies to hairy mountain men and everything in between. Some of the men are highly groomed with fake tans, gelled hair, and perfect eyebrows. Others are complete un-coiffed, wrestling with wet hair or unkempt beards. Some men wrestle in a relatively un-adorned singlet or tights while others wear elaborate and flamboyant costumes. Many men’s characters are hyper masculine, but some play with androgyny not unlike the glam-rockers of the 80s, wearing bedazzled, feathered, or furry costumes. While some of the men in WWE are certainly conventionally attractive many of them are not. As with the rest of the entertainment industry, the lack of a handsome face or perfect physique do not outweigh talent for men in the way they so obviously do for women.
The women, on the other hand, even now do not show nearly as much diversity of presentation. With the exception of Bayley (slim but less busty than her co-workers), Charlotte (extremely muscular), and Nia Jax (plus sized) the women of the Women’s Division are almost all tall, slim, and buxom, and their costumes always emphasize this. The overwhelming majority of woman on the main roster wear costumes that emphasizes their breasts to an almost comical degree. The costumes for WrestleMania 32 alone showed a great deal of BDSM influence, with many of the women sporting black leather, straps, and studs.The women almost universally wear extremely long hair, false eyelashes and heavy makeup, and have no body hair. Despite some slight variations, these women could easily jump from the ring to a Victoria’s Secret runway. They may finally be receiving attention for their wrestling ability, but in order to have the opportunity to show that ability there is clearly another hurdle they must clear first. Only exceptionally beautiful women make it into the ring at WWE. The claim that they are now being measured by their talent as wrestlers and not their physical beauty simply cannot be taken seriously when there have been no significant changes in the visual representation of women.
Visual representation is not the only arena in which WWE’s sexism and misogyny continue. Beyond the ring, the WWE’s additional reality programming continues to reinforce negative stereotypes about women. Total Divas is the reality show which follows several prominent women within the company and, like most reality television, it cashes in on contrived drama and harmful stereotypes. The episode which ran on November 11th, like “Women’s Evolution”, is focused around WrestleMania 32. This is significant; the episode aired 6 months after it was filmed and about 3 months after the “Women’s Evolution” documentary aired. The WWE had at least 3 and up to 6 months to decide how to edit this episode and choose the story lines it would follow. Did they choose to construct narratives that support their claim to empowering women and treating them like serious athletes? Not so much. The main story lines of the episode include: Trinity obsessing over her hair, a feud between the Bella Twins and Maryse, and Lana worrying about her costume for her debut match. Physical beauty and female infighting are the main themes.
Trinity is very concerned about how her hair is going to look for WrestleMania. She feels her current dye job isn’t exciting enough for the event but doesn’t have a hair-dresser on site in Florida to redo it. Two nights before the show several superstars, male and female, get drunk in a hotel room and Paige offers to dye and cut Trinity’s hair for her. The consensus in the room is that it is a bad idea and sure enough, the next day Trinity’s hair is a choppy green mess. She ultimately has to fly in her personal stylist and stay up half the night before the show getting a new weave sewn in, dyed, and styled. This is a loaded story line for two reasons. First, portraying Trinity as mainly concerned with her look leading up to an historic pay-per-view belies not only the supposed intention behind this branding change, but is also in direct conflict with Trinity’s own reaction to the change. In “Women’s Evolution” Trinity states explicitly (unlike many others interviewed) that up until this point Divas have been mainly eye candy. She obviously recognizes the problem with women’s wrestling being about looks first. But Total Divas chooses to reduce her entire experience of a historic pay-per-view to concerns over her hair. There is no footage of Trinity discussing or preparing for the athletic aspects of her match. There is an added dimension to this story line because Trinity is a Black woman, and hair has been and continues to be major site of misogynoir (misogyny specifically against Black women). That Trinity’s main story line in this episode should be about striving for “perfect” hair, and for a White woman to damage her hair before an important event, does nothing to show that the WWE respects her as a person and an athlete.
Lana’s story line also clashes with the divas-to-superstars branding change. Lana came to the WWE from a career in acting, and started as a manager for a male wrestler. She is preparing to debut at WrestleMania during the 10 diva tag-team match, which Eva Marie describes during the episode like this: “Who doesn’t like to see 10 girls out there getting it on”. Like Trinity, Lana’s main concern is her look. She and Natalya are in her hotel room going over the outfit she chose and Lana asks if she’s showing too much cleavage and mentions that Brie Bella told her not to be afraid of her breasts. Natalya mocks the comment saying that Brie doesn’t have much to be afraid of. She criticizes Lana for being too worried about looking cute. But during dinner, Maryse’s advice to Lana is “don’t fall, look hot”. With the exception of Natalya the dominating narrative around Lana and her debut is that what matters is not how she wrestles but how she looks. Even Natalya’s insistence that Lana focus on technique is poisoned by her choice to body-shame Brie Bella in the process. These comments from the women show that they have adapted to working within the WWE by internalizing the sexism with which the company operates. But even though they said these problematic things, the WWE made a conscious choice to include them in the narrative of this episode, even six months after an announcement that they were supposedly leaving this habit of hyper-sexualization behind. It seems all they really intend to do is ration out sexual exploitation in small enough amounts to appease male viewers without upsetting the parents of young girls who look up to the women wrestlers.
Finally, the story line between Maryse and the Bella twins reinforces tired old stereotypes about catty, competitive women. During one dinner attended by several of the women, not including the twins, Maryse reveals that she and the twins had a falling out after they allegedly cheated her out of a contract. Later, Renee Young decides to bring Maryse and Brie Bella together for a different dinner to attempt to reconcile. This, like all such contrived reality show meetings, serves only to create a stage on which unnecessary drama and unproductive fighting plays out. It merely reinforces the stereotype that women are always jealous and competing and scheming against one another. This is further reinforced when Brie Bella, talking about what her husband Bryan has gone through with his forced retirement, notes that she never realized that leaving WWE meant losing friends because she “doesn’t decompress” with the other women after work, instead it’s “just more drama”. This undermines the messages of sisterhood conveyed by “Women’s Evolution”, in which the women are shown praising and supporting each other. Instead, this episode of Total Divas cashes in on the toxic-female-relationships trope for drama. It would be one thing to show honest conflicts among a group of women who work together in such a high-pressure environment, but this is just manufactured drama.
The “Women’s Evolution” episode of WWE 24 fails to actually acknowledge how problematic WWE’s treatment of women has been up until now. Stephanie McMahon especially is guilty of using too-mild language to gloss over the misogynistic history of her family’s company. She describes the Attitude Era as “a bit edgier” in the understatement of the century, and uses the term “sex appeal” to downplay blatant and extreme sexual exploitation. It is clear that WWE wants to skirt any real discussion of the misogyny of their past and rush directly to congratulating themselves for empowering women. The episode features photo montages of powerful women which include Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton, and the US Women’s Soccer team. Are they insinuating that the WWE is doing something as positive for women as Yousafzai’s push for education or Clinton’s historic presidential campaign? Is the WWE comparing itself to the US women’s soccer team and their fight for equal pay? There is, conveniently, no discussion of how women’s pay compares to men’s in the WWE. All this photo montage really reveals is that the WWE is looking to cash in on the increased visibility of the women’s movement, and attempting to ride the wave of public interest in women’s empowerment. This is a branding change in response to the changing demands of the market. While it is a good example of how we can see public opinion force a positive change, we should be careful not to give WWE undeserved credit. This is a business decision, not a declaration of values. No one deserves to be rewarded for showing basic human decency, and WWE does not deserve praise for this decision to treat women wrestlers like humans instead of sex toys. This is a lesson they should have learned a long time ago, and while I’m cautiously optimistic about where women’s wrestling could go in the future their progress so far has been a lot of talk and very little action.