During this year’s Oscars, Stephanie McMahon’s feminist instincts responded to the speech Patricia Arquette made regarding the unfair treatment of women in the Western workplace.
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) February 23, 2015
AJ Lee’s feminist instincts responded to that.
@StephMcMahon Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times,
— A.J. (@WWEAJLee) February 25, 2015
— A.J. (@WWEAJLee) February 25, 2015
In turn Lee’s tweets received this reply from Stephanie. If you put your hand close to the screen you can feel the heat of white hot passive aggression.
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) February 25, 2015
The situation was exacerbated by a poorly timed attempt at sacrificing the time of women’s wrestling on Raw to make more time for the boys. Emma, one of NXT’s most popular talents (who has already had a rough time with WWE after being arrested for shoplifting following a misunderstanding), was facing The Bella Twins with Paige when she was pinned after one offensive move. The whole Divas segment, featuring three of the most popular Divas on the roster, lasted less than three minutes. That includes entrances and post-match beat down. After that match the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance was born and trending worldwide.
The hashtag struck a chord with the Divas growing army of female fans. Fans who want wrestlers they can aspire to be because of the strength of their character not the size of their bust. The steps they’ve been taking with NXT stars like Bayley and Sasha Banks have only intensified this hunger. NXT is a place where wrestlers have more control over their looks, personalities, and matches. The results speak for themselves. And nowhere is the disparity of quality between WWE and NXT more apparent than on the women’s air time.
Charlotte vs. Natalya at NXT Takeover is the greatest women’s contest I’ve ever seen under the WWE banner. It was a technical showcase that had a fantastic instinct for ring psychology. That they were accompanied by their legendary patriarchs (Ric Flair and Bret Hart respectively), proved to be nothing but window dressing. In comparison, the high profile WWE Divas matches don’t have the technical variety or the emotional depth.
The problem is that WWE sees its women’s division as a reflection, or even a reinforcement, of the wider popular culture’s patriarchal values. WWE has a rigid attitude towards gender roles as recent major storylines illustrate, like Brie Bella being thrust into the spotlight simply to stand by her man, or the creepy lesbian crush Paige had on AJ Lee. Then there are the clichéd character types the Divas employ, such as Cameron’s vein, mirror gazing, “Girl-Bye!” persona or the temper tantrum, cry baby Alicia Fox.
The E! Networks Total Divas keeps this creative direction up outside of regular WWE programming. A show aimed at the vacuous Kim Kardashian generation of reality TV watchers, Total Divas is a celebration of stereotypical gender traits and the show’s success means that it will be informing the creative direction of WWE for a long time.
Even if the work of the NXT roster does have a positive impact on the main shows, the tide it has to swim against is strong and getting stronger. We, the hardcore wrestling fan, might believe that the talent coming up through WWE’s developmental territory is an indication that executives are taking women’s wrestling more seriously, but you have to remember that we operate in a bubble. Normal people still have an expectation that women’s matches should mostly offer titillation.
We have to face facts that history is not on our side, and if Total Divas continues to be such a profitable brand extension then we must resign ourselves to the fact that our ideals of legitimate women’s competition will always be sacrificed to the higher gods of wider relevance. Even if WWE did change its creative policy it would take years for the influence of the glamour culture to dissolve. Even the fact that the word Diva (denoting a spoilt and demanding fame hunter) is now synonymous with the division is a massive hindrance to positive progress.
This is why as a community we must continue to make our voices heard. Female members of the locker room won’t risk their careers in the hope of starting some ill-fated movement. AJ Lee knew she was making those comments at the tail end of her career when there wasn’t much that the mighty WWE brand protectors could do to punish her. If we want the women’s product to become a bastion of athleticism rather than a temple of glamour it up to us, the WWE Universe, to take to social media, chant at shows and force the public face of the company to acknowledge us.
#GiveDivasAChance was a good start but now we need more. We need to take over WWE programming like we did for Daniel Bryan. Whenever they get ignored or side-lined, chant “We want Divas.” When you see great talent being totally underused, yell your frustration at the top of your lungs. And when you see them being degraded or treated misogynistically, there is no greater message than to simply turn off.