It’s been just over a week since WWE debuted their new Women’s Championship (previously the butterfly-shaped Divas Championship) and decreed their women wrestlers would henceforth be known as Superstars, just like their male employees.
But this milestone didn’t just come out of nowhere. WWE fans had clamoured for a change for over a year, beginning with the trending of #GiveDivasAChance in February 2015 after a 30 second women’s tag team match, which isn’t even enough time to get a tag in!
Industry heavyweights such as former Diva champion, the now-retired AJ Brooks (nee Lee), WWE chairman Vince McMahon and his daughter Stephanie McMahon all weighed in on social media, with Vince McMahon urging fans to wait and see what WWE had in store for them.
It seemed WWE finally got their act together in July debuting three of the best women’s wrestlers in the world today: Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, who competed in the triple threat match for the inaugural WWE Women’s Championship last Sunday at WrestleMania.
The exhilaration of watching Charlotte, Banks and Lynch put their submission moves on Divas Champion Nikki Bella, her twin sister Brie Bella, and their teammate Alicia Fox quickly wore off when Stephanie McMahon declared herself the setter of “the table of opportunity” for women’s wrestling in WWE, co-opting the fan-led agitation for change and calling it “the #DivasRevolution”.
Meanwhile, in WWE’s developmental program NXT, where Charlotte, Banks and Lynch honed their craft, women’s wrestling was having its own renaissance. For the past two years, if you wanted to watch quality mainstream matches where women wrestlers were given the time and care to steal the show, NXT was it.
British wrestler Paige and local Melbourne wrestler Emma are widely considered to have changed the game in February 2014 with their fabled match for the NXT Women’s Championship at an event called NXT: Arrival. This was closely followed by Charlotte VS. Natalya for Paige’s vacated women’s title, a rivalry that is now being echoed on the main stage as Natalya challenges Charlotte for her newly won belt.
Banks VS. Charlotte VS. Lynch VS. Bayley for the title and Banks’ and Bayley’s clinics at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn last August and their 30-minute Iron Man match (why it wasn’t called an Iron Woman match is beyond me) at NXT Takeover: Respect in October are standout matches I would show anyone struggling to understand the athleticism and competition of a “fake” sport.
Despite WWE’s alleged dedication to taking women wrestlers seriously, it was all lip service until last week, when legendary women’s wrestler Lita presented the new red and white strap and the accompanying name change, a marked departure from the eight year history of the Divas Championship.
But wrestling’s history of devaluing women in their sport goes back much farther than that, with bra and panties matches (with the loser being the first woman to be stripped down to her underwear) and paddle on the pole matches (in which the victor is the first woman to retrieve a paddle from a pole and spank her opponent with it) reigning supreme in the ’90s and early noughties.
WWE even went through a period where each year, one of its employees would pose nude for Playboy magazine and thus, she was the wrestler who got a match (usually with a gimmick, such as a Playboy Pillow Fight or Playboy Evening Gown match) at the biggest show of the year, WrestleMania.
There were glimpses of legitimate athleticism, with women such as Lita, Trish Stratus and Victoria rising above the emphasis placed on their looks to show what they were capable of in the ring, however they were also blatantly sexualised while doing it. None of these women had the indignity of holding the Divas title during their time in WWE.
The new generation of women wrestlers should be praised, and rightly so, but not at the expense of the women of the Divas dynasty that were granted opportunities based largely on their looks as opposed to merit or skill. Women such as Alicia Fox, Nikki Bella, Naomi, Natalya, Beth Phoenix, AJ Brooks, Michelle McCool, Mickie James, Melina and countless others did the best with the scraps they were given.
WWE’s branding of their women wrestlers as Divas has been successful in some respects, though, as Brooks noted in her tweet, Divas merchandise sold like hotcakes, and the division was even successfully parlayed into an E! reality show, Total Divas, bringing new eyes to wrestling. (Which begs the question, amidst declining ratings, can Total Divas survive now that part of the show’s name has officially been declared passe?)
While #GiveDivasAChance, the #DivasRevolution and the noise surrounding the new Women’s Championship signifies change on the largest platform of professional wrestling in the world, we mustn’t discount the women wrestlers who have been busting their asses on the indies or in smaller companies around the world while WWE condescended to their women talent.
The women’s wrestling revolution has been alive and well in companies such as Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor and the languishing TNA, and women’s-only promotions such as Shimmer and Shine in the U.S., and Stardom in Japan. Closer to home, Adelaide’s Riot City Wrestling, and MCW and Outback Championship Wrestling (full disclosure: I used to work for them) in Melbourne are working to emphasise their women's talent.
WWE is yet to bring back intergender wrestling (where women wrestle men), which experienced popularity in the ’90s, but women such as Candice LeRae, who tags with Joey Ryan, and Kimber Lee, the first ever female holder of a major wrestling championship, Chikara’s Grand Slam Championship, are setting the tone.
It’s a great time to be a fan of women’s wrestling and, without being disheartened by decades of sexualisation and devaluation of women in the sport, it’s an even greater time to be discovering it for the first time.