This question is one I’ve wrestled (pun intended) with for a while. I even wrote about it a few years ago when I found my way back to wrestling after a period out of the loop. During that time, I became a feminist.
Of course, I’d always had feminist ideals, I just didn’t identify myself as such. But through this new lens I observed all the problems with professional wrestling I either didn’t see before, didn’t have the tools to call it out, or unconsciously swept under the rug: a necessity for most of us who wish to enjoy many parts of pop culture, sports and, indeed, life.
Times are a-changin'
Racism, homophobia, transphobia (see above video), ableism and women wrestlers being reduced to their body parts and sexuality in bra and panties matches, pillow fights and bikini contests have been rife in wrestling for decades, especially during World Wrestling Entertainment’s debauched Attitude Era in the late-’90s/early-’00s.
During an intergender match in 2000 featuring women’s wrestling pioneers Trish Stratus and Lita, a “Puppies!” (commentator Jerry Lawler’s epithet for breasts) chant reverberated throughout the crowd as Lita suplexes and hurricanranas her male opponents, illustrating that even when women were given more to do than just look good, it was actually just about how good they looked.
Of course, there’s still a contingent of fans—mostly old timers—who are nostalgic for these bad old days.
But changing attitudes to minorities, political correctness (which is basically just not being an ass), and social media have forced businesses and their employees to be held to higher standards.
Even an the WWE has marched with the changing times cutting ties with former Hall of Fame wrestler, and father of current WWE women’s wrestler Tamina, in September 2015 when he was charged with the 1983 murder of his partner Nancy Argentino. Meanwhile even the legendary Hulk Hogan’s contract was terminated when he was caught saying racial slurs on a leaked sex tape last year.
She's got the look
Recently, the changing of the guard in wrestling has been most evident in WWE’s women’s division, formerly the Divas division.
As I’ve written, this is not to say that perceptions of women in the sport(s entertainment) weren’t being challenged by smaller, independent companies for years before WWE jumped on the bandwagon, or that WWE’s female employees didn’t do the best with what they were previously given.
Now, along with an increase in non-stereotypical representations of racial minorities, women wrestling fans are finally seeing portrayals of themselves that they can be proud of as WWE slowly but surely increases their capital.
The family-owned business will one day soon be taken over by Stephanie McMahon, Chief Brand Officer and daughter of the man responsible for the way women and minorities have been treated, chairman and CEO Vince McMahon.
Her husband Paul Levesque, better known as wrestler Triple H, has helmed NXT and is responsible for turning it into the premiere mainstream location for quality wrestling, specifically in the women’s division.
Although it should be noted, Levesque is not beyond reproach including the cognitive dissonance between supporting women’s wrestling and Levesque’s refusal to honour his ex-partner Chyna because she’s been involved in the adult industry is troubling.)
Sasha Banks and Bayley wrestled in the best NXT match of all time, headlined a major WWE event (the first women’s match to do so), and Banks, Charlotte and Becky Lynch had arguably the standout match at WrestleMania 32.
Even Total Divas, the E! reality show that chronicles the lives of WWE’s female employees, has slowly but surely been focusing less on banal reality tropes and more on Nikki Bella’s desire to “stay and continue to help women conquer this industry” and Eva Marie’s dedication to building her wrestling skills.
Whether Total Divas can survive amidst declining ratings in an era in which women wrestlers are no longer called Divas is a question to be examined at another time.
Despite there being no better time to be a women’s wrestling fan, there are still naysayers who don’t think women can do the same things men can, shouldn’t be showcased in an equal capacity, are best placed ringside as beautiful valets, and should only “wrestle like girls” in Playboy-sponsored matches.
Most recently women wrestlers’ bodies were objectified in a Reddit thread that posed the question, how do “women handle wrestling during that time of the month?”.
When I was first asked to write this series for SBS Zela, my editor suggested I use the above tweet and the misogynist responses to it as a jumping off point.
But, as I only follow progressive and feminist wrestling fans on the social media platform, I wasn’t privy to this apparent misogynist backlash, nor do I usually come across things like that subreddit.
Much of the feedback I’ve seen to WWE’s new attitude to women wrestlers is adulation, gratefulness and sheer disbelief that a pop cultural product we’ve loved for so long but which so often doesn’t love us is finally putting women front and centre.
The changing of the guard from 30 second “Divas” matches to twenty-minute women’s wrestling showcases on the grandest stage of them all was put into motion by wrestling fans who’d finally had enough.
So, to answer the question posed at the outset: yes, you can be a feminist and a wrestling fan. WWE can’t always be trusted to do justice to its fans and employees alike, so their prorgressive and feminist fans must continue to hold them accountable to give their women wrestlers a chance to show us what we know they’re capable of.