It can be hard to like wrestling as a woman. We’re long past the days when it was assumed that women went to shows because they fancied the wrestlers – although there are fossils from the bad old days who still bang that gong. But we’re also not really acknowledged as “serious” fans, and especially not in the WWE. This, after all, is the company that thinks Total Divas, a show that includes barely any wrestling, is the only way to make fans out of young women.
I went to the Raw tapings in Manchester in November, and the only t-shirt available in women’s sizes was for Paige. This also happened to be the only t-shirt on sale for any female performer in the company, despite the champion being Charlotte. I went to NXT Takeover: London last month, and not a single t-shirt was available in women’s sizes. A quick look at the company’s online store shows that huge swathes of both the NXT and main rosters only have t-shirts in men’s sizes.
Not only does this suggest that WWE doesn’t think women go to live shows, but it also implies they have a very restrictive idea of which wrestlers appeal to women. Only the biggest names get a women’s shirt as well as a men’s: if you’re not splashed across the marketing materials like Paige or the Bellas, or if you’re not a top guy like Ambrose, Reigns, Orton or Cena (you know, the ‘sex symbols’), then girls just aren’t going to know who you are. This makes a little more sense in NXT where performers have less exposure, but for God’s sake, why wouldn’t I want to buy a Becky Lynch shirt? (She didn’t get a women’s shirt when she went to the main roster either.)
Apparently, boobs make my money less valuable than a guy’s, and it doesn’t matter anyway because I won’t know who anyone is. Unless I’ve seen them on Total Divas, of course: the show that aims to interest young women in the lives of female wrestlers so they’ll be curious to see what goes on in the ring.
Here’s the contradiction in WWE: they know they need to appeal to a wider audience, and that to do that they need to present performers who reflect that diversity. But if they manage to bring new viewers in, they don’t know how to cater to them so they end up leaving money on the table.
You’re only going to shows, subscribing to the Network and buying t-shirts if you’re already invested in the performers. To achieve that, you need to watch the show and you need to see three-dimensional characters with feelings and motivations: human beings you can relate to. WWE Creative is not exactly known for this with any of its wrestlers these days, but it’s arguably at its worst when it comes to women.
The storylines they’ve worked with have been generally awful, but I want to focus less on that and more on the fundamental aspects of some female wrestlers’ characters. Main roster storylines don’t give them a straightforward face or heel alignment, but have them flip-flopping between the two because hey, women are fickle and childish. They’re not even really proper characters: they’re reduced to a single trait. And for much of the past few years, those have been mostly physical.
Take the Bella twins. Nikki is fresh off the back of an impressive title run, during which time she somehow went from being less than passable in the ring to one of the division’s best workers. Her finisher, the Rack Attack, genuinely looks like it could hurt you (though it’s not her best move – get a load of this devastating forearm).
But why is it called the Rack Attack? For much of their careers, Nikki has been “the one with the tits”. Brie, on the other hand, has been “the skinny leggy one” – you can tell from the moves she does best; a series of kicks that she borrowed from her husband, and this missile dropkick which just happens to draw the eye to her torso and legs.
Look at their ring gear – Brie’s cut-off top exposes her midriff and her tights are full of holes. Nikki admittedly doesn’t wear much, but even outside the ring on WWE TV her outfits are styled to draw attention to her neckline.
Naomi has the same problem. Since she started her singles run most of her ring gear has looked like frilly underwear, designed to draw attention to her curves. And her finishing move is the Rear View – which when done by anyone other than this black female performer, is called a flying hip tackle.
The fetishisation of the black woman’s derriere has been discussed by people far more qualified than me. But it’s interesting that as a flying hip tackle, it’s rarely if ever a finisher. Of course, WWE would have us believe that a black woman’s arse does far more damage than anybody else’s.
These women have been reduced to body parts. They’re not the only ones: a couple of years ago, the Divas division looked quite different and many of their contemporaries had similar issues. Actual wrestling was rarely part of the act – women were taught to scratch and slap and pull hair in the ring because dudes apparently love a catfight.
And that’s exactly the problem. Female wrestlers for many years have been marketed to men, because they were almost exclusively the target audience of WWE programming. The idea that women might be a target market in themselves is comparatively new, and so WWE is in a weird transitional period where it knows that it needs to use its female performers to appeal to female customers, but it hasn’t quite worked out how to do it yet.
Nikki, Brie and Naomi are the last vestiges of that male-oriented era. Many of the women with whom they shared the ring have moved on – one notable exception being Natalya, who is barely used but at one point last year was a walking pair of breasts who wasn’t given a match for weeks but accompanied her husband to the ring. Shame: she’s one of the most talented women they have.
The introduction of new blood from NXT, where women are treated as serious competitors and written like actual people, was meant to herald a sea change. To be fair, they’re not treated like sexy meat. Having brought their characters with them from NXT, the new recruits have instead been reduced to single character traits – all the more disappointing when we’ve seen Sasha Banks, Becky and Charlotte develop as complex and compelling individuals in developmental.
Paige came first, and she’s actually come out relatively well. She has an identity; the basic character of the “anti-Diva” who opposes the preening, fake-tanned model-‘wrestler’ still exists. Because her look is unique in the division, WWE has been able to market her strongly and she sits comfortably at the top of the division with the Bellas. Even so, her character has been seriously diluted to put her in that position – from her very first title feud-turned-partnership-turned-feud-turn-uneasy-partnership with AJ, she was ‘crazy’, fickle and jealous. She’s become a much more Diva-like anti-Diva.
When three of the Four Horsewomen were called up together over a year later, I got excited. Surely they would ring in the new era of proper women’s wrestling on the main roster. Instead each of their characters took a hammering.
Becky is now the “endlessly cheerful babyface who makes puns”. Sasha is used so rarely it’s hard to gauge whether The Bo$$ really exists. Charlotte is the champion and she’s probably come off worst. She got over on her own in NXT as a cocky heel who believed her descent from Ric Flair made her “genetically superior” to her opponents. She had two badass finishers, a great moveset and was given the chance to work great matches.
I have no idea how or why the quality of her ring work has declined. However, I do know that main roster crowds have never connected with her like those in NXT, and that’s because she isn’t being allowed to get over organically. She’s just Ric Flair’s daughter, imitating her dad in the ring – which strips her of the moveset that made her so special, including her best finisher – and needing his help to win.
WWE knows how to sell Ric Flair. It doesn’t know how to sell Charlotte, despite having the answer right in front of them in NXT. So it’s using Ric to get her over – and failing because audiences see right through it. Male or female, audiences want more than main roster Creative will give them, because they know that women are more than that. In fact, they always have – AJ Lee was the most popular woman in the division for years because she was the opposite of the Bellas and their ilk.
WWE is reductive with its female characters because it’s reductive towards its female audience: just like at the merch stands, there are things you are and things you’re not. God forbid you should be a reasonable adult with your own interests and motivations. They can’t cope with women who break the mould by liking or being different things, and certainly not all at once. It is a very slow process for them to realise that their audience is more sophisticated than they are.
The problem isn’t limited to female performers. It’s a credit to the New Day that they managed to take the stereotypical black preacher gimmick and make it fresh, exciting and successful. Whether you’re happy that they’re basically still the singing and dancing black guys is another matter. Latino and Latina performers have handled similar issues, and the list goes on.
The problem of poorly written, one-note characters does of course affect everyone – ask Wade Barrett or Dolph Ziggler – but white men have never exactly been a difficult audience for pro-wrestling to grasp. When you’re working to reach underrepresented communities who represent massive growth markets in an age of failing ratings, you really can’t afford to screw this up.
So basically, get me my Becky Lynch shirt.