CW: Body shaming, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation
I know that in the current climate, there are arguably more important feminist issues to talk about – austerity, domestic violence, Dapper Laughs – and I am as vocal as you like about those. But I want to talk to you about pro wrestling.
Most of us will be familiar with professional wrestling. Call it what you will – fake, men in hotpants grabbing at one another, softcore pornography watched by dwellers of mothers’ basement - but we cannot deny it is a popular form of mainstream entertainment, with WWE in particular boasting fanbases across the world. Think of it as ‘scripted competitive combat sport’. Or as one female wrestler, Nikki Bella, dubbed it, “Broadway with body slams.” The physicality and athleticism required to be successful is real; the storylines and results you see on screen (or off, if you’re an independent follower) are pre-determined and scripted, much like a soap opera.
So what has this got to with feminism, I hear you ask? Well, let me introduce you to the WWE Divas, World Wrestling Entertainment’s brand name for their female talent, which includes wrestlers, interviewers and ring announcers.
First off, Divas? A pejorative term that denotes an arrogant female with a high opinion of herself. Secondly, The Divas Championship, the ‘top prize’ that a WWE female wrestler can attain, was introduced in 2007 (eventually replacing the long-used yet fairly unisex-looking Women’s Championship prize in 2010) and is a monstrously tacky affair – a silver and pink butterfly-shaped belt, that could have come free from a Barbie set. Whilst the men’s titles (of which there are currently three solo, plus tag-team titles to attain) maintain a trophy-like appearance, with elaborate gold coin-esque designs. The women’s, in comparison, looks a joke. How can this possibly allow the hardworking ladies of WWE to be taken fully seriously?
The women in WWE are treated like a sideshow act, both by the bookers (that’s the screenwriters and matchmakers to you and I) and by many fans. Wrestling is still very much a patriarchal, male-dominated industry. Glance at any pro wrestling forum and you’re likely to see:
“Nobody wants to see girls wrestle lol”
“Men need the pretty girls to look at”
“Anyone who watches Divas matches for the wrestling is a faggot”
And the much bandied about:
“Divas match? Piss break bro”
These are somewhat paraphrased (I could trawl forums for hours looking for all the sexist remarks but quite frankly this’ll end up a 10k thesis) but the sentiments I legitimately have come across time and time again.
In 2011, a well-known female wrestler named Kia Stevens signed with WWE under the ring name of Kharma (her famous alter ego is Awesome Kong). Stevens was not like WWE’s other female wrestlers of the time, the majority being models who trained to be wrestlers in WWE’s Florida Championship Wrestling training camp, and hired for their beauty/marketability. She was a large, black woman with braids and an armoured-looking costume, scripted as a monstrous character with no femininity, who targeted the ‘Barbies’ of the Divas Division. The fans lapped it up, sick of these stick thin models who were perceived to be incompetent performers due to their prettiness, saying, “At last, a REAL wrestler, who isn’t there to be pretty.” Stevens, for the record, found their comments insulting.
It says a lot that in the world of wrestling, female characters cannot be portrayed as both physically skilled and feminine. Does the world of wrestling see women as belonging in only one of two categories? And are these two categories of women destined to be pitted against one another?
Stevens was extremely popular. However, her time was short lived Stevens fell pregnant two months after her arrival and had to be written out to go on maternity leave, later tragically experiencing a stillbirth. She returned for one night in January 2012, but that was her final appearance before her release from the company. Since then, there has been no-one similar – the women are hired primarily to be sexualised.
In March 2015, there was an episode of Monday Night Raw where a four-woman tag match was booked, featuring Nikki Bella and her twin sister, Brie, Norwich-born Saraya-Jade Bevis (known as Paige) and WWE’s sole Australian representative, Tenille Dashwood (known as Emma). After a few weeks of anticipation as fans wondered whether the women would be given the same kind of mainstream attention as the men, they were given a three minute slot. In a three hour show. This left a very bad taste in many fans’ mouths, and for the following three days, the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance trended worldwide, as fans spoke up for WWE’s poor treatment of their female wrestlers. Among the protestors was WWE’s most popular Diva at the time, recently retired April Brooks (known as AJ Lee) who, despite being on a sabbatical, took to Twitter and called out Chief Brand Officer of WWE, Stephanie McMahon, on the poor treatment and pay of the female talent. Brooks has her faults (she was overpromoted, often at the expense of other women) but this was a brave and admirable gesture on her part, as she could have easily lost her job for speaking up.
Prior to this, the Bella twins and Paige had also all aired their frustrations at the lack of time they received to show audiences what they could do, and it had seemed to be rubbing off on fans. However, AJ Lee’s uber popularity meant that this time, the management would actually listen to their talent and audience. Blatant sexism is just not on in 2015, no matter what field of work you’re in.
#GiveDivasAChance has been the closest the professional wrestling community has had to a feminist movement. WWE’s top brass took to Twitter to announce to fans that they “heard them”, and we were given a few weeks, months even, of improvement. More recently though, the women have been once more booked in badly written, hackneyed storylines that do none of them justice. As a feminist, I find this tough to swallow. A supposed ex-WWE writer came out of the woodwork and stated that the standard view in the writer’s room of the entire female division of WWE is that “There’s no heels (villains) or faces (heroes), just a lot of slightly psychotic catty women who just backstab each other.” And it shows - inconsistent characterisation means the audience cannot root for their favourites. It’s an example of the complete lack of interest this huge billion dollar company has in its women workers.
You can also log onto WWE.com to see what they think of their female performers as the Divas frequently have to do photo-shoots in themed, sexy outfits. Do the male wrestlers have to do this? No. One example is the ‘Diva’s day off’, where one of the wrestlers does a photoshoot in nightwear (sexy, of course – no Spider-Man pyjamas here). For April Fool’s Day 2014, WWE did an identical one for Curtis Hussey, one of the male wrestlers who plays an arrogant, effete ballroom dancer character called Fandango. It was shot with the same male gaze as the usual women’s one. Because it’s a joke to have a man dressed up for a photoshoot, right? The men kick arse in the ring, the girls are there to pretty the site up.
And this leads me on to another thing. Women in WWE have long been subject to tiresome ‘gimmick’ matches. Prior to all TV content going PG, women used to have to do ‘pudding matches’ (use your imagination), bra and panties matches (basically the first woman to get stripped to her smalls loses), pillow fights and evening gown matches (the winner is the one who disrobes her opponent). All for the titillation of the men, of course. Even with PG, there’s still the typical lads-mag themed matches. There’s a Halloween Divas battle royal where the women have to wear ‘sexy’ Halloween costumes; for Christmas we have the Santa’s Little Helper matches, and one of the longest serving commentators, Jerry Lawler, a man of sixty plus, still gets ‘excited’ over the scantily clad women a third of his age, and makes comments to let us know. Think Benny Hill but from Memphis, Tennessee.
In 2013, WWE collaborated with E! to launch ‘Total Divas’, a reality series that shows life outside the ring for a selection of WWE’s female wrestlers, many of whom have been mentioned in this article. However, even this show isn’t ‘real’, and as it goes into its fourth season, it becomes more and more like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, with scripted catty feuds and staged scenarios, which don’t do the women involved any favours. It portrays them as stereotypes; shallow airheads, stuck-up prudes, backstabbers, ignoring heir true personalities when it’s supposed to show them as ‘themselves’, instead of their in-ring characters. Most of them are still referred to by their ring names in the show, even by their own families.
One Diva, Danielle Moinet (known as ‘Summer Rae’) left the show after being unhappy with the way she was portrayed. She was painted as a villainous Regina George-type, when previously, her out-of-ring personality was evidently nothing like that. Moinet, a tall, leggy blonde, was targeted by the editing suite and the scripters because her looks fitted the stereotype. As usual, women are judged harshly for their looks in this business.
Another case is a woman named Natalie Coyle, who performs under the name ‘Eva Marie’. The reality show introduced her to WWE and she is perhaps one of the most vehemently hated women ever to set foot in WWE? Why? Was she violent? Abusive? No. Her crime is being pretty. A statuesque Mexican-Italian athlete with a mane of bright scarlet hair and flawless makeup, Coyle worked as a swimsuit model and had no prior wrestling experience. Men boo her out the building when she wrestles, as she has not been given the full training and so naturally struggles. This isn’t her fault, as she was booked for this role – ‘pretty and useless’. Men scream “You can’t wrestle!” at the top of their lungs at her and chant death threats at her (one TV appearance at WWE’s development programme NXT left her in tears) – they delight in throwing abuse at this beautiful female who’s new to the sport. And WWE gives the fans what they want.
Coyle has since been training hard, rejecting her predestined role and driven to prove all her haters wrong. She shows proof by posting videos to her Instagram of her training (because if she didn’t, she’d be called a liar, no doubt). If she was male, good looking and new to the sport, she wouldn’t have half the hatred and vitriol she gets.
OK, pro wrestling isn’t a frontline feminist issue but its basic faults are echoed across most industries. These women work just as hard as their male counterparts but are not being paid equally. They put their health and bodies on the line training 5-6 nights a week to entertain a chauvinistic fan base and are rewarded with a minimal amount of show time to show the results. They receive a deluge of disrespect online, as well as obscenities and abuse chanted at them during matches, they’re forced to wear revealing outfits (which they’re sometimes encouraged to tear from one another’s bodies), are given flat, unrealistic characterisation and all for…what? The ultimate goal of winning Barbie’s Dream Belt.
It’s time for pro wrestling to change.
– Tom Ellis is a Drama graduate with a love of theatre, pro wrestling and motorsport. He’s also a bit of a foodie. Follow him at @Elstro1988