“To every woman who gave birth to every tax payer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” -Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech
I’m gonna set aside the problematic parts of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech and her post-Oscar comments for the sake of getting to a point. In response to her speech, WWE’s Stephanie McMahon tweeted: “Thank You @PattyArquette for having the courage to fight for #WomensRights on such a grand platform. #UseYourVoice.”
To which AJ Lee tweets to Stephanie McMahon: “Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times, And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster. #UseYourVoice”
I have been waiting for this moment of badassery from the women of WWE since I started casually watching again as a semi-conscious adult. Maybe I have been waiting for this moment subconsciously since I was a little girl watching Ultimate Warrior or Jake “the Snake” Roberts be badass. Only in hindsight have I gained a fuller appreciation for women like Luna Vachon, Sherri Martel, Chyna, Lita. So why does this make me want to invite these women to have several fucking seats? I should be Meryl Streeping out, I wanna Streep out. As a work, this gender inequality angle makes a product out of a movement, a struggle with real ramifications in the real world for real people. It’s a hashtag, a marketing ploy, something destined to be churned into merchandise or publicity. They’ve already garnered attention from the Washington Post, Fox Sports and Time. It’s a storyline sold to fans with none of the thought, consideration, and risk required for anything meaningful with lasting impact.
It makes for a strange pantomime as a storyline too. It’s like hey, we have this real issue – gender inequality – but we’re not gonna address that, let’s just put on a public show to pretend we are. And I’ve been getting beaten over the head with people saying this is real and not a work but I remain unconvinced. No one hopes I’m wrong more than me. And listen it’s a great work, it capitalizes on something from the larger world around it, but if you’re not doing the work backstage too, it’s just a mockery.
You might ask, well, isn’t more screen time for female wrestlers a direct, immediately visible way to address the problem? Imagine a choice between two movies in front of you. One movie is about these two guys competing to be the fastest swimmer in the world. The other movie is about two guys and two girls competing to be the best swimmer in the world. The women have half the screen time. So fucking what? Giving certain characters visibility doesn’t necessarily deliver a better story on its own – it just creates a clusterfuck or even worse, a bunch of lazy caricatures. It’s not enough.
More screen time for female wrestlers will only help balance gender inequality insofar as they are supported and pushed creatively. It’s not more of the same that’s necessary. It’s better and new.
The time of caricature in wrestling should have long passed. But it hasn’t. Nuanced and fully fleshed characters, especially women, remain long overdue. Booking women with the same demonstrated effort and attention as the men is what’s required. It’s applying that same effort and attention into recruitment and development. And you can argue that some of the male wrestler’s storylines or gimmicks don’t get handled properly either, but can you say that the male and female champions, or the most popular stars, get booked equally?
An imbalance is righted when the conditions are created for whatever is deficient not only to exist, but to thrive. It calls for comprehensive changes and consistent long-term work.
WWE probably employs a writing staff of mostly hetero white males unless they miraculously buck the trend that holds up almost everywhere you find a team of writers. It’s an assumption on my part that the creative department is mostly male, but it’s a safe one. And with storylines that feed off of homophobia, Islamophobia, and a shitload of other isms and phobias, I would be surprised if any of the writers or decision makers have a vested interest in social or gender issues.
How many of the refs, trainers, doctors, writers, commentators, managers, executives, production crew are women? And if you give me one name out of a hundred, I’m gonna ask you to go have a seat somewhere until you figure out 1 is not a proportionately equal number.
How many of the female wrestlers were recruited from independent wrestling promotions as opposed to being models or actresses? (Granted, acting experience would help any wrestler perform.) But how many of the men were models as opposed to athletes before signing with the WWE? That tells you what the company’s priorities are for each.
My timeline on twitter usually fills up with calls for a bathroom break when a Divas match comes on. Is it the predominantly male fans themselves who don’t want to see women wrestle? Maybe if fans lent more support, WWE would, in turn, book them better. A well-intentioned, thoughtful suggestion, no doubt, but it reminds me a little of the debate people of color have about going to see movies by/about people of color even if it’s a crap movie. Does supporting them at all costs really lead to more and better movies by/about people of color or does it convince studios to keep churning out the same crap because it’s making money? How then do we explain WWE’s developmental program, NXT, doing a better job with its female wrestlers?
Because sometimes twitter is a thermometer of the people, here is a sampling of top recent tweets about WWE Diva Nikki Bella (at the time I wrote this):
“John Cena Surprises Girlfriend Nikki Bella With Designer Bag Worth Thousands—See the Total Divas.”
“Nikki Bella Showing Off Her Cleavage.”
“Nikki Bella is a heel, so of course she’s going to win by cheating sometimes.”
Only one of those tweets is related to her work as a wrestler. And she does some pretty impressive shit.
Here, in contrast, are the top recent tweets about NXT champ Sasha Banks (at the time I wrote this):
“AJ Lee. Paige. Sasha Banks. Titus O’Neill. The Bella Twins. Cameron. The real shooters. The New Bullet Club.”
“Sasha Banks slays me”
All of these tweets, and the majority I scrolled through, were about Sasha’s wrestling or her wrestling persona. So WWE (through NXT) is capable of delivering more gender balanced programming. While WWE can be accused of not leading in that direction, some of the female roster is complicit by following. True, it’s an uneven exchange – trading the opportunity to wrestle on the largest of its platforms for control of how they’re portrayed as women and wrestlers – but it’s one they make and we can’t completely look away from that. And with WWE’s history, it’s a choice they make with some knowledge about the shit they’re gonna be asked to do. The argument could be made that change can best be affected from within. May that be what’s happening here. I’m just saying some of the women are active participants in the portrayal that wrestling is a secondary concern for them. Fame being the first.
Let’s look at why so many fans (self-included) re-up on snacks or do a chore whenever the Divas come on. I can tell you why I do. Their characters are homogenous and lack nuance. From entrance music to attire to physique to personality. The variation is only in degrees. A quick word association game when I take a cursory glance at the male roster: evil exec, vigilante, arrogant actor, cult leader, cosmic tag team, underdog, Samoan twins. The same game with the female roster gives me: punk goth girl, twins, sorta rebel.
And if you’re asking me if I, casual fan that I am, would watch more if the Divas were on more, I’ll say no. Because they’re going to give me grown women skipping, batting their eyelashes, relying on their cleavage for popularity in some infantilized version of womanhood that isn’t the reflection I know or care to see. And don’t get me wrong, sexuality/sensuality are fucking badass places in which to be totally in your power, but once you put that on a stage for the regular consumption of an audience, how much autonomy do you still have? I can watch one Diva with a sexy gimmick, (male wrestlers have always had a narcissistic pretty boy archetype) but seven or eight bitches doing the same thing? Why? Where are the other archetypes that the men have? The snob, the smart-ass, the dark one, the technician, the loose cannon, the monster heel, the comic relief even.
You might say, who watches this shit anyway? Why are you attributing so much power to this one medium of entertainment? Who is looking to professional wrestling to align their social issue compass anyway? A fuckton of people watch it. Just one of their weekly shows, RAW, drew 4.12 viewers this past Sunday. With a mix of performance art, theater, sports, soap opera, and story-telling I don’t know how more people aren’t watching this, especially artists. And approve of it or not, the masses have always had their socio-political-economic views heavily influenced by entertainment, from the first person to ever tell a myth around a fire.
Entertainment is a reflection of collective consciousness, but it can take a more active role and steer some of that collective as well. And that can be for the benefit of an encompassing, more humane world or a divisive, detached one. So why am I not totally sold on some big change in gender equality from WWE? Simply because I don’t trust the sincerity of it, and it’s a sincerity that would still make it good TV.