Jul 24, 2018
(Note: This article was originally published on December 19th, 2017. Since then, www.workofwrestling.com has transferred web hosts, and so it needed to be republished today).
Last night's Raw ended with Stephanie McMahon announcing the inaugural Women’s Royal Rumble match at the forthcoming annual pay-per-view.
This is a welcome announcement that instantly makes next year’s Rumble more interesting and essential-viewing. Over the next few weeks, fans will watch this match take shape, and discuss who it should bolster, how it will be structured, and what surprises may be in store. This is all good, and it’s reassuring to see the WWE do the obviously right thing.
Fans should definitely be happy, but fans should also be asking, “What happens after?”
The WWE has always been very good at promoting “firsts”, but continues to struggle with that far more important word, “next”.
This is particularly true with regard to its female talent.
It just so happens, (thanks to systemic sexism within its own organization, aided by the fact that we all live in a patriarchal society), current female talent offer WWE an easy way of booking and promoting “first time ever!” style events.
“The first ever Women’s Hell In A Cell!”, “The first ever Women’s Money In The Bank!”, and now “The first ever Women’s Royal Rumble!”
These events get the pro-wrestling community talking, they attract media attention from outlets that typically ignore WWE, and they genuinely inspire people. It’s all good and fun, and indicative of how the WWE is far more adaptive than many other American institutions.
But fans should keep in mind that the company has cleverly positioned itself as a harbinger of change without ever needing to take responsibility for creating an environment where change was necessary.
There should be an asterisk next to every “First ever Women’s…” announcement, and that asterisk should point toward a bold reminder of reality:
WWE is also the reason this hasn’t happened before.
Fans must function as that asterisk.
The WWE continues to present its own history of misogyny as if it's something that happened to them rather than something they willfully created. It's like fans are supposed to regard the WWE as the victim of some old crime, and cheer the company for seeking justice.
Stephanie McMahon can literally cut straight through a scripted segment featuring women whenever she wants, launch into an empowering speech, book a first-ever-women’s-anything, and make people happy, effectively erasing every bra & panties match or similarly degrading segment from WWE-history and the collective fan consciousness.
It’s an odd, paradoxical state of affairs because what Stephanie says is true and good, and the result is legitimately beneficial to society, but it still remains a smokescreen obscuring the lack of meaningful progress in the company’s booking-patterns.
It might be easier to forgive the company's past if that past didn't still directly inform its present. While Vince McMahon may not be ordering women wrestlers to disrobe onscreen anymore, the mentality that allowed such a segment to ever exist remains in power.
The excitement resultant from a “first ever” women’s match of any kind is short-lived because the WWE’s creative investment in women doesn’t appear to extend far beyond these “first ever” watershed moments.
How do I know that?
Women still represent a minuscule fraction of WWE-programming, and women still do not receive the kind of promotion and depth of characterization offered (by default) to their male peers. Yes, these “firsts” are necessary steps in a better direction, but it also doesn’t take much effort or creativity to take them.
How many complex women-centered stories has the WWE actually told since embarking upon its "Women's Evolution"?
Booking these firsts simply requires a decision to do the exact opposite of everything they've always done for a few important pay-per-views each year. While the word-choice and presentation of women has improved, the thinking behind the way they're promoted continues to frame them as "special attractions". That perspective (and style of promotion) does not represent the kind of long-term creative investment women's wrestling needs if anything is going to get significantly better.
WWE is eventually going to run out of gender-firsts, and what happens then?
The company has consistently demonstrated an inability to do anything meaningful with its main roster women when these firsts aren't involved. So will the female gender have lost all creative worth in the eyes of the Raw & SmackDown booking committees once these firsts have been exhausted?
I certainly hope not, but if the company’s recent history is any indication, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. This is a problem the company, and its fans, should be thinking about now so that it is not a problem in the near future. And we should not just assume that everything will be okay when Triple H inherits the earth. Nothing is guaranteed, and thinking there's "one man" for the job is a part of the problem.
There are any number of preemptive measures that could help ensure the longterm development of the women’s division, but none of them are more important than fundamentally altering the culture of the WWE organization itself.
If women aren’t valued as much as men on-screen (which they clearly aren’t), it’s indicative of how women aren’t valued as much as men off-screen in the company’s creative offices. More specifically, it means that women's creative opinions are not as valued or women's creative opinions aren't even present behind closed doors.
Fans might point to Stephanie McMahon as indicative of how much the company values women, but they’d be forgetting that she plays a character, is the daughter of Vince McMahon and wife of COO Triple H, and that we’ve never heard of any other prominent female writer, producer, booker, or agent behind the scenes of Raw & SmackDown who shapes narratives and helps dictate creative.
Sara Del Rey, Assistant Head Coach and producer for WWE's developmental show, NXT, represents an outlier to WWE's male-dominated norm.
This is not to take anything away from Stephanie's on-screen performance and philanthropy - she is a great talent and outshines any other heel in the company today - but it's all too easy to see through the way the WWE enlists her off-screen presence as a shield against claims of a boys' club culture.
Men, their priorities, their experiences, and their ways of thinking continue to shape the wrestling business - even the way they endeavor to incorporate “empowerment” into their booking.
As I wrote before, it’s easy to book a “first ever” style women’s match.
Any guy (literally) can do that, and it seems
like any guy (literally) is. This represents a closed creative
For WWE-programing to really evolve, that is what needs to change.
Some of you might be wondering:
So why exactly is it important for the WWE hire more women writers? Can’t a man write a woman well? Shouldn’t WWE just hire better writers overall, whoever they are? Isn't a focused effort to hire more women reverse-sexism?
Firstly, hiring more women is not reverse-sexism because reverse-sexism does not exist. Reverse-sexism is a logical fallacy. Reverse-anything (be it reverse-sexism, reverse-racism, etc.) just sounds good to people who hate the idea that their very existence, and their ignorance, contributes to systematic oppression.
Secondly, yes, a man can definitely write a female character well. Writing well is not the same as writing authentically, though.
No matter how skilled or empathetic a writer may be, nothing aids in the development of authenticity more than experience.
By “experience”, I do not mean a knowledge of pro-wrestling’s tropes or an awareness of what “gets over” in pro-wrestling. I mean the lived, everyday experiences of individual human lives. And good writers need that experience even if they're writing in unrealistic genres like science fiction, fantasy, or pro-wrestling.
Men, therefore, are not able to articulate the experience of women as authentically as women because men are not women.
This simple reality is often met with great
resistance, particularly by male writers who fear the collapse of
their creative monopoly. But it's not something to fear; it's
something to accept if only for the way space, time, bodies,
consciousness, and good writing works, if not for the moral
necessity of equal representation.
The push for better representation in the arts is not about "taking away" voices and replacing them with less talented ones; it's about creating a fair playing field where all talented artists have a chance to tell their stories. In the best of all possible worlds, this pursuit would actually make art better, not worse.
This is why WWE doesn't only need to hire women writers, it needs to hire more women at all levels of the company.
Monday Night Raw & Smack Down Live need women producers, women ring-crew, women commentators, women technicians, women camera operators, women directors, women referees, women time-keepers, etc.
The idea of women in WWE must not continue relegating them to outliers to the norm. That, itself, is a male idea. The idea of women should be that they are the norm - that they are people who do all sorts of regular-people things, some grande and history-making, some unseen yet no less significant.
The idea of women in the WWE should be decided by women.
Women, their ideas, their experiences, their values, their philosophies, their priorities, their lives need to be woven into the fabric of WWE’s corporate and creative structure. That would represent evolution.
So, WWE, if you genuinely care about any of this, hire more women.
Don't hire any more white, heterosexual men like
me. You already have a lot of us. We're everywhere. I know how we
think. I know what we create.
One of the things we create is a main roster Women's Division that exists solely to "break glass ceilings" so long as WWE never runs out of glass.
Certainly, the booking of the first ever Women's Royal Rumble seems great now (and it is), but it could easily become yet another momentary embrace designed to lure fans (and even WWE Superstars) into a state of passivity.
Now, more than ever, talent and fans must double-down on their pursuit of substantial change, and let the WWE know that booking this match is still not enough.
Because it isn't.