Putting the Wrestling Back in Women’s Wrestling

In 2014 the value of competent women’s wrestling was identified by Triple H as an opportunity for potential growth, prompting the heir-apparent to the WWE empire to conduct a controlled experiment within the protected confines of NXT. In 2015 that opportunity was masterfully developed into a major aspect of WWE’s rapidly expanding minor league brand.

The influx of female talent in NXT appropriately (but certainly inadvertently) highlighted WWE’s historic ineptitude for creating female stars known for their wrestling ability rather than their wardrobe, or lack thereof. A groundswell for compelling women’s wrestling, in conjunction with declining television ratings, forced Vince McMahon’s hand in June of last year.

The vast contrast in McMahon’s perceived value of women’s wrestling as compared to his son-in-law’s was put on display when Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks were promoted to the main roster on a full time basis. 14 months of character advancement and carefully crafted storytelling was reduced to a pro wrestling version of the film, Mean Girls after just a single segment on Raw.

Witnessing the talented female athletes of NXT inhabit WWE’s main stage was not good enough for me. I wanted real change, not kayfabe change in the form of a manufactured revolution. I took my fair share of lumps at first; all the classic comment section criticisms you must become numb to if you’re going to write about pro wrestling with any regularity.

‘People like you are never happy.’

‘Why can’t you just enjoy a cool moment?’

‘This article was too long so I didn’t read it…but I disagree with every point you tried to make anyway!’

Fast forward to 2016 and you’ll find enthusiasm for a Diva Revolution no longer exists as it once did.

Six months of hollow round robin matches and ridiculous alliances based on insulting stereotypes evaporated any semblance of excitement. The same performers who captivated NXT audiences, large and small, garnered ‘Boring’ chants with increasing regularity on Raw.

Did these dedicated and talented performers suddenly forget everything they learned at the performance center and fold under the pressure of the grand stage?

Of course, the answer is no.

Was McMahon’s convoluted interpretation of what made the Horsewomen popular in NXT enough to make many fans give up?

Of course, the answer is yes.

That’s the problem with social media campaigns, whether they have to do with something as trivial as pro wrestling content or something as heavy as social injustice or geopolitical issues of the day. Their existence is less about enacting real change and more about simply getting acknowledged. Changing one’s Facebook profile picture to a French flag after the terror attacks in Paris does not warn ISIS that the world stands together against their radical agenda, it gets one’s Facebook friends to push the Like button. We live for Likes; they provide priceless validation for a society that craves validation at every turn, from what we wear to what we eat to what we believe…to what kind of pro wrestling content we want to see.

Ironically the 70-year old architect of WWE, often accused of being out of touch with his audience, proved to have quite the understanding of how social media movements work and, more importantly, how easily they can be disarmed. He gave his audience exactly what they appeared to be asking for, acknowledging #GiveDivasaChance along the way. But as it turns out, introducing more Divas on the roster and actually giving them a chance are two very different concepts.

Who knew?

Well okay I did, but who’s keeping score anyway?

People like me (you know who you are) aren’t concerned about simply being acknowledged or seeing our tweets scroll across the bottom of the television screen during an episode of Raw. We can’t be bought or tricked into thinking we made a difference when nothing actually changed in the first place. That’s why #GiveDivasaChance does not exists anymore but #Women’sWrestling is alive and well; a statement (not a movement) that clearly identifies what we want, not what we’d like to politely request.

Three weeks ago, when the storyline between Charlotte and Lynch began to unfold, those of us who still care were inexplicably given exactly what we wanted all along. There’s no smoking gun to point to (other than common sense); no proof that it will continue. Nevertheless, it occurred.

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Just like that Charlotte transformed into an opportunistic heel, led down the dangerous road of shortcuts and backstabbing by her legendary father, who’s character spent a career perfecting both dastardly activities. Conversely, Lynch transitioned from a goofy sidekick into a laser-focused challenger, determined to become a champion the right way. Their friendship all but gone, the former friends turned their attention to the only thing left between them that mattered, a championship.

Classic pro wrestling story.

Charlotte refused to accept responsibility for her actions, claiming to be a victim rather than a perpetrator. Lynch remained true to herself, accepted Charlotte’s regression and vowed to make her pay by taking away the very thing that changed her in the first place, the Diva’s title.

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In less than a month Lynch’s triumph (or Charlotte’s demise) became something the audience willingly invested in. The gradual build toward their Royal Rumble match was produced with a surprising finesse other stories set to culminated at the Rumble did not receive. The story between Becky and Charlotte was the only singles match to receive a promo package last night, produced in the sit-down style largely reserved for Brock Lesnar promo packages prior to a major match.

The match, like the story that preceded it, was booked like a pro wrestling match and not a mindless exhibition or desperate attempt to fill time.

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Two adversaries intimately familiar with each other maneuvering to gain a critical advantage that could ultimately help them win or retain a coveted championship. In the end, when Charlotte realized no such advantage could be earned legally, she once again relied on the antics of her father to help her retain her title. Sometimes the bad guy (or girl) wins. That’s a fact of life that makes me want to boo…what’s that I’m feeling, an emotional investment in these characters?

Sasha Banks’ surprise return and subsequent embarrassment of the tainted champion allowed the story to take an intriguing pivot. Will Banks and Lynch battle for a chance at Charlotte? Will Charlotte sink to a new low to retain her title? I don’t know the answer to those questions but I’m going to tune into Raw for some clarity. Wait, you mean I have a reason to tune into Raw?

And they say booking aint easy.

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The focus after last night’s Royal Rumble was mainly centered around Triple H’s return and Roman Reigns’ failure to retain the WWE Championship and that’s fine. It should be. But the secondary story was not the arrival of AJ Styles (OMG!!!), or Lesnar’s unceremonious elimination from the title picture, or Kalisto’s second reign as US Champion in as many weeks; it’s the masterful story created around Charlotte, Lynch and Banks.

The word diva has become as integrated into WWE’s brand as the McMahon family name itself. The Diva’s Title is not going to be retired in favor of the Women’s Title, sorry to disappoint all of you pushing that movement on social media. Lest we forget the amount of bra and panties matches defended under the banner of the WWF Women’s Title in the first place? In pro wrestling, just as in the real world, words don’t matter nearly as much as actions do. The real truth about #Women’sWrestling is this, it’s demise on social media will parallel the success of the female performers employed by WWE.

Women’s wrestling is no different the men’s wrestling. The stories and characters, when produced correctly, extract an emotional investment form the audience that is exploited by creative writers to make money. There is no such thing a women’s wrestling-only pro wrestling. That is want people like me want and that is what we received last night at the Royal Rumble.

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