The Sordid History & Remarkable Evolution Of The WWE’s Women’s Division

There’s a lot the WWE would like you to forget about how it’s portrayed women in the past.

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The professional wrestling giant’s much mythologised Attitude Era – a period of time roughly spanning from November 1997 until March 2001 that made household names of Stone Cold Steve AustinThe RockMick FoleyTriple HChris Jericho, and more – had a particularly sketchy relationship with its female performers.

The countless “Bra & Panties” matches (where a match only ended after a wrestler stripped their opponent down to their underwear), kidnapping and drugging storylines, sexually aggressive on-mic degradation from male performers, and overt sexualisation – while all a product of their time – set the bar for how WWE portrayed its roster of women for the years that followed it.

Throughout the 2000s and much of the early 2010s, the role of women in the company was significantly de-prioritised. Corporately packaged as “Divas,” the company recruited heavily from the ranks of fitness modelling and bodybuilding, sending often under-prepared and under-trained women to fill one-dimensional character roles and portray flimsy storylines in truncated segments that fans often colloquially referred to as bathroom breaks; a chance to head to the toilet and grab food or drink while something of no importance to the greater show was occurring.

In amongst it there was the occasional bright spot: a storied rivalry between now-Hall of Famers Trish Stratus and Lita culminated in the duo main eventing a 2004 episode of Monday Night Raw, the first time women were the headline act on the company’s flagship weekly show.

But by 2015, and with a successfully spun-off E! Network reality show Total Divas under their belts, the WWE – as far as its women were concerned – was coasting on mediocrity.

Almost overnight, that all changed.

The audience, fed up with short segments and hackneyed storylines that favoured reality show-centrepieces the Bella Twins over all, staged a social media revolt after a February 2015 episode of Raw where the women were allotted just 30 seconds of match time on an otherwise 3-hour show. #GiveDivasAChance forced company officials into a sorely-needed re-think of its creative processes regarding a division they hadn’t presented as truly important in a decade, or possibly ever.

Later that year, the WWE embarked upon an ambitious flush of their female talent roster, funnelling performers from the company’s critically-acclaimed NXT developmental system onto main programming. Today, 69% of the “main” women’s roster consists of performers brought up through NXT. This alone represents the biggest shift not just in talent sources, but creative ideology arguably in the history of the company. Certainly the biggest one since the Attitude Era itself.

Gone are the days of gimmicky characters crafted on form over function and aesthetic appeal over athletic ability. In their place, fully realised characters performed by world-class athletes – fighters – all with their own unique agency, ambition, flaws, urgency, and motivation.

There’s Charlotte Flair, the consummate athlete born into a bloodline of wrestling greatness, but with the snivelling vanity and malevolence of her father never far from the surface. Sasha Banks, an undersized battler elevated by her own oversized ego, itself fuelled by a near-crippling fear of inadequacy. Bayley, the dictionary definition of lawful good; a ray of light determined to achieve success without compromising morals, no matter how often that gets her stepped on and passed over along the way. Asuka, an overpowered and terrifying Japanese murder demon able to turn foes to dust with a single stare. The list goes on.

At the top of the current pile, at least in terms of audience response, sits Becky Lynch. A fiercely proud Irish national with a rate of speech roughly 300 words per second, Lynch – real name Rebecca Quin – is the WWE’s license to print money: A no-nonsense ass-kicker fed up with the established system and determined to get what’s hers. Parallels drawn to Stone Cold Steve Austin are many, and apt.

Speaking with PEDESTRIAN.TV in New York, Lynch bemoaned the “unbelievable frustration” that still exists within the WWE’s women’s division, which has attracted an all-new wave of criticism over its lack of opportunity for performers not directly involved in championship-related storylines.

All you want to do is be able to go out there and do your job, and do what you’re employed to do, and put on amazing matches, and have people care about the matches. It’s just easier when there’s something on the line, for people to care about it.

Since 2015, the WWE has made significant strides in presenting the men’s and women’s competitors as equals. The result of this has been a string of historic “firsts” for their women’s division; the first pay-per-view event headlined by women, the first women’s edition of the annual Royal Rumble match in January, and come the end of October, the first all-women’s pay-per-view event in WWE Evolution. With company marketing placing such a heavy emphasis on these historical benchmarks, the question of where things can go next inevitably arise. But for Lynch, who pounded the table with fervent conviction, the answer is as clear as day.

We are employed to do one job, and that’s go out there and put on an incredible match. And why because we are born a different gender would we be capable of having less good matches? That makes no sense to me, and that never made any sense to me.

It’s about maintaining. You’re not asking the guys “what’s the next step after whatever.” It’s just gotta be consistent. It’s not about always making it to the next “thing”. Yes, we all need to be on the same equal playing field. But it’s not about these big historical matches. It’s about maintaining great storylines, and having people care about the characters, and putting on consistently great matches, and to come to a place where it’s just commonplace, where it’s interchangeable, where people aren’t going “oh, this is a women’s match.” It’s just matches and storylines that people care about, and we’re all people doing our jobs, which is wrestling, which we love.

That’s a sentiment echoed by legitimate WWE legend Triple H, who serves as the company’s very real Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events, and Creative. Speaking at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn prior to SummerSlam weekend, Triple H highlighted the need for normalisation moving forward when presenting women’s wrestling in the WWE, while also stressing that, in a lot of ways, the company has already been able to achieve parity.

The point is not to segregate, the point is not to separate, the point is for it to be all equal.

The truth for me, and I’ve thought this for a long period of time, is that I don’t see the difference. I just look at talent as talent, doesn’t matter if they’re men, women, it doesn’t matter. I look for the best athletes around the globe when we recruit. When we train, we train ’em the same way. No different. To me, the show is the show. The most interesting characters, performers, storylines will be the biggest match. The biggest match should be the main event. If the top three matches on the card all happen to be women, then that’s what it is.

Today also happens to mark to premiere of the second-annual Mae Young Classic (which you can watch via the company’s quite excellent WWE Network streaming platform), a wide-ranging women’s knockout tournament produced by the WWE highlighting 32 of the top independent wrestlers from across the globe, including Australian competitors Toni Storm and Rhea Ripley. That alone represents the kind of seismic shift in narrative priorities the WWE has undertaken in recent years; a tournament of that size, scope, and most importantly focus was simply not an option as little as three years ago.

Undoubtedly, there remains issues with the product: Women are often thrown into multi-person tag matches without reason or motivation, seemingly as a means of filling representation quotas and staving off social media backlash. Fully-realised storylines outside of championship matches remain few and far between. The company’s portrayal of LGBTQI characters is burgeoning, but has a long way to go. And as long as the WWE clings to a reality TV-focused core – or, frankly, as long as the corporately-devised Bella Twins continue to dominate on-screen stories – the current division will remain hamstrung, haunted by a deeply demonstrative past.

But if the recent freedom remains for performers to, as Lynch put it, do their jobs, which is wrestling, which they love, then the company can do nothing but remain a wholly unique and leading voice of gender equalisation in the entertainment – and perhaps more significantly the sports – industries.

And that, without question, is a good, good, very good thing indeed.

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