So WWE just did their first ever women’s royal rumble match. It was mostly great but it left me with a lot to unpack. A lot of good stuff to unpack but also a lot of bad stuff.
Let’s start off nice. It was a really good match. It was a big deal, it was given time to breathe, it had a great narrative and it was filled with some really fun and endearing and awesome moments. I can barely remember the last truly good rumble, and for WWE to pull off not one but two in a single night is mindblowing. I barely thought it was humanely possible. Once in a blue moon WWE can pull their shit together. Not that they didn’t pull any disappointments but I’ll talk more about that later.
Second of all, the first ever Japanese rumble winner. And the second ever Japanese rumble winner the same night. And the first ever woman to win a rumble was a person of colour who speaks English as a second language. More importantly, she’s maybe the greatest and most deserving performer on the planet. Asuka is genuinely sublime. She has an awesome presence, and her monumental winning streak shows the unprecedented patience and confidence she’s earned from WWE. It hasn’t been smooth sailing since she got to the main roster but gosh darn it this win cements her legacy. This win can never be taken away (as much as they’ve seemingly already tried).
And of course the match even existing is brilliant. Women’s wrestling has come a long way in a few short years, to the point where WWE actively sees it as a good thing to give them an hour long match in the main event of a big four pay-per-view. Their reasoning is pretty cynical and profit-driven, but good women’s wrestling is good women’s wrestling. Countless women have sacrificed themselves only to be underappreciated or crushed by the industry, and the more women get opportunities to be awesome the more we can start to reflect on the past and move on.
But we haven’t reflected and we haven’t moved on. I watched this rumble with a friend who was watching pro wrestling for the very first time, and explaining the stories of many of those women was discomforting. “Yeah that’s Molly Holly. She was a great wrestler who spent most of her career being humiliated for not being attractive”. “Yeah that’s Beth Phoenix. She was in a men’s rumble once but she was there for like a minute and her only spot was eliminating a guy by kissing him”. “Yeah that’s Vickie Guerrero. She worked hard to make an insufferable character work and most of the thanks she got was rampant bullying and fat-shaming on live TV”. And that was only scratching the surface. The crimes that people like Kevin Dunn and Fabulous Moolah have committed against all of women’s wrestling are inexcusable, and they’re the responsibility of WWE. The retroactive decision to pretend they always dignified these performers is a pure self-serving lie.
CONTENT WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH TALKS IN BRIEF DETAIL ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE AND OTHER FORMS OF ABUSE THAT WOMEN IN PRO WRESTLING HAVE EXPERIENCED. IF YOU’RE NOT COMFORTABLE WITH THAT THEN SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.
And speaking of self-serving there’s the PR. The fucking PR. Stephanie “philanthropy is the future of marketing” McMahon glibly took credit for the work of all of those women, and the hype package preceding the match was pure masturbatory garbage. Girl power was trendy 20 years ago, nowadays it’s a little sad to pat yourself on the back for giving women basic respect. The selfishness and cowardice of WWE was made even more tragically apparent when Lita returned bearing a shirt that said #TimesUp, a reference to the campaign against sexual assault in popular culture spaces. Instead of acknowledging it McMahon, rich white saviour of womankind, diverted her attention to talk about “the women who couldn’t be here” and gave out a list topped by sexual abuser The Fabulous Moolah. The late Chyna, a woman whose career was sabotaged by Stephanie’s own husband and who’s been blacklisted by WWE for sex work and drug abuse, was only a reluctant footnote. WWE will also neglect to mention that Lita left the industry because she was a victim of slut-shaming under their watch, and even before that found herself in storylines involving her character being subject to pretty horrific sexual abuse. Truthfully the WWE barely seems to care about the suffering of women past the extent it benefits their image and profits.
On a lighter but still disappointing note this rumble demonstrated that the women’s division still kinda sucks character wise. I had no problem explaining the appeal of virtually every single male performer to my friend, but for many women I could only say “yeah that person is pretty cool and has good moves”. Outside of the token big matches women’s wrestling still tends to wallow in the mid-card. That’s better than the two minute piss break spot it used to occupy, but they’re still in a realm largely devoid of stakes or meaning. You’re either in the title picture or you’re just kinda there. Also even with every single active woman on the current roster and two cameos from NXT it still took 10 legend cameos. And of those 10 you had people like Torrie Wilson and Kelly Kelly who were emblematic of the issues of the “diva” years of WWE. You have to look at that lineup and think “Is this really the only way you could manage 30 female humans in one place?”. Honestly.
Also Ronda Rousey. There’s a lot to unpack with Ronda Rousey. The moment of Asuka winning the first ever women’s rumble stood on its own, that WWE thought they needed to immediately bring in a celebrity to make it matter is pretty disrespectful to the performance those women put on. Moreover WWE’s fixation on novelty acts like her and Brock Lesnar is an overwhelming part of why their current product fails to invest in new talent. They want the easy way out, they want the shreds of mainstream popularity they’ve spent nearly 20 years longing to get back. And on their path to get it they neglect new talent and wonder why they find it hard to build compelling stars. Moreover it was just weird and uncomfortable in a narrative sense. Asuka winning the rumble guarantees her a shot at Wrestlemania for one of the women’s championships, Rousey is neither champion. After such a satisfying conclusive match it was a plain shit move to leave people asking questions. Not to mention the questions they left you asking weren’t built on earned suspense, they were built on a legitimate confusion with narrative intent. It’s just bad storytelling, and they could’ve left the reveal to an episode of Raw rather than blowing it on something that was already a huge deal on its own.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the awful stuff so let’s finish with something positive: Sasha Banks was awesome. Like, this was the first time Sasha as a character has been awesome since NXT. She knows how to be a sassy scumbag, and WWE damn well needs to let her be that again. Also Naomi managed to top Kofi Kingston by doing three of his elimination save spots at once. Wonderful stuff. Make no mistake, this was a really worthwhile watch and I want to see women’s wrestling continue to grow. But for it to be better we need to want better, and we need to make ourselves heard.
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