NOTE: This was something I wrote last October, so it’s slightly out of date. But because it was more or less finished I thought I would post it.
A year after my WWE Evolution piece, the long-term shape of the ‘Women’s Evolution’ has become clear. The departure of Ronda Rousey and the rise of rival company All Elite Wrestling has led us down an interesting path, and it’s had its share of ups and downs. All things considered, it’s safe to say that women’s wrestling has established itself not only as legitimate but necessary. The days of “divas” and butterfly belts are long gone. But there’s still room to grow, and the path for that change unfortunately isn’t clear.
We may have passed the peak of women’s wrestling as a pure commercial fad. WWE gave them their own pay-per-view and the Wrestlemania main event, and it was awesome. We even got a women’s tag division (more on that later). Cynically, however, I think that WWE is winding it down a little bit.
With Rousey’s departure Becky Lynch has become the face of their women’s division. Suffice to say she’s done a great job. Lynch has a connection with the fans that very few WWE stars have, and she’s continued to foster that with plenty of awesome matches and character work. But she isn’t seen to be quite as valuable as Rousey. She doesn’t have the vaguely defined “mainstream following” that WWE have sought these past two decades, which puts a definite ceiling on her. No matter how good her showings are, they often peak as upper mid-card attractions.
That ceiling is even lower for the Smackdown Women’s title. As of now Bayley is the champ and having a pretty successful repackaging as a bastard heel. Despite this, she’s spent most of the past several months having inconsequential showings. So inconsequential that it almost qualifies as a throwback to the divas matches of old. That seems to be changing, but any meaningful shift could be hard to maintain with Smackdown’s relatively thin women’s roster. I really hope things work out, especially as a huge Bayley fan who’s enjoyed seeing some of her peak work lately.
And then there’s… the tag team championships.
The women’s tag titles currently belong to Asuka and Kairi Sane, two incredible performers making the most of their time in the limelight. It’s hard to say it hasn’t been a bumpy ride though. At Wrestlemania the tag titles went to the IIconics. With belts in hand they went on to do, well, nothing. What little exposure they got led to some wonderful moments. Even considering that, you can’t help but feel they didn’t really matter a whole lot.
After 4 months they spontaneously dropped the belts to the odd couple of Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross, causing my Australian heart to ache. Bliss and Cross at least got a couple pay-per-view showings based on the star power of Bliss. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good or memorable, and they themselves spontaneously lost the belts to Kairi and Asuka. Just to make it even more obvious the belts weren’t highly valued, Kairi and Asuka became bad guys without any previous build-up. They’ve been great heels so far, but that’s arguably despite WWE management. I’m optimistic about the future of the “Kabuki Warriors” (still don’t like that name) but investing in WWE characters is always a risky move.
In other recent news, we have Natalya and Lacey Evans about to square off in the first ever women’s match in Saudi Arabia. I sure didn’t see that coming, but I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the two of them. It was mostly well received, and both Lacey and Natalya were thrilled to be able to make history.
It is, however, only one right step among countless awful wrong steps in the hosting of these Saudi shows. Women are still incarcerated in Saudi Arabia for fighting for the right to drive, many of them continuing to face horrific torture and abuse. It’s easy to see why this match may come off as WWE whitewashing the country’s legacy. I’m not exactly the first person to say this, but there’s also a whole range of shady dealings involved on every level of WWE’s Saudi deal. With that in mind, I can’t give WWE any significant praise for this match.
If you’ve found WWE soul-crushing as of late, at least we now have a mainstream alternative in All Elite Wrestling. And arguably it’s been a pretty awesome alternative. It’s a wrestling show for the modern age that WWE will never be, where everyone involved works together to put on the best show they can. Right away they’ve shown their commitment to taking women’s wrestling seriously. The result has been flawed, but AEW manages to succeed in some meaningful ways.
First there’s the obvious: LGBTQ+ representation. There’s a lot of misplaced or outright bad faith discussion around transgender athletes having an “unfair advantage” in competitive sports. In case you haven’t figured it out, though, pro wrestling is scripted. That kind of makes it the perfect platform for diverse representation, one that transcends rigid ideas of what’s acceptable. Unfortunately, pro wrestling is also a platform propped up by a long history of marginalising those voices; not to mention a historically not so sensitive audience.
Wrestling has a more diverse audience than it’s ever had in history. And a lot of those diverse fans – new and old – want to see themselves reflected in the product. Among the awesome athletes pushing the boundaries of representation is Nyla Rose; the first trans woman ever signed to a major wrestling promotion. Her inclusion in AEW alone is an incredible step forward, but she’s also been treated as the compelling performer she is. This led to her being in the first women’s match in AEW history AND the first women’s champion match [and as of publishing the current AEW Women’s World Champion!!!!].
So how did AEW market this? Well, they didn’t. There’s no trans asterisk, Nyla Rose is just a woman like any other woman in the division. And that’s exactly how it should be!! That doesn’t mean that they ignore her unique experiences as a trans woman either. They’ve used avenues like YouTube to give her time to talk about herself outside the squared circle. But it’s not everything that matters about her. She’s also a Native American, a compelling monster heel, a talented competitor with a lot of potential to grow, and now a genuine star. Her experiences are worth recognising, and her performances are worth watching. AEW acknowledges both these things.
On the flipside, they hired Jake fucking Hager. Hager – known previously as WWE’s Jack Swagger – is a little too eager to express questionable values on Twitter for the world to see. Let’s not mince words: he’s a transphobe, and he’s not ashamed of it. He’s been caught numerous times liking and retweeting blatant attacks on trans people from right wing media accounts, and doesn’t appear to have any intention to stop. Given my criticisms of Ronda Rousey’s transphobia it’s only fair that AEW should also get flack for doing business with hateful people. As a company that prides itself on being more progressive than WWE, this is a genuine let-down.
This isn’t to say that AEW is just as morally shady as WWE. In fact, there’s a few other ways they excel. One of those is ethnic diversity. WWE didn’t run a single Raw or Smackdown women’s title match on pay per view that didn’t have a white blonde woman until THIS PAST YEAR. Comparatively, AEW’s first women’s title match was between a Native American woman and a Japanese woman. AEW wins on pure optics by a mile.
They also have a whole lot more in-ring diversity with the women. WWE expects all their superstars to work the sanitised “WWE style”, which has arguably watered down some of their Japanese wrestlers. Inversely, AEW embraces the joshi puro style that the Japanese women’s wrestlers bring. This lets folks like Riho and Hikaru Shida play to their strengths, working with the energy and pacing that brings out their best performances. Rather than co-opting Japanese wrestling, AEW embraces the differences of joshi wrestlers and puts their style on display for a worldwide audience. This immediately endeared Riho to the audience and got people to invest in her as the first Women’s World Champion. Bottom line, people want to see what these women have to give.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking up AEW, but unfortunately there’s still some serious issues. One metric WWE wins on is pure quanity. AEW sometimes only has a single women’s match on a card with half a dozen or more men’s matches. That’s… a tad depressing. It gives the impression that representing women is just an obligation, a quota. Put on the Designated Lady Match and then don’t think about it again. WWE fares better, but still only manages two or three women’s matches per show at most. To be frank, if you can’t match a confused and seedy billion-dollar corporation in giving women time to simply exist then you’re not doing good enough. I’m optimistic for the future of AEW’s women’s division, but like a lot of things in AEW there’s work to be done.
So yeah, we’re in a weird place. Women’s wrestling has grown to the point where every reputable North American company is expected to give it dignity. But as the PR simmers down and booking women becomes a soft obligation, it’s interesting to see where the commitments of these companies go. I’m hoping to see more women’s main events in the coming years, in both WWE and AEW. These amazing performers deserve to be more than mid-card fixtures. Whether that comes about is yet to be seen. Let’s keep our fingers crossed as we continue to demand better from major wrestling companies.
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