In the world of sports media, professional wrestling has always had an interesting angle. While all sports brand themselves in one way or another to appeal to audiences, professional wrestling cares only about audiences. In some ways, it’s more of a form of reality television than a sport, in that they rely on story-driven and entertainment-based choreography to guide their matches. Professional wrestlers have more than just popular names– they have entire characters written and designed around their persona. To analyze it and its take on gender roles, therefore, is more than analyzing sports media, but instead examining careful writing and performances. An arena once largely dominated by male wrestlers and their hyper-masculinity, women would usually take on a secondary role to their male counterparts. Through the examination and analyzing of four distinct eras of professional wrestling more specifically World Wrestling Entertainment Inc (WWE) we have seen a significant shift in the role of women as performers as they are gradually taken more serious, given screen time to display their athleticism and written as stronger, equal competitors.
Women in wrestling made appearances before their actual involvement in the ring. As seen in this above photo featuring Randy Savage (“Macho Man”) and Miss Elizabeth, women were almost accessories for the men. This “valet” type role played off of societal expectations of exaggerated hypermasculinity by contrasting it with a small, white, passive female. Miss Elizabeth, a wrestling manager, was every bit the sought after docile sex object that the men would be hoping to win over. In one popular angle in the series, two wrestlers, Randy Savage and George “The Animal” Steele both fell in love with her and had to fight to win her hand. We saw the presentation of the female as a prize and a sort of trophy. They were always needing to be saved by the valiant baby face (good guy) from the heel (bad guy).
A slight departure from the docile female role came towards the middle of the 1990’s where the valet role became more active and instrumental to the success of the men they represented. We saw more physical involvement though cheating or seduction usually to help their wrestler win. Female valets t this point were seen as a distraction to all parties involved, their sexuality was heightened all to help garner wins and titles. The Legion of Doom made their debut in WWE (which, at the time, was known as WWF) with Sunny by their side, having ditched their long standing manager Paul Ellering for the more vibrant and vivacious Sunny. This switch in valet gave the team a different look, they weren’t protecting Sunny rather she was enhancing their persona to make them more marketable to a broader audience. WWE felt that if they placed a beautiful woman in between the two they would make more money selling action figures and merchandise, this was the beginning of the “sex-selling” model that would be adopted in the attitude era.
Following trends of and edgy counterculture and racy content on television and due to a ratings war with WCW, the WWE ushered in a new era of wrestling that we’d come to know as “The Attitude Era”. During this time, the attitude era fully adopted the notion of sex selling though the exaggerated hypersexualized femininity. Scholar Rachel Wood and Benjamin Litherland write in their article Critical feminist hope: the encounter of neoliberalism and popular feminism in WWE 24: Women’s Evolution; “the “Attitude Era” used aggressive sexual representations of women akin to that in the turn of the century culture of macho “ironic sexism,” familiar from men’s magazines and other related media” (Wood, Litherland 909) An era of wrestling where pushing the envelope was the norm, male wrestlers took their masculinity and competitive drive to a whole new level, anything to draw viewership and to compete with the rivaling product. While depicting the female performers as merely sex objects to please their male viewers and “the core demographic of 16–24-year-old males,” (Wood, Litherland 909) When we saw these women on TV they were involved in bra and panty matches, mud wrestling matches, wet t-shirt contests, etc. Their storylines consisted of adultery, seduction and the usage of their body to further position themselves in a higher standing in the company. For the most part the women’s matches held were an excuse for them to take off their clothes and pander to the overwhelming male audience.
Towards the end of the attitude era, the WWE established a third weekly episodic show to pair with the two mainstays of Monday Night Raw and Smackdown, ECW which stands for Extreme Championship Wrestling aired Wednesday nights. The show was an hour long that tried to maintain the edge that the attitude era brought to the product. In order to draw viewership they implemented a segment in which a female wrestler “Kelly Kelly” would do a striptease, since this was on cable TV the audience never saw Kelly naked, it was a tease to rile up the live crowd before the scheduled matches of the night took place. The attitude era was coming to an end but WWE was holding on the sexploitation of their performers for a little while longer, all to draw in viewership to a C show that would eventually be canceled due to the lack of fan interest. The Kelly Kelly Expose segments disappeared from television in 2008 as WWE was slowly beginning to transition in to the PG/Reality era where the term “Diva” was born. Kelly Kelly can be seen as a key transitional figure between the two eras.
The Diva’s Era focused on women’s anger in a new way. The term “diva” has always had certain connotations. It implies an irrational side of women’s emotions, and promotes the idea that women’s anger is extreme, petty, misplaced, and selfish. Diva characters, often seen in reality television shows such as Real Housewives and Keeping up with the Kardashians, are almost always focused on wealth, fame, and their own attractiveness. The women competing for the Diva championship were very much the same. Scholar Janice M. Sikon writes in her article WWE: Redefining Working-Class Womanhood through Commodified Feminism “The Divas moniker and everything attached to it separated the women from the men and let the audience know that the two genders were not on the same level in the company” (p.7) A lot of the choreography involved frowned-upon “cat-fight” moves, like hair-pulling and slapping. The way many of the women dressed and presented themselves was very sexualized, focused more heavily on breast size and hair than muscles and intimidation. Despite their actions and anger, they were never presented as masculine and instead remained incredibly stuck in exaggerated femininity. The seemingly ideal Diva’s champion of the this time was a beach blonde white woman who could do some backflips and execute your most basic wrestling holds, the biggest selling point was her attitude and the spark that a Diva should have.
In one particularly interesting and odd angle, WWE thought it would be a good idea to introduce a low card male wrestler dressed as a woman in scantily clad attire known as Santina Marella, a derivative of his previous stage name Santino. Santina was written as an exaggerated female character, where her emotions got the best of her and her Diva attitude was over the top. While the attempt here was to add some comedy to the product there was a delegitimization of the female performers who lost to Santina on a nightly basis, they even took it as far as having Santina win a battle royal during Wrestlemania, the largest and grandest show that WWE puts on yearly. At this point it is where the audience was beginning to notice how poorly the female wrestlers were treated and how poorly they were positioned in the company. During all of this a large wrestling community was building, a community that would begin to stir the pot and urge for some sort of change with regards to the treatment of women in WWE.
In January of 2018 Ronda Rousey sent the sports media world into a frenzy when it was announced that she had signed a full time contract with the WWE, making the long awaited jump from the UFC. The move that Rousey and fellow UFC peers Shayna Baszler, Maria Shafir, and Jessamyn Duke made was seen a sort of came reinforcement that things had changed in the WWE. “The audience had been exposed to women being treated as serious athletes and witnessed their capability. Rousey, being in a fighting sport that has some crossover with WWE, was an important example that showed audiences that women could fight at the same level as men” (Sikon 16) Ronda Rousey was a very tough character, as were many of her main competitors. They were portrayed more similarly to their male counterparts, with strength and tough will being at the core of their characters. Rousey had had a strong reputation in the UFC as a very determined and strong female wrestler, and therefore this contract brought over new expectations of the women in WWE.
Recently the WWE has moved away from the hypersexual depictions of women, after the viral hashtag #GiveDivasAChance the company has moved into a different direction with their female wrestlers, largely due to the uproar of the fans. “This also coincided with a resurgence of feminism in mainstream society and greater opportunities for women in sports, such as the success of the United States’ women’s national soccer team in the World Cup and the rise of Ronda Rousey’s mixed martial arts career and pop culture presence” (Sikon, 16) At the beginning this shift in direction was given the term “The Diva Revolution”, a period of time where the WWE female talent was taken more serious, they were given more screen time, written in to adequate storylines and given a seat at the table with the male performers. This wasn’t enough, merely still having the “Diva” moniker attached to them was signs of a regressive culture. Enter Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Bayley, the four women pictured alongside Ronda Rousey in the picture. These four women, ushered in a new era for female competitors, by cutting their teeth in developmental and rising to main event status, they put on some of the better received matches of the past decade. The were given the nickname “The Four Horsewomen of WWE”. All of the efforts put forth by these women for change were given a platform to showcase their talents with the all female pay per view show; Evolution. Evolution figuratively and quite literally showed us that the company was evolving, celebrating their female performers and showing that they too can draw in a crowd with their skill, athleticism and charisma.
WWE was pushed in to changing the representation of their female performers in great part because of the social and cultural climate changing around not just the sports industry but society at large. “Now, women are treated more like independent athletes than as catalysts for men’s achievements or fodder for the male gaze” (Sikon, 28) The strides and steps towards change have been gradual but have yielded visible results. In recent years WWE’s empowerment of their female competitors has pushed other professional wrestling promotions around the world to take notice and adopt similar practices in legitimizing their women’s division.
Wood, R., & Litherland, B. (2015). Critical feminist hope: The encounter of neoliberalism and popular feminism in WWE 24: Women’s Evolution . Feminist Media Studies, 18(5). Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/14680777.2017.1393762?scroll=top&needAccess=true.
Sikon, J. M. (2018). WWE: Redefining Working-Class Womanhood through Commodified Feminism. Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio