Marilyn Jackie or Eleanor: Nikki Bella’s Strong Female Aesthetic

“Nikki Bella” is a character played by Nicole Garcia-Colace; a constructed identity active since September 2007.

She is the longest-serving WWE Divas Champion and recently returned to the ring after a potentially career-ending neck injury. The Divas Championship, that Nikki held for a record period, was retired while she was out of commission. Currently the women of the WWE compete for one of two belts: Women’s Championships of their two brands Raw (aired on Mondays) and Smackdown (aired on Tuesdays). Nikki returned without her belt twice-over — no longer the champion, and no longer the longest-reigning.

While her time as in-ring Top Diva may be over, and it may have been short, it was representative, and it was iconic. Nikki comes back to a women’s division that has changed notably in her absence — since she was injured, the so-called Women’s Revolution has finally taken hold. Women’s wrestling in WWE products is “finally legit”; stars, multiple stars, have come up through the training show NXT, making names and followings under the protection of NXT’s active appeal to a less traditional segment of the WWE audience. On NXT, women were expected to be wrestlers; on WWE-proper shows, women have long, if not always, been expected to be eyecandy first. The successful reintegration of (champion) Nikki Bella, in my opinion, will be the final padlock on time: the last nail in the coffin of basic delegitimisation of woman wrestlers in WWE. There will be far to go, but the “Women’s Revolution” will be over.

Women’s Everyday Equality will be next on the menu, at last.

Nikki started her performance history as the second half of “The Bella Twins”, allowing her identical twin sister Brie to win matches by performing sections of them in her place (identical faces and identical gear meant that referees “couldn’t tell the difference”). Her rise to lone prominence was a slow but savvy burn, retold in the capsule wardrobe of entrance & ring gear she wore prior to, and for the duration of, her Divas Championship.

NIKKI & THE GEAR

To become a famous wrestler, a performer needs a look. Call to mind any performer who achieved fame outside the ring thanks to their popularity within it, and you’ll start with a visual; the Rock quirking one beautiful eyebrow; the Undertaker in his supersized Gothic getup; Hulk Hogan’s platinum tresses above red and yellow; Andre the Giant. A wrestling aesthetic is called your gimmick; a term which covers various elements of character. The image, the explanation for the image, and the attitude that links or lurks behind the two. The more diffuse a gimmick, the harder to pin down a character is, and conversely the more graphic the gimmick, the better we feel like we get this guy. A wrestler is an action figure come to life — you pick the one that looks the coolest, or you pick the one that looks like they have the most story. If you can get both, that’s your new favourite toy.

With the assumption of a gimmick, a persona, it’s now easy to situate these people within a network. Well-defined individuals’ proximity to each other natural creates juxtaposition. The stories that spring from similarities and differences enhance each character’s place within the larger structure of the company. Who is this person? How are they contextualised? Who do they matter to? When Nikki was one half of an identical tag-team, they “play[ed] up their Hispanic heritage onstage, wearing the pinks and reds, the sequins and ruffles”.

As a natural extension of gimmick comparison, chaining gimmicks is a common technique for encouraging audience engagement: from true-life biological to management-decreed, performance bonds between wrestlers are encouraged. Tag teams are duos who regularly work together and often cooperate aesthetically by sharing a gimmick (if they are to be long-term partners) or coming together on one point of similarity which is then emphasised with an elaborate name (if they are single performers teaming up for a short while). “Stables” are groups of wrestlers given a commonality to endear them to viewers. Fellow wrestler Nattie Neidhart makes much of her membership within the Hart family, a long-established force in the business, through motifs in speech and costume.

In modern wrestling, when hashtags and performers’ handles appear onscreen during broadcasts, commentators mention wikipedia articles and instagram accounts on air and it’s easy — nigh expected, if you want to be in the club — to know details about performers’ families and friendships, arranging all the pieces so that connections appear smooth and sensible has a certain apparent smartness. If somebody isn’t memorable, they won’t be remembered. As a solo champion, Nikki wore a uniform that gave the impression of being micro-sized versions of men’s sports gear. She traded very much on her position as an attractive woman being given time to command some eyeballs in a men’s industry, evincing savvy, and luck, that took her to the top.

Nikki Bella instagram

For a woman, whose momentary success in the WWE is less likely to be rewarded with respect than a man’s and for whom popularity and recognition, once achieved, hold a lesser guarantee of continuing relevancy than a male can expect – only eight of the ninety-five individual inductees to the WWE Hall of Fame are women – a solid gimmick is something to dream of. Something with a visual network built in? Even better. The smart thing to do is to lock down your relevancy from every angle.

Managing to be internally cohesive as well as appealing and able to evolve subtly to suit new circumstances, unfolding storylines; the best minds for the wrestling business are the best minds for marketing. What do the people want? What do they think they want? Can I give that to them? Underneath that question has to lie another: can I do that without compromising myself? How does a person live sustainably inside this very particular sort of fame? History has shown that burnouts and breakdowns, scandals and criminal outbursts are all too common in long-term male wrestlers. For a woman, the sort of fame and lifestyle that the company known today as the WWE offers tends to be not only particular to its industry, but beyond what’s asked of the men women’s roles in WWE wrestling also skew particularly commercially sexual. For the hopeful contender, the long-term thinker, this must be navigated.

Nikki Bella instagram

NIKKI & THE GAZE

Putting aside unproven allegations, failed harassment suits and all sorts of similar nasties, around the turn of the Millennium female wrestlers appearing on Playboy covers was so much a given that the recuperation period for a neck injury sustained by star performer Lita was explained, kayfabe, as being due to a refusal on her part to pose for the magazine. As the story was told to the viewers: the company fired her for her non-compliance. The association has waned since the heyday of Chyna’s record-breaking cover & centrefold appearance (as far as the Bellas go Playboy have had to make do, thus far, with a slideshow rounding up pictures borrowed from the twins’ instagrams — and of course, Playboy itself has loosened its masturbatory grip on photographs of naked chicks) but wrestling is made up of bodies slamming together and emotional histrionics. Performative sexuality as a dimension of the viewing experience is not an outlandish conceit.

Chyna Playboy cover

Of course, there’s a lot of sexism in the execution; Nikki Bella doesn’t exist within a gender-neutral landscape. Female performers in WWE/WWF have been regularly introduced as valets: “plus ones” who come down to the ring with a man, hang around while he does his stuff, and then leave with him. From Chyna to Naomi, ex- of the Funkadactyls, from Lita to Lana, recent history’s made it regular to rely on a man before you can get your boot in the ring. And crowds never forget! Crowds are there to be entertained, to be gratified, and if they perceive themselves to be being given a bum deal, they will complain. Unfortunately this comes with the territory: fans are always being given a bum deal, in one way or another. Consider Trish Stratus.

TRISH & THE HISTORY

Trish Stratus' retirement match
Trish Stratus’ retirement match

Patricia Anne Stratigeas was introduced to the WWE audience as Trish Stratus in March 2000. A fitness model and radio wrestling pundit initially employed, like Nikki, on positive response to her image and her interest in the business, Trish is remembered by historically-minded fans as a success story for her dedication to learning the physical business of wrestling:

Trish is the only tangible proof management have that they can take a model and turned her into a good performer. It likely justifies their whole attitude to the women’s division: why bother hiring actual female wrestlers (who usually don’t have the looks), when you could just get models in and train them to be good wrestlers? – S.Bruce

Trish began her wrestling performance career as a manager. She accompanied a tag team named T&A (the combination of the initials of members Test and Albert — not a joke of any kind) to the ring, stood around shouting at them, and was gradually involved more and more in the bumps and falls of their matches. Within three months she was wrestling alone, with a gimmick that was basically I am gratifying; a warm and welcoming person, a dedicated professional, a short, cute woman with high cheekbones and high breasts whose job it was to let audiences think “cor, she definitely would”. In previous years objectless permissiveness had been enough to cement female popularity, but Trish’s second year with the WWE placed a new ornament atop the sex tree: Vince McMahon.

Vince McMahon Junior is the son and heir of Vince McMahon Senior. The WWE (formerly the WWF, formerly the WWWF) is the wrestling federation passed from father to son, controlled, polished, and economically driven (so the legends say) by their maniacal, genius grasps. Management of the profile of his wrestling company made Vince Jr a billionaire, which he remains. To this day McMahon is majority owner, chairman, and CEO of the WWE. In 2001 he was also a regular cast member on his wrestling shows. Mr McMahon was a swaggering monster of capitalism, laughing at his easily fooled audience as he took their money, regularly disappointing them with promises broken and heroes humiliated. He bullied his employees, his children, his wife. Mr McMahon took Trish as his willing mistress; to service this story, Vincent Kennedy McMahon (56) kissed employee Patricia Stratigeas (26), with tongue, on live television. She was obliged, by contract, to do this.

Vince disgustingly licks Trish

The wrap-up of this relationship came after Trish had been firmly established as The Other Woman. Young, poppin’, blonde, mean, sexually active with a horrible, old, horribly rich goat. Classique. All that it took to put her back in the good graces of the narrative was to see her degradation, and give her a brief redemptive alliance with McMahon’s abused wife. From whore to village stocks to sisterhood-penitent. Sexuality is acceptable and encouraged, in Vince’s company, but only so far as it relates to the realisation of men’s power. The closer the minefield is observed, the narrower the safe passage becomes. Navigation must account for false starts.

NIKKI & THE FALSE START

In April 2012, Nicole and Brianna Garcia-Colace were let go from WWE after four years of joint performance. Their storylines regularly required them to feud and team with other wrestlers, but The Bella Twins were a package, portioned out to emphasise their sameness. They were made up identically, and costumed identically, and audiences were unlikely to forget their entrance to the company was based in Twin Magic (the aforementioned ability to illegally switch places during a singles match). Twin Magic was not new, the Bellas’ skills were not honed, and they were not sufficiently interesting. Each had a short stint as Divas Champion, Brie’s first and longest, but their marching orders came in April 2012, immediately after Nikki’s first Championship loss.

Bella Twins, 2008

Three months later, Nikki’s breast implants caused a stir. One month after that, John and Nicole’s went on their first date (TMZ reported their romance three months later still, when Cena attended Garcia-Colace’s high school reunion). The Bellas made their first return appearance at the WWE on March 11th, 2013 — Total Divas was announced two months later. Filming had commenced in April.

Total Divas info, wikipedia screenshot

The former Divas Champion was asked about Total Divas, and she revealed when filming started. “We started WrestleMania week. Basically, they are going to show our lives inside and outside the ring. You’ll have drama, you’ll have rivalry, you’ll get to see our personal relationships and you are also going to see backstage WrestleMania and never before seen footage of that so that alone is going to be extremely exciting,” Nikki reveals.

“I’m just very excited to show the world my life.”
An all-access look at the Divas means nothing is off limits on Total Divas, including Nikki’s high profile relationship with WWE Champion John Cena.
–Nicole quoted on Diva-Dirt.com, mid-2013

It must be said that breast implants are as much a part of the Millennial history of the WWE/F women’s division as glitter fabric, big hair, or (the derogatory term for a women’s match) “piss-break”. They do not trump the efforts of the women whose bodies they reside within, but they have been narratively as well as physically present since the mid-nineties. Both as a way of belittling female contenders as try-hards and sluts – volume enhancement surgery is elective, therefore it is undeniably a result of “trying” – and of presenting them as consumable and erotic, implants remained heavily relevant to the mofits and memes of the Divas division as late as 2015.

A brief sampling of anecdote: Kia Stevens, known as Kharma within the WWE and as Awesome or Amazing Kong elsewhere, uses the lifting double underhook face-buster as a signature move. This climaxes with the opponent hitting the floor in a horizontal plank position, face down. As a woman competing against women, as a woman with a figure contrary to the dominant Divas’ template (though with large breasts in her own right), the name of the move becomes Implant Buster in Kharma’s repertoire. Just as this suggests, wrestling does not make augmentation surgery especially safe. Chyna needed replacements in 2000; Eva Marie needed them in 2015. As seen below, Eva Marie’s implant maintenance was a part of a Total Divas storyline — Total Divas is a WWE product, a reality show that exists to pad the fame of its in-ring performers. The WWE made money, and fans kept their eyes, on Eva Marie’s surgery. Even Stephanie McMahon, daughter of Vince and active performer and employee of WWE, has explicitly linked her own augmentation surgery to the demands and expectations of the company’s audience.

Google image result, Eva Marie's Total Divas breast surgery pollen

In short, flat chested women have had to make anti-cleavage a part of their gimmick in order to survive. AJ Lee, a wrestler whose persona traded on girl-next-door cuteness and real-life evidence of a lifelong devotion to wrestling (she’s practically one of the boys!), can be seen grappling with cleavage-based demands in this skit. Prior to their initial retirement, the Bella Twins were not especially large-breasted, although they were both sensually performative. Coming back with enlarged breasts meant that Nikki better fit the mould. It also made Brie’s smaller chest seem elective, in turn; if one can do it, why can’t the other? Suddenly, in the eyes of the beholders, in the shorthand of wrestling persona caricature, each appear to have volunteered a sexual statement. Please appreciate that Nikki/Nicole gives no impression of anything but comfortable delight in her post-surgery physique. The question is not “did she want it” — the question is “did it allow a new navigation of an existing system”. The answer is yes.

NIKKI & THE CHANGING TIMES

Coming back to the WWE in 2013, Brie and Nikki, while still obviously twins (does kayfabe know its limits after all?), were allowed to further develop their newly separate looks. Brie’s is a little harder to parse, but Nikki’s is brazen, pointed (sometimes literally; see the studded hat with the blue outfit, later in this article) and speaks to her position as somebody benefiting from patronage. It’s also fairly hip, which is startling, in wrestling. (This is 2015.)

Nikki Bella instgram

Prior to NXT’s code-switch Women’s wrestling had not been built up especially well by the WWE. While efforts were and are being made, the company’s woman employees still face harsh commentary, high standards, and rely upon the favour of the audience. If momentum stalls, the viewer will lose interest. The situation is precarious even now, and the Divas’ division never escaped the shadow of the Attitude Era – the years around the turn of the Millennium in which women’s wrestling saw multiple stars able to please crowds and take bumps, but whose professionalism was tainted by the presence of commentators who were divided on the issue of ladies’ performance. One thought it inappropriate. The other was arrested for statutory rape. (Charges dropped after he harassed a witness.)

Consequently crowds are given to chant appalling things during women’s matches–they perceive them, until occasionally proved spectacularly wrong, to be of an inherently poorer quality. As they say backstage (and, you know, everywhere): “you’ve got to be twice as good to be thought worth half as much”.

With discussion of character and performance I’ve already stepped into the liminal territory around wrestling commentary and fandom. There are several layers of reality in play with pro-wrestling, which has taken the spectacle to court and back. First, there is the guided reality of the story as-told on the television shows Raw, Smackdown, and monthly extras. The story behind that story, the genuine business of professional entertainment wrestling and the people employed to do it. Then the story between the two: the public face of the company and its payroll, the social media accounts, podcasts, and reality shows that current and past performers and creative employees host, guest on, and star in. That’s the basic trifle. The word you’ll need to digest, to get your head around wrestling at all, is kayfabe. Kayfabe means “the reality we temporarily agree is real”. The world of the story.

In kayfabe, geriatrics have given birth to human hands, enormous little brothers have been extracted from hell, and strong bodies have been (literally!) broken in half. The hyperconnectivity of social media literacy has made kayfabe into a spoken agreement, where once it was unspoken; check out any wrestler’s podcast, any given day of the week, and hear them talk about their character, their performance, the response of their audience to their work. Not a fan out there thinks that wrestling narratives are really real. Why bother to consider the question? Reality is irrelevant, because stories are enjoyable.

Total Divas is a reality television program in which the “Divas” — the women who work at WWE as wrestlers — go about their daily lives, getting into feminine scrapes. Boyfriends! Marriage! Hair dye! Catfights! And that’s just the first episode, yuk yuk. Total Divas acknowledges that pro wrestling is the profession of its protagonists. It acknowledges that they have different names when they wrestle, as well as different social and romantic alignments. Total Divas doesn’t emphasise the word kayfabe, but the concept is in play, an amazing lampshade for the fact that the entirely of Total Divas is what they call a worked shoot.

A “work” is when the scene (or interview, etc) is fiction. A “shoot” is when the scene (likewise) is real. So a worked shoot is when fakeness pretends to be real.

It’s not like anybody doesn’t know that Total Divas isn’t 100% Real Life Pure(™). Reality shows are not new, kayfabe is not new, and thinkpieces on the constructed nature of social media presentation are ten a penny. We’re all smart to editing and scripted reality, and even just the idea of community role-play. But Total Divas does work as a blind for real-real life, and it also works as back-up. An undertone. Reinforcement, on a different grain. The powermesh lining, for a glamorous jersey sports bra, if you will.

Tom Phillips describes Brie Bella’s use of liminal realities to enhance her brand:

“The Instagram account of WWE Diva Brie Bella is one such platform which eschews kayfabe, particularly with the frequent pictures dedicated to Bella and her fiancée, fellow WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan. Bella was sharing this content long before their relationship was ever acknowledged on WWE programming – despite a brief stint where she co-managed Bryan in 2011, there was no hint of a kayfabe serious romantic relationship between them. The Instagram account name is briannagc, with a bio line that currently reads ‘The Future Mrs. Danielson’, and these references to Bella and Bryan’s real names make clear that whilst Brie Bella may not care when Daniel Bryan proposes to another woman, Brianna Garcia-Colace would be a bit annoyed if Bryan Danielson did the same. As a result, the Instagram account – although seemingly of interest to a WWE audience – makes a clear effort to distinguish between that which is authentic, and that which is worked.

“Yet this separation of reality and fakery has been complicated in recent months with Bella’s starring turn in scripted reality series Total Divas, which although broadcast on the E! Network, is promoted liberally on WWE programming. Also featuring Bryan using his real name, the show purports a WWE-produced version of “reality” which although manufacturers certain situations, also featured Bryan’s real life proposal to Bella. Consequently, the WWE’s acknowledgement of their relationship has meant that when Bryan was kayfabe attacked during an episode of WWE Raw, Bella ran to his aid in order to make the moment more authentic; that the attack was so serious she was compelled to “break character”.”

—Tom Phillips, Blurring Reality and Fiction in WWE Transmedia Narratives

Let me set you a scene.

To the wrestling-only viewer, Nikki Bella in 2015 is an alpha personality with a close twin sister. She fronts a three-woman stable, Team Bella, and has just come out of the longest single championship run in the Divas belt history. Though she’s sexy, she has no romantic or sexual life; her entrance theme states “you can look [at her] but you can’t touch”. Nicole, meanwhile, as the Total Divas audience is aware, is dating John. Long term. Total Divas is advertised on the WWE network, their website, and during WWE programming, so every WWE viewer’s a nominal member of that audience. And who is John? John is John Cena. John Cena is the franchise.

NIKKI & JOHN

wwe-power-couple-john-cena-and-nikki-bella

John Cena is the man who’s fronted five Wrestlemanias, and granted more Make-A-Wish wishes than anybody. John Cena has been on Parks and Recreation and Hannah Montanna. John Cena is the king of the WWE.

Recent veteran AJ Lee, from whom Nikki took the Divas title she wore so long, was in the run-up to her sudden decision to quit regularly treated to the chant “CM PUNK! CM PUNK!”. This was because the people behind these names, April Mendez Brooks (AJ) and Phil Brooks (Punk), were married, and he was absent, and she was there. They wanted CM Punk; CM Punk had quit. The only way to get to him, if they couldn’t get him, was through his woman.

What do they chant to Nikki? Generally, not much. In March 2015, a crowd in San Jose tried the regular chant YOU SUCK, CENA–

Except… without the comma.

AJ Lee and CM Punk had little association through kayfabe. Neither performer appeared on Total Divas. They conducted their relationship in private, and their public personas were separate. They denied the audience what it wanted, two-fold; AJ’s costumes were never overtly sexual. She didn’t let them see her intimate faces. But the audiences knew where to look for them anyway.

Nikki’s faces are designed to suggest intimacy — and to deflect it. Thanks to her deft handling of image — thanks to her evolved gimmick and so, in effect, thanks almost entirely to whoever designed her ring gear — Nicole has her cake and usually manages to eat it too.

On September 21st 2015, another Diva, Paige, turned heel (this means “went evil”) with a speech that claimed the whole crowd knew “the real reason” why the Bellas achieved the successes they’ve seen since their return. Disappointing, because indeed we do. We know what she means. It’s what people always mean. It’s what you think, and that’s fine.

“Even though I see the hate on social media, and it shocks me. It shocks me the rumors people start, that I have the title because of my boyfriend.” –Nicole, Channel Guide Magazine via Trove.com

From 1996 until 2000, Laurer dated fellow wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque. They initially hid their relationship from their co-workers because Laurer felt that people might think she “[slept] her way to the top”. – wikipedia quoting If They Only Knew, a memoir from Joanie “Chyna” Laurer

In 2015, Nikki appears to have the Divas title because of her boyfriend. But there’s more nuance to the situation than the simplest “woman sleeps with man, man rewards woman with prestige” fantasy.

Let’s consider the most mercenary view of the situation to begin with: the supposition, or accusation, that Nikki sucked a dick for a year and a bit, and got a pretty pink belt for her troubles. As has ever been so, adding sexual promise to a business deal doesn’t negate the ability of the agent “providing” the sex “in exchange for” the job. Fucking your way up to the top doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t actually be there: if the job’s separate from the sex, then your ability to do it (to do the job) is unrelated to your erotic bodywork. Can’t a person be a great lay and a great something else? WWE’s pro-wrestling culture has spent twenty years establishing that the allure of implicit sexual availability is a hurdle which all but the rarest female talents must attack. To be the champ you or your image must be used sexually, and you must complete the physical task of winning.

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While it may be hard to convince a crowd, or even an individual when they’re standing accused, the shame in this situation is with the system. The person multi-skilled enough to navigate it may not be the best friend to those wishing they could reach her position without sexual outlay, but the person (here Nikki) is not the enemy or the perp. If Nikki was the Divas Champion because John Cena pulled strings as a thank-you (a hypothetical), Nikki still did the work to compete (a provable fact). She lifted the weights. She toned her core. She worked the mic. She rack-attacked her opponents. She sustained her image. And the crowd got matches worth watching. Besides… all the belts are assigned in wrestling anyway. Remember?

But that base scenario’s not incredibly likely, in reality. Cena may be “the franchise”, but he is an employee. Besides which, he’s famously ambitious — what would be the gain for him to ensconce his woman on a meritless throne? Would that compliment his own wholesome (support the troops, support gay wrestlers, support children with cancer) image? Hardly. Giving the theory more credit than it deserves for the sake of argument, does “What works best for the brand? Well never mind that, John Cena wants his babe to win!” sound like the workings of a McMahon mind to you? To be sure, the WWE is lewd and scandalous and barely knows the meaning of “boundaries” (recall the story of Trish Stratus’ first appearance). But —

Nikki doesn’t need to sleep with John Cena to have marketable image. She looks how a Diva is expected to look. She’s compliant to the stories a Diva is expected to tell. And she’s dedicated enough to become the performer a champion should be. She’s not a waste of resources, for a company that runs on tight margins to maximise profitability. And somebody will be the champion, whether or not anybody is knocking boots with John Cena. Nikki didn’t get the Divas’ belt because John Cena wanted her to; she probably got John Cena because she’s the sort of person who could come in an amateur and achieve, even flourish under, a Divas’ Championship run. He’s her bonus. She’s winning. Not because she cranked promises out of Cena’s helpless but powerful penis! It’s because, as with any successful stable, their personas — their gimmicks — are mutually beneficial.

When audiences, peers or commentators suggest that Nikki Bella’s success relates to John Cena’s, it’s not that they’re wrong. It’s that their interrogation of the scenario is too basic.

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John Cena has no obvious reason to appear on Total Divas. He is not a Diva. He is an accessory there. But he does appear, in every season, and so do the husbands of other stalwart Divas. Notably, Brianna’s husband Brian Danielsson, now also Brie’s kayfabe husband Daniel Bryan, who explains “It’s good for the girls” in a video interview for youtube.

“I wanted nothing but success for [Nicole]”, says John Cena on the subject.

The International Business Times asks, “How would you compare you careers in WWE now to before the start of Total Divas?

Says Nicole: Our careers are the best they’ve ever been.”

There are levels of duality in Nikki’s ring gear which create the network effect in gimmickry I described in “NIKKI & THE GEAR”. Its proximity to Brie’s (in colour, shine, and the unforgettable fact of their twin faces), and the balance that Brie’s husband, mulch-loving, bearded fan favourite Daniel Bryan’s image provides. It is convenient, as well as natural, that Nikki’s personal aesthetic compliments John Cena’s better established one, and that Brie bridges the gap across to Daniel Bryan. This is how they create their memetic neo-stable, via the combined imagery and narratives of WWE wrestling and Total Divas:

Cena represents a sort of “regular American” construct. Supporting troops, enjoying & performing rap but being white, wearing too-large shorts, being “loyal to the job” and showing his emotional depth only through links to dying children. John loves Nikki. Nikki is a soap opera archetype, the glamourous bitch who’ll probably turn her ring around to slap you so the diamond cuts your cheek. Nikki loves Brie. Brie is more down to earth, wearing jeans, flannel, higher-cut sports bras and headbands. Brie (aka Brianna) enjoys farmers markets and animal rights. Brie loves Bryan. Daniel Bryan (aka Bryan Danielson) was an organic success of men’s wrestling — an unexpected breakout talent whom the crowd loves partly for his performance and partly for their ownership of his achievement. Bryan’s immensely muscular stash of perceived authenticity is the perfect counterweight for Cena’s mainstream appeal and Nikki’s intrinsically “false” & despicable feminine appeal. From John to Nikki to Brie to Bryan and back again, Total Divas (and flash-forward, 2016’s Total Bellas) presents John and Nicole, Brianna and Brian Danielsson as an essentially happy family unit. It’s convenient and it’s viable/it’s viable and it’s convenient. Combining the real world, real love stories, with multiple layers of branding, storytelling, image manipulation and public assumption has resulted in a juggernaut of interconnected relevancy. It created a flotilla of image success upon which each wrestler might walk.

Nikki Bella Instagram

The first episode of Total Divas established John Cena as Nicole’s partner — somebody who sticks with her despite her pushy desire for wedding bells, somebody whom she adores. It projects soap-opera longevity for them. John Cena is Nikki’s business–both John and Bryan acknowledge themselves as draws for the show (although neither, to my knowledge, have spoken about the support for their own fame that the programme provides). The show makes claims for the profiles of the women who star in it; as wrestlers, they are really relevant nowhere but in wrestling, perhaps tabloid reporting. Total Divas pretends to be a success for the women who star in it, as if they have been asked by separate forces to allow reality television into their lives, instead of being contracted by their primary employer to participate in a brand expansion focused entirely on falsifying reality. Total Divas exists to create the illusion of fame, and hope that it sticks in the minds of Reality viewers. If this works at all, it’s disingenuous to pretend that it works only for the women who appear, and not for the men. Why do I, personally, like John Cena? Because I saw him treat Nikki well on youtube. In a clip from Total Divas. “Like,” at the WWE, translates directly to “buy merch of.” Total (Whatever) is a mutually beneficial proposition — and it’s one that Cena accesses only by his romantic adjacency to Nikki. Who sucks what?

Within the weekly wrestling shows, Cena doesn’t have Nikki valet him. He doesn’t need to. In fact she’d likely be detrimental as an accessory to him, as his image is already established. Even successes like Cena’s might not withstand the toxic masculinity at the heart of wrestling’s worst excesses; Tyson Kidd, husband of better-connected Nattie (of the Harts), and likewise a Total Divas regular has enjoyed chants from crowds such as “NATTIE’S WIFE, NATTIE’S WIFE”. Would the lower-voiced, negative half of the crowd perceptible in regular LET’S GO CENA / CENA SUCKS chant-battles fail to crow over perceived emasculation, if The Man started walking to the beat of his woman’s drum? Of course they wouldn’t. Nikki has managed to be, unmistakably, Cena’s Woman without impacting Cena’s manhood or place on the map at all — a terrifically subtle accomplishment. So instead, what is the neo-stable connection used for?

Nikki has the spectre of that image valet her. She evokes him, her trophy, without actually needing his presence.

Again, it’s essentially a sexual transaction, because sex is implied and assumed to be a facet of their genuine relationship, and it’s that relationship that powers the neo-stable. But when considering a system of exchange, the entire process must be acknowledged. Neither sexual exchange nor status gain transfer necessary falseness onto the relationships, or careers, that fuel and benefit from them. You cannot posit that X banged Y to get Z without changing truth into lies. “Nikki got where she was through her relationship with John Cena” is only true in the sense that “an employee got where they were due to their engagement with the lessons and methods of their mentor” is true. Using the sentence to denigrate Nikki Bella or deny her achievements is mistaken and malevolent. Women in the WWE are dealing with the legacy of a company which allowed such a toxic culture to form around its industry that a crowd who had paid for their seats booed the husband of Hall of Fame inductee Trish Stratus during her speech about his unfailing support. Why? Because he is the one who definitely gets to pork her. And we thought she belonged to us!

It’s a truth universally acknowledged–

–that when women walk down the street with a man, catcalling is severely reduced. The advertised patronage of John Cena is an eminently sensible cloak to wear. The smartness of making it known that the champ is in your corner, metaphorically, cannot be denied, if the logistics of his fame make it impossible for him to be there literally.

WWE.COM: Looks, money and personality. You can have two but one has to go; which do you pick?
NIKKI: Ooo, that’s tough. I’d say looks and personality have to stay. Money can go, because I’m a successful, independent woman myself-

How does she do it? Well:

NIKKI & THE FEARLESS SETS

Nikki looks three things: pristine, sport-luxe, and high-maintenance. We’ve got shy little Lolita knee-high socks. We’ve got “unlaced” tops that aren’t actually designed to lace fully — that are intended to look like they’re straining, but are actually almost as imperfectly secure as any given wrestling sports bra. They emphasise the “one difference” between the Bellas (and remember, it’s one she chose). The cap set just-so on the long, glossy, groomed and arranged hair. The heavy make-up above jockish branded athletic gear. The hi-top wedge sneakers. “Boy cut” teeny-tiny hot pants. Everything teeters between practical and ridiculous in context, accessible and on a pedestal. Nikki Bella is aware of the audience’s gaze, so she commands it. You look where she tells you. And it’s true: you can’t touch.

Nikki Bella instagram

“My relationship status is Taken, sorry boys”
“this girl is hot, and this girl will probably be competition”
“we’re veterans. They’re newbies. There’s a pecking order here”
–Total Divas, season one, episode one

Even the poses on her own Instagram enhance the idea of untouchability: she’s so perfect she can’t even touch herself. And that reminds us: no-one can touch her. Some of us know that touching without permission is rude, but some of us… some of us might think, why? Why can’t we touch?

Nikki Bella instagram

Cos she’s Cena’s girl?

John Cena has run through various levels of “rap persona” during his time in the spotlight. His ability to freestyle brought him his initial, unexpected prominence, and his entrance music is his own performance to this day. There’s plenty more to say about John Cena and performative blackness, but that’s a piece for someone else to write.

Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, Nikki Bella
Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj, Nikki Bella

Nikki’s athletic past was in soccer, so her sporty gear is at one with her history. But the B-Girl aethetic elements of Nikki’s style compliment and echo Cena’s hip-hop sensibilities. It’s not a simple kickback, either; B-Girl style elements and sneaker culture are going strong in black entertainment traditions, showing no signs of losing their borrowable cache, but only appeared within the WWE — a company that congratulates its own lack of racism at the same time as being totally racist — on Nikki. Nikki, who is a light-skinned latina, not black; and only after the gist of the subculture’s style bible had been filtered back into pop consciousness through the re-racialised, and politically defanged, J-Pop and K-Pop scenes.

pop dancers

Though elements of b-girl style and Black American hiphop’s use of sportswear have been isolated and processed, naturalised, and have become market-stall ubiquitous in women’s fashion (Paige, a much younger performer with a far more down-to-earth lifestyle outside of the ring, is seen wearing perched ball caps over heavy makeup and carefully shagged hair in her “real life” on Total Divas, where in contrast Nikki wears grown-lady maxi-dresses, stilettoes with crystals on, and drinks wine), anybody with the vaguest awareness of American pop chart rap performance will feel a stirring of recognition at the whole visual package. They’ll make the connection somewhere in the hindbrain. Nikki via Nicki via Missy. Rap. Cena.

Even without Cena’s relevancy to these garments, Nikki benefits from the history of individualism and anti-authoritarianism in b-girl style, and from the women of hip hop and black musical culture at large.

Beyonce & Minaj teamed for Flawless
Beyonce & Minaj teamed for Flawless

I decided early on that I wouldn’t sleep with men in the business. And that made me feel empowered as a woman – that when I walked into rooms with these people, they weren’t able to say, “I slept with her,” – Nicki Minaj to Cosmopolitan

“Even though I see the hate on social media, and it shocks me. It shocks me the rumors people start, that I have the title because of my boyfriend.” – Nicole, Channel Guide Magazine via Trove.com

Minaj is a tremendous success. Beyonce is a pop sensation of even better-established acumen whose wider credibility is ensured by her marriage to Jay-Z; rapper, producer, entrepreneur. Their use of provocative sportsluxe is not borrowed or stolen from Nikki Bella’s ring gear, although the video was produced and released after her Championship run and after the debut of her Fearless-branded gear. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj are speaking from a cultural perspective that they have both educated and inborn access to. They and their stylists worked cords of vintage pop-rap aesthetic up into a plait that was newly impactful in the field of 2015’s wider modes. Nikki’s tapped into the same stream as two of the most image-conscious, pro-woman success stories in pop culture today.

Nikki Bella affects the aggression and bombast of a woman with hip hop history behind her. She’s acceptable to the conservative WWE audience because the confines of her construction rob her of the ability to make good on any semiotic sexual threats her boosted boobs and plastic panties communicate: she’s got a job, and a man, to keep. Both have rules known to fans. The unspoken ones of Society, and the spoken ones viewable on Total Divas. The connection to Cena gives Nikki some safety from fans, but it also gives fans some perception of safety from Nikki.

As mentioned, Nicole Garcia-Colace was a soccer player for many years, prevented from continuing to a fully pro-level career, by, again, an injury. The jockish elements of her ring style aren’t false or baseless. The sexualised “fair play” imagery of miniaturised athletic gear isn’t irrelevant to her tendency to say things about women’s empowerment. None of Nikki Bella’s ring gear is unexplainable, or inapplicable to her carefully honed persona. Everything about her image argues for authenticity, even as it implies things that audiences are inclined to associate with falseness.

Nikki Bella instagram

NIKKI & THE NOW

Nikki Bella’s ascendency within the WWE has been a perfect picture of twenty-first century female application. Hired for her looks, derided for her connections, finding purpose and joy in the actual content of the job: Nikki is Trish 2, a model-turned-classic, a Hall of Fame contender against the odds. Nikki Bella’s love for wrestling is the segment of her gimmick I’ve not covered, the part of her whole that really should be allowed to speak for itself. There’s no question about whether she deserves a long and vibrant career. The very pressing question is if she, as such a graphic symbol of what WWE’s pro-wrestling only yesterday asked of its woman employees, will be allowed the presence she’s owed within the theatre of NXT’s graduate Horsewomen.

Nicole Garcia-Colace has done her best with what was available to her. It’s been a lot. She has shown us a picture of intelligent, observant determination. With it she has shown us the walls of the maze. Will the current generation of McMahons hide those walls (and her)? Or will they knock them down.

Nikki Bella instagram

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