It’s fair to say that WWE’s recent ‘Brand Extension’, once again splitting the company into the Raw and Smackdown Live rosters, created as many problems as it solved.
The recently united WWE World Heavyweight Championship went to Smackdown, and has now been balanced by the Universal Championship, which fills the role of the ‘major title’ on Raw. This move has had the effect of devaluing both titles and making it unclear again what should be considered the ‘top prize’ in WWE.
It’s not only the men’s titles which have been affected by the brand split. By splitting the already slim women’s roster, both shows are left with only a handful of women with which to create storylines and matches. It took three weeks of confusion before Smackdown Live announced their very own Women’s and Tag Team belts – and the original Women’s and Tag Team titles are now known as the Raw Women’s and Raw Tag Team championships.
The creation of a spate of new titles that are effectively the same as the existing titles raises a lot of questions. Will the blue Smackdown Women’s Championship mean that we never again see inter-brand women’s feuds? Could one woman ever hold both belts as an undisputed champ? What if a title holder is drafted to the other brand – would she be forced to relinquish? During what’s supposed to be the ‘Women’s Revolution’, why does every decision affecting female wrestlers feel like an afterthought?
I think there’s an answer to the problems the brand split has caused, at least for WWE’s women. It’s called tag team wrestling.
Tag Team Wrestling
The first Tag Team wrestling match in America was held in 1901. The format became widespread by the 50s and firmly established by the 70s. In my opinion, tag team wrestling is responsible for some of the most powerful and compelling storylines in wrestling, including the saga of the Shield, and some of the greatest matches of all time. The barnstorming performance from the Revival, Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn II is a strong contender for 2016’s Match of the Year, even surpassing the Revival’s incredible earlier matches with American Alpha.
Even the first ever Tables, Ladders and Chairs (TLC) match was a tag team match between the Hardy Boys, the Dudleys, and Edge and Christian. All three teams had a longstanding dynamic and had long, interwoven careers that included dramatic, emotional storylines and the pitting of brother against brother, both literally and figuratively. The pre-existing relationships between these men – their bonds, their enmity – are a microcosm of what tag team wrestling is all about.
Over the last two years, men’s tag team wrestling has been undergoing a resurgence thanks to NXT, the WWE’s show for developing and showcasing new talent. Teams like American Alpha, The Revival and Enzo & Big Cass have reminded fans what can be so great about competition between duos – the interesting team dynamics, the impactful moves, and the gripping threads of trust, betrayal, hatred and friendship.
Women in Tag Teams
A Women’s Tag Team division isn’t a new idea – rival brand TNA had the Knockouts Tag Team Championship for almost four years – although for over 16 months the belts were held by Eric Young and ODB. After Brooke Hogan forced Young and ODB to vacate the titles due to Eric Young, y’know, being a man, TNA unceremoniously retired the titles. That nonsense aside, during those years teams like The Beautiful People and Angelina Love and Winter competed in interesting matches and even had – whisper it – storylines. As hard as it is to believe about a company called TNA (T ‘n’ A – geddit?), in 2010 they were treating their female talent better than WWE were 18 months ago, and women’s matches were among TNA’s highest rated segments.
Women’s companies like Shimmer Women Athletes have also flown the flag for tag team wrestling, with the Shimmer Tag Team Championships due to turn eight years old in October. Nicole Matthews and Portia Perez, the Canadian NINJAs, have teamed together on Shimmer since 2007, making them one of the longest-lived tag teams in men’s or women’s wrestling.
Tag team matches between female teams are frequently shown on all three WWE brands, most notably between Total Divas cast members during the period WWE was contractually obligated to have a Total Divas match on every show. These matches tended to fall into two categories: no-reason tag matches (where team members have little affiliation with each other, and the match was designed to get as much footage of Total Divas cast members wrestling as possible during the shortest possible match) and parallel-feud matches (where two pairs of ‘Divas’ were feuding, allowing babyfaces and heels to form temporary and meaningless alliances and resolve two feuds in the time slot of one match.)
This is particularly frustrating – WWE is already having women’s tag matches, but they are effectively meaningless. There’s no prize, little internal logic to the pairings, and no consistency. They completely miss the point of tag team wrestling.
Female Friendship and the Tag Team
Which brings me to the main reason I believe a women’s tag division would enhance WWE’s programming: tag team wrestling is brilliant, and the best thing about it is the kind of stories it enables. Tag team wrestling is, at its heart, about friendship, brotherhood and trust; and, conversely, betrayal. These themes play out between team members as part of every storyline and in microcosm in every match.
Tag team partners are often portrayed as close, trusting friends who have each other’s backs (right up until they don’t.) These friendships are typified by footage on Breaking Ground (a WWE behind-the-scenes show) of the strong real-life friendship between Jason Jordan and Chad Gable. The two are shown goofing off and playing basketball while a voiceover explicitly connects their real-world bond with their success in the ring.
Even more recently the team of Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano on NXT has been tested by a singles contest in the Cruiserweight Classic; their friendship survived a hard battle that ended with the two sat side-by-side, embracing. This image was repeated after their defeat by the Revival at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn II.
In tag team wrestling, team-mates are true-blue friends, in the most idealised form of male friendship. Competition only strengthens bonds and feelings, while never explicitly addressed, are played out in the ring and out.
Female friendships in WWE narratives, by contrast, are fragile, short-lived and often built on shaky foundations of jealousy, passive aggression, bullying and cruelty. They often typify the kinds of toxic friendships that are stereotypical of women; for example, Charlotte’s casual cruelty to the hapless Dana Brooke will be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been in a one-sided friendship. A recent Becky Lynch story centred around her wondering why every friend she makes at WWE turns on her – usually in a matter of weeks.
Any shows of out-of-kayfabe friendship, for example the ‘Four Horsewomen’ of NXT, are undermined by storylines that leverage accusations of jealousy or of being ‘left behind’. Viewers know that Sasha, Becky, Charlotte and Bayley are friends in real life, and the Horsewomen are frequently referred to, but their friendship isn’t allowed to extend to forming a faction in front of the cameras.
In WWE, women don’t really have the option to be friends. There’s no benefit to a friendship because belts can only be held by an individual, and everyone is competing for the same titles. There’s quite a sad parallel here to the real world. Women often feel that they are in competition with other women for jobs, relationships and resources that seem scarce. Has a new woman starting at your work ever filled you with irrational jealousy, even if she seems perfectly nice? Ever wonder why?
Historically, there have been fewer opportunities for women than for men (in WWE as in real life) and that heightens the sense of competition. A male wrestler who’s out of the main title picture could still compete for the Intercontinental, U.S., Cruiserweight or Tag Team titles. Friendship is incentivised in storyline by the promise of a joint prize.
By making friendships between female wrestlers so disposable, WWE robs them of any storytelling power. When Seth Rollins betrayed The Shield it really hurt because the last two years had been spent portraying them as ride-or-die brothers in arms – quite a contrast with Natalya betraying Becky Lynch, which seemingly happened within two days.
But female friendships are real, powerful and (recently) bankable. The growing popularity of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, shows like Broad City… even the Ghostbusters remake and Frozen: stories about friendship and sisterhood are becoming more mainstream and more profitable. The ‘Women’s Revolution’ is the product of WWE cottoning on to the idea that a significant portion of their audience is female and wants to see women treated with the same respect as men. The Revolution is supposed to be about WWE empowering women – but women don’t seem to be allowed to empower one another in the ring.
Most importantly, if you cheer for two friends for a few years – if you really believe in them, that they would do anything for each other – then doesn’t it just break your heart when singles success beckons and the team breaks up, especially if it’s acrimonious? Two years after Seth betrayed the Shield the three finally faced one another in a three-way match and it was the biggest story of the year. Has any women’s feud in recent years extended beyond a few months? By increasing the stakes of friendships between female performers, WWE can easily create longer, more interesting, more powerful storylines for women.
How Would it Work?
This might be controversial to say straight after I’ve said that there needs to be more title opportunities for women in WWE, but I think the best way to introduce a Women’s Tag Team Division would be in place of the Smackdown Women’s Championship. I think it elevates the singles belt if there’s only one, with the capacity to move between brands at big events – and I also think that’s true of the WWE World Heavyweight Title/ Universal Title issue. It heightens the sense of competition between Raw and Smackdown if every title is ‘undisputed’.
The tag belts could then move between brands at Pay-per-Views, which would create interesting storylines if the Tag Team Champions moved to a show without any tag teams – women would have to scramble to form alliances that could go on to be timeless pairings.
Introducing a Women’s Tag Team Championship would present one major problem for the WWE, but it’s a problem it already has: not enough women. To make the Division work, they’d need to bring in a lot of new talent. Luckily good-quality female talent is easy to find, in Japan and in US brands like Shimmer Women Athletes and even TNA. NXT hasn’t been afraid to bring in ready-made teams like TM61 (well known from their work in Australia and Japan), and doing the same with the Shimmer roster would bulk out the division quickly.
The flagship shows could also bring women up from NXT quicker. With their Shimmer background and at least some experience teaming together, Billie Kay and Peyton Royce could use their similarities to their advantage. Tag Team wrestling has traditionally been a training ground for breakout singles talent – think Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold and Bret Hart. Tag matches are a great way for less experienced wrestlers to get ring time and improve without having the pressure of a full match on their shoulders. A women’s tag division would create a talent pipeline that would feed the singles picture in perpetuity with experienced, recognisable characters with plenty of in-ring experience.
Several of WWE’s existing women have the potential to form compelling tag teams (brand affiliation be damned!):
Carmella’s recent heel turn might throw a spanner in the works here, but considering how inconsequential any of her other storylines have been I’m not expecting it to be long-lived. Bayley and Carmella already have an existing, well-publicised and popular real-world friendship, which even has a ready-made team name. This pairing would help Carmella – who is floundering on Smackdown without Enzo and Cass to explain why she’s putting on an accent – to cement a place on the main roster. At the same time, being part of a team would be good for Bayley who is well-loved but relatively untested on the big stage and has the potential to become stale in the eyes of fans. Bayley’s perma-face position and the fact that their friendship is rooted in real life would make any kind of betrayal a few years down the line cut extra deep. I’d award bonus points if Bayley turned on ‘Mella.
Alexa Bliss/Nia Jax
Aside from the fact that they are both mean-muggin’, tough heels with killer eyeliner, I’d partner these two for the team dynamic. Alexa’s a tiny dynamo who’s gained a lot of polish in the last few years, but can still look a bit delicate in a one-on-one matchup. Her mic skills far outshine those of Nia, who hits hard and has amazing visual impact but flags in anything longer than a short squash and tends not to switch up her style much. Having Alexa as a feisty, argumentative but ultimately cowardly ‘little guy’ backed up by Nia’s muscle would make for a great hot-tag dynamic in the style of the Ascension or Enzo & Cass. This would also be an opportunity to get Nia into ring gear that actually flatters her awesome physique.
These two would have great visual impact together and could be a great technical/powerhouse team. Pairing the inexperienced Dana with a solid veteran like Nattie, who has been losing relevance steadily for some years, could help both characters and make the most of their similarities. I would argue that it’s not believable that Nattie will ever hold a singles title again – rumours of retirement are constantly circulating, possibly because she thinks she’s more than just an enhancement talent – but as part of an intimidating, strong duo with a younger talent she could capture gold again.
Beneficial for Everyone
A Women’s Tag Team Championship would benefit WWE in countless ways. It would further differentiate Raw and Smackdown’s approach to female wrestlers. It would prove a commitment to the Women’s Revolution and precipitate the hiring of even more female talent. It would improve storylines, raise stakes and create new rivalries. It would develop individual wrestlers to become breakout stars. And perhaps most importantly as WWE develops its offer for a female audience, it would provide an opportunity to put positive relationships between women front and centre.