To celebrate the historical announcement of Sasha Banks VS. Charlotte for the Raw Women’s Championship in the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell match,
Raw general manager Mick Foley posted on Facebook the announcement that the match would be the main event of last Sunday’s pay-per-view, aptly titled Hell in a Cell.
Apparently there was an outcry from manbaby fans who didn’t believe the match should be in that slot. I only follow feminist wrestling fans on social media… so the backlash was lost on me until I saw that Foley had amended his initial post to say “I have no idea which match will go on last, or which match will go down in history as being the official main event… In the end, the main event is whatever each fan decides it is.”
Charlotte, perhaps the most outspoken of the current crop of women wrestlers employed by WWE (she often stops mid-promo to admonish fans for booing over her — in keeping with her domineering, heel (villain) character. But even at the height of her NXT Women’s Championship days, Charlotte made the insufferable Full Sail crowd aware that she didn’t appreciate their disrespectful chanting.), tweeted in response to the resistance with two words and a hashtag: “Main Event. #HIAC”, while Banks littered her social media with cryptic inspirational quotes.
Contrast this with the unveiling of the controversial Universal Championship at SummerSlam in August. Contender for the title Seth Rollins took to Twitter to express his disappointment in the notoriously tough Brooklyn crowd’s reaction to the red leather strap. “More important than a title’s appearance is what it represents for the men fighting over it. You really let me down tonight, Brooklyn.”
While Rollins comes off as entitled and whiny at the worst (apropos for a sellout heel, as he has been for much of his post-Shield solo career), if Charlotte, Banks, Nikki Bella or any woman wrestler were to be so explicitly outraged at a crowd’s response, a weak and derivative storyline, misogynist remarks on social media or the indignity of competing for a championship with a fucking pink sparkly butterfly on it, they’d be accused of being too sensitive and thinking with their emotions, only there because of who they’re dating and who their daddy is, and alleged to be unable to understand that that’s the place women have always held in wrestling, so expecting it to change now is unreasonable. The call is often coming from inside the house, too, with wrestlers such as Bret Hart and Bubba Ray Dudley diminishing their female colleague’s accomplishments.
Women wrestlers and their fans have always had to deal with being mid-card sideshow attractions. It’s about the continued double standards women wrestlers face.
Off the top of my head I can think of several examples of women wrestlers being disrespected and objectified and just sucking it up — because what other option is there?
When the team of Test and Albert, known oh-so-subtly as T&A and managed by Trish Stratus took on The Hardy Boyz and Lita at Fully Loaded in 2000, a chorus of “puppies”, exacerbated by everyone’s favorite announcer Jerry Lawler, rung throughout the arena. When I watched this match for the first time earlier this year, my stomach sank that this was the shit Trish, Lita et al. had to put up with.
Lest we think this is a relic of sixteen years ago, at a local promotion in Melbourne, Australia, Mickie James and Victoria, two of Trish and Lita’s contemporaries, were greeted by “tits out for the boys” chants. Though Mickie, as the face, initially played up to the crowd by mimicking taking her shirt off lest they turn on her (it could be argued that they already did by placing importance on her looks over her wrestling ability), the joy on both competitors faces when they heard the “women’s wrestling” chant retort was a clear indication that they are fucking sick of that shit. Will Mickie be similarly disrespected at NXT Takeover: Toronto?
Though NXT fans fancy themselves on the progressive side of wrestling fandom, they practice sexism and elitism by pitting “certain kinds” of women wrestlers against others they see as fitting the “Diva” stereotype. This attitude was rife at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II according to Kate Foray, creator of the Raw Breakdown Project which charts air time for women’s wrestling, amongst other things, who tweeted that the fans behind her approved of chanting “We want Sasha” at Billy Kay but not Bayley or Asuka.
A recent survey of voters found that hostile sexists—the kind that chant lewd comments at women wrestlers—were more likely to vote for WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump. Quelle shock. The study also looked at benevolent sexism—the kind that asserts that Charlotte and Banks should be protected from the horrors of the Cell because women are naturally weaker and more docile and thus should be protected. It’s also the kind of sexism that informed the notion that Hillary Clinton could be a good president because women are maternal and natural peacekeepers. I guess we’ll never know. (It’s important to note that Vince and Linda—who ran for Senate on the Republican ticket—McMahon were among Trump’s biggest campaign donors. Trump is also in the WWE Hall of Fame.)
As two facets of American populism, there are obvious parallels between the blatant sexism and disrespect in women’s wrestling and what Clinton faced during the shitshow that was the presidential election. Despite some missteps over the course of her political career—which we all experience—Clinton was by far the most qualified candidate in the race, and perhaps the history of the presidential race. It’s completely laughable that she had to defend this position against President Elect and rotting jack-o’-lantern Donald Trump, who seemingly woke up one day and decided he’d try to run for the highest office in the land because no one whose power he fears has ever told him no. That he spewed complete inaccuracies and fascist unconstitutionalities on Twitter and at rallies — and will do so again, in two months’ time, in the White House — while Clinton stood there politely smiling, lest she come across as “shrill”, “unlikable” or a “nasty woman” is a stark example of what even largely protected, white women have to deal with every day to varying degrees.
As far as Trump is concerned, women should be relegated to the roles they’ve always held: silent arm candy. We know he thinks married women who work are “a very dangerous thing” and pregnant women an “inconvenience” whose bodies are disgusting. We shouldn’t be shocked: Trump’s election proved that he was giving voice to attitudes that have pervaded women’s existence since time immemorial, including in the wrestling industry. How do these views align with those corporate values of the WWE? [Can we just pause and take in how Trump kayfabe-buying the WWE caused stock to drop irl in 2009? He’s bad for business, you idiots —Ed.]
Seldom do we see women in WWE wrestling past the age of 35, and Tamina is, to public knowledge, the only active female Superstar to have given birth. Her gimmick, the metanarrative explanation for her presence, is predicated on her second generation heritage and impressive stature, so she’s largely (perhaps uniquely) exempt from the long-running statute that women Superstars must rely on their sexuality. Those whose gimmicks do rely on their sexuality, or at least heavily involve the playing up of that sexuality, such as Nikki Bella and Eva Marie, are dismissed as being nothing more than nice to look at at best, and “whores” at worst (not to imply that there’s anything wrong with literally being a sex worker; it’s simply not meant as a compliment in this instance). Nikki’s current storyline on SmackDown Live incorporates those criticisms, though to arguably little success.
Perhaps a more valid criticism is that, to many fans, these women are lacking in wrestling skills. But there are plenty of men employed as wrestlers who field the same criticisms—John Cena, Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman—but the jeers directed at them are all about that, not about who they’re dating, or married to, the way they look, or who they “must have” slept with to get to where they are. Not to mention these men are positioned as the faces of WWE, despite the lack of skill their audience complains of.
To return to Rollins’ critique of the Barclays Centre on SummerSlam night, Foley also interjected there, writing a Facebook post about how he, too, was ashamed at the reaction. However warranted Rollins and Foley’s feelings were, male wrestlers kicking up a stink that fans aren’t given them respect is the embodiment of male entitlement. Male wrestlers, especially white and white-passing male wrestlers, no matter how feminist they think they are, will never truly understand the difference between criticism of the Universal title, for example, and pervasive sexism masquerading as “criticism” of women wrestlers and why they can never call it out.
You don’t often hear women wrestlers complain because we expect and receive this shit every day. But when individual powerful men like Trump or Rollins face resistance, or when the patriarchy as a whole is threatened to topple by a women’s match main eventing a wrestling event or a potential presidency, we’re met with a torrent of outcry on social media, in media outlets, the home, the workplace and in the street… because men don’t expect to get beaten, or equalled, by women.
When we do speak up or get emotional, comments about “blood coming out of [us] wherever” are made and op-eds about crying in wrestling are written, diminishing our thoughts, feelings and legitimate human reactions by contributing them to hormones or female fragility. “I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” Clinton said, at the third presidential debate.
Women only get one chance to to prove that we can excel and if we blow it, then that’ll be it. Clinton lost the election, so it proves that women aren’t fit to lead, right? Likewise, will Banks and Charlotte’s lacklustre — in my opinion — Hell in a Cell main event mean women won’t get that slot again for another fifteen years?
Julia Gillard was Australia’s first female prime minister, and arguably our best. She passed more legislation than any other prime minister, at a rate of .495 pieces per day, and endured disgusting verbal abuse about her unmarried status, her atheism, her childlessness and her apparent undesirability while she did it. Gillard said in 2016 that women going into politics need to prepare themselves for “almost daily” verbal abuse, which is particularly “loud… in our online worlds,” in addition to physical violence, such as the 2016 murder of British MP Jo Cox. “Go for it,” Gillard said.
“But as you forge ahead, understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it.”
Despite Clinton losing the White House, a position which would have highlighted similar misogyny to that faced by Gillard, Trump’s election solidified that yes, we do in fact hate women. Even white women. Especially women of colour.
Women have to be nothing less than perfect to avoid unwarranted sexist criticism. Perfection is impossible. At this point, the only women in WWE that I can think of who’ve managed to achieve validation free of overt sexism during stints on the main roster are Becky Lynch, Bayley and Banks — though let’s not forget Banks was subjected to the misogynoir of “Sasha’s ratchet” chants during her rise on NXT. These women are three quarters of the Four Horsewomen. They all have a public interest in traditionally male hobbies, like gaming and long-standing wrestling fandom. Though Lynch and Banks, in particular, benefit from easy access to the hyperfemininity (slim bodies; long, high-maintenance hair; conventional attractiveness) traditionally required to be a female Superstar, and rest assured that is part of their appeal, they come across as disinterested in it; viewers get the feeling they would rather roughhouse with the boys. These women don’t take up too much physical space, unlike more despised women wrestlers Nia Jax, Dana Brooke and Charlotte, the final Horsewoman. And—I think this is key—their wrestling styles are in line with those of the top male Superstars such as Rollins, AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. Essentially, they’re not like most girls, and that’s why they’ve largely escaped the sexist treatment of other women Superstars, allowing them adjacency to perfection, or an exemption from it.
Clinton may have gotten the closest a woman ever has to the Oval Office, and Banks and Charlotte made it to the Cell. But their individual successes are little more than anomalies in the current political climate. Trump’s election is a furiously flashing orange beacon of white men’s (but let’s remember that white women, perhaps those trading in perfection as discussed above, had a firm hand in the result) rigid hold on tradition. By continuing to speak out, organize and agitate for change we send a message that we will not sit idly by while things continue as they are, even in this time of great disappointment and fear.
(If I say it enough times, it’ll be true, right?)
More women in politics. More Helena Cells.