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Culture Shock: WWE’s Divas Problem

World Wrestling Entertainment recently broke their own unfortunate tradition and showcased some excellent wrestling from the women’s side of the roster. The match I’m talking about had a little bit of everything that makes professional wrestling great: personal tension, high drama, intense combat, swings back and forth on the physical pendulum, and a finish that frustrated some and elated others. In short, it was an excellent match. If you’re worried that you missed Elimination Chamber and therefore didn’t see it, you shouldn’t. It wasn’t on WWE’s latest pay-per-view. If you want to go back and check your DVR’d edition of Raw or Smackdown, no need. It didn’t happen there either. The match I am speaking of took place in WWE’s feeder territory, NXT, and saw Sasha Banks successfully defend her title against challenger Becky Lynch. With all the media available to them, World Wrestling Entertainment saw fit to have this classic example of women’s wrestling able to be viewed only on their Network. This, then, is both the perfect microcosm of an issue that’s long plagued the company and the stark honesty of the powers-that-be’s collective position on said issue: Banks vs. Lynch and matches of that ilk are niche programming, suitable for inclusion when sandwiched between comedy segments and backstage skits, but not ready for prime time probably ever.

What’s saddest about that is that the talent on the female side of the roster has never been deeper. From the Divas gracing the main roster through the developmental ranks of NXT through the next iteration of Tough Enough, we have finally reached a point where one or two women getting pushed doesn’t need to be the maximum. Another unfortunate note is that despite the well-earned and massive positive reaction garnered by that match, we got the usual old canards about how eventually we could see a women’s match close a show and the standard mass tweeting of well-intentioned talent praising something that wasn’t even replayed on WWE television. While Kevin Owens goes from relative obscurity (certainly in the WWE’s world) to taking on John Cena in a heartbeat, the Bankses and the Lynches of the world just bide their time, work their asses off, and wait for the call. Makes sense, right? Not so much.

Perhaps there’s a cautionary tale to be learned already. Her name is Charlotte. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Charlotte checks all the boxes the WWE seemingly wants addressed before your promotion. She’s athletic, she’s physical, she has a personality, she’s got wrestling in her blood, and most importantly, she looks good. How could this go wrong? Charlotte’s dad, Ric Flair, is widely regarded one of the best of all time, if not the absolute standard bearer for the sport. You don’t have to be a member of WWE creative to see how you could (and SHOULD) want this to work. During her rise to the top of NXT, Charlotte dominated the division and put on some stellar matches. Everything seemed primed for success when she finally got the news that she’d be used on a Monday Night Raw against a competitor who checks all of the same boxes in Natalya. This was one of the seminal moments you wait for as a fan, the chance for things to be turned on their head and a new era ushered in. Except they weren’t and it wasn’t. Nattie beat Charlotte rather easily, the collective world yawned, and only those who were tuning in to NXT knew the crime in that. Cue another Miz TV segment and carry on.

Don’t weep for Charlotte, though. Of anyone discussed in this column today, she’s got the best chance to be just fine. That’s because in the strange trip we undertake together known as love of wrestling, what you do and who you are is less important than who you know and what they did. That’s a holdover from the territorial era, where guys could hold championships for fifteen years because they owned the joint and your friends got cushy gimmicks and cushier payouts because you owed them one. Considering those same strictures were in place as recently as the New World Order era, it’s a fallacy to think that time has come and gone. Part of your responsibility as an “old-schooler” is to show those new recruits tough love, make them appreciate what they get and earn every minute of it. None of which is bad or much different than what happens in other walks of life, by the way. Where it mushrooms exponentially and becomes ridiculous is the envy, jealousy, and loathing that often follows said success in the business. How can it be that your primary responsibility as a seasoned veteran is not to groom the stars of the future, but find ways to trip them up and prevent the inevitable? But there it is. Ric Flair and his DVD sales are far too critical to WWE’s success to chance them not giving his daughter a fair shake.

That’s not to be critical of Charlotte as a talent, either. Just like Nattie and Bray Wyatt and Curtis Axel and Roman Reigns, WWE’s roster is dotted with those whose lineage in the family business certainly had something to do with their selection. The good ones make it bolstered by their family ties. The best ones keep it by proving their own worth. But let’s not fool ourselves, even a little: Once the children of Stephanie and Triple H are of age and at least one invariably decides to follow in the footsteps of the forebears, it’s main event time. Even if I was foolhardy enough to believe that this would be discouraged because of the potential rancor, it would just get warped into a pseudo-realistic storyline that just might work. Speaking of Stephanie, as Vince McMahon’s daughter and someone that’s been around the business all her life, she has talked a very good game when it comes to the future of women’s wrestling. Giving divas a chance and all that. Unfortunately for Mrs. McMahon, her track record in delivering on those idle threats has proven a more elusive quest than her mother’s attempt to win political office.

Look no further than WrestleMania if you’d like an example. The quintessential WrestleMania moment, a standoff with one of the more famous female figures in the spots world currently, Ronda Rousey, was reserved for McMahon herself. Again, this is not to indicate that Stephanie performed her task anything less than excellently: She is a tremendous heel, and carried her task to completion brilliantly. But one can be forgiven for second-guessing the decision to waste such an enormous career-making opportunity on a woman who is very unlikely to ever wrestle regularly again. None of the Divas on the roster needed that rub? Perhaps the chance to take selfies and obtain autographs in time for the next Mayweather fight was a bit too much to pass up. At least in Stephanie’s case, though, her character has enough depth to stand on its own. Even though she is married to Triple H, she is never presented as hiding in his shadow. Quite the opposite, actually: In many cases it’s intimated that she’s the one driving her husband to perform actions or make decisions he is reluctant to. That’s so effective because it’s an accurate reflection of some relationships in society as well as such a rare thing to see in wrestling: a woman with power who’s not a moron. One would think regardless of political affiliation that we’ve reached a crossroads with this issue as the possibility of a female president looms large. Wrestling takes its cues from the headlines, right? Sort of a Law and Order meets UFC mashup. Sometimes it does. Sometimes the issue is too hard or requires too much thought and it’s far too easy to fall back on the old saw that fans won’t accept it. Poppycock.

If you’d like to see how WWE currently handles an up-and-coming female talent, you’d do well to examine the case of Lana. Lana has been intriguing and entertaining WWE fans since her introduction to the main roster as the handler of Rusev, and while the reasons for that success are many, plenty of them have to do with the development of the character. Since less is never more in WWE, her cool and calculated approach to taking care of her charge was a rarity. The less we saw and heard, the more we wanted to. Naturally, what was most important about Lana other than her Natasha-esque accent was how sexy she is! In case you didn’t realize she was good-looking on your own, you’d have Jerry Lawler reminding you every six seconds. What would be said about having Renee Young gush over male talents during her broadcasts? Welcome to Double Standardsville, population Titan Tower. I’m fairly sure we can come to that decision on our own. In any case, all things in the wrestling biz are cyclical, and so it has now come to pass that Lana has fled from the camp of the misogynistic-lite Rusev to strike out on her own. This is a moment of female superiority and dominance that is generally reserved for the chosen few, such as Stephanie turning on her own family or Sable mercifully bodyslamming Johnny B. Badd off our television screens for good. This is a big deal, the critical moment for a character who’s been brought along slowly and methodically for just such an occasion.

And what does Independent Lana do? Immediately starts sucking face with Dolph Ziggler. I get the hyperbolic overtones of Lana acting as she pleases to spite Rusev, and there can be no doubt some of this storyline stalled with his recent injury, but let’s get serious here. A woman who has spent her whole career in the shadow of a man uses her moment of freedom to get in the corner of some guy who’s already had seventeen female managers? This can’t be the modus operandi of an organization committed to putting forth positive messages to the girls and women who love wrestling, can it? If you want to forget about the big picture, just look at the simple fact that it’s a really bad creative idea. Of all the things you could do with Lana, someone rumored to be high on the company’s list, you pick the equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks movie scene?

The WWE will surely be quick to point out the success in its Total Divas program, and I’ll be just as quick to say I’ve never watched it. It’s not because I don’t find those characters interesting, it’s because the show is definitely not for me. I don’t care who you’re married to or dating or into or Instagramming with. I don’t want to know how you spend your time at restaurants or yoga or in the car between matches. What I am very interested in is what you can do in the ring. That’s what makes or breaks a talent to me. There are plenty of wrestlers I admire in the ring who I’ve heard plenty of negative things about, and I have no trouble reconciling the two. Short of being a criminal or the like, your behavior outside of the ring doesn’t and shouldn’t affect me as a fan. There’s no excuse to be mean to kids looking for autographs and the like, but I rarely believe half of what I read about the biz and you’re likely in the same boat. Therefore, Total Divas to me is a wasted motion. It’s a chance to pretend that you’re invested in the development of the characters when it’s really about the people themselves. I’m fairly sure every single one of the Divas is a wonderful person, and if people want to watch TD, I wish them the best. But it’s not nearly the same thing as investing time in letting them actually wrestle, now is it?

Historically, being a diva in itself wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Much like its related phrase, prima donna, it signified immense talent but brought with it considerable baggage. While Diva now has acquired a more celebratory and hipster cachet, I don’t know that it would be the word I’d use to describe women wrestlers. Why do they need a separate term at all? It’s not like companies haven’t been doing this stuff (and doing it well) for decades. Unfortunately, they just don’t do it very often in North America. I don’t really want WWE’s talent to be total divas. I want them to be total wrestlers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining. It also means that seeing some iteration of the same five people wrestling in the same match at every PPV is bound to bore us to tears. By us, of course, I mean the “universe.” A universe that features women. Girls aren’t the only ones who look up to girls. Guys don’t only appreciate women when they want to sleep with them. If the WWE is truly committed to serving their audience, it’s about time to show it.

If you don’t like women’s wrestling, I get it. I don’t like the version of it I see most weeks on WWE programming myself. Whatever your reasons or motivations are, it doesn’t matter to me. If you’d like to dial it back to the stone ages when women were there to be glorified ring girls and valets, have at it. I want to see excellent wrestling that makes me stop and take notice, and I haven’t the least care what gender is doing said wrestling. Women characters have been some of the most complex in just about every form of media, in a list that’s too numerous to mention. One of the best movies ever (adapted from a stellar novel) is The Manchurian Candidate, which features Angela Lansbury as one of the most quintessential fictional heels in pop culture. Wrestling should be a reflection of the world around it as well as a reaction to it, not a timewarp in which long-held prejudices and passe customs rule the day. It’s not like we’re going to be shocked to see women doing everything men do. I’m more shocked to not see it, frankly.

At the end of the day, Banks/Lynch stands on its own merits, a credit to the talent of the two wrestlers involved and the feud that brought them to the point where they could execute a solid wrestling match with the same intense emotional overtones as Owens/Zayn. Unfortunately for both of them and us as fans, that match stands as just another signpost on the road to a tomorrow that never comes. It’s a self-serving advertisement for reality programming and bra and panties matches that reduces us and debases us and makes us look like we’re still painting in caves. (For the record, I’m not saying that sex appeal shouldn’t be part of the package: of course it should. Just not THE package.) WWE has seen fit to attack some of the things that threatened to have them stuck in the mud of the past, from going after independent talent to contracts like Brock Lesnar and Samoa Joe. It’s time this fallacy went the way of those. The best athletes deserve to have the opportunity to tell their stories in front of all of us. The public will decide what they do and don’t want to see. End the excuses and let your wrestlers speak for themselves. From what I saw on NXT, they did a damn good job.

What are you afraid of?

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

Email: coffeyfan@hotmail.com

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