Are Divas Finally Being Given a Chance?

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This article originally appeared in The Tag Rope Issue 6. Republished with permission.

Women’s wrestling has experienced a resurgence of sorts over the past couple of years, arguably initially spearheaded by the popularity of Total Divas. The E! reality show, which aims at giving fans a better look at the lives of eight World Wrestling Entertainment Divas—along with the increasingly positive portrayal of and dedication shown to Divas-in-training in WWE’s developmental brand, NXT—perhaps contributed to the trending of #GiveDivasaChance on social media earlier in the year. The hashtag, along with #WomensWrestling and #DivasRevolution, continues to urge WWE management to give their cohort of women’s wrestlers more than five minutes of match time per three-hour episode of Raw, and furthers the apparent change in the characterisation of Divas as “former fitness models and Playboy Playmates”, as Grantland writer David Shoemaker put it, to the talent athletes they are.

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But what exactly is a Diva?

The term surfaced around the late nineties and was officially uttered for the first time in 1999 by Sable, however fan favourite Sunny later claimed that her revolution of the role of women in wrestling meant that she was “The Original Diva”. (Sunny has since defamed the current crop of Divas on social media, saying she’s “never been a fan of womens [sic] wrestling”.) While the word is often used to describe difficult women (read: assertive women who know what they want and refuse to be treated like crap), in this context it is simply WWE’s adjective for their female wrestlers (sorry, “sports entertainers”).

Some of the best-known former Divas, Trish Stratus and Lita, have said multiple times that they don’t identify with the moniker “Diva”, though. Lita told WWE Superstar Chris Jericho on his podcast, Talk is Jericho, that she feels it’s another term for “window dressing” and that—“not to be sexist”—she was always “thinking like a guy” in the ring as opposed to worrying about how hot she looked. Stratus reiterated this notion of a Diva as a “sideshow” term when she spoke to wrestling announcer, Jim Ross, on The Ross Report:

“We get it: you’re beautiful and you’re a woman. Great, now let’s get in the ring. Let’s be athletes.”

Lita and Stratus were instrumental in changing the notion of what it means to be a women’s wrestler. Both wrestled in the first ever one-on-one women’s main event to close Raw in 2004 (not including Lita VS. Stephanie McMahon for the WWE Women’s Championship in 2000 in which, as Lita puts it, they had male “props” including The Rock as special guest referee and McMahon’s on-screen and real-life husband, Triple H, at ringside). Lita also wrestled in WWE’s first ever women’s cage match and was part of the highest rated Raw segment in the show’s then thirteen-year history in 2006. (Let it be known that this segment was marketed as a “live sex celebration” in which Lita was topless but her breasts concealed from view so it probably isn’t an exemplar of gender barriers being broken.)

Come 2004, the WWE Diva Search—a reality competition that took place during Raw and in which wrestling fans could vote and which is apparently returning to WWE programming later this year—was introduced and many of the Divas began posing nude for Playboy in a period that became known more for promoting the Divas’ looks over their in-ring abilities. Former WWE Diva and two-time Playboy cover girl Torrie Wilson made reference to the ubiquity of bikini contests and bra and panties matches she was required to perform in on The Ross Report during this time.

These days, in the “PG-era”, Divas Brie and Nikki Bella, Nattie, Eva Marie, Paige, Trinity and Alicia Fox have their own hour-long reality show, Total Divas. Seeking to capitalise on the 35% female viewership of WWE’s traditional wrestling shows including Raw, SmackDown!, and the myriad of other weekly shows on the WWE’s online, on-demand network, it’s no surprise that Total Divas airs on E!, a channel whose primary audience is 65% female.

Traditional reality TV tropes have been at play on Total Divas, which at times only marginally passes the Bechdel test (at least two named women who speak to each other about something other than men) and casts “bad girl” Eva Marie in the role of the temptress bitch who comes between the other Divas; the other Divas and their men; and the other Divas and their aspirations to climb the wrestling ladder. This season though, the show has increasingly highlighted its stars’ careers amidst the #GiveDivasaChance movement that has evolved into a #DivasRevolution. Eva Marie finally put in the work in the ring; Nattie updated her gimmick from wholesome sweetheart to black-clad dominatrix; and Nikki Bella decided to stay with WWE and “continue to help women conquer this industry”. Total Divas is still reality TV after all, so rote catfights still take pride of place, but at least the women are fighting about their careers and livelihoods and not men as in seasons past.

Maybe because it doesn’t deviate too far from E!’s formula, the mainstream has responded well to Total Divas: its first season averaged 1.3 million viewers in the all-important 18-34 demographic with the highest season premiere of 2013. Due in part to its success, along with the WWE audience’s agitation on social media, the #DivasRevolution is taking steps to elevate women wrestlers from the way they’ve been portrayed for much of the past decade.

In 2013, for example, the Divas tag team match at WrestleMania got cut due to time restraints; the 2014 event’s obligatory women’s match was an invitational battle royal featuring fourteen Divas vying for the sparkly pink butterfly-shaped Diva’s Championship; and this year’s WrestleMania 31 tag team Divas match only went for 6:40 minutes on a four-hour show. As Lita told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast, “It seems like you don’t see a lot of them until it’s a big free for all and you don’t even know what’s going on.” It would stand to reason that if WWE is promoting the Divas to a mainstream audience, they would want to showcase them as much as possible in order to lure those E! viewers over to the larger WWE product.

It seems the company finally cottoned on to that notion with the #DivasRevolution taking place on the July 13th Raw that saw NXT trail blazers Charlotte, Becky Lynch and then-NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks dominate the other Divas with their submission moves as the live audience hollered “this is awesome!”, a chant usually reserved for high risk stunts in men’s matches. Since then, WWE has at least paid lip service to the apparent “revolution”, with subsequent Raw and SmackDown!’s featuring multiple Divas matches often spanning numerous segments, a marked improvement on the 30 second Raw tag team fare (is 30 seconds even long enough to get a tag in?!) that sparked #GiveDivasaChance in February. A champion vs. champion match between Nikki Bella and Sasha Banks even technically main evented the final Raw before SummerSlam. (This is not to mention its spot on the card right before Brock Lesnar’s homecoming in Minneapolis and the lack of relevant hype surrounding the match.)

Perhaps the most obvious disconnect between the revolution in theory and in practice can be seen in Sasha Banks and Bayley’s meeting at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn for the brand’s women’s championship in what was the match of the night and maybe even 2015. Stephanie McMahon (whose character thinks of herself as the arbiter of the revolution) made sure to announce that it was the semi-main event while smarks scoffed at WWE’s hypocrisy.

In Lita and Stratus’ heyday women arguably played a more integral role in the product, such as in intergender matches in which women wrestle men. “Intergender matches were some of my favourite matches to be a part of. There’s [sic] just so many elements: sexual elements, comedy elements and you can also be a real badass interacting with the dudes [on a level which] you don’t normally get to interact,” Lita told Ross.

The argument could be made that men wrestling women normalises violence against them. On the other hand, feminism works to promote the idea that all genders are equal so therefore, if a woman can physically match a man (*cough* Charlotte *cough*), then it makes sense that they would compete. The tag team of Joey Ryan and Candice LeRae are an example on this on the indies. In wider society, the abolishment of gender restrictions in combat roles in the military reflects this notion (the actual uptake of women in these roles leaves much to be desired, though).

One of women’s wrestling most influential pioneers is Joanie Laurer, better known as Chyna. She was the first woman to compete in the all-men Royal Rumble match, the first woman to hold a men’s championship and the woman who made it widely acceptable for women to wrestle men. Following her WWE departure in 2001, Laurer’s tumultuous personal life—including a high profile stint in (Celebrity) rehab, an abusive relationship and a sex tape that she parlayed into a porn career—has prevented her from getting the professional recognition she deserves. In an upcoming documentary funded through Kickstarter entitled The Reconstruction of Chyna, Laurer will attempt to tell her side of the story. She’s also undertaking a social media campaign to get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Total Divas’ reality TV predecessors, such as The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives, predictably portray women as dramatic layabouts who are famous for being famous. Though you wouldn’t think it from Total Divas’ past focus on the personal dramas of its cast, female wrestlers are the antithesis of this, putting their bodies on the line whenever they’re given the opportunity to do so. Matches such as Sasha and Bayley’s Takeover clinic prove this. If WWE and Total Divas can look beyond characterising women as eye candy without any discernible motivations and instead focus on healthy competition between women who respect each other but also strive to beat each other (again, as with Takeover’s four horsewomen curtain call), only then can Divas truly be given a chance.

Related: World Wrestling Entertainment Will Never #GiveDivasaChance as Long as It Prioritises Bad Men.

Elsewhere: [Grantland] What We Learned From WrestleMania 31: Notes on an Event That Could Be Remembered as One of the Best in WWE History.

[Wrestling Inc] Sunny: “I’ve Never Been a Huge Fan of Women’s Wrestling”.

[WWE] Corporate Overview.

[National TV Spots] Homepage.

[Junkee] How Caitlyn Jenner, The Kardashians & Total Divas Are Making Reality TV Relevant Again.

[TV By the Numbers] E! Delivers 20% Year on Year Growth in Primetime Among Adults 18-49 in Primetime During Fourth Quarter.

[Wikipedia] Women in the Military.

[Kickstarter] The Reconstruction of Chyna.

Artwork by Rainmaker Inc.

Last Minute Halloween Costumes That Aren’t The “Sexy”, Store Bought Norm.

It’s almost that time of year again when unoriginality prevails and hemlines rise in an effort not just to fill pillowcases or cheap plastic pumpkin pails with the most candy but to elicit the most controversy: Halloween.

Already we’ve seen the mass production of Halloween costumes of the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Cecil the Lion’s killer, and you can rest assured there’ll be many an outraged news story about those brave (stupid?) enough to dress as Rachel Dolezal or a member of ISIS.

But Halloween is also the time of year when many a thinkpiece about freedom of speech, taste, and a woman’s right to dress as sexy as she wants (and I’m certainly not innocent of going that route) start doing the rounds, of which I’ve been guilty myself.

So I thought I’d write a different kind of story featuring suggestions for the trifecta of Halloween costumes: some unique, possibly envelope-pushing and fun ideas for this year’s All Hallows Eve. And with October 31st falling on a Saturday this year those invitations should have come thick and fast, so you’ll want to be prepared (hey, there’s another costume idea: Scar from The Lion King, which my friend April went as to my [non-costume] birthday last year!)

(Disclaimer: if costumes aren’t slutty enough—and some of them most definitely tick that box—just add cleavage and substitute regular-length pants for hot ones.)

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Magic Mike: XXL.

Baggy pants, white singlets, backwards caps and a bandana around the neck are all you’ll need to recreate arguably the sexiest dance scene ever in this year’s sequel to Magic Mike. If you want to put a little more effort in, there’s Tarzan’s painted portrait, Tito’s “Candy Shop” routine, Ken’s sexy “How Does It Feel” rendition or Richie’s groom cum S&M dom. A little less effort? A bottle of water, packet of chips and “I Want It That Way” on loop.

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Rosie the Riveter.

Feminism is so trendy, didn’t you know, so what better way to pay homage to the movement than dressing as someone whose image is often co opted by it: Rosie the Riveter. I went as her one year and all you need is a blue shirt; jeans, overalls or denim shorts, depending on the level of sexiness you want to go for; a red and white polka dot scarf, and you’re set.

When I was in New York for Halloween one year I saw a woman in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade who even went to the trouble of fashioning a “We Can Do It” speech bubble.

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Adam & Eve.

The perfect couples costume, all you need is some vines, an apple, and a toy snake. From there, go as dressed up (or down) as you’re comfortable with.

gloria steinem undercover playboy bunny

Gloria Steinem Undercover as a Playboy Bunny.

Yet another costume I’ve worn over the years and probably my favourite. Grab a cheap, mass-produced corset from Valley Girl or similar, some high-waisted vintage knickers (or boy shorts for more coverage), a Playboy cuffs and ears set from most party supply stores, and a white loofah sponge from the supermarket for a tail.

To differentiate yourself from a typical Playboy bunny, wear a feminist badge of some kind and for extra journo cred, carry a notebook, tape recorder (did they even have those in the ’60s?) or a copy of Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions, the book her report “A Bunny’s Tale” is published in.

suffragette costume

Emily Davison.

Best known as the woman who rushed King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, she died from fatal injuries sustained in the act of protest. A suffragette, a Davison costume is not only timely with the release of the movie Suffragette in which she is featured, but it’s marginally more tasteful than Cecil the Lion: hit up your local costumery for period threads then stop by a toy shop for a hobby horse.

josephine baker

Josephine Baker.

There are many ways you can go with this: traditional 1920s fare, or for the more exhibitionistic, hunt for the components that make up her famous banana costume. A healthy helping of plastic bananas threaded together could work, or banana lollies from your local Woolies add elements of sexiness and Halloween candy metatext. This is one costume that knows no bounds.

girl scout costume

Girl Scout.

A friend had this in mind for the time we were in New York for Halloween, but it never came to fruition. You can be the one to make it happen, by either forking out for the cheap, mass produced version or shifting through Etsy and vintage eBay sellers for cute vests, badges and maybe even a box of cookies or two. Know a Brownie? Borrow their garb for the evening.

beyonce feminist costume

Beyonce Standing in Front of the Feminist Sign.

Granted, this would have been fitting for last year’s Halloween (and I actually went as this for my work Christmas party), but Beyonce is nothing if not perpetually relevant.

I had a copy of the “Feminist” sign blown up and printed at Officeworks, mounted it to thick cardboard and strapped to me like a backpack with elastic strips, with portable LED lights along the bottom. Add a leotard and presto: you’re Beyonce!

wrestling costumes

Mick Foley. (Honourable mentions: Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Tyler Breeze.)

As wrestling historian and podcaster David Shoemaker has said, wrestling cosplay has never been easier with guys like Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns: just add a white fedora and a Hawaiian shirt, and a flak jacket, respectively. A Cactus Jack t-shirt, a red flannel, leopard print boots and, of course, Mr. Socko make you Mick Foley’s most terrifying incarnation, while a selfie stick and a trip to Spotlight sees Tyler Breeze come to life at your local Halloween party.

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Stonewall.

A lot of controversy has been kicked up surrounding the release of the white- and cis-washed retelling of the historic Stonewall riots. Instead of taking a page out of the movie’s script, why not go as some of the historical figures who were actually involved, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. (Note: proceed with extreme caution as cosplaying these trans pioneers could come across as insensitive at best and transphobic at worst. The last thing you want is an equivalent of the Caitlyn Jenner costume so if you’re not confident you can pull it off without offense, then maybe choose something else from the list.)

cookie costume jazmine hughes

Empire.

While not as successful in Australia, Empire is all the rage on U.S. TV screens and Taraji P. Henson’s Emmy-nominated portrayal of music matriarch and former inmate Cookie is ripe for the costuming. Sequins, animal print (preferably sequinned animal print) and faux fur complete the look. New York Times writer Jazmine Hughes even wrote a story for Cosmopolitan about dressing up as the character just in time for the holiday.

taylor swift squad goals

Taylor Swift & Her Squad.

For the more dedicated costumers, Swift’s “Bad Blood” video look can be completed with some dominatrix gear, weaponry and perhaps a red wig to complete the look. Otherwise, just grab your besties, chuck on your usual party gear and when people ask what you’re dressed as just tell ‘em “#SquadGoals”.

scream queens chanels

Scream Queens’ Chanels.

Three words: Fur. Pastels. Earmuffs.

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Serena Williams.

2015 has been the year for women in sport. There’s currently a #DivasRevolution in professional wrestling, the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s soccer team has been lauded at every turn, and Serena Williams dominated tennis, as she has every year but we finally started noticing. Raid your local Vinnie’s for some tennis duds and grab a racquet. Or, if you’re in need of some new workout gear, stop by your local sporting goods store and show Serena’s line some love.

BONUS ROUND!

Speaking of Serena and tennis, head on over to Junkee to check out my “Hotline Bling” Drake contribution as part of their roundup.

Related: Happy Slut-O-Ween: The Hyper-Sexualisation & -Feminisation of Costumes for Women.

Costumes & Gender.

A Very Manhattan Halloween.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] People Are Really Getting a Jump On Their Terrible, No Good Halloween Costumes This Year.

[Grantland] Reality Takes Over Night of Champions, For Better & For Worse.

[Facebook] Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS).

[Cosmopolitan] I Dressed Like Cookie for a Week to Get Over Imposter Syndrome.

Images via The New Yorker, Your Tango, Demotix, Moorewr, Pinterest, Heave Media, TBO, Bleacher Report, Neogaf, The Incidental Review, Cosmopolitan, Hollywood Reporter, Teen Choice, Odyssey, Vine.