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.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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Rachel Hill’s book The Sex Myth, released on Wednesday, is excerpted here. [Sydney Morning Herald]

And I interviewed Rachel on the book. (An extended version to come.) [Junkee]

I also wrote about how I Am Cait might be the turning point in reality TV. [Spook Magazine]

35 of the 46 women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and/or sexually assaulting them have been photographed for and told their stories to New York magazine. [The Cut]

How that story came about and how they recovered from the DDoS hack. [Mashable]

What happens to mass murderer groupies when their subjects are convicted? [Slate]

In the wake of last week’s Twitter hubbub, Taylor “Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank.” [Gawker]

Is there room for the Legends Football League in the recent revolution of women’s sports? [Grantland]

A history of World Wrestling Entertainment’s racism. [The Atlantic]

Orange is the New Black fails its Asian characters. [Hyphen Magazine]

On the “racebending” of Hermione Granger. [HuffPo, Buzzfeed]

ICYMI: My thoughts on Hulk Hogan and racism in wrestling.

Image via Musings of an Inappropriate Woman.

Hulk Hogan & Racism in Wrestling.

hulk hogan racist

Over the weekend an eight-year-old recording of your childhood hero Hulk Hogan using racist epithets directed towards a black man his daughter was allegedly dating at the time surfaced. World Wrestling Entertainment was quick to sever ties with Hogan, terminating his contract (yes, he still worked there!) and deleting his presence from their website.

While this by no means rids WWE, and the wrestling world at large, of their inherent racism, they should be commended for taking such drastic measures against arguably their most famous star at a time when famous men are still protected despite their wrongdoings.

A few years ago, I wrote about the challenge of rectifying my feminism with my wrestling fandom:

“[W]restling is one of the most obviously racist modes of mainstream entertainment. Let me count just some of the racial stereotypes throughout wrestling history that come to mind: The Iron Sheik was pitted against such all-American opponents as Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Gulf War; the Mexicools’ ring entrance comprised the use of a ride-on lawnmower, insinuating that people of Mexican descent make excellent yard workers; African American wrestler Charles Wright went from one black trope—a witch doctor named Papa Shango—to another—The Godfather, a pimp who came to the ring followed by his ‘Ho Train’; the Boogeyman was another witch-doctor-esque character played by another African American wrestler, Marty Wright (of no relation to Charles Wright); Native American wrestler Tatanka got around in traditional Native garb, such as headdresses and warpaint and carried a tomahawk; Kofi Kingston is from the Republic of Ghana, but somehow a Jamaican gimmick for his character made more sense; we all know people of African American descent are probably criminals, so why not bring two black wrestlers together in a tag team and call them Cryme Tyme?; Jim Harris played the wild ‘Ugandan giant’ Kamala, while the late Edie Fatu had a similar, albeit Samoan, gimmick as Umaga; and Mohamad Ali Vaez, of Iranian heritage, plays up the Islamaphobia angle for his character.

documentary called Wrestling for Rotary chronicles an independent wrestling gig for charity in country Victoria in 2011, where Vaez talks about the internal struggle he faces in ‘perpetrating stereotypes that my family suffers because of [racism].’

But, at the end of the day,’I’ve suffered inherent racism in the United States, so you know what? I’m gonna make money off of it.'”

I think my sentiments still stand.

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

Why Are Famous Men Forgiven for Their Wrongdoings, While Women Are Vilified for Much Less?

Elsewhere: [TheVine] Can a Feminist Love Pro Wrestling?

[Radar Online] Hulk’s N Word Racist Racist Rants Caught on Tape—Foul, Disgusting Tirade Leaks.

[The Guardian] Hulk Hogan Fired by WWE After Racist Recordings Emerge.

[Grantland] A (Very) Concise History of Racism in Wrestling, 1980–Present.

Image via Lipstick Alley.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

Ursula

The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula is the feminist fairy octomother you never knew you wanted. [Bitch Flicks]

I dissect why we insist on calling women “girls”. [TheVine]

Newlyweds, and later The Hills and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, was a pioneer of the “celebrity best friend” trope. [Grantland]

In the wake of my “Wrestling with Obsession” piece for Writers Bloc, they interviewed me for their newsletter. Sign up here.

How the capitalism of Fifty Shades of Grey reinforces the ties that bind women to abusive relationships. [Buzzfeed]

Clementine Ford thinks the word “slut” is too far gone to be worth reclaiming. [Daily Life]

“The Radical Queerness of Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber.” [The Atlantic]

So a character on Girls had an abortion and was super relaxed about it. [Jezebel]

Cripface Oscar bait reigned supreme at this years’ Academy Awards. [Disability Intersections]

And here‘s everything else that was wrong with the Oscars. [Bitch Flicks]

Lesbian representation in women’s magazines. [The Conversation]

Meet the Feminist Fucker: a guy who sees feminists as the ultimate conquest. [Spook Magazine]

ICYMI: When you realise all your passions are no longer cutting it.

Image via Disney.com.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

In case you hadn’t realised from the uptick in wrestling-related links I’ve written and posted here of late, I’m kinda obsessed with it! Here I am, erm, writing about that obsession. [Writers Bloc]

Why should we worry about the lack of women in publishing when there are bigger gender inequality problems in the world?:

“The obscuring of women’s voices in media platforms, however elite, however niche, is part of the obscuring of their voices in general; and a lack of commitment to, or an inability to hear, their voices in literary culture is related to the same lacks and inabilities in relation to their voices in harassment, in sex, in courtrooms, and in the workplace.” [LA Review of Books]

Unpacking the media’s handling of Bruce Jenner’s alleged gender transition. [Bitch]

Shit vegans say. [Spook Magazine]

Mia Freedman—like the rest of the country—was wrong about Tony Abbott. [MamaMia]

Just because Beyonce used a plethora of producers to help make Beyonce, doesn’t mean she’s any less of an artist than Beck or any less worthy of the Album of the Year Grammy. [Daily Life]

Further to that, Kanye West is right in saying she should have won it. He just goes about voicing his opinion in a manner that rubs people up the wrong way. It probably also has to do with race, which I would’ve liked to see the author go into more. [Grantland]

Robyn Lawley being featured in Sports Illustrated is not a win for diversity or feminism. [Daily Life]

And if you’re thirsty for more links, the 81st Down Under Feminists Carnival has them all. [The Hand Mirror]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

The star of that Hollaback! New York City catcalling video, Shoshanna Roberts, speaks. [NYTimes]

What if there was a Bechdel test for movies featuring Native American people? [Mic]

How TV is getting smarter about sex. [WaPo]

A harrowing report on rape in college fraternity houses prompts the question: should frats be banned? [Rolling Stone, Gawker]

FCKH8 is back with their “potty mouthed princesses”, this time proselyting on domestic violence. [Junkee]

Is Mockingjay‘s message getting muddled by the (real and fictional) media? After all,

“We like Katniss, so we want to believe she’s important. But she isn’t a politician. She’s not a military strategist. She’s not a revolutionary thinker. She’s a survivor, and can handle a weapon, but that’s true of most soldiers. The only real value Katniss Everdeen has to the revolution is the fact that people like seeing her on television. She’s a weapon of mass sympathy; if she believes in this war, people at home will join it. And then they will die.”

And in wider, actual society:

“Taylor Swift… recently opined that ‘so many girls out there say “I’m not a feminist” because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining. They picture like rioting and picketing, it is not that at all.’ Actually, it is that—rioting, picketing, and complaining, the synonym for all of these being ‘protesting,’ are pretty darn essential—but hey, who am I to stand in the way of mass appeal?” [In These Times]

Does rap have an immaturity problem? If so, Eminem’s its poster boy. [Grantland]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

The systemic secrecies of intimate partner violence. [Right Now]

A tale of two satires: “Literally I Can’t” VS. “Blank Space”. [The Guardian]

Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and the politics of celebrity labour. [The Baffler]

Separating the man from the art: Bill Cosby edition. [The Toast]

Further to that, this is one of the most level headed takes on the Cosby rape allegations and wonders why people are so quick to believe 16 women have banded together to frame one man over the idea that one man could be guilty of serial rape. [The Atlantic]

New Girl and The Mindy Project’s second wind. [Grantland]