Why isn’t Kanye West a gay icon? [MTVNews]
What porn and wrestling have in common: a lack of unions. [In These Times]
Image via Netflix.
Why isn’t Kanye West a gay icon? [MTVNews]
What porn and wrestling have in common: a lack of unions. [In These Times]
Image via Netflix.
I wrote about why World Wrestling Entertainment needs a women’s Money in the Bank match. [SBS Zela]
Who’s afraid of all-woman alliances on reality TV? [The Establishment]
Also: On Edith Wharton and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. [Guernica]
This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 20. Republished with permission.
For my latest contribution to Calling Spots, check out Issue 21 featuring my story, “Navigating Kayfabe in the Reality Era”.
I instinctively ducked for cover from the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community) when the idea for this article popped into my head after Eva Marie, perhaps the most hated woman (nay, person) in wrestling today, faced Bayley in a NXT Women’s Championship on Thanksgiving Eve last year.
I’d been ruminating on Eva Marie for quite some time, at least since her debut in NXT in mid-2015, but probably closer to the time we were introduced to her as the “rookie” Diva on E!’s reality show about World Wrestling Entertainment’s women’s wrestlers, Total Divas, in 2013.
Let me first say that I think Eva Marie gets a lot of unwarranted flack for seizing an opportunity that was arguably handed to her. Who among us would honestly turn down a prized position with guaranteed exposure in our industry of choice presented on a silver platter? Just because she didn’t bust her butt on the indies for ten years à la wrestling darlings such as Kevin Owens and Calling Spots cover stars Finn Balor and Daniel Bryan it doesn’t mean there’s not a place for her in WWE.
Let me also say that this is not so much a defence of Eva Marie herself, per se, but what she represents. She may have a background in modelling with designs on becoming “the female Rock” (she shares a manager with Dwayne The Rock Johnson—who also happens to be his ex wife—and Johnson has been a vocal proponent of hers on social media) who only joined WWE months before she gained a starring role on Total Divas, but women like Michelle McCool and the Bella Twins were models before becoming Divas. Oftentimes their success is boiled down to their associations with men in power, but McCool became known as the first ever Divas Champion (a title which she held twice) and a two-time Women’s Champion and Nikki Bella’s in-ring prowess has improved in strides in recent years, landing her the top spot on PWI’s top 50 women wrestlers in 2015 and the Slammy Award for 2015 Diva of the Year. And while much has been made about the IWC’s pride and joy Bayley and Sasha Banks’ desire to be wrestlers since childhood, current Divas Champion (at the time of writing) Charlotte only expressed an interest in wrestling in the last few years, so if the logic surrounding Eva Marie’s heat is to be applied to her, she doesn’t deserve her success either.
If anything, we should be encouraging of Eva Marie’s return to NXT to hone her skills in the foremost wrestling training program in the world. While her in-ring dexterity isn’t at the level it needs to be to warrant a NXT Women’s Championship shot, if we’ve learned anything from the chanting along of Ryback’s catchphrase, “Feed Me More”, implying to the top brass that he’s “over”, the vitriol spewed at Eva Marie from the Full Sail crowd (who are obnoxious at the best of times) signifies that she’s the biggest heel NXT has. If we want her to fail, stop responding to her.
The drama surrounding her championship shot at Bayley on Thanksgiving Eve was pitch perfect and elicited a riotous response from the crowd not seen since John Cena faced Rob Van Dam for the WWE Championship at ECW One Night Stand in 2006. Eva’s pre-match promo where she hijacked William Regal’s office with gifts from her Total Divas supporters, while not good, served to position her as a corporate placeholder along with the insertion of WWE senior official Charles Robinson as referee. (Michael Cole also appeared as the adjudicator for Finn Balor and Samoa Joe’s NXT Championship contract signing earlier in the night, giving the whole show a sort of coopted-by-management feel, perhaps not accidentally.) The deployment of Eva Marie was apt and echoes a criticism often levelled at the corporately-appropriated #DivasRevolution: she was put there by management despite, until a few years ago and a few months ago, respectively, expressing little desire or talent to be a wrestler.
Eva Marie is like the female version of John Cena: she appeals to a certain demographic (Total Divas fans who are often young women), as Cena does to young fans, but is reviled by wrestling purists, smarks and the IWC as exemplified by the Full Sail crowd. Putting her in the go-home match before Thanksgiving was “actually genius”, according to [former] Diva Dirt reporter Jake, and a perfect example of her marketability.
Her season four Total Divas storyline was interesting, and the bust up with the rest of the cast, particularly the Bella twins, was unwarranted (if scripted and dramatised for the reality TV cameras) in my eyes. It wasn’t so long ago that women like Nikki were lambasted for their apparent lack of drive and wrestling talent which has since developed to see her become the locker room leader and voice her desire to “stay and continue to help women conquer this industry”.
But the utter hatred levelled at Eva feels like it has passed disdain for her lack of passion and skill and entered misogynistic territory. A tweet from user @nadavid47 asserted that “The hate for Eva Marie has gotten to such an uncomfortable ‘this is deeper than her lack of skill’ level” while @JulieAnnBird was concerned that “it will become even more obvious if/when the Takeover London crowd throws slut chants at her.” (I’m loath to qualify the “slut” accusations because it implies that certain women are sluts while others aren’t, but for as long as we’ve known Eva Marie, she’s been with the same man who is now her husband. Hardly slutty behaviour, but I digress…) In an interview with Bayley in The Independent ahead of NXT Takeover: London, writer Martin Hines even asked the then-Women’s Champion if she thinks Full Sail’s taunting of Eva Marie is less to do with her character and is more personal. Bayley disagreed as NXT stars are wont to do (Kevin Owens and Charlotte are the only wrestlers that come to mind who’ve spoken out against Full Sail), perhaps in an attempt not to upset an audience that seems increasingly on the precipice of spilling over into hostility. Eva’s treatment is antithetical to the #DivasRevolution and harkens back to the not-too-distant past when women wrestlers were valued for their T&A (as evidenced by the tag team of the same name managed by Trish Stratus in her eye-candy beginnings) and their “popcorn” matches were an opportunity for a bathroom break. As much as the Revolution found its beginnings in NXT, its fans are anything but respectful to women wrestlers, and wrestlers at large, giving priority to their excessive chants rather than what’s going on the ring. If there was a question left as to whether Eva as a person and her polarising wrestling character can be separated, porn site Brazzers tweeted the following to Eva Marie:
But NXT seems to have let Eva fall by the wayside since her Women’s Championship match against Bayley, pushing Eva’s henchwoman Nia Jax (or is Eva Nia Jax’s henchwoman?) into the picture with a title match against Bayley at NXT Takeover: London. Eva has seldom been seen on NXT TV and was in Dubai while NXT Takeover: London was underway. While some may welcome her absence (and I’m glad @JulieAnneBird’s “slut” prophecy didn’t come true), it’s a wonder they haven’t utilised her undeniable heat more. Call it slow burn booking, or maybe she’s upping her training again to feasibly be able to go toe to toe with Bayley and NXT’s burgeoning women’s roster, but WWE has dropped the ball on Eva Marie, much like the #DivasRevolution at large.
Artwork by Elow Mojo.
I wrote about competitors to watch on the women’s wrestling scene and Chyna’s untimely death for SBS Zela.
I’m at The Big Smoke writing about the women of American Crime Story: The People VS. OJ Simpson.
What Prince meant to strippers. [The Cut]
On mourning problematic celebrities. [xoJane]
Our pop cultural obsession with “girls” in books and film. I also wrote about the phenomenon here. [Bitch Flicks]
What Beyonce’s LEMONADE and wrestling have in common. [Cageside Seats]
I’m at The Big Smoke asserting that Kim Kardashian is our modern day Marilyn Monroe.
Why famous male wrestlers need to stop being the deciding factors in women’s matches. [The Spectacle of Excess]
*Spoiler alert* Olivia Pope may have killed the man who set her up to be kidnapped but Scandal has missed an opportunity to address her PTSD with therapy. [WaPo]
Why I don’t want my daughter to be a footy fan. [Daily Life]
The history of cats in bookstores. [Lit Hub]
In praise of the “ugly cry”. [New Republic]
The toxic relationship between masculinity and meat hinges on the “factory farm industry that makes billions of dollars insisting that men are the strongest when they have the most muscle, the least amount of feelings, and ingest the most ‘manly’ protein, like bacon, steak, and sausage.” [The Establishment]
Hillary Clinton said feminism and being pro-life can co-exist. Here’s a reminder of what being pro-life actually means. [Daily Life]
And Jill Filipovic unpacks it in a practical, US-centric sense. [Cosmopolitan]
Melissa Harris-Perry interviews Anita Hill 25 years after testifying that Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. [Essence]
More feminist goodness at the 95th Down Under Feminists Carnival. [Sacraparental]
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.
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.
Artwork by Rainmaker Inc.