It’s a good time to be a wrestling fan who happens to be a feminist.
World Wrestling Entertainment’s biggest event of the year, WrestleMania, is this weekend, and this athlete-turned-academic who once hated everything about commercial sports will watch every minute of it.
I’ve been a feminist for longer than I’ve been a wrestling fan, and when I first watched wrestling as a high schooler — my first boyfriend was a fan — I didn’t quite know how the two might intertwine many years later when I picked it up again.
I’m drawn to wrestling because of the silly, overdramatic plotlines, not unlike the “Days of Our Lives” era of my youth. (My parents never miss an episode, to this day. Mostly because of my dad. That’s a think piece for another day.) I’m fascinated with the history of the brand. Vince McMahon’s ownership of the WWE goes back to 1980, but he’s the third generation McMahon to helm a professional wrestling league. There have been many leagues, many owners, more tragedies and scandals than you could count, and my boyfriend, Eddie, a wrestling savant if there ever was one, can spin those stories all day long.
Wrestling has all the elements of professional sports that I hated for many years, but now that I’ve started to accept that celebrity drama, outrageous salaries and even bigger egos are part of all of them, even the “real” sports of baseball, basketball and football, I can appreciate the narrative and theatrics of entertainment sports.
If wrestling is as much performance art as sport, what kind of story is the WWE telling these days?
From what I’ve seen in the months leading up to WrestleMania, that message is this: Women are bench-pressing, show-stealing badasses, just like men.
In my first round of being a wrestling fan, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were bringing this historic entertainment brand into the 21st century, trying to find just the right balance of flash, crass and sweaty might. They bad boy days of the 80s and 90s were coming to an end, and wrestlers like Chyna and Lita had fans wondering just what women might accomplish in the ring.
Now, as a cover story in USA Today this week explains, power couple Triple H, a wrestler-turned-exec, and Stephanie McMahon, a wrestling heir-turned-wrestler-and-exec, are overseeing a totally different kind of transformation, one that puts women in the center of the ring, not simply as eye candy or token athletes. The female wrestlers are no longer called “Divas” (even though their reality show plays up that image), and they wrestle in some of the most hyped matches of both “Raw” and “SmackDown,” the weekly WWE shows. The brand as a whole now acknowledges women’s athleticism and ability to captivate an audience that is now nearly 40 percent female.
You could make the argument that the women at the center of this WWE revolution are getting more regular airtime and more viewers than any other female athletes in American sports.
More than 70,000 fans will be packed into the stadium when Wrestlemania kicks off on Sunday, and no one will draw larger cheers than Bayley, a bubbly, kid-friendly pop star of a wrestler who is about to dethrone John Cena as the most popular athlete in the WWE right now.
Bayley is sweeter than Hannah Montana, less racy than Miley Cyrus and tough enough to fly off the turnbuckle to take down a 275-pound opponent. (That opponent was Nia Jax, a member of the extended Dwayne Johnson family, who, in case you were wondering, we think is going to win the title this weekend.)
Sunday’s event is a four-hour celebration of machismo, but there’s a fair bit of fem-chismo, too. Bayley is one of more than a dozen female wrestlers on the roster right now. Some of them star in a pair of reality shows on the WWE Network, including Nikki Bella, who is the real-life and character girlfriend of John Cena and star of “Total Bellas.” This weekend, she’ll stand toe-to-toe with Maryse, the wife of another wrestler named The Miz, and the four of them are scheduled for a tag team match.
With Bayley in the pole position and other top female wrestlers, including Charlotte and Sasha Banks, earning top billing, this year’s WrestleMania shows just how far the WWE has come since the Hulk Hogan days, but let’s not get too carried away.
A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old son asked: “Do the men and women ever wrestle each other?” I hemmed and hawed about how they don’t but they should. Eddie cut to a biological fact I like to ignore: That men are, for the most part, fundamentally stronger than women. There are certainly female wrestlers who could match some of the men — it’s been nearly 20 years since Chyna was the first woman to enter the Royal Rumble and Charlotte has been a proponent of more co-ed matches — but I doubt we’ll see full parity in terms of salaries, airtime and match placement, thanks in part to biology but also to the ungodly strength of many of the male athletes that make me question the enforcement of WWE’s rule against steroid use.
WWE still has plenty of misogyny baked into its brand. Xavier Woods, one of the announcers of this year’s Wrestlemania who was also in Austin a few weeks ago to host the SXSW Gaming Awards, got pulled into a sex tape scandal earlier this month, but he’ll still have the mic at Wrestlemania and his career likely won’t take the hit of Paige, the wrestler whose ex-boyfriend allegedly released the tape. We can’t forget that Hulk Hogan’s fragile male ego about a sex tape ultimately took down Gawker. He has been written out of WWE history but because of racial slurs, not the sex tape controversy, even though Chyna’s own sex tape practically derailed her career.
In an arena where it’s hard to separate the drama outside the ring from the drama inside it, we have to pay attention to make sure this women’s revolution in the WWE is actually a revolution and not just a marketing strategy to hook more viewers like me. I still use my critical lens to ask lots of questions about gender, sexuality and race in professional wrestling — the McMahons are, after all, well-known Trump supporters — but that lens also allows me to celebrate small wins.
Right now, that looks like Bayley, a happy-go-lucky 27-year-old millennial dominating the biggest wrestling event of the year.
She’ll be surrounded by super-strong athletic women who are changing our ideas about what women can accomplish in sports entertainment, and a whole bunch of burly men who don’t seem to mind sharing the spotlight.