A Woman’s Job is Never Done–Part 1 (Divas, Knockouts)

Welcome back to Caught in the Ropes, and the first column of a three-part series on the state of the women’s divisions in WWE and TNA. I’ll touch upon institutional philosophy and problem-solving in weeks to come, and maybe inspire a discussion or two. But before I get into things, I would just like to remark on the passing of the “Macho Man”. In my last column, I noted the absence of Randy from the WWE Hall of Fame. It stands to reason that he’ll be inducted now, but it is sad that he won’t be around to see it. He’ll always be a legend though, and I’ll always appreciate how much he gave to us, the fans.

As Kelly Floyd and Chris Biscuiti noted last week, with somewhat remarkable restraint, Michael Cole has been actively torpedoing the WWE Diva’s division for weeks. As if the division didn’t have enough problems already, Cole’s insistence on interrupting the Divas during their few precious minutes of screen-time each week sent a clear message of disrespect to the whole Divas division. But let’s be honest here, we’ve all known that the women’s division in the top two promotions have been plagued with issues for some time now. Neither TNA or WWE have shown a sustained, concerted effort to improve these divisions.

It goes beyond bad booking, but that’s certainly part of the problem. The issue is the bi-polar, often contradictory, philosophy both promotions have regarding their female talent. It’s an issue that speaks not just to how these companies see their female workers, but what they think of their audience. Both companies have trapped themselves in a bizarre love-hate relationship with women’s wrestling in general, and its going to take some real work to rectify the situation. Work that doesn’t involve skimpy clothing, stripteases, or story-lines revolving around hypnosis.

Women’s wrestling is nothing new; the hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring the film Racket Girls, made in 1951, is proof of that. But, during the golden years of the 1980’s, women worked primarily as valets or managers in the major promotions. There were memorable characters: the Fabulous Moolah, Wendy Richter, Miss Elizabeth, Sherri Martel and so on. But the women’s championship didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. During the 1980’s, only six different women held the title. It was the childhood of women’s wrestling in a major, televised promotion; they were often seen, but not heard in the ring.

The “Attitude Era” of the WWE is when women’s wrestling in a major American promotion really started to grow. Wrestlers like Chyna, Trish Stratus, Lita, Jacqueline, Debra, and Ivory were pushed to the front while the ‘E’s Monday Night Wars competitor WCW lagged behind, only creating two short-lived women’s championship titles—both created in ’96 and ending by ’97 at the latest. Chyna won the Intercontinental belt twice and appeared in the Royal Rumble, feats that demanded respect from the WWE fan-base (it should also be noted that Trish won the Hardcore Championship during this period, albeit with an assist from the Dudleys).

But the “Attitude Era” was also the WWE’s puberty, so to speak. While women’s wrestling gained more attention, talent also had to compete in evening gown and bra and panties matches, be stripped of their clothing in humiliating fashion in angles, and leered over by a creepy, drooling Jerry “The King” Lawler.

When not being oggled, female talent was often a target of violence by male superstars in angles. Trish was put through a table by the Dudleys, Stephanie and Trish were taken out by William Regal, and so on. The target demographic that turned to the ‘E during this time was, primarily, teenage and 20-something men, and WWE catered to this demographic through sex and violence. It was, I believe, an era of great characters and angles, but also incredible exploitation.

Let me just say that I’m not naïve; I don’t believe the female talent during this era were tricked or coerced into these angles or gimmicks. That is not the exploitation I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ‘E exploiting the most base desires of its male fan-base. It was low-brow pandering punctuated by Jerry Lawler’s vocal appreciation of the female form, an appreciation he was happy to expound upon at every opportunity.

TNA, when they came around, were guilty of many of the same sins of the WWE.  Its Miss TNA era was marked with degrading matches and questionable hiring, including the use of porn stars as wrestlers. But as time went on, TNA seemed to be moving away from cage dancers and juvenile pandering and towards a truly respectable women’s division as well. The depth of talent the company had in its women’s division made it one of the best in the States, if not the whole world. This was a point of differentiation for the company; their women’s and cruiserweight division helped set the company apart from the WWE.

But what can I say? Most guys who were in their teens or twenties during that era ate it up, myself included.  I cheered when superstars were put through tables, risked life and limb in amazing spots, or bled all over the mat for our amusement. And I rejoiced when Trish or Lita made their appearances with cleavage and thongs proudly on display. It was visceral entertainment, and even if you understand that a company is trying to pique your primal instincts, its sometimes hard to make an ethical objection when you’re a teenager.

Now, the post-Invasion PG-era should have marked a change in the ‘E’s attitude towards the women’s division. Risque titillation was out. A serious division should have been in. It would take some time, but the WWE was moving out of puberty and into adulthood. To draw an analogy: its like a man, now in his early twenties. He’s in college or working, becoming a bit more selective in his entertainment, and maybe slightly more enlightened when it comes to women. Sure, they’re sometimes hard for him to understand, men being the sometimes simple-minded animals we are, but he’s been around the block a few times and has a better understanding of sex and relationships. And with that greater understanding, should come a greater respect. The hormones have cooled down, and he can appreciate women as more than just sexual symbols, but as friends, colleagues, and equals. But in all reality, he’s not THAT far removed from the age of unfortunately timed erections.

Women’s wrestling should have been heading toward a new period of equality and respect in the major promotions. But, as we have unfortunately noted over the years, some old habits die hard…

Continued next week!

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