We hear you. Keep watching. #GiveDivasAChance
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) February 25, 2015
Hashtags are nice. Hashtags are useful. Frequently, hashtags are a way to stay connected to a world traditional media does not want to connect with: Protest movements, cities under siege, the oppressed, etc. They’re also a means of plugging into the world of traditional media. Most movies, television shows, commercial ad campaigns, etc. have a corresponding hashtag. As a corporate entity, World Wrestling Entertainment is one of the best at maneuvering and manipulating hashtags. Every episode of Raw and every pay-per-view sees a corporately crafted hashtag peak at #1 worldwide. Just this Monday, within the first thirty minutes of Raw, #GiveTruthAChance, engineered to drum up interest in the plight of beleaguered mid-card fixture R-Truth, went global. But #GiveTruthAChance being #1 didn’t mean that R-Truth, sitting there at the commentary table, had the unanimous support of WWE’s socially connected fans.
— Kenny Torrella (@kennytorrella) February 24, 2015
All a hashtag means, when it applies to a television show, is that people are talking on that hashtag, on or off topic, for or against. But #GiveTruthAChance (which, lest we forget, could have just as easily have been #GiveKofiAChance, #GiveXavierAChance, #GiveBigEAChance, #GiveDarrenAChance, #GiveOtungaAChance, or #GiveTitusAChance) mutated into the decidedly off-message #GiveDivasAChance in Raw’s third hour, after a tag team match between The Bella Twins and Paige and Emma went about the amount of time it takes to write a well-composed tweet. The match itself—a kick, a facebuster, a pinfall—is actually something of the norm on an episode of Raw, which treats women as a garnish to everything else on the show.
Usually, this treatment goes unnoticed by the majority of folks watching Raw while connected to Twitter, otherwise there would have been a hashtag years ago. But on Raw, the sequence of events leading to a 30-second match was such that it made the placement of Paige and The Bellas, two popular acts (not to mention Emma, who was something of an internet darling before her call-up to the main roster), quite obvious. Before a commercial break, Paige entered the ring, which is nothing new. When the break was over, there was a three or four minute video about Sting, who is one of the WrestleMania main event attractions, covering the years 1988-2001. During a live Raw telecast, they play these videos to the live crowd on the TitanTron video screen, so whoever is out there in the ring sees it too. With the video over, Paige was joined by Emma, who likely made her entrance during commercials. Then The Bellas made their entrance. Before the bell rang, Paige threatened to cut across the ring and attack Nikki Bella, who is the WWE Divas Champion and Paige’s arch-enemy at the moment. Emma held her back, though. It was a nice start, I thought, a good way of giving Emma some character while furthering the Bellas vs. Paige issue. But all of that was over in about 50 seconds.
So we got the hashtag. And it, too, trended worldwide. Unlike the ones crafted by the WWE, however, this one had some staying power. #GiveDivasAChance was tweeted and retweeted by former WWE employees, independent wrestlers, TNA Knockouts, and plain ol’ fans, long enough that either Vince McMahon himself or somebody tweeting for Vince McMahon issued the tweet at the lead of this article. And it’s good PR, tweeting that, even if most of the wrestling fans I know don’t believe a word McMahon says. A populist “movement” directed at a television show usually doesn’t receive a direct response from the man who owns the company that produces the show. To make a trite comparison, this would be like the CEO of Sony Television replying to Community fans on Twitter by tweeting “You want that? Fine! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie” early in that hashtag’s life. What happens now is a long, agonizing wait to see if the promise of a five word tweet transubstantiates into something real.
If it happens, then that’s great. I dig women’s wrestling. I wouldn’t be here, writing about professional wrestling, were it not for the early YouTube pointing me in the direction of wrestlers like Bull Nakano, Aja Kong, Akira Hokuto, The Jumping Bomb Angels, the Crush Gals, and so on, all of whom competed on WWE or WCW television at some point, and I wouldn’t have gotten involved in independent wrestling at all had I not connected to the work of Sara Del Rey, who is now a trainer in WWE’s developmental system. There are other concerns that the hashtag doesn’t cover, and, quite frankly, can’t. When Stephanie McMahon tweeted in support of Patricia Arquette’s speech at the Academy Awards, former WWE Divas Champion A.J. Lee replied to her in a way that was probably eye opening for a lot of folks, especially those who weren’t paying attention when ex-WWE employee Tyler Reks spoke publicly about the payscale for wrestlers who aren’t at the top of the card:
@StephMcMahon Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times,
— A.J. (@WWEAJLee) February 25, 2015
— A.J. (@WWEAJLee) February 25, 2015
I don’t know the intricacies of how WWE pays its performers beyond knowing that, as “independent contractors,” they aren’t given the same benefits as the company’s salaried employees, and I don’t follow things like merchandise sales and ratings breakdowns. But I have no reason to suspect that what A.J. Lee says isn’t true. The WWE Diva brand has a popular reality show on E!, and there are more merchandise options available for more women on the roster now than there ever has been, suggesting that, yes, this stuff sells. If money and opportunity don’t follow despite hard evidence being provided by people who have every reason to know how everything works, then there’s something deeper going on that fans will likely never be able to address unless #GiveDivasAChance becomes #GiveWrestlersAUnion and WWE feels serious financial repercussions, either through frequently suggested mass cancelations of the WWE Network, or by a larger-scale boycott of the company by even the segment of the audience that watches Raw and SmackDown! because they’re so easy to access. Even then, what are we likely to know from the outside looking in? Kayfabe is largely dead, but corporate culture is a different kind of opacity altogether.
It seems like the best thing #GiveDivasAChance can accomplish is to give the division more time across the seven non-NXT, non-Total Divas hours of in-ring content the WWE produces. This may be a good thing, both for the company and for its fans. Back when I checked wrestling news websites every day, I knew that TNA, the company now known as Impact Wrestling, posted their best quarter-hour ratings during those segments when their “Knockouts Division” was in the ring. And TNA, perhaps knowing that, sought to capitalize on the popularity of the division by giving that division time, on television, to put on compelling matches between talented women and adding a tag team championship. The tag titles failed and the company frequently wavers back and forth between presenting their women as WWE does and as they are presented in independent promotions like SHIMMER and SHINE, but they do make a real effort to make women a part of the show, which is the most commendable aspect of TNA programming, even at its most dire. But what about fans?
— PWMSCOOPS.COM (@ProWrestlingMag) February 25, 2015
Well, for one, I’d suggest not falling into the same trap that WWE storytelling falls into, which is to present this as a case between wrestling (as represented by Paige, A.J. Lee, etc.) and being a diva (the Bellas). That hashtag is, in a way, a tacit acceptance of a brand and what the brand represents, which is the framing of young, attractive women as fetish objects. For many of us, that acceptance is a defeat, but what can you do? There’s been almost two decades of copyright, market research, branding, and so on. Even when it was the Women’s Championship, the women fighting for it were Divas, and it’s the same over on NXT. If you think that’s a coincidence, here’s the first paragraph of WWE.com’s profile of former Women’s Champion Bull Nakano:
The name Diva would never have fit Bull Nakano comfortably. There were no little black dresses in her closet, no red-soled Louboutin shoes on her feet. She was a warrior, plain and simple, and the women who survived their run-ins with Nakano have the scars to prove it.
One of the most telling things about #GiveDivasAChance is that, for the majority of folks using that hashtag, the word “Diva” is not an issue. For many, it seems that #GiveDivasAChance is more about preferring one type of Diva over the other. When I write about the “Divas Division” on this website, I tend to refer to it as the “women’s division” for a number of reasons. First, “WWE Diva” (and “Impact Knockout”) is a phrase filtered through the male gaze. Second, I’m not a fan of sexist branding. The WWE Diva, since the Attitude Era gave birth to the phrase, has always been a second-class citizen. Men are Superstars. Women are Divas. Men wrestle for championships whose history and prestige is obvious from the look of the championship. Women are given a championship that looks like a bedazzled vagina. Seriously. Here’s a picture of it, with a quote from my friend J. Rex’s article “Are We Not Men? We Are Divas,” which should be read in full:
#GiveDivasAChance isn’t going to fix any of that, nor do I suspect that it is meant to. And it won’t fix the problem of the male gaze, either. After a two move match, with Paige sitting in the ring anguished and frustrated, you can hear some mutoid’s shrill wolf whistle. That’s how some men are always going to perceive the act of women’s wrestling, and that’s on them. What #GiveDivasAChance gets right is that a company—even a conservative company like World Wrestling Entertainment—doesn’t have to present its women characters that way, and that when it does, it is by choice. And just like that, the company can choose to change that perception and present something else. But here’s the other thing about a hashtag: The people who control the means of change can simultaneously acknowledge their existence while largely ignoring their implications. A hashtag can become a vocal minority. A fact can become an opinion. A response, no matter how brief, can lead to the wider belief that an issue is being addressed.
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) February 25, 2015
I’d like to see change on this front. Real, systemic change beyond just giving women’s wrestling more time. If #GiveDivasAChance ends with the majority of people on the hashtag happy about a ten minute match between Paige and Nikki Bella, than what we’re arguing for is hardly fair representation. Does #GiveDivasAChance have room for women wrestlers of different body sizes, races, storylines, gimmicks, queer representations and so on, or are we collectively just mad that these things take less time on the show than an advertisement for a 55-year-old man? I can see a long-needed discussion beginning to take shape, but I am unsure of where it is going. I guess, like Vince McMahon suggests, I’ll have to keep watching to find out.