I don’t watch WWE much these days. Outside of last night’s Royal Rumble and the majority of Saturday’s NXT Takeover, the last WWE telecast I saw from start to finish was the 2016 Money in the Bank pay-per-view. Call it disinterest or protest (it’s a little of both), but regardless it is impossible to like wrestling, to be a known wrestling fan, and not be up to speed on the comings and goings of the world-wide leader in sports entertainment. Leftists, trans women, poets and essayists, every circle I run in has a deep appreciation for wrestling, and at $9.99 and airing at a reasonable hour (if not for a reasonable amount of time), WWE is how most of my friends and acquaintances on the internet scratch that itch.
It’s not hard to fall into the routine of a WWE production. Beyond the atrocious way the shows are edited, the WWE template has been the way it is now since the end of the Attitude Era, the Crash-TV T&A product that enabled it to beat World Championship Wrestling’s formula of cool, edgy dads strangling every hope for the future. It’s the stars that have changed, and, in many ways, the ambitions of the company.
I want to point to 2012 as the year WWE became obsessed with bronzing its decades long ubiquity. It was the year David Shoemaker (then of Grantland, now of The Ringer) coined the phrase “Reality Era” for their product, which had a much nicer ring to it than “worked-shoot era,” which is what CM Punk’s infamous “pipebomb” promo supposedly launched. Grantland, you’ll recall, was a website published under the ESPN banner, and while ESPN and credibility aren’t exactly in the same neighborhood, Shoemaker’s coverage was the beginning of WWE becoming a part of the fabric of popular culture in a way it never had before, which is to say that online verticals, hungry for clicks, began treating WWE like a normal part of the television landscape. Buzzfeed, AV Club, Sports Illustrated — outlets that would have covered WWE once or twice a year around WrestleMania — started doing so more frequently, and while a lot of that coverage was (and is) rather tepid, it’s the kind of hokum that WWE lives for as a company.
The most notable change in WWE programming is the Women’s Revolution, which, stripped of its pomp and circumstance, was the company’s noble realization that women, too, were capable of wresting. Old trademarks and butterfly-and-vagina adorned championships were retired in favor of an on-air promise that the women’s division would be taken seriously. It helped early on, when the company gave the trio of Paige, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch the name “Submission Sorority,” that the bar for success was incredibly low, but for the most part they’ve followed through on that promise in a way they’ve otherwise never done. Its NXT developmental program did the hard work of training an audience who’d been previously trained to not care about women’s wresting to get invested in it. The lengthier, more grueling contests on NXT Takeovers translated well to Raw and SmackDown!, and at the Royal Rumble, the women went on last.
My issue with the presentation of women’s wrestling in the “Reality Era” is how smugly WWE has gone about this transition, noting every first time ever gimmick match as if ticking off boxes this late in a 20-year stretch of presenting women’s wrestling is something to be proud of, rather than be embarrassed by. That it has chosen to front Stephanie McMahon as the genius figurehead behind these changes when, in her role as chief of creative, she and her father Vince McMahon were responsible for overseeing the era it was so ashamed of is a hard enough pill to swallow before considering how easily the click-hungry sites offhandedly covering its shows eat WWE’s ongoing act of contrition up.
Stephanie McMahon, hardly content to give a speech about the need for a women’s Royal Rumble, was also a guest commentator, introduced by WWE lead announcer Michael Cole as “a former women’s champion in her own right” and, at the conclusion of the match, congratulated by him as a “trailblazer,” as if she been directly responsible for the labor of the match itself. McMahon, giving one of the worst calls in the history of the company, replied “congratulations to us all.” It was the lit candle on a cake the company has wanted to eat since the beginning of its self-fashioned, media-fueled revolution, and one of a few calls McMahon made that had me wincing because my institutional memory of the company goes back far enough to see through the smokescreen of the evening’s many surprise entrants to the way those women were treated in an era the company would rather I forget.
It’s hard to know where to start. There’s Lita, the first surprise entrant, whose ring gear bore the Time’s Up hashtag and whose arms had the names of women in WWE’s past who weren’t alive for the match. Forced into the role of the slut after her very public break-up with Matt Hardy, her eventual retirement from WWE involved a tag team stealing things from her locker room so they could auction them off in front of her. The items included a pair of panties, which they encouraged commentator John Bradshaw Layfield to sniff before throwing them into the crowd, and a vibrator. The last surprise entrant, Trish Stratus, was once forced to bark like a dog and strip in the middle of the ring at the behest of Vince McMahon, her real-life and kayfabe boss, and, as the storyline going into WrestleMania 17 went, his mistress. Lita and Stratus, in case you’re wondering, are held up by WWE as the best two women wrestlers in company history.
Other entrants in the Royal Rumble fared about as well. Torrie Wilson, who, like Stratus, was also written in as one of Vince McMahon’s mistresses in that man’s unending quest to prove his virility, is otherwise most famous for a storyline in which her (kayfabe) dad married another woman on the roster, had sex with her, and died. Molly Holly, who, between the brief period where WWE partnered with Japanese promotion AJW and had the likes of Aja Kong and Bull Nakano on the roster and the current influx of talent, may be the most talented woman the WWE employed, was subjected to ridicule for being a prude and worked a program with Stratus booked entirely on the premise that she had a big ass and wore “granny panties.” McMahon referred to this as “defying stereotypes.”
None of this is to say that the women’s Royal Rumble wasn’t good. It was great, in fact, one of the most thrilling I can recall. Even the most questionable decisions in the match, like having Michelle McCool run roughshod and eliminate a slew of women who were going to be on the card the next day, had a logic to them, as McCool was, as noted on commentary, one of the tallest women in the match. The WWE’s women’s division is deep, and the returns of women like Lita, Stratus, Holly, and Beth Phoenix served only to highlight that, as they acquit themselves very well after years of inactivity. Battle royals are a great means of hiding flaws — not only ring rust, but how young many of the women in the match are to wrestling — but if any of those women had a short run on one of WWE’s brands or, like Mickie James, stuck around for awhile, they would not only add something to a roster that is capable of supporting more than one story at a time, but they might get to leave WWE with more dignity than they were afforded before the press started paying attention.
The male gaziness of WWE’s presentation of women’s wrestling was historically awful, and I mean “historical” in the sense that no other major wrestling promotion did it as poorly as they chose to do it. At least half of the women in that match had at one point or another been ridiculed for being fat, promiscuous, ugly, or insane. WWE is probably right to think they can simply drop the curtain on all of that and move on with zero culpability, but it is jarring to see and hear it happening in real time, not to mention frustrating. The underlying message of the transition to the current way of doing things is that the old way sucked. It did, but to put the burden of that on the women whose only crime was suffering through the Diva era is not only insulting, but actively hinders what they’re trying to accomplish by not acknowledging how the company’s culture has changed.
The match ultimately served that narrative purpose, highlighting the good of the past and rewriting the bad, transitioning from women like Lita and Stratus to Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Asuka. It wasn’t necessary, but it was incredibly well done, right down to the final two participants being Nikki Bella and Asuka. Nikki Bella, along with her sister Brie, are 10 year veterans of the WWE system, two models who were hired, as the story goes, because the man in charge of hiring wrestlers at the time thought they were attractive. Like Stratus before them, they ground it out for years and, in the process, became good professional wrestlers. Early in the WWE’s public push for the Women’s Revolution, the Bella Twins existed as its foils, the women who were supposed to remind the viewer of how bad things were, but it’s possible to make a case for Nikki as the most improved wrestler over the past five or six years, a compelling face or heel whose victory last night, had it happened, would have been an earned one.
That it came down to her and Asuka made things tense. Asuka, like men’s Rumble winner Shinsuke Nakamura, is something the WWE has never had before, a wrestler too good, too uniquely charismatic to be saddled with the company’s usual hang-ups about Japanese wrestlers. Her win felt like a foregone conclusion unless, as the rumor went, Ronda Rousey was the surprise last entrant. When the former UFC Champion didn’t show during the match, my relief was palpable. But, just before Asuka was able to choose which champion she wanted to fight, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” hit and Rousey emerged, wearing “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s clothes and possessing none of his fire. Silently, Asuka was the star of a moment that should have been hers but ultimately wasn’t, impossible to look away from while Rousey glowered and pointed at the WrestleMania sign, arms too short to make it out of Piper’s jacket. In that moment, however, it was Rousey and McMahon at the center of everything, a manufactured moment projected onto the real one happening over Asuka, Bliss, and Flair, and a choice that may ultimately come down to Rousey picking her poison instead of the winner of the Royal Rumble, despite the former getting washed in her last professional fight and the later’s billing as an undefeated phenom.
For now (and likely forever), WWE is content with surface-level sheen and the empty praise of the outlets that are happy to provide it. That’s why Ronda Rousey’s debut as an active concern in the women’s division, taking the heat from Asuka and placing the focus on her and McMahon was ultimately a fitting way of ending the show. Sure, Rousey is a transphobic Sandy Hook truther who looked lost the last time she was in a UFC bout, but she’s a brand people know and respond to, someone whose name looks good in headlines. If there’s one thing that’s been true of the Reality Era since it started, it’s that WWE trusts that, and is content to bury its flaws beneath that recognition, more than it trusts the stories and characters they’ve built on their own.