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WWE’s Sexism Problem Is Just Getting Worse

As WWE puts on more women's matches, its history of sexism is becoming more and more of an issue
Jan 29, 2016 at 3:31 PM ET
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Just dudes, no chicks — Getty Images

Less than a year ago, on February 11, 2015, Full Sail University hosted NXT: Rival, an event put together for World Wrestling Entertainment’s developmental brand. The card featured something for everyone, including fans of women’s wrestling, as the NXT Women’s Championship was defended—for the first time—in a Fatal 4-Way match, with current titleholder Charlotte facing challengers Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch.

Over the course of that match, and many others across 2014 and 2015, those four women developed a reputation for tremendous ringwork, confident storytelling, and a shift in the perception of American women’s wrestling, which had, for some time, been treated as an afterthought in WWE. The competitors that February night also received a new nickname, “The Four Horsewomen,” a tribute to the famous 1980s National Wrestling Alliance stable that featured Charlotte’s father, Ric Flair.

“We’re changing the way people are going to look at wrestling, women’s wrestling, forever,” said Lynch (real name Rebecca Quin), in an interview last year for WWE.com, “Forever. And we’re at the start of it? That’s unbelievable.”

When three of the four were called up to WWE’s main roster in July of last year, as part of a much heralded “Divas Revolution” storyline, hopes were high that the breakthrough would continue on the company’s biggest stage. Progress has come in fits and starts, but the past couple of months have appeared to signal a breakthrough, with Charlotte, now holding WWE’s Divas Championship, fending off the challenge of Lynch, her (storyline) former friend and ally.

It’s a program built on past history, betrayal, and a cocky heel character willing to bend the rules against an earnest babyface determined to do things the right way.  In other words, some of the most effective tenets of professional wrestling, all of which culminated in a title match at this past Sunday’s Royal Rumble.

The match was expected to provide a satisfying coda to the feud. And then this happened.

There is no denying that WWE’s use of female talent has come a long way since the “Attitude Era”, when women were used as eye candy in ridiculous stunt matches or as mere objects in some of the company’s most degrading storylines, if they were featured at all. As the product has oriented itself towards a more family friendly, TV-PG direction, WWE has, to their credit, begun to embrace the notion of strong women, existing not merely as decoration, but as capable competitors.

Which is why a moment like Sunday’s—when a meaningful, high quality women’s match was interrupted by an elderly man’s unwanted advances—becomes so frustrating. Rather than adding anything of value to the contest, Flair’s actions took the audience out of it, forcing viewers to contemplate the strange display they just witnessed, rather than focusing on the action in the ring.  

Flair’s kiss becomes even more maddening given how utterly unnecessary it was, with the finish of the match coming after some additional, far less lecherous interference. Bringing sexual harassment into the storyline added little, if anything, to Flair’s villainy. The natural response from those protective of WWE would be to say that at least Flair is, in fact, a villain. When reached for comment on its treatment and presentation of female wrestlers, WWE representatives went with that line of reasoning:

“WWE programming, which features fictional characters that cover a range of personalities similar to movies and television shows, tells stories of good versus evil. In addition, as our on-going storylines develop, we will continue to position women as both strong competitors and compelling individuals.”

However, even if one excuses Flair’s actions as the actions of a villain, the same cannot be said of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the biggest crossover star in WWE history and pseudo-surprise guest on this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw. Part of Johnson’s appearance involved an extended bit with Lana, another of the company’s young female talents, which consisted of a rambling monologue about an apparent sexual encounter the two had last year. Even when Rusev, Lana’s fiancee both in storyline and reality, arrived on the scene The Rock continued to gleefully recall their X-rated antics, despite her obvious discomfort.

Sadly, such treatment is nothing new for Lana, real name C.J. Perry, who was once positioned in storyline as a strong, confident manager and mouthpiece for Rusev, the “Bulgarian Brute” who tore through much of the roster upon his arrival.  But before long, John Cena was calling her a “ho” and suggesting she performed favors to procure matches, rival Ryback was taunting her about “going all the way” with a fellow competitor, and lead commentator Michael Cole led off an interview by probing into her sexual history.  

What do all these characters have in common? They were positioned as babyfaces in their storylines, the good guys that fans were expected to support and cheer for. That, for far too long, has been the strange ethos of the WWE, where women are objects, crude name calling is to be cheered, and slut-shaming is righteous. Indeed, it is no secret that the company has a checkered, problematic past, not only with women, but with race, homophobia, and taking care of its own employees. The empire Vince McMahon built has a rather retrograde history, much like that of American professional wrestling, more broadly.

But today, given the incredible female talent at their disposal, the WWE has a real chance to become a more equitable, inclusive, forward-thinking space. To steal a phrase from WWE Vice President and current World Champion Triple H, it would also be “best for business,” given that providing women’s wrestling a bigger and better platform can only help broaden the fanbase. But to really get there, the company needs to discard the strands of chauvinism, degradation, and sexist humor that still bubble to the surface far too frequently.

Interestingly enough, one of the women who may have been instrumental in sparking the “Divas Revolution” isn’t actually a professional wrestler at all. According to rumors from behind the scenes, it was the mega-stardom of the UFC’s “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey that helped convince WWE leadership there was untapped potential in women’s professional wrestling. Rousey, an avid pro wrestling fan who formed her own “Four Horsewomen” MMA stable with three friends and training partners, even made an appearance at last March’s Wrestlemania 31, judo tossing Triple H across the ring and threatening to put Stephanie McMahon in her trademark armbar.

Alongside “Rowdy” that night?  None other than Dwayne Johnson, who first pulled Rousey from the crowd and recruited her to stand against the heel stable The Authority. It was a brilliant Wrestlemania moment, one that celebrated Rousey’s aura of strength and confidence.  

Here’s hoping that the next time The Rock comes back, it’ll be to embrace powerful women, rather than demean them. He’s quite clearly capable of more, and so too is WWE. Starting a “Revolution” is easy. Sustaining it is going to be the real work.