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Does WWE Really Want a Revolution?

WWE’s half-hearted effort to change the wrestling world

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In the fall of 2016, I take the train to Chicago to watch an all-women’s wrestling show. Not the first of its kind, not by a long shot, but it’s the first I’ve been to: a production of Shimmer Women Athletes, an independent promotion founded in 2005 with the goal of showcasing the world’s finest female wrestlers, women who — at the time — had few options when it came to plying their formidable skills on a grander stage.

A ring has been set up under the crown molding and fluorescent lights of Logan Square Auditorium, and a few hundred folding chairs surround the ropes. Heaps of merchandise form a blockade along one wall, each table helmed by a wrestler selling shirts with her own slogan on them, posters of her own face. In the 10-plus years of Shimmer’s existence, performers from Beth Phoenix to Becky Lynch (and Natalya, Paige, Bayley, Asuka, Ember Moon, Billie Kay, and more) have been part of the roster; Sara Del Rey — also known as Sara Amato, the assistant head coach of World Wrestling Entertainment’s developmental division — was Shimmer’s inaugural champion.

Tonight, the championship is carried by Mercedes Martinez, a 16-year veteran of the independent wrestling circuit and a sneering heel inside the ring. Outside of it, she’s confident and kind, sure-footed in her answers to my questions. “Respect,” she says, without a second thought, when I ask about the draw of competing for an all-women’s promotion. “Sometimes, when you’re on a male-dominated show and you’re the only female match, they tend not to pay attention,” Martinez says. “They think you’re just an attraction. Whereas on an all-female show, the audience is here to see the female athletes.”

The rapidly filling rows around me back her up. “Shimmer is my love and my home,” Martinez adds; she’s been with the promotion since the beginning. The company seems like home to a number of the people around me, wrestlers and fans alike, shouting back and forth across the aisles and tables, waving to old friends and greeting new ones. The energy is electric and comfortable, all at once, and everyone I interview is delighted to talk, effusive in their passion and camaraderie.

Martinez will star in the night’s show-stopper of a bout, dropping her title to Kellie Skater in an upset that draws the roaring crowd to its feet. Other matches feature the tag-team champions Evie and Heidi Lovelace, who soon will become better known to WWE audiences as Dakota Kai and Ruby Riott; future competitors in WWE’s Mae Young Classic like Shayna Baszler, Tessa Blanchard, Nicole Matthews, and Mia Yim; and a petite, auburn-haired wrangler in cowboy boots named Mickie James.

The event is a homecoming of sorts for James, who began her career on the independent circuit in 1999 and has long been friends with several members of the Shimmer team, though it’s her first go-round on the roster. In just over a week, she’ll enter a WWE ring for the first time since she was released from the company in 2010 after a five-year, multichampionship run. It isn’t clear whether her upcoming WWE match is a onetime thing or the start of a longer comeback, and James is justifiably coy — “Never say never!” — when I ask about her return to the big stage.

“Whatever comes of it,” James tells me, her smile bright, “I’m gonna go away a happy girl, because I got to come back and do something a little different with my career.”

Two years have passed since that event, and James has returned to full-time work with WWE. On Sunday she’s scheduled to tag with Alexa Bliss against the Hall of Fame duo of Trish Stratus and Lita at WWE Evolution, the company’s first pay-per-view to feature only female performers. Announced in July by WWE’s chief brand officer and resident woman, Stephanie McMahon, Evolution was pitched as a triumph, the apex of the arduous climb that women in wrestling have made over the last century — or, for WWE’s purposes, over the last three and a half years, since a 30-second match (the only women’s segment in three hours of Raw) spurred fans to demand the company #GiveDivasAChance.

WWE and its chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon, crave mainstream recognition, though they never seem to anticipate when and with what strength that desire will backfire. On February 23, 2015, the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag began trending worldwide on Twitter and stayed there for days, covered by outlets like BuzzFeed along with the usual wrestling websites; the McMahons were forced to respond, assuring fans that their complaints were being heard. More interesting — and less remembered, as the interaction doesn’t factor into WWE’s myth-building version of events — were then-wrestler AJ Lee’s two tweets on February 24, in which she accused Stephanie McMahon of hypocrisy: McMahon had praised Patricia Arquette’s Oscars call for equal pay in the film industry, while WWE’s female performers received — and still receive — a laughable fraction of what their male counterparts do.

That Lee’s point — and Lee herself, a fan favorite and three-time champion — has been ignored by the narrative heading into Evolution isn’t surprising, given the company’s constant scrubbing of its own historical record. But the elision of her financial concern, with its possibility of a quantifiable benchmark for success, into the broader, hazier, hashtag-friendly “Divas Revolution” and “Women’s Evolution” (terms soon introduced by the company) speaks to just how completely and terrifically WWE — the largest player in an industry built on crafting narratives of justice, redemption, and the triumph of plucky underdogs — can simplify every story line, even its own. In the streamlined WWE version of events, Evolution is precisely what was promised, nothing less. #GiveDivasAChance, the fans said, not give them equal treatment, not give them equal pay. No, give them simply a chance, because we’d watched the women of Shimmer, or Shine, or a dozen other dedicated companies (NXT, WWE’s own developmental product, among them). We’d watched those women fight and fly and we knew precisely the remarkable, beautiful, breathtaking things they could do with a chance, once given. The rest — we thought, perhaps foolishly — would follow.

One of wrestling’s greatest enticements is its blurring of fact and fiction, the way the curtained world seems to intrude on scripted story lines and choreographed matches, and the way those story lines and matches manage, in turn, to conjure real consequences from illusory parts. Wins and losses might be predetermined, but they tell us something about the greater machinations at work; they are prophecies as well as plot points in an endless narrative. This is why, for the last three years, every WWE segment involving women — not just the Iron Woman and Hell in a Cell matches, not just the Royal Rumble and the main events, but every five-minute match and valet role — has been of interest to me: This accumulation of moments tells the story behind the story line.

Many of those moments have been giddy-making, inviting cheers from the crowd and my couch at home. In July 2015, fresh off a series of show-stealing matches in NXT, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks were called up to the main roster, an energizing influx of talent. At the next WrestleMania, the trio competed for the newly unveiled Women’s Championship: The appallingly pink butterfly belt and “Diva” moniker were no more. In the following months and years, more gifted performers — Bayley and Asuka, Ruby Riott and Ember Moon — arrived on the scene, and skilled veterans — Naomi, Natalya — were rejuvenated. Those headlining matches happened, and the weekly screen time given to the women grew.

Each of these steps, whether leaping or incremental, was no small thing, and the total distance traversed is staggering. (Compare this Raw in spring 2015, say, to last week’s, or consider the odds you would have given then for women ever main-eventing WrestleMania, a scenario now likely to happen as soon as next year.) But when Evolution was announced this summer, it felt less like forward progression than a necessary rectification, a catching-up. Women hadn’t been allowed to compete at April’s Greatest Royal Rumble event, WWE’s first collaboration with Saudi Arabia: The Saudi royal family was paying reportedly outrageous sums of money in exchange for a mega-event in Jeddah and nonstop lip service to the country’s claims of progress. (That such so-called progress failed to make room for WWE’s female performers — and in the midst of the “Women’s Evolution,” too! — was pointedly skirted by the company’s spokespeople.) The Evolution pay-per-view felt like a gesture toward balancing those still-lopsided scales, an all-female event to match the all-male one. The women would get to work, at least and at last.

But then, in September, WWE announced its return to Saudi Arabia: The Crown Jewel pay-per-view would take place in Riyadh on November 2, just five days after Evolution. The women, needless to say, were not invited, because of the country’s laws restricting what women’s rights in the name of “community values,” and those golden scales crashed back, imbalanced again. Within the week, more matches had been announced for Crown Jewel (two) than for Evolution (one), and televised mentions of the former regularly outpaced the latter. The creeping sense that Evolution was a latent and lackluster apology, a preemptive PR stunt and act of coddling, became unavoidable. This nauseating sensation hardly abated when, in the weeks to come, the Saudi government (those folks so recently praised by WWE’s company brass and commentators alike for their forward-thinking agenda) made international headlines when Turkey accused it of sending operatives to Istanbul to brutally kill a dissident journalist.

Actions speak louder than words, even in wrestling. The constant platitudes offered by WWE — from touting the newfound equality of their female performers (never mind what they’re getting paid) to insisting that progress won’t come to Saudi Arabia without the company’s courageous engagement and influence — only highlight the vast disparity between what is said and what is done. As wrestling fans, we’re used to suspending our disbelief, but those pulleys go only so high. As Crown Jewel approaches and WWE seems determined to duck and run through it, the whole stage threatens to come crashing down.

As for Evolution, the event has been buried just about as thoroughly as a pay-per-view can be, by the company’s actions both intended and not. Going into last week’s Raw, only five matches had been announced for the show. The long-teased Women’s Tag Titles haven’t come to be, making questionable past decisions — like halting a red-hot Sasha Banks–vs.-Bayley feud only to have the two make clumsy amends — look downright idiotic. And a last-minute Battle Royal has been added to the card to occupy every woman not otherwise engaged, including Hall of Famers Alundra Blayze and Ivory, rising (if currently stymied) stars like Asuka and Nia Jax, and beloved characters like Naomi — all of whom have earned more prominent positions at the event their hard work (or so we’re told by any number of inspiring montages) has created.

The lack of attention paid to women’s story lines, the lack of respect given to much of the female roster, the lack of promotion and focus amid the unconscionable mess of the men’s event — in so many ways, Evolution is historic, just as the company claims. The whole thing is entirely consistent with history.

Back in Chicago in 2016, the man seated next to me is chatting with a guy in front of us. It seems like they know each other, but they might merely be joined by the shared fervor of their fandom: for wrestling, yes, but for women’s wrestling in particular. “What’s that book that’s coming out?” one asks the other. (It is Sisterhood of the Squared Circle; they pull up the cover on a phone.) “Have you seen Lipstick & Dynamite?” the other asks, and the one nods. “It’s so good.”

Both are as withering in their opinion of WWE as they are enthusiastic about the evening before us; the air quotes are audible when one says the phrase “sports entertainment.” “Honestly,” says the other, “if it weren’t for Shimmer, I probably wouldn’t even be a wrestling fan.” This allegiance to anything independent over the televised monopoly, an insistent division of substance from spectacle and talent from stardom, is a common position among ardent lovers of the sport. There’s a measure of truth to this sentiment, of course, with just a little silliness tacked on, too — much like wrestling itself.

When it comes to the women, however, it’s hard to argue with the observation that substance and talent weren’t a regular priority for WWE until recently. James, Stratus, Lita, Jacqueline, Chyna, and others of their generation were forced to sublimate their skills into few, trite, and usually sexist story lines; the years that followed, between roughly 2005 and 2015 — during which Shimmer attracted its loyal audience — were marked in WWE by a lack of even those story lines, as the Women’s Championship became the Divas Championship and match times shrank again.

The man next to me, skeptical as he is of all things McMahon, is happy to see female wrestlers getting more mainstream attention. “They’re finally realizing, hey, there are women that can do this,” he says, crediting Shimmer and indie promotions like it with showing WWE the way. “These girls are amazing; they’re not just a pretty face.”

They’re not just a pretty face that night in Logan Square: They are faces, they are heels. Across the board, their hair is real, their makeup done themselves. They perform tombstone piledrivers and suicide dives, suplexes and super kicks. They come from Detroit and Los Angeles and Deadhorse, Alaska, from Belfast and Tokyo and Sydney and Vancouver, from high in the sky, from somewhere over the rainbow. They weigh in at a hundred pounds and at two hundred, at sixty-six kilos and at ten-stone-two, at four hundred cupcakes and all of your long-term fitness goals. (Only recently and very, very occasionally has WWE begun mentioning the weight of some female performers, while every man’s weight is announced with his entrance.)

“Shimmer’s the one promotion that didn’t give in,” my neighbor says. Give in to what, I couldn’t say, exactly, though I have a hunch. But I’m less interested in the endlessly discussed chasm between WWE and its independent counterparts than in the many bridges that span it: Most of the women stepping between the ropes before me dream of a bigger stage, and many of them will get there. (“I don’t need to be on TV to help someone get to TV,” says Martinez, the consummate mentor. “Whether I get on TV or not, if someone I helped can get there, that’s even better.”) When Mickie James makes her entrance at Logan Square Auditorium in the fall of 2016, it’s with the same high spirits she’ll muster the next week, the next month, the next year, before crowds 50 times this size, and the crowd’s response will be the same: Welcome back! To the ring, to the ongoing story. The seeds of this — yes, sure — revolution in women’s wrestling are countless and indeterminate, scattered across the country and the world. To imagine such a sea change might have a single, definable, celebratory endpoint is as much of a folly as to imagine it has a single beginning. If there’s one, there are a million.

Watching a first-round episode of this year’s Mae Young Classic on WWE’s subscription service, I had to pause and rewind the show three times, certain that I’d misheard something. Michael Cole, the longtime voice of Raw, had taken on a new role as the play-by-play commentator for the 2018 tournament, and in the course of praising the globe-spanning talent of the women involved, he did something nearly unheard of in WWE commentary: He said something unpredictable. The word that had grabbed my attention was “humiliated” — Cole said, quite plainly, that he’d humiliated the women of NXT back in 2010, when the developmental product was structured as a reality show and the female competitors introduced in the third season were put through a pageant-style gantlet, accompanied by commentary that ranged from merely dismissive to decidedly cruel.

What made Cole’s brief admission as shocking a plot twist as anything the squared circle could muster? WWE loves to talk about history, not merely in the current effort to promote its female stars, but across the board: Every new matchup is historic, every newly named pay-per-view, every invented or stolen stipulation. Then, Now, Forever reads the screen before every show, arguing for a continuous timeline, a noble legacy. But the always dubious facts of that legacy are written and rewritten constantly, shifted and erased to suit the current needs. These days, that means ignoring the company’s responsibility for its degrading treatment of women, a norm that continued into the very near present. (The notable exceptions to this rule — Wendi Richter’s starring turn, Blayze’s great feud with Bull Nakano — also go unmentioned, because if women once performed well enough to capture and hold an audience’s fervent attention, what on earth could have happened to halt that evolution?) A bizarre logic puzzle is presented by WWE’s denial amid the celebration: If this is a revolution, what are our lauded heroines revolting against? If it’s an evolution, what exactly are they evolving from? There’s an empty space where the past should be.

For the company’s flagship voice to rend that illusion, even for a second, highlighted just how unwavering the agreed-upon narrative usually is. Only on the smaller stage of the Mae Young Classic (where Cole, incidentally, has been so much more likable than he is as the sycophantic narrator of Raw; he actually seems to like wrestling!), only under the concentrated pressure of the brilliant women performing before him, and only without Vince McMahon in his ear — all too rare a moment — did Cole let slip a true statement.

Instead, the tension between past and present is left to be worked out by the women themselves. As surely as WWE insists it’s made irrevocable progress from the indignities of the Divas era (and everything lumped under that heading), the moniker keeps popping up, usually in the promos of babyface standard-bearers. Charlotte accused Carmella of being “a diva living in a women’s era” this summer; last week, Ronda Rousey blamed Nikki and Brie Bella for perpetuating a stereotype, saying, “Everything that the Divas era stood for made me sick to my stomach.”

These lines were said in story line, of course, designed to fuel feuds for the championship titles — and the underrated Carmella leaned charmingly into Charlotte’s formulation, taking the insult as a compliment. But Rousey’s promo, in which she expresses disgust at the Diva years while relying on one of the era’s go-to assumptions — that successful women slept their way to the top — reveals yet another flaw in the rarely solid logic of WWE plotting: Even as the company tries to distance itself from its recent past, its writers — or the wrestlers themselves — fall back on the tropes of that time, putting crude formulations into the mouths of babyfaces.

It’s a great coup for the company to turn Divadom into a heel shtick, chosen by certain women rather than forced upon all of them. The weight of responsibility is shunted aside, and the perceived division between those who are just-a-pretty-face and the real wrestlers is continued, even amplified, instead of dissolved. (The current season of Total Divas, the E! reality show, airs on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET — the same time as the Mae Young Classic, WWE’s showcase for women’s wrestling.) It makes for a hell of a feud, even if the true heel is the one behind the scenes, pulling the strings.

But it’s so much easier to blame individuals for the failings of a system than the system itself — that system works for us, after all, bringing us the wrestling we adore and threatening to take it away. This isn’t to say that every female employee of the WWE has worked for — or even desired — greater gender equality within the company: Women are not a monolith. The retraction of the Fabulous Moolah’s name from a Memorial Battle Royal at this year’s WrestleMania is evidence of the complexity of individual legacies. We learn to take the good with the bad, and we try not to think about the fact that the same people, the same company, to whom we give not just our time and our money but our foolish love, can be responsible for both: what we admire, what we despise.

Within the same week, even.

Among the canniest of WWE’s many branding moves over the last three years was the decision to transform the “Divas’ Revolution” into a “Women’s Evolution.” A revolution must be fought, demanded, the result of protest and effort and rage, while evolution occurs naturally. We don’t need to worry about it, the term assures us: Progress will perpetuate itself. But WWE has always been a product of intelligent (or not-so-intelligent, depending on how you feel about the McMahons) design, and survival of the fittest goes only so far, fitted as it must be to the company’s monopoly and monarchic ownership.

I can’t help seeing this terminological slippage, this shifting of onus and cause, paralleled in a more insidious form in WWE’s coordinated response to questions about the company’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Change is sure to come, goes the company line, implying that WWE’s very presence will be the cause of that change, given enough time; nothing more is required. No protest, no effort, no rage. (With so much money on the table, I suppose there’s no room for anything else.) “The wrestlers want the fantasy to be real,” Chyna once said. “They get lost in it. They believe their own shit.” The most generous read I can offer the current fray is this: The wrestlers aren’t the only ones.

When I asked my neighbor at Logan Square Auditorium who his favorite performer was, he knew right away. “Heidi Lovelace,” he said, pointing her out. Lovelace — a.k.a. Ruby Riott — will lead her squad in a three-on-three match this Sunday at Evolution. Shayna Baszler will battle for the NXT Women’s Championship. Mickie James will renew her rivalries of a decade ago, and this time around the same women might get a little more match time, a little more focus on their wrestling skill, a little more of that much-discussed respect, than the last time they clashed.

Many of the women I saw that night in Chicago now wrestle before thousands instead of hundreds; a corporation designs and sells their T-shirts for them; they make a good deal more money than they once did (even if still nowhere near what their male counterparts do). “I just feel like I’ve always tried to be a great wrestler, not just a woman wrestler, not just have a good match for a girl,” James told me in 2016. “It’s always been my hope and desire to see women treated with the same respect and looked at as equally valuable, as much of a marquee match, as the men, and now that’s really starting to happen.”

“You know, I was one of them,” she added, as we watched Shimmer’s rookies break down the ring, rolling up the mats they’d been slammed upon a few hours before. “I was on the indies, struggling and praying and hoping for a dream to come true, and I hope that for every single one of them.” The dream itself and the likelihood of it coming true have both improved since James began wrestling almost 20 years ago. Little girls watching WWE today don’t have to contend (quite as much) with their heroes being dismissed as sidekicks and sex objects; their goal of standing in a WrestleMania ring seems only as unlikely as that of any would-be star, boy or girl.

Stephanie McMahon has said that her aim is for women to make up half of WWE’s roster. It’s an admirable, if obvious, goal. (More women writing and producing would be a nice step, too, as would more voices like Renee Young’s on commentary and more referees like NXT’s Jessika Carr and Aubrey Edwards.) If we get there, however, it will be worth remembering that equity isn’t the same as equality. If the number of women in the ring rises to match the men, perhaps that should clue us in to the likelihood that the ring isn’t where the power lies. “Wrestlers have never been more talented and responsible,” former WWE star and current independent playmaker Cody Rhodes tweeted, teasing the long-sought, long-stymied promise of organized labor in wrestling. “The people in charge of wrestlers have never been more clueless and irresponsible // Need to band together.”

That sure smacks of revolution, doesn’t it? The best moments in this vast world of wrestling tend to — whether sanctioned or not, whether scripted or independent. The truest feelings of achievement in the last few years of women’s wrestling have come at a remove from the corporate creaking of WWE’s levers: not Stephanie McMahon’s self-congratulatory call-up of Banks, Flair, and Lynch, but the crowd-rousing moments in the match that had already made them stars. Not the shining new championship belt itself but the sight of those same women striding down the long WrestleMania ramp to claim it. Not the announcement of the women’s Royal Rumble but a returning Lita entering at number five, charging toward the ring, pulling off a hoodie to reveal “#TIMESUP” written on her T-shirt.

And, most recently, I watched from the comfort of my couch as Mercedes Martinez wrestled Japanese legend Meiko Satomura in the second round of the 2018 Mae Young Classic. A combined 40 years of experience stood in the ring, 40 years of two women hurling their bodies at the bodies of others, and holding those bodies up. The match was shiver-inducing, powerful and flawless, and I gasped and clapped and cheered like a kid.

I want to cheer on Sunday, too; I want WWE to do what it does best and make kids of all of us watching. My expectations for the company might not be high, but so many of the women involved have proved, time and time again, that they thrive on blowing expectations — of fans and employers alike — right out of the water. Whatever comes or doesn’t of Sunday’s pay-per-view, don’t let its name fool you: In countless rings and out of them, the revolution goes on.

Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.

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