Charlotte Flair entered the second event at WrestleMania 34 with the glamour and theatrics of a stadium-tour sell-out pop star who could also casually figure-eight leg-lock you into submission in under 10 seconds.
The heir apparent to her father’s hallmark “Woo!” arrived for her SmackDown Women’s Championship match with Asuka in a gold robe, flanked by a trio of men in matching metallic ensembles and feathered helmets. Her aesthetic — from her long, blond waves to the denim-blue, looping “Flair” logo that flashed across screens — looked like what Taylor Swift might have designed had she turned her Fearless tour into a Roman coronation. As Flair stood up from her gold throne, dropped her robe, and began to march down the walkway to the ring, the women behind me gasped and shouted, “Oh. My. God.” The crowd, which had dutifully sat through a lukewarm triple-threat match opener, began to cheer. Asuka, the Japanese wunderkind, followed in a blaze of Technicolor graphics to match her sequined suit and DayGlo hair, and took the stage with the confidence reserved for athletes bold enough to go by one name.
At the conclusion of their 13-minute match, Asuka’s 914-day undefeated streak had been broken, and a tearful Flair hoisted the belt before the pair hugged. “Charlotte was ready for Asuka,” Asuka said, still winded. “Congratulations.”
Critics could disagree, but as a spectator — specifically one sitting in the section of the Superdome where fans use binoculars, and crowd vibes are as important as, or more important than, the action — Charlotte vs. Asuka was clearly one of the best matches of the night. Tense, fun, dramatic, and athletic, a few years ago it would have been unthinkable.
Not only was it the first women’s one-on-one match of the night, it was the first women’s one-on-one match at WrestleMania in 11 years. The night included appearances from seven female performers in three matches — an impressive number, considering that just five years ago, at WrestleMania 29, there were no female events.
The “Women’s Revolution,” as WWE has carefully branded it, has picked up stride in the past three years. The debut of Ronda Rousey and the Charlotte Flair–vs.-Asuka and Nia Jax–vs.–Alexa Bliss pairings solidified the moment. On Sunday, the Revolution finally Evolved.
Just one decade ago, the lone female representation in WrestleMania 24 was a Playboy BunnyMania Lumberjill Match. Snoop Dogg introduced Ashley and Maria as “two fly hunnies who are all about the Playboy bunny.” The pair of Playboy cover girls wore bikini sets and leather corsets with feathered wings attached to their shoulders.
“Interesting combat attire,” announcer Jim Ross said. His broadcast partner, Jerry Lawler, responded, “I think they get their wrestling gear at Victoria’s Secret, don’t you think?”
From below the ring, Snoop Dogg sat in a throne to take in the match; at one point, Lawler suggested he may have to have his smile “surgically removed” after his proximity to the fight, which lasted exactly five minutes, clocking in as the second-shortest event of the evening. The women were, in that moment, reduced to little more than eye candy for Snoop and a timed bathroom break for the rest of the crowd.
As Ashley, Maria, Beth Phoenix, and Melina duked it out in the ring, Lumberjills swarmed the ropes, forming a nameless, faceless crowd of sleek hair, bodycon dresses, and indeterminate screeching. By the end, it was Santino Marella who swooped in to pull Maria’s leg, and he seemed to garner much of the camera time and credit for the final result.
It was much of the same the following year when the ladies took the stage for a “Miss WrestleMania” 25-competitor battle royal. It played out like a parody of a parody of an attempt at gender equality. The women started grabbing hair and delivering exaggerated elbows as soon as Kid Rock (an inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame this weekend) finished performing. At seven minutes and two seconds, it was again the second-shortest event of the night (the WWE Intercontinental Championship lasted 21 seconds). As the 24 other performers clustered in pairs and groups of three, Marella, dressed as his twin sister “Santina” in a black wig and pink miniskirt (the announcer later suggested “she” shops plus size), scuttled up to pairs of fights and then backed up, evading any actual contact until he tossed Melina and Beth Phoenix over the ropes with one swift flick.
Imagine, for a second, throwing any of Sunday’s performers into that cluster. They would finish off the competition in minutes. Back then, the women were showcased for “little cat fights,” said Tabitha, a mother of four daughters I met in the concourse at the Superdome on Sunday evening. She was headed to the upper levels with three of her girls — ages 9, 8, and 4 — to join her father, her husband, and her 11-year-old for the final event of the night. She had begun watching with her dad years ago, and the family had made the two-hour-plus drive from Sunset, Louisiana.
When Tabitha began watching, she was one of few girls she knew tuning in, and as a self-described tomboy, gravitated toward Lita.
“She was more tomboyish, and she wasn’t pulling hair and slapping. She fought like a man, and that was my favorite thing about her. And now that’s what the women do,” she said.
“I like that they like it, because when I watched, it was mostly boys watching,” she said of her daughters. And of the added female matches to the card: “It’s more empowering.”
Tabitha’s daughters, dressed in matching paisley-print dresses, were in awe of Ronda Rousey, who defeated Stephanie McMahon and Triple H with Kurt Angle as part of the mixed tag-team match. Rousey entered to her signature song, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” in thick black eyeliner, a white sports bra branded with “Rowdy” in red and yellow font, and basic black spandex — a declarative statement that she does not give a damn about what one expects of a female WWE personality, and she will not adorn herself in glitter, feathers, nor impractical lingerie to pummel Triple H in a corner. Her debut was an undisputed highlight of the evening, and her ferocity and approach were unmatched. Stephanie was not enough for her; at one moment, Triple H seemed to question the ref about whether or not he could go up against Rousey. The answer was a resounding “yes” from the officials and the crowd, and the pair delivered. In that minute, Rousey was miles beyond the women’s fare of WWE past.
Rousey swept in at a time when women in the industry had already put in years of work to elevate the women’s cards to their current state. The phrasing of the “WWE Women’s Revolution” evokes an image of latex-clad women holding protest signs. In reality, it’s been more functional: added events and revised terminology.
The “Revolution” began in 2015, when the sole women’s match on Raw — featuring Nikki and Brie Bella, Paige, and Emma — lasted a grand total of 29 seconds. Fans angrily took up the hashtag “#GiveDivasAChance.” Within 24 hours, Vince McMahon had responded, acknowledging their demands.
His daughter, Stephanie, told ESPN that she noticed the hashtag as soon as it started trending.
“Our fans spoke out. It was a global trend that was so loud and so powerful,” she said. “It was a cry for our female performers to be given longer match time and to be given more meaningful story lines and to have deeper character development.”
A little more than a year later, the label “Diva” was dropped, ceremoniously, in a triple-threat bout at WrestleMania 32 that included three of the “Four Horsewomen” — Flair, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch—who had made their name as a stable in NXT. They also dropped the ridiculous Divas title belt in favor of one that looked like the men’s belt. The match lasted 16:03 — one of the longer events of the evening — and the inaugural Women’s WWE Championship was announced. Women were no longer “divas,” implicitly a fluffy supporting role adjacent to the men, but equally cast as “superstars.”
“I hated being called that,” Sasha Banks told GQ months later. “‘Oh, so you’re a Diva?’ No, I’m a wrestler, dude. I would not walk around with that butterfly belt ever, ever, ever. I was bitching my heart out. As a kid, seeing that butterfly belt, my heart broke. I was like, you’re just showing that it’s not the same as the guys. It made me so angry.”
Courtney Christoff, a 31-year-old from Atlanta who has been an on-and-off wrestling fan for 15 years, admitted to me, almost guiltily, that she was a Charlotte Flair fan — “I like the extra,” she said of Flair’s fanfare and dress. But she was never fond of the female branding in the organization, especially the pink, sequined butterfly belt. “I feel like it really was when they changed the belt,” she said of the increasing intensity of women’s events. “I was like, ‘Thank you!’ It’s a more serious tone to me.”
WWE still reverts back to old and easy tropes when pitting two female competitors. In the second half of the night, the tag-team match of Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn ran along a story line in which the latter pair were fighting to win back their jobs at SmackDown. The underlying animosity played up in the next match, between Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax? That Bliss had called her former friend Jax fat, leaning into her skinny, blond, mean-girl character.
“She’s just as dumb as she is big,” Bliss said in the video that played before the match, and in the introductions, WWE doubled down by announcing Jax’s weight (272 pounds) but somehow forgetting Bliss’s.
Later, in the team hotel, a crowd of media and personnel ended up in an elevator with Jax. A 5-year-old girl had somehow made it into the scrum with her family and stood, transfixed, in awe of Jax’s presence. Jax noticed the girl staring up at her and knelt down. “Did you have fun?” she asked. The girl was stricken momentarily, then nodded. “Were you cheering for me?” Jax asked the girl. She nodded again. “OK, just making sure,” Jax said, then waited a beat before exclaiming: “We did it!” The girl, somehow broken out of her wonderment, lit up with a smile.
Steps forward, like Jax’s and Bliss’s actual match, can still drag the exhausted portrayal of female wrestlers. But a 5-year-old girl now might have the chance to watch Jax on the biggest stage in WWE for years to come. For Bliss, even having her name on the card is a significant step up from her last time in New Orleans. At WrestleMania 30, Bliss didn’t wrestle — she wasn’t yet on the main roster. Instead, she served as one of the women flanking Triple H as he made his royal-themed entrance on a throne. Bliss, preening on the side in a mask, was joined by two other women. One was Banks. And the third, Flair, would have to wait just four more years to return to the Superdome to co-opt the scene and make it her own. This time, she was replete with the theatrics, the gold, the trio of men, and most importantly, the singles match status.