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How Women's Wrestling Triumphed, Even Though The Bosses Didn't Want Them To

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Have you ever been told something so many times that you start to believe that it’s true? Like bats are blind or that eating your crusts will make your hair go curly. Maybe you have heard that WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is currently amidst the ‘Women’s Revolution’? A movement to finally allow women to step out of the stereotypical bikini mud-wrestling shadow it was known for and rival the men with intense technical matches.

WWE put women’s wrestling into its dark ages and is now pretending they are single-handily orchestrating its renaissance.  But WWE is gaslighting its audience. They aren’t the solution. They are the problem.

To understand where we are now, you need to know where we were. This is a very abridged version of women’s wrestling history.

This ain’t as easy as G.L.O.W.

Women’s wrestling dates back to the early 1930’s, when wrestling was still a sideshow attraction at carnivals. But it wasn’t until the 60’s when it really hit its strides with the Fabulous Moolah. While now infamous for her Women’s World Championship (NWA Women’s Championship) reign holding the belt for near 11,000 days, she should be better known for her ‘girls’. Moolah would train all her own talent and hire them out to promoters, eventually pushing Wolfe and Mildred out of the picture in the late 50’s, early 60’s. As the trainer and manager, she controlled how much her girls made, sometimes taking up to 50% of their earnings as a ‘finder’s fees’, as well as charging all the girls who trained with her rent and board to stay at the training compound. In 1983 Moolah sold the rights to her Women’s World Championship to Vince McMahon Jnr’s WWF (now WWE) and became the first women’s champion of the company.

Well, he is the Mc Man.

At the same time there was the rise – and subsequent fall – of the All-Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling Association, an association of many smaller wrestling promotions that had grown from Mildred Burke touring her new style of women’s wrestling in Japan in 1954. There was no hair-pulling and scratching, the women went out to put on wrestling matches, highlighted by the Akira Hokuto vs. Bull Nakano cage match that rivals some men’s cage matches of today.

Oh yeah, it’s still brutal AF.

And then came GLOW (Gorgeous Women of Wrestling) in the 1980s.
David B. McLane saw an opportunity – he saw that fans at the time still had strong reactions to women coming out and wrestling, but there was nowhere for the women to truly grow their characters and be an integral part of a promotion. Against much advice, he travelled to Hollywood and auditioned close to 500 actresses, eventually settling on a dozen women that he immediately sent to be trained as wrestlers. These women went out in the ring to perform and to entertain. They were overly dramatic, playing up the comedy side that is wrestling. The most important thing though was that they were stars in their own right. GLOW got four seasons on national TV, but still left fans wanting more.

As seen on Netflix.

The 90s brought the Monday Night Wars, which led wrestling into its golden age, the peak of its popularity to this day – the ‘Attitude Era’.  It all boiled down to the final two large wrestling promotions battling it out for wrestling supremacy. Throughout the 1990’s Vince McMahon Jnr’s WWF (WWE) and Ted Turner’s WCW shared opposing timeslots on different channels and would fight to put on the best show possible to draw the largest viewership on TV and live attendance. This wasn’t a friendly rivalry to try boost ratings; they meant to put each other out of business. One of the causalities of this war was women’s wrestling.

In a bid to get eyes on screens women began to wear less and less, they were booked in matches to tear each other’s clothes off and spank each other. The sorts of things that were being shown on prime time television, would belong on SBS in a foreign movie timeslot. This was the hyper-sexualisation of women’s wrestling done intentionally by WWE to boost its viewership and profits.

It wasn’t just a spur of the moment reaction to try and win the war; WWE bought out WCW in 2001. The last recorded WWE Bra’s & Panties match was in 2007 when Melina def. Candice Michelle on the March 19 episode of Raw. That’s six years after WWE beat out its rival and ascended to the top of the wrestling mountain where it still sits today, alone and uncontested.

The only reason they stopped these practices is because the show entered what is now known as the ‘PG Era’. There are many contested reasons why the company decided to switch its programming to TV-14 – pressure from sponsors, the need for better PR in a more progressive world and in the wake of a few tragic incidents that took place in the years prior. In the end, WWE was ‘family friendly’ in a bid to make more money.

Not a surprise…

Except what do the women do now? The audience doesn’t see them as anything more than an attraction after being trained to see them as just that. An object.

WWE made women’s wrestling laughable by 2008. Women wrestlers were known as divas. Matches would be 5 minutes long just to fill time on shows. The August 1st, 2011 episode of Raw featured a ‘Battle Royale’ where all the women start in the ring and eliminate opponents by tossing each other over out. Wrestler Gail Kim decided to see if management was even paying attention to the match, and simply slid out under the ropes and eliminated herself and went backstage. Nobody cared. If a male performer had done something like this he would have been accused of ‘going into business for himself’ and been hit with very harsh punishments. Gail Kim handed her resignation in that day and has never set foot in a WWE ring again.

Gail’s force wins.

There are two starts to the modern ‘Women’s Revolution’. There is the true organic start and there is the corporate-produced version of it.

WWE’s momentum began in its smaller developmental brand NXT, training up talent to eventually move up to the main roster. The new head of the brand Triple H (Paul Levesque) would hire the first ever-female coach in the company, Sara Amato, an ex-wrestler. She would train this new batch of women wrestlers that were coming through and would eventually start the process of where we are today.

Two key performers that came through her training were Paige and Emma. They wrestled throughout late 2013, with Paige pushing on social media this idea of the anti-diva character, and going into NXT’s first PPV ‘Arrival’ the stage was set for them to cement themselves as wrestlers. Not as women’s wrestlers. Just wrestlers. And they didn’t disappoint. During their match on February 27th, 2014 they won the respect of not only management but the audience. This was the start of the revolution.

A new Paige for women’s wrestling.

But it wasn’t according to WWE. If you Google ‘when did the WWE women revolution start’ the first thing that comes up is the July 13th, 2015 episode of RAW when Nikki Bella proclaimed there was no challenges left for her Diva Championship. Stephanie McMahon (The chief brand office, also Vince McMahon’s daughter) came out and said it was time for a revolution and introduced the newest additions to the roster in Charlotte Flair (Rick Flairs daughter), Becky Lynch and the then NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks – all absolutely fantastic wrestlers who deserve praise for helping push women’s wrestling to where it is today.

This is almost a year and a half after Paige and Emma’s NXT Arrival match, however.  The revolution had already started, but it didn’t suit WWE’s narrative. It needed to be formal, structured and perfect for new TV stations to cover. The revolution wasn’t a vehicle for significant change, it was a way to improve profits. Women being able to finally express themselves in the ring happened to just be a fortunate side effect.

WWE should not be thanked for the current women’s revolution. The women should be. They have managed to push forward in spite of WWE, not because of them. They go out to the ring each week and put their bodies on the line for the audience’s entertainment and will continue to do so as long as they have the opportunity to.

And nevertheless, they persisted.

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