Mickie James’ WWE Firing the Last Stop on a Road of Employee Bullying and Misogyny

It’s bad news for fans that popular WWE wrestler Mickie James has been fired by the WWE. It’s worse news for a wrestling world that still holds onto the belief that it’s part of the 21st century.

Is there a more masochistic form of media engagement that being a fan of women’s wrestling? Ah, what sweet nourishing contempt pours forth from the screen as talented, devoted and passionate athletes are shoehorned into two-minute lingerie matches and Wrestlemania pillow fights. It’s even better knowing that many of these women trained for years, risking poverty and injury, to reach the peak of their art: smiling in a bikini next to washed-up celebrity guest hosts.

Yeah, it can feel like it’s never a good day to be a women’s wrestling fan; at least, not when we’re stuck with mainstream wrestling media.

To be fair, it’s not like wrestling is the only culprit: most mainstream film and television remains bound by the same old generic ideas about male/female values and concerns, and most current media that presents itself as ‘edgy’ simply wraps some superficial ‘shocks’ around a comfortably 1950s ideology (do all those people really watch Two and a Half Men? Really?).

But reports that the WWE has released (i.e. fired) Mickie James, one of their most popular wrestlers (I refuse to refer to her by the WWE-preferred label, ‘diva’), should open up Vince McMahon’s repulsive control over a potentially great artform to another public kicking. Not for Mickie’s firing — Mickie (aka Alexis Laree) may have had it coming (for all I know, she went out of her way to bend the corners of Vince McMahon’s favourite issue of ‘Muscle and Fitness’ or asked Batista to tell the time from an analogue clock) — but for everything else that led up to it.

Contrary to popular belief, misogyny is not a natural and inherent part of the wrestling business: the WWE and Vince McMahon’s repugnant efforts have been active and consistent in their targeted application. The women’s division isn’t simply neglected, its marginalisation, ridicule and treatment as being beneath contempt is as planned and controlled as any of its major title changes. Mickie’s firing, even if justified, is just one more ugly end for a woman in a business that could really use a few more female veterans.

Mickie’s primary talent perhaps isn’t her pure wrestling ability, but that’s not all there is to wrestling anyway. She’s certainly no slouch in the ring, but it’s her general demeanour of good-natured enthusiasm that really seems to win the crowd over, bypassing all of the dull model-like posing and pouting. Dressed in fairly down-to-earth ring gear and skipping out to the ring full of bouncing charm, Mickie might come across as a female version of perpetual good-guy and ridiculously popular John Cena if she really got some decent storyline momentum going behind her (of course, John Cena is generally awful and ridiculously dull, so let’s give Mickie the benefit of the doubt).

The last time the WWE had anything resembling a new and exciting big-league women’s match up was a rare showing between Gail Kim (an extremely talented wrestler the WWE has now successfully reduced to smiling irrelevance) and Mickie (then reigning champion) on the 17 August 2009 episode of RAW. The fact that both were popular, or at least ‘liked’, (making it what’s known as a ‘face vs face’ match) meant that the match needed to be about quality and ability rather than sneaky deviousness and soap-opera moments (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It was no classic, but was still a quick and exciting match, sadly thrown into chaos after Gail knocked herself silly after a leap from the top turnbuckle. Smug fans declared it a disaster, but its shaky finale would barely have been noticed had Mickie not responded less than graciously to her opponent’s dizziness, going through the closing good-sport motions while simultaneously glaring daggers at her injured co-star and seeming seven shades of pissed off.

Gail’s injury certainly deserved a little more professionalism, but it’s not hard to feel some empathy with Mickie’s frustration: a rare chance at an honest-to-goodness quality women’s match went wrong, and with it, presumably, any chance at changing the value of women’s wrestling in the WWE locker room or corporate office.

Let’s take a look at a brief sampling of some of Mickie’s matches before and after: a ‘summer swimsuit spectacular’ match, a boxing trunks match, an ‘indians’ vs ‘pilgrims’ match, an evening gown match — and those are just the ones that were stupid and had a stupid name (Mickie just missed out on also being in a ‘ZZ Top Legs Match’).

Then, before Mickie could be fortunate enough to be part of a RAW ‘santa’s little helper’ match, a bull riding contest, a ‘pyjama pillow fight’ or a ‘hot tub match’ (I’m not making any of these up…), Mickie found herself on WWE’s ‘secondary’ show, Smackdown. And that’s where it just kept on getting uglier.

Generally seen as something of a demotion, the move may at least have allowed Mickie some more actual wrestling time: Smackdown draws less viewers than RAW but also generally features less bikini-prancing and hot-tub-soaking.

With Mickie’s arrival, Smackdown also began to feature body weight mockery. The not-fat-by-any-stretch-of-the-imagination but not WWE-style ridiculously-thin Mickie was suddenly pointed out as a figure of ridicule for being ‘overweight’ in front of an audience that, the WWE proudly proclaims, includes millions of young, impressionable kids (the fact that it’s just about impossible to find a word to describe the not-extremely-thin Mickie that doesn’t essentially imply ‘fat’ says a lot about how far we haven’t come with cultural body image problems).

Mickie was dubbed ‘Piggie James’ by the resident ‘mean girls’ (another childish story angle you’d never see in men’s wrestling), who stuck a pig’s nose on her picture, laughed about how much she ate and ultimately ended up hauling out a fat suit for some cheap ‘laughs’ (the fat suit was last seen on Victoria — now Tara in TNA — an extremely attractive woman that the WWE decided was ugly). Had Mickie shrugged it off and refused to even dignify the nonsense, perhaps it would have been no big deal — by Mickie would cry and pout and wait to for a chance to get payback. Essentially, the whole thing was validated: they were calling Mickie fat, and nobody called bullshit.

The WWE is too crafty to believe its own implied defense that Mickie would ultimately get her revenge in a match and all the people who identified with her situation would be pleased: casting a normal bodyweight woman in a ‘fat’ role simply reconfirms everything that’s wrong with body image representation and creates an issue where there was actually none to begin with.

Given Mickie’s seeming troubles within the company, many commentators called it for what it really seemed to be: public bullying of an employee.

In yet another joke of a women’s match, Mickie did get her ‘revenge’ at the 2010 Royal Rumble in a match that lasted twenty seconds (count ’em).

The fat jokes didn’t really stop then — and even though Mickie’s now been fired, they’ve at least moved on to referring to statuesque and muscular Beth Phoenix (another wasted talent) as a man. Good one, WWE. And they always have Vickie Guerrero, wife of the late, great Eddie Guerrero, who remains a perfect figure of ridicule in the WWE primarily for being a woman in her forties who doesn’t look like she’s in her teens. Can’t blame the ‘WWE Universe’, really: I don’t suppose they’d ever seen the terrifying sight of a woman in her forties on their screens until then (Vickie losing her pants was a ‘highlight’ of a recent women’s TV match).

Drawing ‘heat’ is an important part of wrestling, but relying on childish nonsense and exploiting social problems that the WWE either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about is hardly an integral part of the business. Especially when the WWE keeps crowing about its PG focus, which conveniently coincides with Linda McMahon’s push to get into the US senate.

In the meantime, at least Mickie doesn’t have it too bad. She’s got a country music album on the way and could be in worse shape: women’s wrestling news this week also brought word of a serious injury for TNA wrestler Daffney (she’s ok, thankfully), and a stroke for indie talent LuFisto (also thankfully doing ok, and may still be back in the ring soon!).

Hopefully Mickie will find her way to TNA, as many wasted WWE talents do. Not that TNA’s been looking much better: once a seeming haven for female wrestlers, TNA’s new direction has gutted it ‘Knockouts’ roster, losing its talent and variety, and putting all its titles on its WWE-style ‘hot’ wrestlers (known as ‘The Beautiful People’). Actually, The Beautiful People are far from awful, but their sudden elevation at the expense of more talented wrestlers shows a company more interested in quick cheap ratings through skimpy outfits and nonsense matches than the strong and powerful women’s division that used to be a key part of TNA: greats like Alissa Flash and Awesome Kong have already left (serious losses), and others like Hamada and Sarita are scarcely seen at all. Lately, the Knockouts title has been handed around as a gameshow prize rather than actually being won in a match.

If that just about rules out the mainstream media, then at least that leaves the indies. A general WWE boycott probably won’t have much effect, but wrestling fans with a little more social awareness than the dopes in the WWE office might want to check out some of the women’s wrestling promotions that are available. Those eager to investigate other opportunities to see women in serious action might want to take a look through website Diva Dirt which usually keeps track of indies as well as the mainstream TV events.

Shimmer, one of the more prominent examples, is an all-female offshoot of Ring of Honor and puts on great live and straight-to-dvd shows with an extraordinary pool of talent. Somehow it also manages to treat its female wrestlers with basic level of respect. More, even! Sheesh, who’d a thunk it?