Total Divas on E!: Just Switch it Off

One of the only things tougher than explaining to people of unquestionable cultural taste (aka the creatively unambitious) that you’re a fan of professional wrestling is explaining that you’re a fan of women’s professional wrestling. Usually it’s possible to make a (simplified) case for the former – the spectacle, the physicality, the choreography, the history – that even the most rigidly dull defender of good taste can understand. Explaining an interest in the latter tends to be more problematic. Enjoying pro wrestling might be seen as an endearing quirk, but also being a fan of women’s pro wrestling, specifically, usually goes down as well as saying that you steal underwear from unattended clotheslines. The interest is invariably seen as – to use that wonderfully old-fashioned word – prurient.

It says something about the continuing relegation of women to a secondary status – primarily as sexual peripheries or prizes for male-based stories – that there’s such a difference in the responses. Browsing the wrestling section of my DVD shelves a while ago, a visitor stumbled over a set of DVDs from the excellent women’s wrestling promotion Shimmer. “So these are all porn, then?” was the immediate question. (For those still wondering: No. No they are not.)

Unfortunately, this dismissive and/or suspicious attitude is as widespread among wrestling fans as non-fans (“bathroom break” is the usual online descriptor for women’s matches). However, it’s a mistake for observers to simply dismiss this as an inherent part of what “pro rasslin'” is all about or an attitude that is simply to be expected among wrestling fans.

First of all, this is an issue related to representation of women in any art form or medium.

Secondly, and more relevantly for the moment, the sexism and misogyny that pervades professional wrestling is something that has been carefully and intentionally constructed by organisations like WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly WWF).

For about as long as it’s been running, WWE has trained its viewers to dismiss women as secondary athletes and performers, to see them as peripheral to the real stories being told about male performers, and to fit into that usual dichotomy of “virgin/whore.”. In much mainstream media, this is an ugly undertone. In WWE, it’s open, blatant, and brazen.

While there’s no shortage of things to criticise when it comes to WWE’s representation of women, the primary – and frequently overlooked – issue is one of simple relevance, particularly in relation to those details which give narratives and performances weight in a wrestling context. WWE gives its female performers less airtime, less storyline attention, fewer historical connections, and fewer opportunities to demonstrate their abilities.

Less airtime means that the women almost never have time to form a carefully-constructed, logically-unfolding narrative in their matches – they don’t get to “build” their matches, only race through them as token gestures to the 21st century. Less storyline attention means that the matches are generally meaningless – there’s nothing at stake and no issue underlying the bout. Fewer historical connections mean that the performers are isolated from wrestling’s rich and far-reaching history, something that plays an enormous and central part in an ongoing and never-ending narrative like pro wrestling. Fewer opportunities mean that performers simply never get to show what they can do: a number of ex-WWE performers have noted that the women were basically seen as time-fillers, specifically instructed not to do anything that would outperform the male performers, and left without any sense of real opportunity. The positioning of women’s matches on major shows also demonstrates this clearly: almost invariably they’re the “buffer” between the main events, inserted to give the audience a chance to tune out and recharge their emotional batteries for the next “real” match.

In the WWE, the purpose of women is literally to fail as talented wrestlers.

Total Divas, the new reality TV partnership between WWE and the E! Network, is the latest step in WWE’s intentional and retrograde marginalisation of female performers. Rather than giving attention to the talented women on (and off) its roster who have worked long and hard to establish themselves as professional wrestlers (I refuse to refer to them with WWE’s demeaning label, “divas”), it has instead placed its women in the usual highly-fabricated, tangentially-“real” high-school-level reality TV drama. That’s no surprise, really. In WWE, women are women sexually but children mentally: crazy or sheepish, deluded or docile. Following customary practices of institutionalised, de-humanising sexism, they don’t even have last names. Seriously: unlike the male performers, the female characters have (with a couple of exceptions) first-names only.

It’s easy (and extremely valid) to target WWE’s history of demeaning sexualisation of its performers, but this often distracts from the dehumanisation that goes on now that WWE is “PG”. Women aren’t primarily sexual objects any more but, as a result, they’re not allowed to be relevant in any way at all. Cleavage may have been covered, but the old attitudes still remain.

There are a multitude of talented, athletic, intelligent, tough, charismatic and engaging women who pursue a career or outlet for expression in professional wrestling. Few of them will make it to WWE. Of those few that do, barely any will have the chance to actually demonstrate any talent or ability. (WWE women are notoriously chosen through modelling catalogues or “competitions” rather than taken from the pool of talented, professional, seasoned wrestlers on the independent scene; not surprisingly, WWE has few female veterans.)

In wrestling (as in any narrative), women deserve to be the centre of serious, compelling stories that aren’t just about man-stealing and body-shaming. The men battle for honour, credibility, prestige, and legacies: to deny the women these same stories is a cultural affront of extraordinary mendacity. Women, both young and old, make up a large portion of WWE’s audience. They deserve to see women as wrestlers, both heroes and villains, not school-yard harpies. Men, young and old, deserve to see this as well.

WWE may have a monopoly over the artform, but the future of professional wrestling must lie elsewhere. Those wanting to see women given equal opportunity to shine should look for a number of independent promotions that aim to give women a serious platform to demonstrate their ability and athleticism: promotions like Shimmer and Shine show that wrestling can be fun and serious and silly and intense without pandering to bigotry.

Anyone who thinks this is something new should look into Japanese women’s wrestling – “joshi” – which, since Mildred Burke helped get things started in the 50s, has featured matches as intense (and needlessly dangerous) as any offered by male performers in the US.

While WWE was running a tour in Australia (right before Total Divas aired), I was lucky enough to catch a show run by small indie promotion New Horizons Pro Wrestling in Perth: with around 100 people in attendance, it featured an 8-woman tournament with excellent matches from both local and internationally-renowned performers like Portia Perez, Tomoka Nakagawa, Madison Eagles, Kellie Skater, Miami, Nikita Naridian, Storm, and Eliza Sway.

At the same time, WWE’s Australian tour had only two women on hand – one an excellent wrestler – who were given a short, throwaway match each night.

Where the indie wrestlers were committed, engaging, athletic, tough and funny, Total Divas simply continues WWE’s primary narrative that women are “bitchy”, wedding-crazed, emotionally-unstable imbeciles, unworthy of being exciting and highly-skilled wrestlers in their own right.

Total Divas is WWE’s ode to its own misogyny, its glorification of its retrograde belief that women are secondary and peripheral to the real narratives and that women don’t deserve to have the same opportunities as men.

Out of context, it’s just another crappy reality show. In the context of WWE’s enduring sexism, it’s a slap in the face to anyone who thinks that women deserve the opportunity to succeed and excel at their chosen profession.

WWE doesn’t deserve a pass from viewers and sponsors because it’s “just wrestling”. Wrestling as an art form is not inherently misogynistic and wrestling fans are diverse and varied, not simply the masses of uneducated buffoons that the stereotype suggests.

As usual, when it comes to representations of women, WWE doesn’t deserve validation, sponsors, or viewers.

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