As we close out 2019 (and more generally, the decade), it is time now to look back and consider the short- and long-term implications of the year’s events on women’s wrestling as an entity. Did it evolve? Did it shake the proverbial table of the wrestling world? I’m not so sure.
As with any roller-coaster, there were highs and lows this year. I’d like to think of 2019 as a coaster of extremes. The highs were steep and thrilling, while the lows made you fear that you were plummeting fast at the ground beneath you.
Compared to last year, where WWE swung for the fences in terms of women’s advancement, this was a sophomore year of sorts. Everything isn’t new anymore — the novelty has worn off, and this was really a year of getting used to our new normal as wrestling fans.
With NXT and AEW making themselves more fiercely known this year, there was more opportunity than ever for casual fans to see women’s wrestling be represented in a meaningful way. But, on the bigger stages, I still feel that the women’s divisions fell short, whether for reasons within or outside the control of the performers.
Because AEW only joined the weekly TV lineup in the last four months of the year, this review will be fairly WWE-heavy. As I’ll discuss later, I really do wish I had more to say about All Elite’s women looking back on this year.
But, without any further ado, let’s get started with the things that both promotions did well this year. Unlike regular Nylons posts, I will lump NXT in with WWE.
WWE/NXT: First evers. In keeping with my 2018 review, I want to continue to highlight the first-time-ever moments that the women’s division had this year. This calendar year, we saw the first ever:
- Tag team Elimination Chamber match
- Women’s tag team titles and champions
- Women’s Survivor Series main event
- Women’s War Games match
- Women’s tag team TLC match
- And of course, women’s main event at WrestleMania, crowning the first undisputed women’s champion of both brands.
Significantly, two of the four “Big Four” pay-per-views this year featured main event women’s matches. Several episodes of Raw, Smackdown, and NXT this year featured women’s main events casually. We inched that much closer to equality with the men’s divisions with the above matches this year. (In reflecting, I’m failing to think of examples of major stipulation matches that women have yet to compete in at this point.)
Although in many of the above firsts there was at least one element that did not live up to expectations, they at least all happened, which in the end is the most important thing.
Rhea Ripley. This year made Rhea into a star. As I’ve discussed here in my last post, the way that writers built Rhea into a strong, valiant, and defiant babyface is textbook writing for professional wrestling.
They gave Rhea enough opportunity to prove to us why she deserved our applause, and we bought into her gimmick and wrestling ability. In a company that more often than not fails to build female stars, it was refreshing to see them allow Rhea to take the ball and run. The end to this year with her finally besting reigning tyrant Shayna Baszler was the coup de grâce of a stellar year. I am excited to see how the division will reshape with her at the helm, and what new rivalries await us in 2020.
Delicious heel turns. This year was truly the year of the bad girl. We had so many wonderful heel turns for women this year, most of which we didn’t see coming because they were done with, at the time, uber babyfaces.
The most notable heel turn, of course, Sasha Banks’ return. It was peak Heel Sasha to lure us into a false sense of security by hugging a vulnerable Natalya in the ring, before decking her in the face and ripping off a wig of her former pink hair (representing her face persona) to reveal her true blue color beneath.
This created an interesting dynamic, with Sasha notably maintaining a friendship with long-time frenemy (but IRL best friend), Bayley. We all thought that Sasha’s heel turn signified the payoff for years of teasing a main roster feud between Sasha and her NXT foe. None of us anticipated that Bayley would instead join the dark side with her best friend.
With a new ‘do, theme music, and attitude a few weeks later, the Bayley of old was finally dead. And it was the rejuvenation that her character needed.
In addition to Sasha and Bayley, we had some other notable heel turns. Io Shirai and Kairi Sane, at one time “sky pirates” in NXT together, turned heel individually once Kairi was called up to the main roster. And both of them are downright excellent as heels. With Kairi, Asuka also went back to her heelish ways, becoming a vicious tag team technician as one half of the Kabuki Warriors. I’m happy to see both Kairi and Asuka finally given credibility as in-ring performers with their heel personas.
Lastly, Dakota Kai made an out-of-left field heel turn at War Games, and we are still witnessing the development of her new attitude unfold.
Our former smiley, cheery, girls next door — Bayley, Kairi, Io, and Dakota — no longer belong to us. And in its own way, it couldn’t be more badass.
Good matches. This year, the great matches in WWE for the women were fewer and further between. However, I think it’s still a good practice to remember the consistent potential of the female stars of today. Here are my favorites from this year:
- The women’s Royal Rumble match
- Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Sasha Banks at the Royal Rumble
- The women’s Elimination Chamber match
- The women’s Money in the Bank ladder match (and subsequent Bayley cash-in)
- Charlotte Flair vs. Trish Stratus at SummerSlam
- Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch (c) at Hell in a Cell
- The women’s NXT War Games match
While all of these matches were good to strong representations of what the women can do, I had to struggle to remember these gems, due to the lack of build going into many of them. Feel free to discuss in the comments any I might have missed!
AEW: The outcasts. The fact that I now have options with my women’s wrestling is in itself something to be happy about. I look forward to the day when I can comprehensively compare the WWE’s style to AEW’s style of women’s wrestling. (And before you say it, yes, I am aware that IMPACT Wrestling and other promotions exist.)
Also, something that I’ve been itching to discuss about AEW’s women’s division that I like is its diversity. Yes, diversity in terms of race and nationality is one thing. Even more than that though, I think AEW’s women feel more like individuals rather than a specific “type” fitting into their company’s established “look.”
What I mean is, the women of All Elite feel more like relatable, everyday women. Most of them are not conventionally attractive, celebrity gorgeous like WWE tends to go after with their women. Their bodies are of varying sizes, shapes, and builds. Their ring gear looks to be more practical rather than showy. Collectively, the women in the promotion look like any one of us sitting on the couch watching wrestling.
Even though WWE has left behind the days of their female wrestlers appearing on the covers of Maxim, Playboy, and fitness magazines, a majority of the women on WWE’s roster could still believably appear on these covers scantily-clad today. For better or worse, WWE still has a specific “look” that they want their women to have, and a size limit for the most part; this is because the company has been run by essentially the same out-of-touch white man for decades.
AEW, on the other hand, run by a younger, more wrestling-minded man like Cody Rhodes, is clearly building the women’s division based on talent rather than looks. It’s a small, but radical act to value women based on their talent in the mainstream wrestling world, and I hope more major promotions follow suit.
WWE/NXT: To be frank, as a recent NXT fan, I can’t make an educated judgment on whether or not any of my smaller critiques of the women’s division speak to a larger degradation of the product. But, because I only have several positive weeks to go off of, I am going to give NXT a passing grade for the year.
Raw and Smackdown aren’t so lucky.
Have you seen this woman? The worst thing about this year was the inaction of the majority of the women’s roster. The mid-card on both brands, from start to finish of the year, was pretty much non-existent. Where was the Riott Squad? Where was Naomi? Why didn’t Carmella wrestle for much of this year? Where were Kairi Sane and Asuka over the summer? Why was Ember Moon missing before she even got injured? WHERE WERE THE IICONICS???
Speaking of injuries, I am aware (albeit only vaguely) that some of these women were out recovering from injuries. However, as much wrestling news and content as I’ve consumed this year, I find it to be a bit of a shame that I do not know for sure the status of all of these women individually.
When men are injured, it seems that the news world takes more time to keep up with the status of their injuries and give fans updates. But with too many women, they just…evaporate. Outlets don’t check for them in the same way, and unfortunately I think this is due to the fact that it isn’t uncommon for women to just disappear from TV unannounced, for weeks on end. ‘Tis the nature of the division today.
In any case, there are still other women on the roster that could have been subbed in while these other women were away. Rather than building some of those lower mid-card ladies up, it seemed WWE kept finding crafty ways to get out of creating significant feuds for the main women’s titles. After WrestleMania, Becky had both women’s titles, but mainly focused on defending the Raw title against Lacey Evans. The IIconics flat out disappeared for a bit after their title win, having an all-but-invisible run with those belts before losing them in an anticlimactic match against Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross.
The women’s belts saw a good amount of air time toward the end of the summer into early fall, with SummerSlam, Clash of Champions, and Hell in a Cell. But Survivor Series and Tables, Ladders, and Chairs didn’t even see the RAW and Smackdown belts defended.
The women’s feud of the year was undoubtedly Sasha versus Becky, but even that feud saw the wrong person come out on top, in the context of kayfabe in my opinion. All in all, it seemed that 2019 was a glass of still water in terms of feuds for the women. Tasteless, odorless, and leaving you wanting more.
Oh, those women’s tag titles. Allow me to first celebrate the fact that, as Bayley pointed out on Twitter, that the women’s tag titles main evented the last pay-per-view of the year they came to be. That’s a great achievement, regardless of what I say next.
Even still, this was a despicable inaugural year for these titles, from start to finish.
The controversy surrounding the title change at WrestleMania has been done to death, but it is still necessary to mention it in this section. Even months after the whole thing went down, I still maintain my stance that WWE did Sasha and Bayley dirty with that booking, considering it was their hard work that brought those titles to fruition. (You can read my extended thoughts on that here.)
The titles were fortunate if they saw two consecutive weeks of TV time in the wake of WrestleMania. Although things have gotten gradually better with Alexa and Nikki holding the titles, succeeding to the Kabuki Warriors, the women’s tag division is still non-existent. The IIconics were the only bonafide women’s tag team on the roster that weren’t some thrown-together singles pairing — and they were never given the chance to prove themselves. I’m starting to buy more and more the partnership of Kairi and Asuka, but that is not enough to make up for the garbage that led up to their title win.
WWE really needs to start getting intentional with building an actual tag team women’s division if these titles are going to work long-term. Any pairings made between singles stars is going to take away from what is apparently (in WWE’s eyes at least) a shallow singles division. They need to recruit actual women’s tag teams, just like they do for the men. Or, teach women tag team wrestling!
As long as we have big, strong stars holding the titles, I do have hope that we can turn things around. As long as WWE invests the time into the division. A big ask, I know.
In a daze. And considering all of the above, it pains me to say that the caliber of wrestling this year (outside of NXT, of course) just didn’t meet my expectations. The two Big Four main events were just….average. And their placement on the card, at the end of long action-packed shows, meant that it took more of our attention to enjoyably sit through them.
Too many women’s matches this year felt like afterthoughts, and the women involved wrestled them that way. I don’t want to blame this on the women, because I know it is unreasonable to expect them to deliver bangers every time they go out there. Maybe it was because the hype was no longer there; not “hype” in the sense of the branding of “women’s evolution” being shoved down our throats, but hype in the sense of being sold on the feud by commentary or video packages.
Or maybe it was just me, with my high hopes, being disappointed. Simple as that.
I think it’s important to realize when our expectations are perhaps unrealistic or unattainable given the context of what’s going on in or around the division. Let’s just keep our heads in the game next year, ladies!
AEW: No new friends, no new enemies. The negatives on the AEW side are shockingly quite similar to their rival’s. We crowned the first AEW women’s world champion back in September, and since then we’ve only had one title match for that championship. No feuds. No rivalries established. Nothing. What is going on?
I’m glad I can see new matchups every week on AEW. I’m glad that there are unique aspects to their division, as I’ve discussed above. At the same time, I have to take the promotion to task for their non-movement in the division thus far, and their treatment of their women’s champion compared to the male ones.
Again We have to ask: if AEW is promising to be inclusive and progressive as part of their mission statement, why can’t they provide meaningful representation of in their product? The mere visibility isn’t enough. Do your women speak? Do they connect with the audience? Do they show competitiveness for the top prize?
Week after week, it feels more like AEW includes women on the show not out of intention, but out of obligation. Here’s the women’s match, they seem to say. But what am I, as a woman, supposed to do with the match if I don’t care about any one person in it? Give me a reason to care! Make that your 2020 vision, All Elite.
At long last, we’ve made it friends. The thorniest of all thornies. And it’s a hefty one, if I do say so myself.
From the very beginning of this year, there has been something that has plagued the women’s division of WWE. So much so that the aftershocks of its visit to the company is affecting things today. A black hole that left a dearth in its rearview.
The biggest takeaway I have for 2019 is that it was…
A year without Ronda. Ever since Ronda Rousey won the Raw women’s championship last year at SummerSlam, she Brock Lesnar-ed her way through the best that the women’s division had to offer. Once the whole Nia Jax incident happened in the run-up to Survivor Series, it became clear that fans wanted Becky versus Ronda at WrestleMania 35 by any means necessary. And so we opened this year with all ammunition ready to fire as far as building that monumental main event.
And as the months rolled on, it became apparent that WWE had little interest in developing women’s storylines outside of Ronda, Becky, and eventually Charlotte Flair’s match at Mania. The culmination of this attitude from the powers-that-be was when they made the match “winner take all,” cheating the Smackdown women’s division (specifically Asuka, who once again lost to Charlotte to drop the belt) out of a WrestleMania match.
Sure, we had some good matches this year as I discussed above. But many of those matches were hastily thrown together; there were many pay-per-views where we weren’t even sure of the participants until mere days before the show. This is because most of the women hadn’t been pushed or put in storylines on TV on a weekly basis. They were just sort of there to pad stipulation matches.
We were robbed of Evolution this year, reportedly because WWE feared that tickets wouldn’t sell if a mainstream star like Ronda wasn’t on the card. Ronda, who wasn’t even the best part of Evolution last year, is likely at the root of why we were not given a sequel to one of the most acclaimed shows WWE’s had in years.
And that was the theme of this year. We weren’t given…because of Ronda. Either because she was there, or because she wasn’t. WWE squandered the entirety of this year for the women because they simply could not be bothered to build their own stars. They want the cheap PR attention they get when Ronda is actively with the company, the lip service to the “legitimacy” of women’s wrestling with the addition or Ronda and the “empowerment” that she represents.
And because she likely makes a hearty paycheck, they are obligated to pamper her, focus on her, make sure she’s happy — to the detriment of everyone not involved in a program with her. If it wasn’t clear when she was there, it certainly became apparent when she left: WWE is not interested in building its women’s division in the way that they think they are. They are interested in pushing people. Their favorites, their chosen few that will please their investors. They’re not interested in pushing the division.
The reason why I loved Evolution, why I and so many others loved women’s wrestling in WWE last year, is because each woman felt important on at least one occasion last year. Everyone got to shine, even those from the past, and it really felt like women’s wrestling had won.
But once the dust and glitter of it all settled, and WWE’s prize fighter disappeared, we were snapped back to reality. Hard. With the exception of a few first-evers, we’re right back to where we started before Ronda ever got there. We’re given flashes of greatness after droughts, happy accidents of magic between the ropes before returning to the normal lackluster routine of 5-minute TV matches.
And now that there are murmurs of Ronda returning, my heart sinks a little further remembering how miserable it was to watch her hog the spotlight from the women who elevated the division before her arrival.
Ultimately, I think WWE’s attitude toward the women’s division in a post-Ronda Rousey world proves that they have entered postmodern feminism. They are now complacent, believing that a lot of rapid progress is enough to take a break for a while. They believe that equality with the men is finite — achieved only through concrete, one-time gestures — rather than fluid. They believe giving very specific women the same place on the card as men will solve gender inequality. And honestly, this is a fairly typical way for white men to think: if we give them x, they’ll let us off the hook. They can’t say we never gave it to them!
Well sure, the list of Things Women in Wrestling Haven’t Been Given is shorter now. However, to prove that you care about women, you need to empower us to reach equity with men, not just equality. Equality is giving women the same opportunities as men. Equity is ensuring that all women are considered in the conversation surrounding those opportunities. If you can only find room in your heart (or more precisely, business structure) to give power, exposure, and influence to women who fit your ideals — be it in terms of race, sexuality, attractiveness, what have you — you are only reinforcing the same unequal power dynamics of the patriarchy. Liberation is not a finish line; it is constant and moving.
As Audre Lorde once said, “Revolution is not a one time event.” As with Ronda, as with these firsts that keep coming — true revolution will come only if we keep our feet on the gas pedal, and figure out ways to uplift all women. In the new decade upon us, I think we can try that outlook on for size.
Thinking back on the whole of this decade, we really did start from the bottom with the women. We began this decade in WWE with the cursed Divas butterfly belt, and women like Melina, Beth Phoenix, and Michelle McCool trying to extract good wrestling out of a division only included for its pretty appearances.
Things changed smack in the middle of the decade, with the now revolutionary NXT call-ups of Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair. And the prestige that the women’s titles hold now, the incredible talent that women’s rosters of all brands have seen in WWE is enough to make any true wrestling fan emotional.
We have a startup wrestling promotion with a Black woman in leadership and a trans woman on the payroll. And we have women stealing the show from men on a regular basis. Hell, we even have a women’s wrestling TV show in Netflix’s GLOW!
One bad year is not enough to cancel out this decade of progress. Stars like Ronda will come and go as they please, but the constant will always be the women who trained, bled, traveled, and fought to become professional wrestlers. Those are the women that got us here, and those will be the women that keep us here and take us further.
In the spirit of the New Year, I think we can all cheers to that. Happy 2020! I’ll be back after the Royal Rumble.
Stay legit bossy,