Who Really Loses When “Winner Takes All”?

Nylons and Midriffs

Image credit: Twitter.com (@StoryofEverest)

I thought this year would be the year.

The year when finally, I thought to myself, WWE would give us what we want. For the first time to my knowledge, we were going to have three women’s matches on the WrestleMania card, and we were going to see women of color competing for or defending titles. We would have a black man challenging for a world title.

And then, just like that, the fantasy was ripped away. Charlotte had won — or in actuality, was gifted — the Smackdown Women’s Title in an impromptu match with Asuka. It had been reported (and seemingly corroborated on Twitter by each performer in real-time) that a Fatal Four-Way match was scheduled to take place to determine Asuka’s opponent for WrestleMania. The competitors were to be Carmella, Naomi, Mandy Rose, and Sonya Deville. That match clearly never happened, because plans changed.

In doing so, WWE accomplished a feat for their golden girl. A less highlighted point in the wake of Charlotte’s win is that by defeating Asuka, Charlotte became an 8-time women’s champion, beating Trish Stratus’ seven reigns for the most of any woman in WWE history. Trish won 7 titles in 6 years, while Charlotte won 8 titles in just 4.

And she did it by beating the woman she handily defeated last year at Mania, in almost the same fashion, merely two weeks before this year’s WrestleMania. And I cannot stress enough that watching this happen was infuriating. I was incensed.

And like me, fans at large were pissed. The majority could not believe that Asuka had been screwed over so transparently, that she was collateral damage in the explosiveness of the feud on the opposing brand. And not only was Asuka cheated out of a title match that any other year she would have been entitled to, but so were the women of Smackdown Live. They missed out on this opportunity, too, and some of them weren’t as shy in expressing that.

I was filled with so much fury for each of those women. I considered the injustice of this move in the context of a larger theme of this past week — WWE doesn’t care about its performers. Having watched this excellently done John Oliver segment on WWE, and then seeing what happened to Asuka, I began to consider the sociopolitical implications of this move to include both women’s titles in the same match. I considered how Oliver, in his critical analysis of the company, did give credit to WWE for coming a long way in women’s wrestling. Although he isn’t incorrect in his statement, that’s just what the public sees. For those of us that care about the entire division, the well-being of women’s wrestling as a whole, us diehards — we know better. We know that there is still a long, long way to go.

And so, I concluded that by throwing away the Smackdown women’s division, WWE proved themselves to be paper feminists — easily swayed by the winds of change, but too thin to weather a storm. WWE exemplified this in three main ways.

First, is the racial aspect of this booking. Once again, we saw how easily women of color are disregarded and sidelined to make room for white women at the top of the card. Since she has been called up from NXT, WWE writers have failed consistently to put some respect on Asuka’s name. Instead of treating her as the world-class wrestler that she is and recognizing her success in Japan — arguably the wrestling capital of the world — in the WWE she is seen as nothing more than a strange foreigner. Something to be gawked at, used for comedy, but never taken too seriously.

I’d previously written about my distaste for WWE’s similar burying of Naomi in her so-called feud with Mandy Rose. The same laziness and unimaginative storytelling is at play here. Naomi and Asuka are guilty not of being bad performers. They are guilty of not fitting the blonde, white, “conventionally” attractive mold that WWE (read: Vince) sees as push-worthy. And while, yes, I recognize that white women were also affected by this decision, most of them have not had careers as long as Asuka or Naomi, whether in WWE or out.

It seems that WWE still enforces a racial hierarchy within their women’s division. If women of color are in any matches at WrestleMania, they are either jobbing to white women, included in secondary matches, or left off the card altogether.

We have to move past women of color being nothing more than transitional champions. They are worth more, and they deserve more.

The second aspect is the sheer sexism of it all. It looks to me as though WWE is keeping a glass ceiling of sorts on the number of women’s segments on the WrestleMania card. If we think back to the WresleMania cards of the last few years, you might notice that there have usually been no more than two women’s matches included. With the addition of the women’s tag titles this year, I suppose this inadvertently nixed the Smackdown women’s title match. Even though this year we may see the most female competitors featured on a single WrestleMania card, to me, the impact is minimized if these women are being squeezed into the same number of segments. Because then it makes it harder for each of them to shine individually, as they will essentially be competing for the spotlight. This tactic makes evident that WWE sees the women as monolithic segments rather than individuals involved in focused storylines.

And that is the crux of my issue here — the women are not entitled to space on the WrestleMania card. Think of all of the men’s singles matches slated to go on on Sunday, both with and without a title involved. You have the boss’s son-in-law, the boss’s son, Randy Orton, AJ Styles, Finn Balor, The Miz, Kurt Angle….the list goes on. Many of these feuds did not come to fruition until Fastlane or after. But yet, the writers found a way to give these men a spot on the card. Because they were prioritized. Their spot on the card was likely never called into question. WWE failed repeatedly to keep that same energy with the women outside of their chosen few. And it becomes apparent in instances like this.

For the women, their matches are always a question. They are the first to go if a card is running long. They are thrown out if the writers don’t feel like coming up with a storyline for them. They are not entitled to space, in the most basic sense. Let us not forget WrestleMania 29, where the only women’s match on the entire show was cut because the men decided to take their sweet time in the ring. (Ironically, this year’s Mania is taking place in the same exact venue. Funny how history repeats itself.) We have been told time and time again that the women are expendable. They are sacrificed for the “greater good.”

WWE Superstar Naomi summarizes what a title march would have meant for the women of Smackdown Live.

Which leads me to my last point of contention: the capitalist undertones of this unexpected change. Many fans and wrestling journalists have provided not an excuse, but a rationalization for adding the Smackdown women’s title and the Winner Take All stipulation to the main event — that it was a wise business decision. The logic goes that by adding both of the women’s belts to the main event, it elevates the prestige of the match, and in turn the credibility of the winner. There is an added impressiveness to the winner of the match doing PR the week following WrestleMania with two belts on her shoulder rather than one. And given that logic, I do actually understand those points.

However, at the heart of that assertion is what is generally considered “good business.” Why does “good business” usually entail doing the morally questionable thing? Why does “good business” almost always disadvantage the most vulnerable members of a business or community? And I’m not naive. I understand that in life, people do not always get their way. But isn’t it about time we start asking why certain people always do get their way? That speaks directly to the idea of privilege, and the privilege of each woman in that main event is a direct threat to the rest of the women in their division, whether they intend it to be or not.

But ultimately, it is clear that all of my complaints will just be echoes in the wind after WrestleMania. Because a good match will make the dudebros of the wrestling media forgive the road it took to get there, and that will transform the narrative. And as much as it will pain me, I know deep down that I’ll enjoy the match. And I hate that. I truly do. I want to carry this bitterness with me through the match, but I know I won’t.

Perhaps we, the fans, are the real losers in this. No matter what we say, we still watch, still engage. But even if WWE gives us the desired result, with Becky holding both titles on the turnbuckle as the screen fades to black, we will feel an ominous pang of guilt, and of loss. We’ll remember all of the women sacrificed for this moment. The months of throwaway storylines, the lazy feuds, the scrapped matches. Even if our girl Becky wins, what exactly did the rest of us lose to get her there?

Taking Back Today: Reconciling Subversiveness with Status Quo in Women’s Royal Rumble

Fan Reviews, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Image credit: Vickie Benson (Guerrero) Facebook profile

It began as anyone may have expected it would, with two solid workers from WWE’s women’s division, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, getting the crowd hot for the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. Both competitors are two of the most memorable women to ever step foot in a ring, with Banks as the biracial, purple-haired cousin of a rap star and Lynch the roughhousing siren with a thick Irish accent. This was as fitting a start as the current women’s roster deserved, especially considering the plurality of women who would follow in succession to the ring after the first bell rang.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199616

On paper, the list of entrants reads like a checklist of diversity. There were women of color as well as women over 30, 40, and 50. There were mothers, old and new, women who are married, women that remain single. There were plus-size and fat women, visibly tattooed women, and even one gay woman. In many ways, the women’s Royal Rumble was more inclusive than the men’s roster ever has been. WWE even allowed an Asian woman — a vastly underrepresented, if not stereotyped, group — to win the Rumble. It seems the brand is becoming less and less afraid to roll with the tides of changing times.

The beauty of the women’s Rumble is one that male fans can only appreciate in the most basic sense. Because it was the first installment, it was a celebration and homage to where the women’s division has been over the last 20 years, where it is, and where it could be going. This was evidenced by the large number of nostalgia entrants, ranging from forever faves like Trish and Lita to beloved athletes like Molly Holly and Beth Phoenix.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/article/5-best-moments-2018-womens-royal-rumble-match

Thoughtful recognition of these female legends took form in the fact that more than a third of the eliminations in the match came from women not currently active on WWE’s main or NXT rosters. While usually a tactic that is bemoaned when done on the men’s side, in the women’s Rumble it worked because we can be pretty assured that none of the women who appeared from the past are slated for full-time returns anytime soon. It was all in good, lighthearted fun, and a metaphorical way to say, We see the road you paved for us; you get a piece of this pie, too. As a woman who grew up watching each of these Superstars in their own ways make the best of what they were given, the place of nostalgia in this match was more than heartwarming.

Regardless of the era that each woman represented, one of the better, lesser discussed aspects of the match was the ways in which the women let each other shine. While the match did lag in parts (with the women doing the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs trying to find opponents to pummel), these slower moments allowed almost every woman in the match to get some visibility. We were able to see most of the entrants’ finishers or face-offs with old rivals plain as day, and it felt that this was a calculated move by all of the women.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199634

In addition, because of the magnitude of the match, it was one of the first times we were given the opportunity to see how truly unique the characters these women have crafted are from one another. From Kairi Sane to Ember Moon to Carmella to Bayley, there are few women on the roster with identical gimmicks. With increased visibility, standout personas, and a spectrum of female identities, this match was easily the most feminist WWE has ever been with its product, and it wasn’t because Stephanie McMahon was on commentary shoving “history” down our throats. When it comes down to it, feminism is more about doing than saying.

Taking this further, the women’s Royal Rumble had all of the same things that the men’s did. Storytelling, fan-service face-offs, comedy, surprise returns, suspense, and feel good moments. Yet, the women’s Rumble still had a different feel to it, instead of a copy-paste vibe that women’s segments often have. The match felt fresh, and as long as WWE is interested in telling different stories with the women, it has the potential to grow into something out of the men’s division’s shadow.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199639

Feminism, in the nuanced sense, is about acknowledging the foremothers who have laid the groundwork for the present, and uplifting other women to create a better future for all women inclusive of race, gender identity, sexuality, and religion. This often takes the form of women trying to achieve the same social and political freedoms as men by subverting structures that have created power imbalances. This is where Ronda Rousey complicates the Rumble’s progressiveness.

With Rousey interrupting Asuka’s moment at the end of the pay-per-view, we were are snapped back to reality. WWE is a product to be sold, and the company needs to make a profit. Rousey is a gold credit card to the McMahons and Rousey knows that she is viewed as such, and therefore expects to be compensated accordingly. Just as the men have a (white) UFC fighter who occasionally wrestles to collect a giant paycheck and “legitimize” the product, so now do the women. Only in this case, the added stinger is that Rousey isn’t even a homegrown WWE talent. Is this the “equality” the women were striving for?

As one Twitter user put it, Rousey’s appearance at the end of the Rumble (arguably dulling the shine of a woman of color’s moment) in many ways felt like a white feminist statement unto itself. Even though she has signed a full-time contract and swears up and down that she’s not in it for the money, fans can assume that eventually her ego will grow with her paychecks.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/ronda-rousey-crashes-royal-rumble-2018-photos#fid-40199693

Capitalism is the name of the game, and WWE’s biggest stars know this all too well. Feminism cannot thrive if money is the motivation for the people who have the most power, even if those people happen to be women, too. True solidarity comes from advocating for your sisters to get to your spot rather than ascending to comparable power as your male counterparts.

Some have made the argument that Rousey’s star power will bring greater exposure to the women’s division to casual fans, thus elevating it. There is room for that argument, and it may prove to be true. But, it still can’t be denied that if it weren’t for the women who put in the work for decades, Rousey would have never been in a position to “elevate” any division. It is even more metaphoric that only after 30 women fought in a ring for almost an hour did Rousey made her entrance. The work was already done; she was only there to steal the glory.

However, my hope for the division lies in the fact that despite all of the rumors and buzz that Rousey would be in the Rumble — she wasn’t. For once, WWE trusted the women on their roster and the legends that came before them to put on a good show with enough time to do so. The women were able to pull it off without a big mainstream athlete. They did that. If WWE doesn’t fall victim to the same fallacies of the men’s division with the women and actually allow their fantastic roster to shine, they can revolutionize not only women’s wrestling, but wrestling in general, for the better.

From far and wide
And light years away
The one force of nature they call by name
Fallen idols, scream yesterday
Cast from the shadows
Now light my way[…]
I came from tomorrow to take back today
I am the future.

 

Allyssa Capri is a Chicago-based writer and pop culture critic. You can read more of her pop culture critiques and analyses on her blog. Or, you can follow her on Twitter for cultural hot takes and random thoughts at @allyssacapri.

Featured Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/article/5-best-moments-2018-womens-royal-rumble-match