Nylons and Midriffs: Boss of Who? (April 22, 2019)

Nylons and Midriffs

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It has been an interesting two weeks since WrestleMania for the women’s division. I know the drama surrounding a certain female wrestler has filled the dirt sheets for the better part of that time (and don’t worry, we’ll get to that), but in the midst of that controversy, there was also a Superstar Shakeup.

Title unification for both women’s titles is ostensibly out of the question for now, so how did things shake out for the ladies? Let us consider together.

The Good

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The only real good I saw in the past weeks’ RAW and SmackDown Live episodes was that SmackDown’s division is shaping up nicely. Formerly the smaller division of the two brands, SmackDown finally got some big names to freshen up the matches and rivalries. They got work-rate girls like Bayley, Ember Moon, and Kairi Sane, but also some padding for the middle of the division like Liv Morgan. The roster now feels like it has layers, something it was missing before WrestleMania.

Unfortunately, that is where I will have to end this section. Because while it is good that SmackDown’s division is now stacked, that leads me to…

The Bad
…the RAW women’s division. The worst thing about the Shakeup for the women was that it left the brands severely unbalanced. The biggest name RAW got was Naomi, which is a start but it isn’t great. Sitting to ponder, I am actually struggling to think of significant names that are still on RAW besides Alexa Bliss and sort of Becky Lynch. I just feel that it is odd to add the majority of your big names to the show that has less time to work with.

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I also noticed that The Riott Squad was split up during this draft, which is a shame. The faction of Ruby Riott, Sarah Logan, and Liv Morgan were never given the opportunity to shine atop the division. They were used as enhancement talent in the most literal sense of the term, only used when WWE needed to portray the dominance of the main event players. But as a unit, they worked flawlessly together, and they had excellent tag team offense. I guess we should have taken it as a sign when they were taken out of the women’s tag team title picture immediately after Elimination Chamber. Despite being underutilized, I do think the Riott Squad deserve a load of credit for making the best of the cards they were dealt from the beginning of their main roster careers in WWE.

Switching gears, an additional negative apart from the results of the Shakeup is the push for Lacey Evans. Yawn. I’m so tired!! Lacey is the same as every other white, blonde, heel woman on the roster, only the twist this time is that she’s Southern. But if you were to compare the heel gimmicks of Alexa Bliss, Mandy Rose, Charlotte Flair, etc. — at the core of their characters, could you truly find that many differences? They are all arrogant, they all think they are “chosen” in some way, they all think they’re the hottest things since Playboy, and they all believe they are above the rest of the women because of either their sass or their class. But each of them have merely found a different trait to fixate on and exaggerate, and/or found a different aesthetic to present their gimmicks. But at the end of the day, they are all nearly the same person. And as I’ve said, it is tiresome to see them constantly in the main event.

In addition, WWE choosing to push Lacey Evans further exposes what I have noticed is another pattern with blonde white women: WWE Creative, and in turn fans, are more willing to be patient with them.

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WWE is more willing to give white women the ball and let them run with it until they improve in the ring, rather than give the ball to a more ring-savvy woman of color. Many popular wrestling critics online (namely white and male ones) will make excuses for these women when they are gifted their places at the top. When the pushes for these women begin, they will say that they have killer mic skills, or that they ooze charisma, or that they have potential to develop in the ring — even if they are green in the ring at that time. WWE Creative in turn allows these women to skate by on mediocrity, giving them time and space at the top of the card to develop their in-ring skills. They’ve used this strategy with Alexa, with Carmella, with Mandy Rose (until plans changed), and even with the legendary Trish Stratus. Now, they are doing it with Lacey.

Obviously all of these women rose to the occasion after several months of high-profile matches. But I wonder how much more fleshed out the division would look and feel if we afforded women of color that same opportunity to grow at the top as many of the aforementioned women are.

The Thorny
As the wrestling world is well-aware by now, rumors have been swirling since WrestleMania about Sasha Banks’ dissatisfaction with WWE. I’ve followed this story so closely that I am unsure what is even truth or innuendo anymore, yet my opinion has remained the same. I am firmly on Sasha’s side.

As many of you might have deduced by my salutation at the end of every Nylons, I am a Sasha Banks fan. However, regardless of my feelings about Sasha as WWE Superstar or human being, I still believe that to be critical of Sasha in this circumstance is not only malicious, but hypocritical.

Some people have said that Sasha (and Bayley, by association) was acting childishly for her protest against dropping the tag titles, after seemingly being promised a lengthy title run. Some fans have accused Sasha of being entitled by taking a vacation after WrestleMania to consider her future in WWE. But were these not the same fans that dragged WWE through the mud before WrestleMania after one John Oliver segment? Did all of Oliver’s statements somehow become not true between then and now? Because if WWE still treats their performers like employees, even though they contractually are not considered to be, if they still do not provide health insurance — why should Sasha have to smile and be thankful for the mere opportunity to wrestle for WWE exclusively, especially if they aren’t even using her to her full potential? Why should she put up with all of the other crappy technicalities of being signed by WWE if they mostly just keep her around so she doesn’t go anywhere else?

I want to take a moment to step in Sasha’s shoes here. Let’s try to empathize with her.

Imagine you have worked to become a wrestler since you were a teenager. You overcame poverty and living in hotel rooms with your single mother and autistic sibling to make it to WWE. Then, you have an amazing run in NXT where you were at the tippity-top of the division. Once you are called up to the main roster, fans are ecstatic, and they chant “We want Sasha” when they are bored with the women they see in the ring, whoever they may be.

Image credit: WWE’s YouTube

You win your first main roster title after one year on the main roster, and then you lose it one month later. Okay, can’t win them all. Then you win the title back. Awesome! You’re a two-time champ now. But then you lose it again a month later, again at a pay-per-view. This happens for a third time. The fourth time you win the title, you lose it after just 8 days. After this, you sort of just exist in the women’s division. Fans start to cool off on you.

Then it looks like you might have a feud with your NXT rival. There’s no way WWE could mess this up, right? Only they do. They start the feud then stop it again. They send you to “counseling.” Then they put the two of you in a tag team, and while it isn’t ideal, you make the best of it and actually begin to see a long-term plan: to start a women’s tag division. After months of badgering higher-ups, your dream comes to fruition, and the titles become a reality. You win the titles and promise to defend them everywhere. It looks like WWE is finally going to give you a long title reign.

But then, at the last moment before the biggest show of the year, you find out that not only will you lose the titles, but that the team that you worked so hard to build is being broken up. And the titles are being put on two less experienced in-ring workers. Another short title reign. Another opportunity to shine ripped away before you could even get started.

Given all that you — Sasha — have been through, do you believe you would be anything less than pissed off?

For all of the protest that Sasha and Bayley displayed in the wake of their loss, everything that they feared would happen is coming true.

Image credit: WWE’s YouTube

The IIconics have the titles, but outside of the first match they worked after Mania (a comedy squash match at that), every match they have competed in thus far on TV they have lost. The belts are merely props for them. We could have had so much more with Sasha and Bayley.

And to those that say they are acting entitled, I say, so what if they are? Why can’t women be entitled to more?

Men in the wrestling industry have been infamously entitled. There are stories of male wrestlers who just flat out refused to lay down for certain people (like Hulk Hogan). There are wrestlers that we praise today that were notoriously awful to work with backstage at certain points in their careers (like Shawn Michaels). There are men that made it a point to stay perched at the top for several years at a time (like Triple H). And there are men today that have openly alluded to their discontent with their booking, such as The Revival and the recently departed Luke Harper, that are applauded for taking a stand. CM Punk is still an urban legend in WWE lore.

So why is it suddenly problematic when a woman does the same? When men stand up against personal injustices, they are martyrs. When women stand up against personal injustices, they are entitled.

And look, as more has come out about this story, I have reformulated my thoughts on it. I do think that Bayley and Sasha, after all that they’ve been through together, might fare better on their own. Their partnership really became codependent, and having to work their gimmicks around each other truly held both of them back. Their characters are simply oil and water, and I think in the long term re-building their gimmicks separately will help to establish them as the strong singles competitors they were always meant to be. And with Ronda Rousey out of the picture for the foreseeable future, for Sasha, this could be her chance to have the substantial women’s title run she’s been vying for.

But, that idea holds true if and only if WWE puts in the work to rehabilitate her character, and put her in a main event feud with a significant title reign. Can we trust them to do that? Maybe we should ask Asuka…

Well. Looks like we’re right back at square one.

***

Now that the Shakeup is over, we can begin the next chapter in all of these women’s stories. Time will tell if for most of them it is a chance to write their stories anew. Or if for others, if they must close the book altogether.

Stay legit bossy,
AC

Nylons and Midriffs: What’s Happening in Women’s Wrestling (May 25, 2018)

Nylons and Midriffs, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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Welcome to Nylons and Midriffs, PWSA’s new bi-weekly column on women’s wrestling in WWE. In this column, we’re going to magnify women’s wrestling on WWE’s two main brand shows, RAW and Smackdown Live. We’ll hammer out the ways the division develops in this so-called “Women’s Evolution.”

When it comes to wrestling critique, male critics, bloggers, and YouTubers often analyze women’s matches and storylines through a masculine lens, or relative to what the men are doing. And because they are the dominant voices in wrestling fandom, their opinions become the accepted critical lexicon.

But, what if we took away that veneer — the idea that women only exist because the men do? What if we only paid attention to the women’s segments, and judged the quality of the product on how they were doing?

Visibility is not merely enough to proclaim that women are equal, and yet equality is not necessarily what we should be striving for. The women’s division can become a unique entity for the company if women are allowed to be three-dimensional.

To contextualize my voice in wrestling discourse, I will always be cognizant of social implications and representation in these posts. I am coming to this column with a strong sense of civic duty to point out racist, misogynist, and homophobic undertones in this product that I love so much. In the same way that WWE has to complicate the stories they tell and the women they push in the women’s division, the online wrestling world needs to hear from fans and scholars other than straight, white men. It is my hope that, as a black woman, I can create a space for more diverse fans to speak out and feel comfortable in the fandom. Perhaps then, will we see the people and stories we crave on television every week.

In this first post, I’ll talk more generally about the state of the women’s division as a foundation; but as the series goes on, I’ll get more specific to matches and segments as necessary.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’re in for some soft rants, respectful critiques, and come-to-Jesus realness about the women of the WWE. This column will be split into three sections for your consideration: The Good, The Bad, and The Thorny.

The Good
I like that the heel women are given segments and promo time to build heat with the audience. Specifically, I’m referring to the work of Alexa Bliss, Carmella, and the IIconics.

Image credit: WWE’s YouTube

Alexa, previously with her “Moment of Bliss” each week and heelish ring work, is likely the top heel woman on the roster because she fully understands her character. Carmella and the IIconics (Billie Kay and Peyton Royce) hone the art of being insufferably annoying every week to the chagrin of the live crowds (and the audience’s ears).

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Even if it isn’t the ideal heel characterization they could have been given (note that there are no comparable male equivalents to them), you can’t deny, it is working. Their heat is real.

The Bad
A general critique that will probably recur in this column, it seems that WWE’s writers only know how to write heel characters for the women. Pretty much all of the faces in the women’s division are vapid, and appear as faces seemingly for no other reason than they are anti-heel. They aren’t characterized as good guys. WWE simply puts them on TV every week and assumes that fans will cheer for them because they venture to thwart their heel opponents.

Women that at one time had very distinct face personas, like Becky Lynch, Bayley, and even Ember Moon, now sort of just exist as wrestlers to put opposite of more vindictive women in six-person tag matches.

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Indeed, if you pay close enough attention, some weeks the only thing that separates the heel and face women on TV is that the face women smile more and talk less. And the most over heel women are simply the ones that speak with the loudest shrill on the microphone.

What does it say that the only women that the writers seem to be able to write somewhat well are the ones we’re supposed to hate? Why can’t they create likable women, or unlikable women that offer more as characters than just being obnoxious? Sounds like something men who don’t understand women would do.

The Thorny
We are now setting up for Money in the Bank. The two title matches that have been announced — Nia Jax vs Ronda Rousey and Carmella vs. Asuka — have zero build. WWE is getting into the habit of throwing their women in matches, for the title or otherwise, at random with little foresight. This does nothing to help fans invest in the women or their matches.

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The point of pay-per-views (at least until this point) has been to give the fans a payoff for a build that has been developed over time on TV. If the women’s matches don’t have any build, then fans don’t have an emotional entry point into the action of the match. It also doesn’t help the wrestlers, because interacting with one another on live TV and/or having matches every week leading up to the pay-per-view gives them time to create chemistry as they continue their feud. This results in matches being lackluster and performers that are only going through the motions, hitting their spots and then leaving.

Most importantly, when WWE does this, it makes apparent to the fans that they are not invested in the so-called feuds they are writing. And if we can see that, why would we invest ourselves? You can’t build worthwhile feuds that advance a performer’s career with chance interactions backstage (Sasha/Bayley), awkward in-ring encounters (Asuka/Carmella), and painfully staged conversations at PR summits (Nia/Ronda). The women crawl through their feuds and character progression, while the men stride.

***

Perhaps WWE is planning to build backwards with their women’s title matches at Money in the Bank, and we will see the rivalries unfold steadily leading up to it. Regardless, I perpetually wish that women’s feuds weren’t so convoluted compared to how simple their characters are.

I’ll be back in two weeks, same time same place, to see how these feuds shake out.

Stay legit bossy,
AC