It is hard to imagine, for anyone just starting to watch wrestling this last week, that there was ever a time when women were not a vital part of the business. At Wrestlemania alone, female superstars not only played a significant role in the success of the card, but for me personally Charlotte versus Asuka stole the show, with Ronda Rousey’s stunning debut coming a close second. The Alexa Bliss/ Nia Jax match was also a feel-good highlight, along with Naomi’s win in the women’s battle royal.
The women of WWE did not cease making an impact once the company left the Superdome on Sunday either. The next night’s Raw after Mania saw the emotional retirement of Paige from in-ring action, the continuing build up of tensions between Sasha Banks and Bayley, and, with Nia Jax’s championship celebration descending into a tag match with the debuting Ember Moon, and Ronda Rousey nearly ripping Stephanie McMahon’s arm out of her socket, Monday Night Raw, perhaps for the first time in history, didn’t even feature a male performer for the first three segments. On SmackDown the following night, Paige returned to the spotlight as the show’s new General Manager, Naomi and Natalya put on a clinic, and the biggest headlines of the night came from the debut of the IIconics, their beat down of Charlotte, and Carmella’s surprise cash in of her Money in the Bank contract to become new women’s champion.
Indeed, in WWE, it has been a great 2018 for women so far: the first ever women’s Royal Rumble match in January, followed by the first ever women’s Elimination Chamber match in February, plus the genre transcending signing of Ronda Rousey to the roster, which meant in the build up to Wrestlemania it was WWE’s newest female superstar most of us were paying our Network subscriptions to see. In fact, whether it was the moment Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks debuted on Raw to kick off the “women’s revolution” in WWE, or the moment Lita unveiled the new Women’s Championship belt and they retired the pink “Divas Championship” butterfly belt (along with the use of the demeaning word “diva” to describe their female talent), since 2015 it has been clear the company have done a great deal to elevate the role of women in their company to having the same stature and importance as their male performers. A general attitude of “anything the men can do, the women can do” has seen women main event Pay Per Views and TV, fight in Money In The Bank ladder matches and Hell in the Cell matches, and generally be treated as an equal and essential part of the show rather than their previous positions of bathroom break or eye candy. Last year’s astounding Mae Young Classic was a great testament to this: a must-see female-only tournament which exposed us to a wealth of awesome new superstars and added considerable depth to the female rosters on all three brands of WWE programming, most notably over on NXT with the addition of Shayna Baszler, who also made headlines this past Wrestlemania weekend by becoming new NXT women’s champion, allowing former champion, Ember Moon, to make further headlines for women with her call up to the main roster on Raw the following Monday. The Mae Young Classic also introduced us to our first ever female referee in the company, Jessicka Carr, who continues to work on NXT.
And as market leader, WWE’s new attitude to women in the last few years has forced other, Indy companies to keep up. Here in the UK, Progress Wrestling’s Natural Progression series to crown its first ever women’s champ was a great success in 2017, and Toni Storm’s run as champion has been an essential part of the show ever since. Importantly though, it hasn’t been the only part of the show for women (a mistake WWE used to make pre-women’s revolution) and women have had significant matches across its cards which have not been about the title at all. The week before Wrestlemania saw Progress also give Dhalia Black a new role as commentator – again reminding wrestling fans that anything a man can do, a woman can do – which I hope will continue as she offered a great new insight and perspective on what was happening in the ring. Meanwhile US indy stalwart, Ring of Honor crowned its first ever women’s champion in Sumie Sakai during Wrestlemania weekend. To be blunt, in 2018, you just can’t get away with treating the women of wrestling as second class citizens to the men.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
Because no sooner was Wrestlemania in the history books, than WWE began promoting its upcoming April 27th event: The Greatest Royal Rumble. This huge show, live on the WWE Network from Saudi Arabia, put on to celebrate a new television deal in the country, is a great disappointment to all of us wrestling fans who are happy to see women at last being given equal status in the company, as it will feature no female performers at all!
Although women in Saudi Arabia will be able to attend the event as spectators in the audience (something they have only been allowed to do since 2017!), they will see no females performing in the ring because empowerment of women is not something Saudi Arabia endorses. In fact females in sports in general is not something Saudi Arabia is comfortable with (just Google their attitudes to female Olympic competitors for some insight). Despite the new Crown Prince being touted across the world as a great reformer, primarily due to his finally lifting the ban women in the country have had up until now on driving (yes that’s right: until June this year, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive by themselves!), the country is still a deeply segregated place when it comes to male and female equality, with women only being given the vote in 2015, and still not allowed to make major decisions without a man’s permission, have freedom over what they wear, interact with men they are not related to in public, or even swim alongside men in public swimming pools.
Can you imagine what they thought of Ronda Rousey in Saudi Arabia? Not only picking out her own clothes, but choosing to make the iconic clothes of male superstar, Rowdy Roddy Piper her own, and then not only disobeying the orders of Triple H, but picking up this man she is not related to and beating the shit out of him in front of 70,000 people? Let alone the sight of Stephanie McMahon riding a motorbike!
Now I get that this is their country, and that there is an argument to be made about respecting cultural norms and traditions without imposing our radical Western ideologies of equality onto others…but that argument, if it ever had any force at all, loses any claim to legitimacy as soon as we are talking about a WWE show in the region because already any claims to the purity of Saudi Arabian culture have then been thrown out the window: this is not Saudi tradition, this is American professional wrestling. Casket matches and cage matches. Bulgarian Lions and Lucha Libre, Bludgeon Brothers and Woken Warriors. That WWE have not been brave enough to stand firm and say “in 2018 a WWE show means women too or we’re not coming” is a sad indictment of their true thoughts on the women’s revolution: it was never about empowering women, it was, as always, about making the company money.
Because it turns out women have money too, and in the old WWE model, women weren’t spending it with them, but were spending it over at UFC because they had this cool women’s division (started by one Ronda Rousey) which was finally treating women as equals in a sport. It became financially imperative in 2015/16 that WWE wake up to this and get some of that revenue. The women’s revolution was a marketing strategy to get more female fans and generate further revenue streams…just as The Greatest Royal Rumble is a marketing strategy to start a ten year expansion program in the region and make money from this rich, hitherto unexploited market.
That WWE is allowing itself to go from one of the best weekends in the company’s history for female superstars, to this bullshit throwback where women aren’t even part of the show, shows where their true priorities lie: money, not female empowerment.
Because let’s not forget that the same producers and writers who used to tell the women their match was the bathroom break on a show remain in charge behind the scenes today as much as they did before 2016. Indeed, watching the Raw 25 documentary last night on the WWE Network, there is a sad shot of a WWE production meeting. While a women’s revolution might be going on in the WWE ring, it is evidently not going on at a corporate level in terms of television production and writing! Make no mistake: behind the scenes WWE remains a boy’s club.
In the build up to Wrestlemania, as always, I watched some old Manias to build up the excitement. Watching them through more enlightened 2018 eyes though, the lack of women was glaring.
Wrestlemania 29, my Wrestlemania, the one which I attended, had no female match on the entire show; and the Playboy Pillow Fight between Candice Michelle and Torrie Wilson at Wrestlemania 22 was nothing short of an embarrassment…especially the sleazy commentary from Jerry Lawler! And after Wrestlemania, my wife and I played a game of WWE Monopoly from 2014 and were shocked to notice AJ Lee was not only the only female superstar on the entire board but, tellingly, she was the superstar with the least value in the game! The human equivalent of Old Kent Road.
It is worth remembering all this because 2014 was not that long ago. The status of women in WWE has come a long way…but it just takes a few poor booking decisions, or the financial decision to “move in another direction” to undo all that good work.
I am not saying that a single event like The Greatest Royal Rumble will be the undoing of everything good that has come before it. Nor am I trying to belittle the genuinely brilliant way WWE have repositioned the perception of females in the company up until now. But I am saying that the decision to perform in Saudi Arabia without women is a choice the company has to own, and in my opinion it is a choice akin to playing South Africa during apartheid and using only an all-white roster. It is a choice which perpetuates and facilitates continued segregation and inequality in the country rather than one which challenges it. And it is a choice which we, as viewers of WWE programming, will be sending them a message about with our viewing behaviour. If we watch the show, we too are tacitly endorsing this approach, and the continued segregation of Saudi Arabia. If we boycott the show, we demonstrate that in 2018 we simply do not accept a wrestling show without women from a market leading company who should be, and have been, blazing a trail for equality until now.
Of course there remains the argument that there may be no women this time, but it is a foot in the door so that perhaps next time, or the time after that, there will be. And ultimately equality for women eventually is better than equality for women never. But for me that argument falls flat: if Saudi Arabia wants WWE programming in its markets, then it wants the whole WWE product…and if WWE were truly serious about its women’s revolution, and it was something more than a marketing strategy; an actual principle the company now held, then they would have stood firm and said: no women, no WWE. Just as performers in segregated America last century, or the aforementioned Apartheid era South Africa, would refuse to play in a racist venue unless the black members of their group got paid and treated the same as their white counterparts: no equality, no performance.
It really is that simple: if we perform in Saudi Arabia, we will bring all our superstars, male and female, or we won’t perform at all.
But only if you are operating out of principle. What WWE have shown with their celebration of their Greatest Royal Rumble men only event, stacking it full of legends like Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Triple H, Rey Mysterio, and John Cena, filling it with banner title matches and airing it live across the WWE Network, is that there is no principle the company holds so strongly that they will not abandon it at the first opportunity if it will make them some money.
Until next time… #WWEGRR #NoWomenNoWWE Dan McKee