April 17 marks one year since the death of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer from a drug and alcohol overdose at the age of 46.
Fans had long petitioned for Laurer’s inclusion into the WWE Hall of Fame—the ultimate seal of approval, however arbitrary, to honor her achievements in the wrestling world. The company where she made her name missed the chance to make it right with Laurer in life, and any posthumous induction might seem in poor taste. But with the rise of social media movements like #GiveDivasAChance, later co-opted by WWE as a ”Divas Revolution,” Laurer’s continued omission from WWE’s history books flies in the face of everything the company seems to be working towards, particularly in the year since Laurer’s untimely passing.
One year later, it’s worth looking at how the iconic Chyna is remembered, and in turn, how far women’s wrestling has come in WWE.
In addition to Laurer’s passing, April also marks a year since the so-called “Women’s Evolution,” arguably ushered in when the Divas Championship was traded in for the far more legitimate WWE Women’s Championship (now the Raw Women’s Championship) and the company’s women wrestlers renamed “Superstars” instead of “Divas.” Since then, women wrestlers have been more physical in gimmick matches rivalling those of their male colleagues, thanks in part to trailblazers like Laurer and others like her. The main roster’s “new era” for women’s wrestling—NXT was making gains years before Raw and SmackDown came around—didn’t really kick in until after the brand extension and the draft in mid-2016. But since October, women wrestlers, with a new women’s championship created for SmackDown—and an increase in match time, frequency and dynamism—have wrestled in cage, no disqualification, tables, and falls count anywhere matches, as well as the in main event of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown, and the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, a first for women.
But Laurer was perhaps better known for a stipulation still not featured on WWE television: Intergender wrestling.
The lead up to John Cena and Nikki Bella’s tag team match against The Miz and Maryse featured Nikki taking out Tyler Breeze, so a fully fledged intergender contest seemed like the perfect follow up to the last year of women’s gains in WWE. Though Nikki did get to perform a suicide dive onto Miz, and both NXT Takeover: Orlando and the SmackDown women’s championship match involved intergender spots across WrestleMania weekend, it was ultimately a missed opportunity: The matches were still traditional mixed tag matches, with the men fighting the men, and the women fighting the women.
Although Laurer could hold her own with almost any man on the roster, she was often relegated to the sidekick or romantic interest role, a trope that seems to be experiencing a resurgence of sorts in WWE today: Alicia Fox’s jump from cruiserweight to cruiserweight, CarmEllsworth, the troubling undertones of the WrestleMania mixed tag match. And instead of taking inspiration from Laurer’s two Royal Rumble entrances in 1999 and 2000 by having Nia Jax or Asuka, who each can, like Laurer, definitely hang with the majority of the male roster, women were only featured in same-gender matches at this year’s pay-per-view.
During her four year stint in WWE, Laurer blazed trails for women not only inside the ring, but in terms of which kinds of women were considered sexy and successful. Of the current crop of women, Charlotte, Nikki Bella, Natalya, Dana Brooke, Asuka, Nikki Cross and Nia Jax come to mind as competitors challenging the amount of power women are allowed to exert and what they look like doing it it various ways.
Regretfully, Laurer’s sexuality is likely one major reason for WWE’s continued denial of Laurer’s legacy, due to a career in adult entertainment she forged in the years after she departed the company. Here, the company’s sexist double-standard becomes clear: Instead of being inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, Laurer was overlooked for her last chance at making good with WWE in favor of pimp character The Godfather and celebrity inductee Snoop Dogg, who has dabbled in porn production himself.
At this year’s WrestleMania, WWE rectified its baffling booking of the SmackDown women’s championship on the pre-show in time for the main show. The company is coming around, in some respects. But oftentimes, as it was for Laurer, it’s a case of too little, too late.
Scarlett Harris is an Australian writer. You can read her previously published work at her website The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.