Watch Nia Jax deliberately dismantle her opponents. Watch her lift them with ease, toss them around the ring like rag dolls. Watch her grin at the jeers. Watch Alexa Bliss remove her tutu and toss it away in disgust. Watch Charlotte ride in a litter to the ring, a ruff about her neck, a Queen Elizabeth I for sports entertainment. Hear Sasha call herself the boss and mean it. Hear Natalya demand to know why her ex-uncle Bret Hart has a t-shirt at the merch table and she doesn’t. Hear them all say: I am the champion.
We’ve had plenty of competent, go-getting female characters. Many of them have served as tokens in an otherwise male-dominated world (think: the one capable woman in an action film filled with dudes, or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who conveniently drops in and out of the narrative so the usually male protagonist can reach self-actualization). For WWE, this type of female is fairly new. It wasn’t so long ago that Sable was gyrating in the middle of the ring, spouting her catchphrase: “This is for the women who want to be me, and the men who come to see me.” It hasn’t been that long since lingerie matches or matches in wading pools filled with chocolate pudding. Today, WWE’s female wrestlers are among the best on the roster, taking physical risks (see: every match Charlotte and Sasha have together, especially their women’s championship match on July 25, 2016). Their characters are often more complex and multidimensional than the male wrestlers’.
These female wrestlers are not constrained by a cookie-cutter idea of desirability. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re wholly representative of women everywhere, but no more are they exclusively 5’4” white ladies with long blonde hair. The focus shifted, and with that shift, we saw a new archetype emerge for the female wrestler, one that I believe can serve as a role model for women everywhere.
These women don’t care if you like them.
Is this radical? I think so. Google “women and likeability” and wade through the results. Academic paper upon academic paper has been written on the subject, finding that women in leadership positions are often scorned for the same qualities that make male leaders laudable. Bossy, brusque, outspoken, opinionated. Society has influenced the way males and females are supposed to act. Certain mannerisms are coded as female, such as couching opinions with an introductory, “I was thinking,” or “This is just my opinion, but…” And ambitious women? Yeah, they’re penalized.
It’s so refreshing, then, to hear each of WWE’s female wrestlers own their ambition, whether in or out of character. In , both Becky and Sasha say they want to main event Wrestlemania. It’s so exciting to hear Natalya tell Nikki: “I guess you and Bret have a lot in common. Because both of you are gonna die alone.” It’s awesome to see so many women act so “unladylike.” The kayfabe world presented to WWE fans is dominated by powerhouse women who aren’t afraid to speak up and say, “I’m a champion. I deserve to be your champion.”
In having their characters eschew the desire to be liked, it gives female wrestlers the freedom to focus on what matters: winning the belt. When Sasha jabs her crutch into Charlotte’s breast, it isn’t to get a rise out of the male fans. It’s calculated. Sasha knows a tit-punch hurts, so she’s going to use that. Never mind that WWE is scripted and choreographed, and winners are determined by what makes sense for the storyline and what’s going on behind the scenes. Female wrestlers are no longer former models that escort the male wrestlers to the ring. Face or heel, the women can fight, and they want to win.
Sure, the crowd will probably side with and like the faces. That’s usually how it goes (sorry, Roman). But even faces like Bayley aren’t acting like lapdogs, scrounging for any scrap of affection. She is, as she has said, just Bayley. And the fans love her for it. The WWE writers used Bayley’s for-real backstory as a way to get her over with the crowd. She didn’t have to walk out in a miniskirt and tease that she might show the crowd her boobs. Nor are the heels simply immoral, plain evil or conniving with Stephanie and Triple H to get ahead. These women get by on their own merits, unafraid to state what they want, why they deserve it, and how they’re going to achieve it. Charlotte’s supposed genetic superiority is a leg up, sure, but it gives her opponents the chance to say, “I had to work harder than you to get where I am. I deserve it more.” Why shouldn’t this attitude spur average women to take stock of their accomplishments and how they pushed themselves to achieve their goals?
None of this is to suggest that WWE hasn’t seen female wrestlers of this ilk before. The Fabulous Moolah was ruthless in (and out of) the ring. Chyna was perhaps born too soon, and I mourn her passing for several reasons, one of which is that we’ll never see her in a match with Charlotte. (Think of it!) It’s been wonderful to see Mickie James return, and Lita’s been hanging out for awhile. These women and others (Wendi Richter, Madusa “Alundra Blayze” Miceli, Molly Holly) paved the way for the level of female wrestling WWE has today. I also don’t want to imply that women like Sable and Debra are lesser. They were working for WWE in a different time. Now, WWE has realized outdated depictions of women won’t fly, and they’ve branded this realization as the Women’s Revolution.
Have things been perfect since then? No, of course not. That’s not how revolutions work. You keep building on what the people before you left behind. But we’ve come a long way from bra-and-panties matches. Now, Sasha is the boss, Nia Jax isn’t like girls who only accept what they’re given, Becky is a lass-kicker, Naomi was Smackdown women’s champion, and Charlotte is our queen. These women wrestling today (and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow) inhabit characters that fight tenaciously, take risks, trust their instincts, create complex personalities, and have moonsaulted their way into a revolution that both entertains and inspires. These female wrestlers know what they deserve. They deserve the future.
Theresa J. Beckhusen is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in American Theatre, The Sondheim Review, Ex. Ex. Midwest, Sundog Lit, NAP Magazine, and others. You can find her on Twitter and her website.