Pro wrestling has long had its problems when it comes to women accompanying men to the ring. Take, for example, New Japan Pro Wrestling: Women on the show are little more than eye candy, used for dreadful closeups on breasts and buttocks. For a while, the only woman we saw on screen during a New Japan show was “The Tokyo Pimp” Yujiro Takahashi’s bunny-eared, leather-clad valet. More recently, since the addition of Suzuki-gun, we’ve been saddled with another, similarly-clothed (or, barely clothed) valet accompanying Taichi to the ring.
But as an industry leader, WWE—whose depiction of female wrestlers recently evolved from the long-outdated “diva”—is in the unique position of being able to change the boundaries of what the artform has long allowed women to do. While many of their women wrestlers are already seen as strong, capable, and able in the ring, others remain sidelined as mere fluff for the boys to ogle at. In light of this, it’s worth asking: Is there still a place in wrestling for a valet—a woman who accompanies a man to the ring, but does not wrestle?
It’s a complicated question. There are examples going back decades of women throughout the industry who have started as valets and gone on to in-ring competitor. Women like Melina and Jacqueline overcame the valet status to really make it in the ring, and Marlena turned the usual dynamic on its head as the dominant partner over her husband, Goldust. Without Trish Stratus and Sable, two women who were both valets and competitors, we wouldn’t have the women’s division that we have today, and both Sherri Martel and Miss Elizabeth proved that a valet doesn’t need to be passive, or outside of a situation, and certainly doesn’t need to just be “tits and ass” for the viewing public. The women’s division as it is now owes a lot to women who started off as eye candy, and made themselves, instead, into women to watch, into a spectacle in the ring.
But others haven’t been as fortunate: looking at, say, Summer Rae, can we really say that we take her seriously after she was Fandango’s arm candy? Her first major feud was with Layla, Fandango’s replacement valet. She was introduced to us as something to look at, not someone to admire. And it’s probably fair to say that she’s never shaken that off. While other women are scorned as merely bad, she gets the added admonition of being “silly,” not credible, and you can’t discount her initial appearances as a valet as a big part of why that is.
The critical difference between a valet and a manager is small, but visible when you stand someone like Lana or Maryse next to Paul Heyman. Sure, Lana and Maryse are both advocating for heel characters, but Heyman? He gets respect, silence, the chance to speak. Part of that is his decades-long involvement in the industry, part of it is his mic skills. But he was allowed to get to the point he is now because, well, he’s a man. Women were introduced to wrestling as silly, flimsy, two-faced creatures—plot devices, things to be used, story pieces that could be taken away at any time. We often weren’t supposed to get to know or care about them as anything beyond pretty scenery. Those who did make us care often became more than valets, being personalities in their own right, but so many were there just to draw the eye and make the primarily male audience drool.
According to WWE statistics from 2014—the last year such information was available on their corporate website—35 percent of WWE’s audience is female, something we can only speculate has grown in the past two years as women’s matches have become more prevalent. While WWE could previously justify that they were playing to their audience by having attractive women standing around to be, essentially, ring furniture, it’s a little more difficult to come up with a reason why the growing number of women in the crowd would be interested in a character that reinforces sexism and misogyny, rather than challenging it.
It’s still frustrating to see women like Lana remain Rusev’s glorified ring announcer, as it is watching her “a man hit me, I hurt my ankle” trick. It’s frustrating to see Alicia Fox as nothing more than arm candy for Noam Dar and Cedric Alexander, a cog in a machine used to create a feud between the two men rather than being her own woman with her own storyline, as she so richly deserves. Even Maryse’s WrestleMania-bound feud against Nikki Bella, suggesting that a woman is only as good as the ring on her finger and the man she stands by, was just more backwards thinking that shows WWE needs to address their stance on women, and do it properly. There’s a joy in seeing Maryse have that feud, and in seeing two women have that time on screen, but the storyline they have is archaic, and needs to be stopped.
Valets are a symbol of a previous era and age, and while there should be a space for female partners of male wrestlers, it should be in a useful manner.There isn’t a space left for women who are there to create sexual envy in the straight male audience, and keeping them makes WWE’s “women’s revolution” look like window dressing, a way to pander to certain aspects of the crowd, without giving up the valet system, which is geared towards an entirely different mindset. By telling us that we have a strong women’s division, giving them a title which looks like the WWE World Championship, WWE says that they believe in women as people. But the way some women remain treated tells a different story—it tells women that there are levels of acceptance, and only some get to main event, or enter Hell in a Cell, while the rest don’t see any change in the corporation. On the day The Miz comes out in skimpy, bejeweled trunks and sits on the commentary table to tell us all how wonderful his wife is, while she fights in the ring while he doesn’t wrestle for months, I’ll step back and agree that the valet system isn’t sexist. Until then, it needs reevaluating.
Steph Maxwell-Kavanagh is a wrestling writer from the UK. She owns and writes for Rasslin Rehash, where she presents recaps, articles, and satirical pieces, with a feminist viewpoint.