Let’s begin with the obvious: James Ellsworth being the person to grab the Woman’s Money in the Bank briefcase in a match built as one of historical import was, optically speaking, a bad call. Storyline decision or not, heat on Carmella or not, swerve or not, for two days all wrestling Twitter could talk about was how badly World Wrestling Entertainment undermined its long-stated goal of putting their women’s division on equal-footing with the men. For a match that promised history to end in the relatively muted visual of a man grabbing the briefcase is a plot point that needed a second draft. But the ongoing storyline implications of Carmella’s tainted win are not what I want to draw your attention to. Instead, I want to use WWE’s response to the outcry to analyze how it continues to fail in their attempt to include women and LGBT people in a fanbase that visually and vocally skews male.
The seeds for what was once called the #WomensRevolution were planted when AJ Lee, still under WWE contract at the time, publicly tweeted her boss, Stephanie McMahon, to ask why women didn’t get the same percentage of merchandise sales as their male co-workers. While that question was never answered publicly, it did give wrestling fans, many of them women, an indication of the vastly different landscape experienced by women wrestlers. While much of the credit for “evolving” the women’s division from the WWE Divas of the past has been given to the Four Horsewomen of NXT (Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch), the scrutiny with which fans approached a historically lacking aspect of WWE programming began as a response to labor conditions. Before #WomensRevolution there was #GiveDivasAChance, the hashtag that emboldened Lee to tweet McMahon, which was a reply not to the perceived upgrade in quality, but to a 50 second match between the Bella Twins and Paige and Emma. Somewhere, an aide was directed to tweet “We hear you. Keep watching. #GiveDivasAChance” from Vince McMahon’s twitter account, and those who did were eventually rewarded with what we have today: Women’s divisions on Raw and SmackDown, the retirement of the Diva moniker, an upcoming women’s wrestling tournament on WWE Network, and, in NXT, a promising roster of women so far outside of one’s conception of a “female WWE superstar” that seeing them on WWE television now still feels a little uncanny.
All of this is marketing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—with Twitter, Facebook and WWE Network subscriptions, World Wrestling Entertainment has never been as open or vulnerable to the criticism of its fanbase as it is now. In media, marketing is just another word for representation. The problem is that the people deciding how women are represented in WWE are almost exclusively men. This leads to the company’s incessant, cloying reminder that every time you’re seeing women in the ring with a ladder, in a cage with a roof on it, or wrestling for 30 to 60 minutes, it’s An Historic First. Truth be told, all the heat WWE gets for spoiling that with James Ellsworth is earned. If nothing else, it serves as proof of how effective their rebranding of women’s wrestling has been. #GiveDivasAChance happened in February 2015. In 2017, do things feel nearly as desperate for the women on the roster?
However thin the veneer of WWE’s commitment to portraying women as human beings is, their response to the backlash over Money in the Bank only goes to show how much farther away they are from their goal of appealing to LGBT viewers through their inclusion in the product. Wrestling fans are not opposed to fantasizing about a world where The Shield love each other as brothers in the streets and lovers in the sheets, and half the appeal of a tag team like Tyler Breeze and Fandango is how cartoonishly homoerotic their fashion police gimmick is. In 2016, Stephanie McMahon claimed that she saw an opportunity to integrate LGBT characters into WWE’s universe. This wouldn’t be difficult to do—Darren Young, WWE’s first openly gay active wrestler, has been out since 2013, and letting him be himself would probably be easier than whatever they were trying to do with him and Bob Backlund last year. But here you run into the same problems: how do you integrate gay characters into WWE without tokenizing the queer members of the roster, casting straight, cis wrestlers in queer and trans roles, or do any of this well with a writing team that is not only largely male, but, one presumes, is also mostly heterosexual, and is, without question, exclusively cis?
Thankfully, the answer so far has been “You don’t.” Frankly, it’s hard to tell if WWE will ever be ready for such a thing beyond the kind of press conference talk that grabs a headline or two, and that’s to their benefit if company history is to be remembered. But that kind of engagement is also marketing—WWE boasts a sizable queer following—and, without the follow through of characters on the screen, it’s easier to see that marketing for what it is. Turn again to WWE’s response to Ellsworth. Now that sports networks are desperate enough to reach towards wrestling for an inflow of advertising revenue, WWE figures like Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events, and Creative Paul Levesque get to appear on SkySports and respond to the controversy created by Money in the Bank by saying “We’re still trying to confirm 100% that James Ellsworth is 100% a man.”
Levesque, as Triple H, rose to fame thanks to sophomoric humor predicated on hot chicks and homophobia, and on SkySports he was pretty much doing a PG version of that gimmick, the humble CEO who isn’t above cracking a joke. As far as jokes go, it is both bad and forgettable, something that will likely only live on in pieces like this one. But what we’re talking about here is outreach, which, like marketing, is another word for representation. And there, again, we have a problem. James Ellsworth is a man, 100%. But Leveque’s joke about waiting for confirmation does several things. First and foremost, it reinforces the conceit that men (here, male wrestlers) are inherently superior to women—if Ellsworth isn’t 100% a man, then whatever percent a woman he is makes his retrieving the briefcase not such a big deal. Surely a dude that weak, so attached to a woman who he’s not sleeping with, who puts a woman’s goals and aspirations above his own must be something less than a Man.
That kind of toxic masculinity backchannels into homophobia, which uses the real man construct as a means of reifying heterosexual, cisgender men as the measuring stick for what’s normal and what’s queer. The Ellsworth character, dressed in the image of Carmella, can stand in line with Adrian Street, Adrian Adonis and Goldust, men whose bodies and motives are too confusing to be masculine, and thus threatening to the status quo. Only the status quo Ellsworth is upsetting is the notion that World Wrestling Entertainment is making an honest attempt at positive representation. Do I want queer stories told by a crew of men who slip too easily into the jocular hazing of schoolyard homophobia? No. Do I want women’s stories told by that same crew who, confident that they’ve cleared a bar established by long-forgotten history, miss the obvious clues that they themselves are the authors of? Probably not.
Lucky for WWE, the solution to these problems is simple: Hire women and hire queer people to creative roles, and make the atmosphere of those departments such that those people want to stay and develop into those roles. But had the company an interest in real change, the kind you can’t turn into a hashtag, it would have done these things years ago. Until that happens, WWE may pay lip service to the idea that all things are equal in sports entertainment, but they’ll always be prone to screwing up. Eventually, it’ll be in a way they can’t escape by calling for an audible in the storyline.
Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she runs Fear of A Ghost Planet, a zine press. She is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon, a poetry collection about love and pro wrestling.