When Big E tweeted this photo last month with the hashtag #BlackExcellence, it was unprecedented for WWE to have so many champions of color at one time. Within days four of those five champions lost their titles.
World Wrestling Entertainment has been making strides in its women’s division in recent months.
Formerly, women’s wrestling was thought of as the popcorn or bathroom break portion of the program. If the “Divas”—as female wrestlers were known until last year, while male performers just got to be Superstars—weren’t stripping each other down to their underwear in Bra and Panties or Evening Gown stipulations, it was the perfect time to refuel in preparation for the real (read: men’s) wrestling.
But ever since Wrestlemania 32 last April (which, for the first time in twelve years, featured two women’s matches, one of which was for the newly minted WWE Women’s Championship instead of the retired Divas Championship), WWE seems to be taking women’s wrestling seriously. Last October’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view was main evented by Charlotte and Sasha Banks wrestling in the Cell, another first, and in December the two faced off again in the second women’s Iron Man match. Over on SmackDown Live, which has a separate women’s division, Alexa Bliss bested Becky Lynch for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in the second-ever women’s tables match at Tables, Ladders & Chairs. With stipulations that were previously only attached to men’s matches, it would seem that WWE is finally stepping away from the subjugation and limited roles for women that have largely defined its product.
Speaking to graphic designer Kate Foray, who produces the weekly Raw Breakdown Project, however, women’s wrestling is still getting significantly less airtime in comparison to the number of women on the roster.
Since Wrestlemania, “the average airtime for women on Raw has been about 8% (from April 4, 2016 to December 13, 2016), and never going above 16%,” Foray tells me. “In fact, since the Raw Breakdown Project’s inception, women[’s wrestling has] not gotten more than 16% of airtime since at least May 4, 2015. The longest streak [occurred between] July 7, 2016 [and] November 7, 2016, with an average airtime of 10%. Since then, [it] has been far from consistent.” For example, Raw’s December 13, 2016 episode featured only 4% of women’s wrestling, down 8% from the previous week. Surely a three hour show can carve out more than 8 minutes for a division that had a marquee Iron Man match at the following weekend’s Roadblock pay-per-view.
One way to combat this is by utilizing quotas. Quotas and affirmative action get a bad rap in a meritocracy, which WWE would claim to be, although merit in wrestling is defined differently than in legitimate sports. A wrestling meritocracy would mean that if performers, including women and minorities, are truly talented, they will connect with the fan base so thoroughly that they will have to be pushed to the top. As we saw with Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, though, and how they were never really portrayed as being on the same level as WWE’s hand-picked top stars, WWE isn’t a true meritocracy on any level. And that example rests on two wrestlers whose whiteness and maleness gave them an entry point others might not receive.
Today’s WWE isn’t a meritocracy. It relies on tired stars who make infrequent appearances, too often refusing to highlight the promising younger talent who work day in and day out. And it’s worse for black and woman performers than anybody else. In today’s WWE The Undertaker still emerges from his coffin (almost literally) to get that annual Wrestlemania check at the expense of 80% of the roster. Old white guys who haven’t wrestled in the better part of a decade, such as Goldberg and Shane McMahon, are promoted as contemporary star attractions while promising black superstars such as Apollo Crews, Titus O’Neil and Darren Young languish on Superstars and Main Event. As Kofi Kingston wrote in response to controversy over an Instagram picture of his New Day teammates, Banks and Rich Swann all holding championship gold hashtagged #BlackExcellence, “Historically in our nation, there was period in time where [black champions] would not have happened, followed by a long period of time where it became possible, but had not actually materialized. Now, we are in the time in which the possibility has become a reality.”
Apart from The Rock, who is of mixed African American and Samoan descent, there has never been a black WWE Champion since the title was created in 1963. (Booker T was a five-time WCW Champion and a World Champion in WWE, but for some reason a distinction is made between these accomplishments and being the WWE Champion, putting it further out of reach for already marginalized black wrestlers.) Swann is currently a champion, and Banks and New Day were at the top of their divisions until recently, while Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura are champions in NXT, but historically it’s been pretty lonely up there. When that #BlackExcellence tweet was sent, it was unprecedented for WWE to have so many champions of color at one time; within days of it being written, four of those five champions lost their titles. And beyond championships, the number of minority performers in high-profile slots remains too low. Representation needs to occur across the board, not just at the upper echelons.
Under the tutelage of Triple H, NXT is a somewhat inconsistent breeding ground for diversity. Samoa Joe and Nakamura have traded the NXT Championship back and forth for the last six months, and three of the five NXT Women’s title holders have been women of color. But WWE had the opportunity to continue to transform by hosting a women’s tournament and instead Triple H announced a UK Championship tourney consisting of 85% white guys to take place this month.
Similarly, last year Stephanie McMahon proclaimed that WWE would begin incorporating LGBTQIA+ representation into its storylines but we are yet to see it materialize. It’s not enough for WWE to just say it’s all about a #WomensEvolution or diversifying its talent pool: there needs to be an outside group holding WWE accountable to a meaningful and representative amount of minority wrestlers on its roster and that group has often been the WWE Universe. From #GiveDivasAChance in February 2015, to displeasure over Banks and Charlotte being given the main event slot at Hell in a Cell then having it taken away, the fans are largely responsible for the newfound respect afforded to women’s wrestling. But we can’t be the only ones agitating for a more inclusive product (the racism directed towards the abovementioned #BlackExcellence highlights the bigotry that exists within the fan base), which is where an outside entity like the USA Network could step in and enforce quotas.
These quotas would guarantee a significant amount of time per episode of Raw, SmackDown and pay-per-views to be allocated to women and non-white performers that either reflects the portion of the entire WWE audience and/or roster they encompass. For example, women wrestlers make up roughly 17% of the active roster and 35% of the WWE Universe, so they would be onscreen for an amount of time somewhere between the two. To achieve this, WWE could hire more women wrestlers, and deepen the character development and match opportunities for the ones it already has.
Not only do these quotas need to take hold in the ring, they need to be representative of crew and creative members. Though with Linda McMahon’s appointment to the Trump administration and the subsequent firing of one of WWE’s only gay writers (who also happened to be anti-Trump), the outlook is bleak for diversity spearheaded by WWE alone.
By diversifying employees both in the ring and behind the scenes, stale and sexist storylines such as Enzo Amore’s workplace sexual harassment of Lana—in 2016—will ideally be eliminated in favor of fresh storylines featuring talent that better reflects WWE’s fanbase and, thus, society at large.
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.