Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Evolution of Women's Wrestling

As I've began to think about my paper topic, I've managed to pose questions to our guest speakers JR and Mick Foley on what their thoughts were about the direction of the women's division in the WWE. A bit earlier, Peter touched on some questions I was tossing around regarding women's wrestling and how it has been changing as a whole, and not for the better it seems. According to JR and Mick, the WWE seems to have been actively moving away from the athletic, competitive women's wrestling that has been prevalent for the last few years, only to introduce the Diva Search contest, which is basically a glorified beauty pageant rather than a wrestling talent introduction. While this has been the trend lately, there may be evidence of a resurgence of the high-impact intense women's wrestling of the past, with women like Melina, Victoria and Vickie James possibly trying to pick up the slack left by the departure of Lita, Trish Stratus and others.

Now, according to Mick, the WWE has actually chastised some of the female wrestlers at points for wrestling 'too much like the guys', and for them to change their style. Now, I know there are several wrestling styles, including lucha libre, technical, etc, but I have never really distinguished between a 'guys'' style and a 'girls'' style. Frankly, the prospect of being told to wrestle/fight/etc 'like a girl' pisses me off. Especially if, as Mick put it, ' there are actual guys who can't wrestle that well, and you're telling the women to wrestle worse in a way'. It seems that WWE has the notion that sex sells, and women's wrestling doesn't, or at least not in the same way that the men's wrestling does. There also seems to be an antiquated idea of women's matches as 'filler', as a means for the crowd to catch their breath between 'real matches.

I heartily disagree. At the time of the Women's Division's heyday, when the locker room was bursting with talented, athletic women such as Lita, Chyna, Gail Kim, Molly Holly and Jazz, the WWE was at its peak. I know fans, male and female alike, paid money to watch those matches, and didn't just watch them as filler. Why? Because they were good, well structured, intense bouts, built up well with good storylines and pushes. These are not catfights, or bra and panties matches, or costume contests, these were wrestling matches, with lots of strong technical wrestling and some highflying moves to boot. They didn't need to take off their tops to get the crowd to pop.

Now, look at a ladies' match on RAW. Lately, they have barely been matches, and there have been a lot more Playboy celebrations and talent contests and yada yada. This is not women's wrestling, this is t&a, and no, not the tag team. If I wanted to watch this dribble, I could go to MTV or E or whatever other channel. But I want to watch good women's wrestling, and it seems to be in short supply. What happened?

The WWE/Vince has prided itself on knowing what the fans want and giving it to them. But is this watered down, sexed up version of women's wrestling what we want? It's unclear. On the average, wrestling tends to evolve with the times, and changes in tune with societal shifts, such as in world affairs like the Gulf War(s), the Attitude Era, introducing a homosexual tag team, etc. But in this case, the WWE may have slipped backwards. As Peter pointed out, there is no shortage of strong female action heroes in media lately, such as Lara Croft, Buffy, and others, and they seem to be quite popular, given the success of franchises such as Resident Evil, Alias and the forthcoming Sarah Conner Chronicles. These are tough, violent and strong women who are earning money for their creators and distributors. So why does the WWE seem to be moving away from the trend? The female wrestlers are more muscular, perhaps, but not Chyna-level muscular, and they are definitely still very sexy and beautiful. Plenty of people pay good money to see Milla Jovovich kick butt on the movie screen, so why would they all of a sudden decide not to pay to see real live women kick butt in the squared circle?

Perhaps the WWE is indeed learning from their societal-reflection folly, and have slowly pushing the women's division back to that athletic, competitive level it was at before, now that they have a steadily improving group of women to base that growth on. Perhaps they realized that all that t&a wasn't actually giving them the ratings they were looking for.Perhaps all of the above, we shall see, and I shall investigate further through the term. I just hope we get phase out the bunnies and bring back the hardcore women's wrestlers that got me hooked on wrestling in the first place.


Luis Tenorio said...

I have to agree that women's wrestling doesn't have my attention right now. Sure women in bra and panties matches sound great but they don't make for great wrestling. It does not provide the excitement that you would expect from wrestling.
You forgot one other female wrestler. Ivory. I remember her and Chyna having a great rivalry. I do think that the women in the division now could become great wrestlers and we had been talking with Mick and JR that the women's division was looking for a happy medium. That didn't happen in the last episode of RAW. Another disappointing segment with the DIVAs. They had a fashion show! Why? Why not give the women a couple of real story lines and not just a cat fight breaking out every episode. And that is the kind of wrestling Vince wants. Catfights. Only a few times am I impressed by the moves that women pull off. And yes, I think that women that are strong and can stand up to men would be acceptable by fans of wrestling. Buffy and Lara Croft are beautiful but deadly, but I don't remember their deadly side as much as would be ideal. Perhaps these women wrestlers are part of that trend that JR was talking about. Having wrestlers go to the major leagues before being ready. If more women came from the developmental territories as wrestlers and not just divas, then the women's division could improve.

Sam Ford said...

If people want to see pornography or softcore porn photography, it's pretty easy to get on the Web (such as hardcore porn icon Christy Canyon). And guess what: that industry is better at that than WWE. WWE is better at wrestling. It just makes sense for them to do that.

I have three arguments regarding this whole "divafication" issue of the WWE, and these all come from a media business perspective.

First, WWE gets a set fee from the stations for its programming, but it does not get the ad revenue. That's for the networks. In that case, what is the logic for the T&A segments? I could understand when the goal was to lure casual viewers into the show. A lot of men flipping through channels might turn on the Playboy pillow fight or whatever and watch, even if they aren't wrestling fans--after all, the T&A has little do with wrestling. In that model, spiking Nielsen numbers helps because the WWE can then push for more advertising $$$. Their current model, though, means they get nothing when ratings go up other than bragging rights and more respect with their networks, but they are already the top shows on their respective networks pretty often. Instead, WWE's main goal should be getting people to buy merchandise, PPVs, etc., by watching the TV show. And, I'm sorry, but I doubt many people ever decided to buy a PPV based on a Diva talent show.

Second, WWE wants to bring in bigger corporate sponsors, not for 30-second spots necessarily but to sponsor PPVs, etc. I agree with Mick that the company takes some risks that don't even stand to make them money anyway, and the diva stuff is included in that. While I think WWE should remain true to what pro wrestling is, it should take its product seriously enough to not have to rely on blatant T&A to fill up the show.

Third, if the statistics J.R. gave us is right, WWE is often the second highest-rated regular cable series on TV among WOMEN. In this era of target demographics, WWE has decided that it's about 18-34 male or something like that...but that's an awfully large surplus audience to ignore. I think creating strong and interesting female characters would make perfect business sense considering a strong female demographic. The T&A fascination would make a little more sense if WWE's audience was almost completely male, but that's not the case.

I'm not arguing about exposed bodies here but rather the issue many of you raised, including some recent comments by Kate. It isn't the flesh you see but rather how it is presented, and characters like Trish Stratus were set apart because while she may have been provocatively dressed, she was still taken seriously, just as many of the men wear little clothing but their sexual appeal does not interfere with their being a serious character.

Andrew Dynon said...

On the other hand, recently independent wrestling promotions have recognised that there is a niche market available for those who want serious women's wrestling and aren't getting it from the WWE's product. SHIMMER: Women Athletes ( and some other organisations have moved to fill this niche, and SHIMMER, at least, has enjoyed reasonable success in doing so.

katejames said...

But it's a little sad that serious women's wrestling has to be pushed in to 'niche' territory, when it's perfectly logical to integrate it within the current format. If wrestling is 'sports entertainment,' there's no reason at all for the women's part of the show to be void of the 'sports' portion of the equation.
Which was a point I made at some point along the way-- that I don't have a problem with scantily clad, attractive women, but they should have ample opportunity to figth for their rights and vindications as much as their male counterparts. If we think about the model of the face vs. heel as a playing out of societal challenges to justice and economy, we have to read women's roles in wrestling as a indicators of female incapacity, hysteria, sexual objectification. So, if we feel ok about the structure of wrestling story allowing for the heel to win, for injustice to be served, should we also feel ok about the performative prescription of women as t & a? Should we take it with a grain (tablespoon?) of salt as something to revolt against? (And resort to the niche market for the real action we wish we saw?)

Sam Ford said...

I think that the fan base for women's wrestling should definitely speak up. I agree with you, Kate, that there's no problem with attrative women wrestling, just like WWE is looking for attractive male bodies as well. The difference is in how those bodies are portrayed. I think Trish Stratus is the best example of a female performer brought in for looks who turned out to be a great athlete and who really learned how to wrestle. Unfortunately, with her moving away from wrestling, it looks like WWE all but has as well.