When I first started wrestling in 2011, feminism was considered a swear word amongst the hallowed, sweaty ropes of the squared circle. This week, WWE announced a pay-per-view show featuring only women. This announcement caused the wrestling world to shed Twitter tears of joy that finally women are getting the exposure they deserve, but few engaged with the struggle that it took to get there.
However, the WWE’s move towards being unlikely feminists is not because they spend nights lying awake trying to forget the underwear matches they made women compete in. It is not because they have started to listen to their mothers. The change has been caused by a worldwide movement of angry women who love wrestling and are now coming into their own.
For those who are not familiar with wrestling outside of perhaps lycra-based romp, GLOW, it is a male-dominated sport where women barely feature as stars. Until about a year ago, feminism did not belong within wrestling, as it has always been owned by, written by and for white men.
Women’s wrestling was frowned upon and though women have fought as long as men, it was perfectly acceptable to just not book women because of their gender. In 2010, the WWE decided to refer to all its women as DIVAs and limit their matches to three minutes. This was a step too far, and as backlash a number of USA and UK women’s promotions opened to prove women could wrestle. The shows were boycotted by many prominent male promotions, and the best talent in the world struggled for recognition in wrestling, knowing if they joined the WWE they would be required to get a personality overhaul. At the time women were either ignored or dismissed by most wrestling fans, but they supported one another – y’know, good old fashioned sisterhood?
By 2014, the women’s independent wrestling scene was starting to branch out into other promotions. And wrestling, that had hit a major slump in popularity from the mid 1990s onwards, became exciting again – getting rid of the bombastic roid-boys of our childhoods and becoming a more diverse community, made up of countless independent promotions. Within this diversification of audience, women fans also increased. In 2016, the WWE announced there was a “women’s revolution” that they were at the forefront of.
They made changes such as re-branding everything ‘DIVA’ with in the title (except toxic reality TV show, Total Divas) and more female characters were recruited from across the world. The WWE continue to pat themselves on the back, pretending the last two decades didn’t happen.
But many women in wrestling, and their allies, are aware of this hollow feminism. I’ve been on the front lines of this revolution (and my book on the topic Unladylike), and all this has happened because of those few promotions that booked women years ago when it was still unheard of. These were places willing to breed new life in to a dying industry, and as a result, have bought a whole new empowered angle both to its stars and its followers.
Women’s wrestling is a feminist act in itself because just by weaponising your body, you are subverting gender norms in society rather than embedding them. It is the independent wrestling scene that gave women the platforms to be different, to be strong, to perform on their own terms. What first was an unthinkable rebellion to the WWE’s view on women has now become its saviour. Wrestling is having a revival, not because of Triple H riding on a motorbike with his wife on the back, adorned in iron crosses – it is because angry women do not give up. You’re welcome.