Hey readers! This is Claire, your Features and Opinions Ed, introducing Karina Cooper’s piece on women in the WWE. We don’t talk Pro Wrestling much at WWAC, but when we do, we do it with spirit. Do you have a wrestlepinion to share? Get in touch!

Total Divas, WWE, WWE Network, E!

A real TV show about real life

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. The WWE is and has always been a carefully formulated balance: 50% entertainment, 50% athleticism, and 375% business. The fact that “what’s good for business” is the current catch phrase we love to hate doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. That’s why wrestlers are carefully turned heel to face to heel again, why names and personas are dropped and changed, and why “storylines” continue to shift to caricature current interests, scandals, and events.

It’s why today’s obsession with reality show dirty laundry has turned our Divas—the WWE wrestlers who are women—into, well, reality show dirty laundry.

Before I launch into this, though, let me throw out a disclaimer here: I’m not a wrestler. I’m a fan, a professional writer, and my bestie happens to be one of those lucky non-pro ladies trained by the late and ever great Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young (kids, go look them up; we’ll wait). So I’m coming at this with a little bit of fan heat, a lot of storyline understanding, and some back-room gossip.

And because I swear that there is always one person in every conversation about wrestling I ever have who brings this up, let me just get this out of the way: Those of you who believe that wrestling is all-real, all the time, check yourselves—it’s a soap opera. An amazing, addicting soap opera played out in loosely scripted scenes and rigged matches.

But I’ll add that those matches still require the kind of athleticism most of us could only dream of achieving. When its participants are actually good at it, anyway.

And that’s why I’m so pissed off at the state of the WWE Divas today.

It’s a Man’s World

World Heavyweight Championship - Rey Mysterio June 20, 2010 - July 18, 2010, WWE, wwe.com To say that the WWE is the model of equality would be a wild and completely ridiculous overstatement. But I know that some mouth-breather is going to mansplain to me that girls just “aren’t as strong as men.” And then I’ll point out that Rey Mysterio was 5’6” and barely topped 175lbs and that didn’t stop him from taking home the World Heavyweight belt—or the WWE from letting him do it. And that Tamina Snuka, daughter of legendary Jimmy Superfly Snuka, is 5’9” and 150lbs, so tell me again how there’s no way women “who are by nature smaller than men” could actually wrestle.

Of course, invariably, someone will try, “Well, actually…” and follow it up with some so-called facts about how women just aren’t cut out for the ring, and then I’m going to laugh. A lot.

Ariana, Total Divas, WWE, WWE Network, E!online recapsLook, let’s get this out of that way: WWE is a man’s world. It just is. Watch a match, and keep track of how much of the time you spend tuning in and admiring feats of strength versus how often you tune in to a Diva match (if at all). Clock your time spent time admiring her…let’s call them “assets.” Don’t be shy. I do it too.

I do it because I remember the days when Divas actually wrestled. When they rolled through a match like a bombshell on target, when they got into a ring with a man who sneered at them until the first time she kicked his ass. I remember when being a Diva meant more than just a little shake-ass and a whole bucket of cray.

Those days make me feel old, y’all. They make me feel like that old-timer sitting on a porch, shaking a cane and querulously talking about the good old days when a girl could kick a boy’s ass so hard, he spent the following year sitting on ice just to soothe his pride (I’m looking at you, Hunter. You wouldn’t have gotten the launch you did without Chyna as your foil, and you know it).

Natalya vs Paige

Now, I go get a snack when anyone but Paige, Tamina, or Natalya roll in for a Diva match. ‘Cause anyone else? They give wrestling a shot, and good for them, but you can see the difference in technical skill—you can tell when a wrestler with talent is having to dumb herself down to play at the level a wrestler with acting skills, but no real in-ring talent operates at. You can see Paige kicking Natalya’s ass with fairly decent “believability,” and then you watch her up against one of the showmanship Bella twins and it’s painful. And you know the worst part? I get why.

This One’s for the Ladies

Shawn Michaels in Playgirl, WWE

Playgirl used to be a thing (is Playgirl still a thing?)

I get it because “sexualization + drama” has long been the key to entertainment—and looking back, there’s been no shortage of male wrestlers using their attractiveness as the lynch point for their schtick (Side note: Sometimes, for no reason, I’ll bust out with, “I’m an ass man! Dun dun!” It’s only partially true—I’m more of a leg man, but that’s not how the song goes). It’s not as if writers, managers, and enterprises across the world don’t do the same thing when it comes to saleability and fan-service. WWE is the entertainment industry merged with a testosterone-driven sports industry, and what the masses want from their mindless TV is sex and drama and eye candy and sweat. And twists, of course.

Soap operas are, well, soap operas—all the feels and the twists and the betrayals and whatever. In my house, RAW is our soap opera of choice. Because who doesn’t want a little T&A mixed in with some serious ass-kicking? It’s fantasy. It’s total, ridiculous, over-the-top entertainment, and I’m not here asking that to stop.

CM Punk, WWE

CM Punk, your new favorite comics writer

What I’m asking for is a level of skill and heart for the art of wrestling from everyone. Not just acting. I want the whole package—I deserve the whole package, just as much as you deserve the whole package from men like CM Punk, from the Usos (probably my favorite underplayed duo at the moment), and from Roman Reigns (another legacy wrestler—I love me the legacies). You deserve wrestlers who are not only excellent faces and heels, but damn good in a match. You deserve wrestlers who may not be handsome or hot, but whose moves lock down a ring like nobody’s business. And you get it.

Roman Reigns, WWE

Roman Reigns, on the rise

I want the same from the Divas. I want that bar to be as high—not in terms of semantic strength level (although hells, yes, when it happens), but in terms of acting skill and wrestling skill. In terms of technical ability and attitude. Because we can do it. We can do it. We have the means, the ability, the desire—we have the women who can meet that demand in every way. Natalya, the first third-generation female wrestler, is a Hart, y’all. She trained in the infamous Hart Dungeon. Tamina’s a Snuka. Paige comes from a hardcore English wrestling family. They have the drive and the attitude.

But the WWE doesn’t let them lead the way. They have to play second-fiddle to the legacy of the Attitude Era—more shallow girls, please, more catty bitches, more of the same, the same, the same. The company lowers the bar, treating the Divas as if they’re doing them a favor by going easy on them, and the Divas that don’t fit in are trotted out to play foil to the “perfect” Divas they enshrine. Why?

Total Divas, WWE, WWE Network, E!, lineup 2015

Why is “catty bitch” the default, deviated only for “the victim” role, when the male wrestlers are allowed to come from virtually any character design? The sex magnet, the Southern Gothic prophet, the freaky ones, the undead, the corporate ones, the foreign ones, the dancer, the playboy, the bad boy, the rude one, the silent one, the Irish one (what up, Shaymus), and more.

I watch wrestling as much for the athleticism as the (dare I call it) story, and as much for the muscles on the men as the lines on the ladies. I’m not even going to say it’s a guilty pleasure—that’s how I roll.

So I want you to think about this. Take a moment. Squish it around in your thought bits and really consider this. Don’t worry, there’s not going to be a quiz later. I just want you to step back from the fanatical need to defend that which you love and understand that I am not asking anything of the WWE that it hasn’t already done. Okay?

Okay. Check it. Here’s what I want to know.

Divas Who Can Break Your Face

Are we so far gone in the “mindless” part of this TV equation that we’ve forgotten that Divas can and frequently did kick ass and look amazing while doing it? I mean, sure, not every Diva can be everybody’s ideal—just like I side-eye all those girls who talked about the Undertaker like they’d lick the grave dirt off his feet (they are real; this is a thing). But that’s not the point.

I’ve actually got four of them, points, I mean. Here they are in no specific order.

Team Xtreme, Lita and the Hardy Boys, WWF, WWE, WWE Network, 20001. Team Xtreme

Does anyone here remember Lita? I don’t mean “Lita, that Diva who got slut-shamed on stage for a weird reality-show-style hybrid of personal and show-business reasons around mid-2000s because what else are we supposed to do with a girl?” I mean Lita, the badass lady corner of Team Xtreme who flew so hard and so high that her Moonsaults were a thing of aw-inspiring beauty. I mean Lita, before WWE made the oh, so brilliant move to capitalize on a star’s personal business in what was arguably a front-runner for popular “reality style” TV shows today.

This Lita. The Lita that now resides in the WWE Hall of Fame.

Lita Moonsault, WWF, WWE, WWE Network, 2000

Click image for gif

Back in the day, Lita proved to me that there was no such thing as “no girls allowed.” She was fierce. Edgy. Tough. She flew through the air without fear and she took it to anyone who messed with her or her boys. Team Xtreme was the highlight of every match she was in. Whether Lita was facing down another Diva or one of the boys, she did what WWE does best—put on a show and fought like she knew what the hell she was doing. And? She looked damn good doing it. The ultimate equation.

It’s years later, and I still have a crush on Team Xtreme Lita. Don’t you?

Chyna, Joanie Laurer, red carpet, 2000

The most glorious

2. Chyna

The WWE isn’t alone in vilifying a woman for her personal choices. This is a worldwide epidemic, this thing we do wherein we’re all for a lady until she either threatens a dude throne or “falls from grace.” Even better if she does both. Because forget all the other stuff that the guys get up to, Chyna is a woman and therefor, she is held to different standards. Right? Right?!

No. I’m calling bullshit right here, right now. Chyna strolled in with her strength and her swag, propped up by the WWE like a Goddess of War to be fought—and when the writers were feeling lazy—to be slandered with all the “like a girl” insults they could squeeze out of her. And she still kicked ass, with or without bothering to take a few names. But forget all that “wrestling” stuff she did, what we care about is sex. Right? How dare a full-grown woman make an informed choice to have consensual sex on camera! Chyna has worked in pornography. Get the pitchforks!

Because now her name’s out there as a potential entrant to the WWE Hall of Fame, and we got this double-standard BS about how somebody involved in any sort of sexual escapade of any kind isn’t “WWE material.” Never mind the fact they build their Divas up to be sex symbols, but that’s a whole other bit of hypocrisy. And you know what? We know exactly what kind of dodge that is, because it takes two to have one night anywhere, and I didn’t see the voices of the WWE shaming X-Pac off the stage for the RAW Reunion.

Admit it, fellas. Chyna rattles your faith in superiority of strength. She did then, and she does now. And that’s cool, I get it, because if Chyna can teach us anything, it’s that anything boys can do, she could do.

And did. Because freaking Chyna, amirite?

“But she didn’t win that match fairly,” whines somebody, and I’m just going to sigh and ask if we’re watching the same show. Because, uh, first? It’s all rigged, bro. And second, like she’s the first to ever win or lose because intervention. What’s good for the gander works for the goose, too, yeah? It works both freaking ways. She went toe to toe with some of the heaviest hitters in the industry and she fought with greater showmanship than we get these days from…oh, let’s say…Kane. Let’s talk later about how much of a tool Corporate Kane is, okay? Okay. It’s a date.

1999, Chyna, WWF, Joanie LaurerChyna was a marvel—the Xena of the ring. She was as strong as any of them, but unlike our Divas today, her character wasn’t the kind to strut her stuff like she was too sexy for a catwalk. She was the 9th Wonder of the World, a strong-woman whose likes we wouldn’t see again for years. Ten long bloody years, to be precise.

The woman, to put it bluntly, wrestled. Tell me again how women aren’t as strong as men.

“But,” whines somebody, “wasn’t there a rumor about her doing steroids?” Yeah. There was. A rumor. Goddamn. Quick. Strip her of everything good she has ever done because surely she is the only wrestler ever accused of using drugs. Oh, wait. Hogan did what, now?

Shut the weird double-standard political faces and put the character in the Hall of Fame where she belongs.

Beth Phoenix, The Glamazon, WWE, WWE Netword3. The Glamazon

Beth Phoenix went on record saying, “When I was in developmental, the status quo was to be like Trish. But I was like, ‘You already have a Trish. You don’t need another Trish.’ I wanted to be the first me.” If I had to compare her, I’d say she’s like a Trish + Chyna + total Diva package, in a way that is uniquely hers. She was strong, she was technically gifted, and she also had the beauty the fandom seems to worship at the altar of—enough to be called “The Glamazon” by her fellow Divas. I always felt like the commentators who called her that did so with sarcasm.

Beth Phoenix, pushups under Santino Marella, WWE, WWE NEtworkBeth owned the shit out of it.

Brute strength, technical submissions, no fear. When she finally retired to spend time with her family, she had fought her way to the top of my list—and contrary to popular belief, just ‘cause there’s a woman wrestling doesn’t mean she gets an immediate bump to the top. I’m all in favor of equal opportunity, but just like any other wrestler, they have to be good. And she, compatriots, was good.

Good enough to step into a Royal Rumble. The second woman ever, ten years after the first.

4. The Diva Killer

Kharma, WWE12, WWE

Men don’t have the monopoly on brutal. Kharma strolled into the ring during a time when I was on break from the WWE at large—I didn’t have cable for a while, and I couldn’t watch the matches for about 2 years. In that time, my only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to see Kharma at play.

That woman is a beast. She’s a certified monster, and in the world of WWE, that’s what I like to see. She’s got the raw power of Bautista and the savage fury of Mark Henry at his heeliest. If Cryback had any sense—oops, I mean, Ryback, mah bad—he’d have started sweating the moment she set eyes on him. And damn right. Kharma’s a bitch when she comes barreling down at you with the force of a unstoppable locomotive.

And like Chyna and the Glamazon before her, she became the third woman ever to step into the Royal Rumble.

Kharma vs Dolph Ziggler, WWE, WWE Network

This move is called the “implant buster”, because usually Kharma wrestled women, and that’s what women are expected to have in WWE I guess

Third. Ever.

Is she fashionably tiny? No. Is the pretty in the Total Divas manicure and sculpting and perfect weave sort of way? No. Is her persona sweet and nice and sugar and spice? Uh, no.

Do I care? Hell, no. Why? Because Kharma didn’t care. She wasn’t on that stage to seduce us into watching, she wasn’t there to be the female version of Mark Henry’s sexual chocolate. She was on that stage to force us to watch—to make us stare as she plowed through every Diva like they were made of paper and glass. And compared to Kharma? That’s exactly what they were.

She was the beast to their beauties, and everybody loves a good beauty and the beast story. Especially when we can root for the brute strength Kharma rolled out like she had something to prove. Girl was so my type. Strong, fierce, took no attitude from anyone. I loved her. It’s a shame all I’ve got are old clips to shout at.

Ready to Rumble

Eva Marie, Total Divas, WWE, WWE Network, E!

Total Divas, reflecting corporate culture

So here’s what I’m saying. Somewhere around the mid-2000s, the WWE bought in to this whole “reality show” concept—but not completely. Not entirely. They figured, why bother with the whole thing when we could just sacrifice the quality of one “minor” group and rake it all in from there? The brass has always understood the idea that drama sells, but until we as a society started getting hooked on reality shows by way of ultimate entertainment, they kept a balance between the fundamentals of the wrestling community and the drama that fueled it.

So when we started obsessing over reality TV, someone up in brass—maybe boss-for-life Vince McMahon himself, since he’s got a long and storied obsession with breaking into “the legit entertainment industry”—decided that the best way to feed the hunger, as it were, was to open up a “reality TV division” in the WWE. And then they sacrificed their Divas.

People love watching the shallow archetype of a girl expose everything on TV, and that’s what the WWE turned their Diva characters into. It’s “good for business.”

Total Divas/WWE opinions, ringsideconfessions.tumblr, WWE Network, E!

Fans aren’t 100% convinced, but many keep watching

Problem is, it’s lazy writing. It’s a serious disservice to all the women out there who aren’t just gifted actresses with a bit of wrestling expertise, but technically gifted wrestlers as well. Paige and Natalya are probably the closest they’ve got right now to talented wrestlers in the Diva ranks, but they play second fiddle to the others—mostly the Bella twins, who are super sweet in real life (most of the wrestlers are pretty okay people, by the way, when the cameras are off), but whose wrestling chops aren’t exactly what you’d call show-stoppers. AJ Lee is written in a way that her “crazy” overshadows her technical skill with submission holds.

And that’s on us, fans. That’s on us because we aren’t motivated enough to demand more. It’s on us because the ratings for reality shows where vapid girls do shallow, vapid things skyrocket, and the WWE brass wants in on that. But they can do better. We can do better—and we damn well deserve better.

thewweconfessions.tumblr, Naomi, WWE, Total Divas, WWE Network, E!

Fans air their doubts via various “confessions”-format tumblrs

These days, you look at the Divas, and you forget—if you ever knew—that once upon a time, there were women in the ranks that could make the male wrestlers sweat. Women who threw men bigger than them over the ropes during a Royal Rumble. Wrestlers who flew higher, threw farther, and hit harder than half the men in the field.

Divas like Chyna and Kharma, who proved that it wasn’t all lipstick and sass up in that ring—and didn’t have to be in order to get the crowd screaming. And let me tell you something, kiddos, the first time you see Mark Henry tossed over the ropes by a female wrestler, you do not forget.

At least I haven’t. Not a match goes by that I don’t keep some kind of hope that the WWE will look at American pop culture today, at what’s going on behind the scenes, and see that there’s a nation-wide push for equality happening right now. Equality that isn’t about “lowering the bar”—it’s not about dumbing anything down; it’s not about lessening the quality of anything. It’s about raising it.

It’s about showing the world that there are women out there who aren’t just Total Divas. They’re wrestlers. They’re writers. They’re mathematicians. They’re singers and songwriters, they’re teachers, they’re skaters, they’re artists, they’re monsters, they’re athletes, and they’re here.

And there will always be fans in the WWE Universe who hope to see another woman who can take it to the rings with as much guts, glory, talent, and heart as Chyna, Kharma, Lita, and Beth.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, guys. It’s not a zero-sum situation. Keep your catty Bellas and your crazy AJs, but for crying out loud, give us some Divas who can wrestle… hell, take the stereotype lock-down off Paige, Tamina, and Natalya, and let them show us what they can do.

It worked back in the day. It’ll work now. The culture is totally ripe for it.

Chyna raises Lita's arm, Women's Division match, Chyna's last match, WWF, WWE, 2000

When she isn’t yelling at the wrestlers on TV, Karina Cooper is the author of award-winning urban fantasy series The St. Croix Chronicles. She’s also an obsessive gamer, a coffee junkie, and the Force is strong with her. Visit KarinaCooper.com, or follow her on Twitter @karinacooper, for some epic level spam heals.