Current WWE women’s tag team champions Natalya and Tamina are both bearing the standard of famous families whose performers have contributed immeasurably to the WWE and sports entertainment in general. However, what makes their current run as champions impactful is not their past, but what it could mean for the future of women in the pro wrestling industry. The fact that the two, who are long past the age at which female athletes in pro wrestling were encouraged to retire, are front and center as celebrated champions could suggest a shift in an often ageist industry.
This past week, well-wishes poured in on social media from colleagues and fans for Natalya’s thirty-ninth birthday. A fan-favorite and beloved in the WWE women’s locker room, Natalya’s pro wrestling journey began close to home: training with her uncles Ross and Bruce Hart at Hart House, in the storied “Dungeon” where Hart family patriarch Stu trained wrestlers for decades. She wrestled for the family’s storied Canadian promotion Stampede Wrestling before moving on to the indies, and then the WWE as a Diva. Although she captured the Divas Championship, her days as a Diva were marred by the gimmicky stunts that plagued the division for its entire existence. In Natalya’s case, that included a running gag about chronic flatulence. However, she was also a participant in the restructuring of the division, taking part in the first all-women’s pay-per-view Evolution in 2018. The Divas were defunct, and the women’s division hit the ground running led by fresh faces Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Bayley. Despite being somewhat overshadowed, Natalya can still claim to be one of the only women to have held both the SmackDown women’s championship and Divas championship.
Her partner, Tamina at 43 is the oldest female athlete in the division. Her road to pro wrestling began in 2009, and like Natalya’s was steeped in family and tradition, training at Afa Amituana’i Anoa’i’s Wild Samoans Training Center. She debuted in WWE a year later, and has faced a slow climb in the company ever since. Tamina’s only championship before the current tag title run was a spell as 24/7 champion.
Tamina and Natalya’s tag team championship could be regarded as hard work and talent finally getting its just due, as the women have survived the gimmick plagued Diva days, and the rapid ascent of younger colleagues with less experience at WWE, to get where they are now.
Their reign comes at a time when the WWE has faced outrage and criticism over the treatment and release of former fellow Diva Mickie James. James has sighted numerous slights at the WWE before her official release in April-that she was lumped in with retired performers on Raw’s Legends night while still technically on the active roster, that she was taken out of serious women’s title contention in her 30s while male performers held championships into their 50s, that she was encouraged to retire and become an agent repeatedly. When her release finally came in earnest, James shared via social media a picture of her remaining belongings on company premises being delivered to her unceremoniously in a plastic garbage bag. The picture not only went viral, but outrage accompanied the implication that James had been treated much like her belongings by a company that branded her obsolete in her early 40s. Although Renee Paquette and Chelsea Green shared stories of similar experiences, and grounded the practice more in terms of negligence and insensitivity than an intended insult to James, the impressions of sexism and ageism reverberated amongst pro wrestling fans.
The list of male performers who have remained active in the ring well into their fifties is a long one. WCW icon Sting has served mostly a mentor role to macabre daredevil Darby Allin since joining AEW, but his first in-ring action in six years at the pay-per-view Double or Nothing on May 30 is receiving great reviews. WWE’s part-timers like Edge and Goldberg still face off against current talent like Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre for major championships on highly anticipated, widely watched pay-per-views. However, in quite a stark contrast, several female talents like Lita, Trish Stratus, and Beth Phoenix were all retired by their 30s.
Natalya’s and Tamina’s careers have not only continued beyond the age at which others’ were winding down or over, but they are no longer underutilized and overlooked. However long or short their tag title run will be, their presence is a small sliver in the glass ceiling. With the precedent they are currently setting, female athletes in pro wrestling will hopefully have a little more leverage to pitch themselves as performers with staying power, who can be meaningfully utilized and impactfully hold a championship honor at any age. Both women’s lives are inextricable from the history of pro wrestling, and now they are contributing to history, and the future, themselves.
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