Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Divas and Discrimination: Misogyny from Attitude to Ruthless Aggression

A photo of WWE Divas.

Already this year, there have been multiple public cases of misogyny, sexism, and discrimination towards female wrestlers. The most recent being a fan at a Ring of Honour taping making sexualised remarks towards Skye Blue.

Discrimination against women takes many forms. AEW’s Deonna Purrazzo was body-shamed online. In WWE, Rhea Ripley’s alternative appearance has also attracted sexist comments. In all cases, fans rallied to the wrestlers in support.

Yes, there was body shaming when Sheamus returned. However, to deny that culturally, society and people place different and often harsher/stricter expectations on women’s appearance and bodies compared to men is ignorant.

The same as some fans have and will blame female wrestlers who receive abuse as their fault. It’s not just victim blaming. It suggests that men, like wild animals, cannot control themselves. Ironically, it might be why many women responded to a social media question with an overwhelmingly one-sided answer.

Would they rather be lost in the woods with a man or a bear? The bear. If you’re unsure why, please ask multiple women.

Death threats were sent to Ava RaineThe Rock’s daughter because of his insertion into the WrestleMania 40 title picture. As an onscreen authority figure of NXT, Raine has no responsibility or power over her father, in fiction or real life. But it fits a misogynistic pattern of when you can’t blame the man, blame a woman close or near him as if she has control over him.

Even in tribalistic takes, some fans have weaponised or treated allegations of the sexual abuse of women as another means of defining which company is betterTrivialising the potential abuse of women and power for point scoring.

Misogyny in wrestling, and our culture, is deep-rooted. Throughout my fandom, it’s always been there.

An Indecent Proposal 

My first memory of a storyline involving a female wrestler, a diva, was a storyline where Jamie Noble tried to buy an evening with Torrie WilsonNidia, his on-screen girlfriend, usually stood next to him throughout this pursuit looking annoyed, but with little of her agency. However, when she did act, it backfired.

Torrie said no. This didn’t matter. Luckily, Billy Gunn, her on-screen boyfriend, was there to be the white knight. Against a male wrestler, it was made clear Torrie’s autonomy, her voice and actions were rendered useless. So, like every storyline in wrestling, a match was made.

At Vengeance 2003, Billy Gunn fought Jamie Noble. The stipulation: if Noble won, he could spend the night with Torie. Stipulation matches involving women as the prizes were not new. Torrie had been a literal prize men fought over before. In WCW, Eddie Guerrero wrestled Perry Saturn in a key on a pole match on Nitro on 1st November 1999. The key was to release Torrie from a shark cage with the winner claiming her for their faction. The fact this stipulation could result in nonconsensual intercourse went over my head as a teenager.

Noble won, but luckily, both Nidia and Billy Gunn came to the rescue. The storyline ended in a foursome. Things worked out. A happy ending for all?

Lessons About Women. Brought to you by Misogyny 

The lessons I learnt from wrestling were confirmed elsewhere in wider pop culture. I had seen similar narratives play out in film, TV, video games, and books. If you pursue a woman long enough, you can get her to do what you want, eventually. Even if she does not freely choose to. Men fight for their women. Women want to be fought over and this overrides their feelings. Eventually, everything with women leads to sex.

I am not sure what other lessons I would have learnt had I not missed the Torie Wilson/Dawn Marie/Al Wilson storyline. But again, these storylines and depictions fitted with wider cultural depictions of women at the time. The biggest difference was that sex was not just implied but was the explicit desire of some male wrestlers in WWE storylines. It wasn’t hidden. Jamie Noble in a backstage segment, before his Vengeance match, talked through his suitcase of adults toys that he planned to use when he won.

I’ve written before using satire about lessons in love learned from wrestlingHowever, fresh in my mind were the unused notes from reporting a full breakdown of Ashley Massaro’s allegations. How for so long, and historically not long ago, WWE normalised the sexualised and objectified view of its women’s wrestlers.

As I grew older, I learned about feminism. I didn’t just listen. I actively asked questions and looked to remove cultural assumptions about women to properly hear their experiences. It’s how I learnt about misogyny.

Misogyny is more than explicitly stating or having a hatred, prejudice and/or dislike of women. At its roots, it’s about the separation of women and men not only as equals but even as human beings. It is a philosophy of “othering” where women fit into two camps with no middle ground.

The Miss Elizabeth-Jezebel Complex  

Some women are elevated in stature. Put on pedestals. Described as goddesses, holy, superior to men and untouchable. Often with a hint of being virginal and pure.

Think Miss ElizabethRandy Savage’s real-life wife and valet. Elizabeth was elevated in how she was an idealised “good” submissive woman. Pure and rarely sexualised. Both on-screen and behind the scenes, Savage’s obsession, and control over her reflects misogyny. Savage, in keeping control of Elizabeth, suggested she could never be trusted by herself around men, or because of what other men might do to her.

It presents a paradox. Firstly, women are incapable of protecting themselves or can’t control themselves. Yet also the assumption that men, when alone with a woman, will manipulate them to get what they want. The irony becomes the women are the ones who are controlled rather than the men who cannot control themselves. What it results in is a desperation to keep control. The woman is not being treated as a human being.

The other, the “Jezebel” are those traitorous evil women who stab men in the back. They are degraded for being overly sexual and yet dismissed with sexualised language.  Presented as being worthless. Blamed for men’s or society’s failings. Ultimately as being below men. Think of how Lita was spoken of by Jim Ross after aligning with Edge. Or when Trish Stratus betrayed Chris Jericho for Christian. Or any other time JR called a woman a “Jezebel”.

In both cases, women exist for male pleasure. Women are subservient or beneath men or not comparable at all. As if they are another species.  

What “Diva” Means

Vince McMahon’s penchant for marketing led him to rebrand his wrestlers as “superstars”. The implication is that the wrestlers you are watching are above and beyond being human. The term diva has two meanings and other connotations.

The literal: a female opera singer. The second is the implication of a woman being “demanding”, self-important, and difficult to please. Yet there is its actual meaning in Italian: Goddess.

The last one is ironic. Even when WWE moved away from openly objectifying the divas in as few clothes as possible at the end of the Ruthless Aggression Era, women’s position on the card remained limited and their power diminished. By the PG Era, women’s values and place on the card were similar. “Popcorn/bathroom break” matches, just with less sexualisation.

What About the Attitude Era? 

During the Attitude Era, the sexualisation of women and the presentation of sex were more prevalent and explicit. That’s undeniable. There was a pimp and his hoes. A porn star and Beaver Cleavage. Bikini contests that used bubble wrap, paint, and nipple slips. It reflected a culture where the Girls Gone Wild franchise took off and music videos became increasingly obsessed with putting women in as few clothes as possible.

The WWE push women like Sable and The Cat to the forefront of the women’s division with an emphasis on “eye candy” over the work rate. Dark Side of the Ring’s Luna Vachon episode alleged that Luna was repeatedly shouted at and warned by Vince McMahon not to hurt or bruise Sable in their WrestleMania 14 match. Luna put Sable over and did not hurt her. Backstage, it was alleged McMahon praised Sable for her efforts and ignored Luna whose experience carried Sable through the match.

If true, this implies one was elevated because of her perceived value linked to her appearance. While the other’s work was ignored and seen as valueless due to a difference in appearance. Beauty over skills became a focus point that impacted WWE’s recruitment of divas for years to come. The metric for success was on beauty standards rather than athletic and wrestling ability.

The Attitude Era was Cruder

One of the most notorious moments, Vince McMahon making Trish Stratus strip to her underwear and bark like a dog has been used by various media outlets to rightly criticise WWE.

There is more at play than the literal dehumanisation of Trish, to act like a dog. Beyond making her be an animal, the fact she’s on her hands and knees in underwear, lowered beneath Vince, doing what he commands, is almost pornographic.

You have no idea, how far I would go to degrade myself for the right cause. I would do anything for you, Mr McMahon.”

These are words Trish had to say. Words written by a man. Perhaps male wish fulfilment. Again, like a script in a porno. Vince’s declaration that “Hollywood hides behind the camera, everything we do we do live in front of 15,000 people” seems ominous. Especially given what was exposed during the #MeToo Movement.

Yet Ruthless Aggression Normalised Attitudes

Ruthless Aggression will primarily be remembered for the emphasis on wrestling and the talent that emerged at that time. Yet insidiously, although the bikini contests were less explicit, Trish Stratus and Lita and others showed they could wrestle, divas were still sexualised and treated like objects.

The pornographic dialogue and situations did not vanish. Even Stephanie McMahon was not exempt as the boss’s daughter. Before introducing the WWE Tag Team Championships, the camera first focused on a shot of Stephanie’s backside. Then when feuding with her father, one throwaway line in a backstage segment implied Vince had given Stephanie to his business partners when she was younger.

If one group of women perhaps experienced things in an even more degrading way during this period, it was the women who took part in the WWE Divas Search. In a business known for hazing and poorly treating newcomers, the Divas Search saw contestants asked week to week to perform in sexualised acts in pursuit of a WWE contract.

The 2005 Diva Search started with an emphasis on male gratification. Contestants were interviewed in their underwear. Co-host, “The world’s largest love machine”, Viscera told contestants not to be “bashful…loosen up”.

In week two, bikini boot camp, Sgt. Slaughter asks contestants the innuendo who wants to blow on his whistle. The week 3 talent show includes girls spanking and lap dancing. Throughout each week Jerry Lawler is making comments and noises that if made in public, someone might call the police.

Former Diva Search contestant, Rochelle Loewen, referred to their treatment as “entertainment sexual fodder”. Loewen also stated that she felt the women backstage treated them more poorly than the men due to being part of the Diva’s search.

Bikinis and Trauma

Divas regularly performed in their underwear or bikinis for the amusement of the crowd. Both in matches like bra and panties matches, lingerie pillow fights and battle royals wearing gear reflecting male fantasies, like school-girl outfits (that become disassociated from being outfits primarily worn by children).

Even during the Ruthless Aggression Era, where divas wore actual bikinis rather than the sometimes DIY improvisations, the practice was still degrading for the women themselves. Some have made this clear in the years since. When they performed in little clothing, they were not comfortable.

Gail Kim responded to a tweet from Alexa Bliss, who thanked Kim for having to compete in bra and panties matches so her generation did not have to by saying she still experiences PTSD from those matches.

Torrie Wilson revealed in an interview with Chris Van Vliet that:

They were all mortifying. People don’t realize. I went out there and owned it the best I could and pushed through the fear, but it was mortifying. There were times when I remember specifically this house show, I was in this bikini showdown with Dawn Marie and Sable and someone else. I was standing in the corner watching one of the girls dance in the middle and fighting back tears. ‘I cannot believe I’m doing this right now.’ It got to a raunchy point and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’ but it was also my job.” Transcript from 411 Mania.

The same pressure to perform was placed on other women like Lita, who felt pressured to take part and undress to perform in a live sex celebration on Raw with Edge.

Beyond Wrestling

Although time has moved on and women’s wrestling has changed, often the same dismissals and excuses for misogyny are repeated. Beyond wrestling, sexism, misogyny and abuses of power against women are not solely a wrestling problem. It is not just a sports problem. This is a cultural problem.

The only way things change long-term is by acknowledging these problems exist and learning how cultural biases are impacting women. Giving women the platform to discuss their experiences, for people to listen to their experiences and give them the power to make equity changes.

For anyone who doesn’t believe in patriarchy and the power men hold, ask a woman what they would do if there were no men on Earth for 24 hours. The most common answer in one survey was “Take a walk at night.” Because they do not feel safe because of men. Like the bear question earlier, it reveals how there is an imbalance of power that exists between men and women.

Things have improved over time in terms of awareness, discussion, and support. The past shouldn’t be forgotten and likewise, the issues should not overshadow the successes and achievements of women in wrestling, then or now or going forward. Women like Torrie Wilson, Lita and Trish Stratus had an impact on the wrestling business that goes beyond sexism.

They inspired a generation of women’s wrestlers now who are still fighting for equity. They deserve our not just our support, but to be acknowledged as people. Not as just fictionalised characters. Neither elevated nor demoted below us. Neither Elizabeth nor Jezebels, but as themselves.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

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