As a young woman who found solace in wrestling, initially during my preteen years, AJ Lee was my hero.
Why? Because she was not like other girls.
Growing up as what many would consider a ‘tomboy’, discovering that there were girls out there like me was a pivotal moment during one of the most crucial periods of my life and development approaching young womanhood.
Assessing the shift in the presentation of women’s wrestling over several eras of WWE programming
Femininity was something that I resented, principally, because I just didn’t *get* it. And so, I actively sought out female role models who subverted ideals of femininity. In retrospect, was this in itself an act of internalised misogyny? You decide. Either way, I found these feelings – wrongfully or otherwise – validated in professional wrestling more than anything else.
The idea – which admittedly I initially subscribed to – that a woman was only considered a ‘legitimate’ force to be reckoned with if she appeared in the men’s division, surpassing ‘lesser’ competitors in the women’s division and taking it toe to toe to the ‘real’ wrestlers, was one of many instances whereby my own problematic preconceptions were actively encouraged by the narratives of professional wrestling at the time.
A prime example of this is the instance in which an absolute hero of mine, Chyna, an unparalleled trailblazer for women’s wrestling and wrestling as a whole, at times didn’t even want to be associated with her own division.
This suggests in essence that a female wrestler with the sheer ability of Chyna would be so rare that they would be expected to surpass their own division for the assumed ‘higher calibre of athlete’ found in the men’s division. While I would never dream of arguing that everything about Chyna was not elite in every aspect, what does this say for every other female wrestler putting her body on the line night after night?
Of course, Chyna was not responsible for the promos that she was given. We must ask, then, why would the people writing this want to reduce and degrade their own women’s division like this? Because they were undervalued at the very core. Because the people calling the shots benefitted from their audiences systemic sexism and objectivism in viewing women’s wrestling as ‘light relief’, ‘aesthetic pleasure’ or a time during which one could excuse themselves for a moment or two ‘without missing too much.’
This notion that I, as a young female fan should reject the divas division based on narratives that I was being fed on them by the very industry which gave them a platform in the first place, was a point of substantial internal conflict. This was again reinforced when I would come across female wrestlers whose personas actively subverted these fabricated expectations, through the likes of Lita, Beth Phoenix, Chyna, Paige ‘the anti-diva’, AJ Lee, Nia Jax, Becky Lynch and so on. And no, Becky Lynch rebranding herself as ‘the man’ come title picture success is not lost on me.
The following will offer a somewhat exploration of my own ‘self-inflicted’ misogynistic biases while growing up, watching wrestling and navigating my own womanhood, in a form of retrospective commentary and with the ability to call myself out.
There is perhaps a no better example of the way in which these perceptions are maintained in modern times than the interactions which took place on the 17/6/13 episode of RAW, following AJ Lee’s championship victory against fellow wrestler Kaitlyn, the night before. Lee gleefully recounts how she ‘played mind games’ with her opponent in order to achieve championship success, deeming it a victory for women everywhere. Now, as someone who fervently related to Lee’s ‘the girl who stayed home and played video games instead of going to prom’ persona, I found myself vehemently drawn into the idea that this was a victory for women like me.
Stephanie McMahon then goes on to assert that Lee’s attitude perpetuates stereotypes that women are ‘vicious and conniving and manipulative’, who would ‘rather tear each other down than building each other up’. One does, however, wonder, why this has never been the case following a male wrestler’s victorious championship promo. One male wrestler’s words or actions would never be taken as a representative example for the entirety of men everywhere.
The aforementioned being the premiere of a lengthy title run for Lee, I cannot continue without addressing the infamous AJ Lee ‘pipebomb’. Lee embarks in a ruthless tirade against – as it was known at the time – the ‘divas’ division. Lee incorporates her opponent’s personal lives into her promo in order to degrade and humiliate them.
Lee describes her co-workers as “Cheap, interchangeable, expendable, useless women” a moment, and guilty as charged, we all popped for.
But why? Why would I, as a woman, pop for this outright objectification of women? Why am I buying into this and antagonising incredibly capable and talented women for scripts and storylines that they likely had no say in whatsoever?
Because I bought into it.
Because I was becoming an “I’m not like other girls” snob. I was far too invested. I was invested in the idea that someone’s appearance, the amount of skin that their gear revealed, sexual history or otherwise directly correlated to their proficiency as a wrestler. What was I thinking?!
And then I realised. I was thinking exactly what I had been conditioned to think.
To clarify, I’m not saying that we’re all misogynists. But that in itself proves my point. We have been actively encouraged to harbour these feelings. I, as a woman was actively encouraged to harbour these feelings. Encouragingly, though, things seem to be looking up. There is no denying, the women’s division, as it stands, is in a significantly better place than it once was. Wrestlers are being treated like wrestlers. Women are being billed as legitimate competitors and being given the opportunities they should have been given since day one.
#GiveDivasAChance triggered a movement. This led to reflective and critical viewings of the ways in which women were presented on WWE television and placed focus on conversations, led by women about their experiences in the industry and what needs to change going forward.
The days of bra and panty matches may be over, I cried as women main-evented Wrestlemania, but equality is not achieved overnight and we owe it to every single woman who has ever endured and subsequently challenged sexism in this industry to keep this message alive and to keep supporting and pushing for the elevation of female wrestlers across professional wrestling as a whole.