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Is There a Place for Total Divas in the Women’s Wrestling Renaissance?

WrestleMania 32 marked not only the largest event in World Wrestling Entertainment history but, more importantly, a change for the better in the way women wrestlers—previously called Divas—are perceived.

Up until Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte wrestled for the newly christened—by legendary women’s wrestler Lita, no less—WWE Women’s Championship in Dallas in April, women in WWE had been officially referred to as Divas since the company trademarked the term in 2008. Previously, they had informally been called Divas amidst consternation as to who actually came up with the term: Sunny or Sable, two women of the Attitude Era who helped set the tone as to how women in wrestling would be portrayed for the better part of two decades.

Branding surrounding WWE Divas reached its pinnacle in 2013 when E! premiered an hour-long reality show entitled Total Divas, which chronicled the lives of mainstays Brie and Nikki Bella, Natalya and Eva Marie, and a rotating cast featuring Paige, Trinity, Alicia Fox, Ariane, Summer Rae, JoJo, Rosa Mendes and Mandy. The upcoming sixth season features the inclusion of Renee Young, Maryse and Lana and begs the question: with the women’s wrestling renaissance, is there a place for Total Divas?

After the presentation of the brand spankin’ new Women’s Championship that mirrors the men’s title, a stark departure from the sparkly, pink, butterfly-shaped monstrosity of the Divas era, and the accompanying press release stating that women wrestlers would now be called female Superstars, I was surprised at the announcement that a new season of Total Divas would be airing on E! later in the year.

To many people’s minds, Total Divas has been a blight on women’s wrestling in recent years, with AJ Lee cutting promos about the show in its early days, Sasha Banks dismissing it in a recent interview and, if my Twitter feed is any indication, many viewers only tuning in for a chance to see Daniel Bryan after his injuries eliminated him from WWE TV. Storylines such as Brie’s struggle to get pregnant, Nattie’s family woes and Eva’s ostracision from the rest of the group tick the requisite reality trope boxes, but Total Divas also touches on important issues couched in rote dramatics that tie themselves up nicely by episode’s end: Rosa’s navigation of pregnancy in a male-dominated industry, Nikki’s aspiration to change how women in wrestling are perceived, Eva’s ambition to become a better wrestler, and Trinity, Ariane and Eva’s reproductive health issues. I’m always one to defend the show on the grounds that seeing how women navigate a male-dominated industry is important and it is often rejected as frivolous bullshit, as so many things aimed at women often are.

However, I’m not sure there’s a place for Total Divas anymore. Firstly, and most obviously, brand recognition of name Diva is diminishing. While playing the show’s theme song to promote any women’s wrestling match, regardless of whether the competitors are part of the cast, is annoying at best and sexist and segregative at worst, WWE cannot justify it come the show’s season six premiere when there is literally nothing linking the show’s title and women wrestlers. How will new WWE viewers make the connection between the women’s wrestling match they’re watching and the cross-promotion urging them to check out the competitors on E! and vice versa? And with the negative connotations of the word diva, is the only similarity between it and female WWE performers the tantrums that they’re goaded into chucking for the cameras? The show could have longevity if its title was changed to something else but that’s risking the loss of an already dwindling audience and undoing all prior marketing.

Whereas I don’t think Total Divas can survive in this new era, it’s spinoff Total Bellas has a chance. Nikki and Brie Bella have always been the cornerstones of WWE’s attempt to market women wrestlers to a reality audience so a show dedicated to them makes sense. With both women possibly out of in-ring action for good, Total Bellas is the logical next step in their—and WWE’s—quest to position them as “the female John Cena[’s]”, who also appears in the show along with Daniel Bryan. Total Bellas could feasibly exist separately from the WWE women’s division and Total Divas.

This is not to say that Brie and Nikki are the vapid models who can’t wrestle that they are so often viewed as. Despite their connections to powerful men (not to mention their mother Cathy’s recent marriage to John Laurinaitis!), the Bellas have shown that they’re in wrestling for the long run. As mentioned above, recent Total Divas storylines have shown Nikki striving to reach the top of the industry and be taken seriously. While Brie’s trajectory on the show has been more about her personal life, during her days as an active wrestler, she was sometimes competing on Raw, SmackDown! and PPVs more than her champion sister.

This defence of the Bellas can also be extended to all of the women wrestlers employed by WWE over the past decade or two, whether or not they appeared on Total Divas, who busted their asses with the little they were given. To quote myself as only the humblest of writers do, I wrote recently for the Special Broadcasting Service that “The new generation of women wrestlers should be praised, and rightly so, but not at the expense of the women of the Divas dynasty that were granted opportunities based largely on their looks as opposed to merit or skill. Women such as Alicia Fox, Nikki Bella, Naomi, Natalya, Beth Phoenix, AJ Brooks, Michelle McCool, Mickie James, Melina and countless others did the best with the scraps they were given.”

So I give Total Divas to the end of its upcoming season. Barring a complete overhaul of the title and/or the show as a whole (could a more Breaking Ground-esque Total Divas exist on the WWE Network?), I don’t believe Total Divas is a show that can survive in a niche that relied on it being largely the only representation of women wrestlers on TV. Now that Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, Natalya and others are being given time to showcase the athleticism of women wrestlers on WWE TV, Total Divas is a relic that belongs in a not too distant past that some fans would rather forget.

Charlotte does it with Flair

When her entrance music hits, the sampling of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra gives you all you need to know about her esteemed wrestling lineage. When she defeats her opponents in the ring, the same sampling sends her off. In a way it’s a sign that her familiar entrance theme is the first and last thing Charlotte wants to hear about being “Ric Flair’s daughter” and luckily she has given wrestling fans plenty of reason to see her as her own woman.

In a showcase of the benefits of the WWE Performance Center, the company would be blind not to feature Charlotte front and centre. She has combined her athletic background with wrestling training that has come exclusively from the facility and in turn put together impressive performances that have allowed her to strut her way onto many Match of the Year lists. Charlotte is evidence that the approach to developing women’s wrestling in NXT is working, provided women are allowed the opportunity to put in the time and the work, and it’s clear Charlotte has put in tremendous work.

It has been incredible to see Charlotte’s growth over the duration of NXT, beginning as the new girl in the BFFs to taking the opportunity to become the next face of the NXT women’s division. Her big break was at NXT Takeover to determine the new Women’s Champion against Natalya.

The match was largely a ground game/submission match, a style that showcased Charlotte’s grit and determination to take her place as the Queen of NXT. It was also a sign that women had a place in the WWE environment to take their time and develop more detailed, psychological matches.

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From there, her in-ring acumen has seen her embrace new styles and moves, enhanced by the talents of those she shares the ring with. From exciting matches with Sasha Banks to more emotionally charged bouts with Bayley, to the stunning performance of all three plus Becky Lynch in the fatal four way, Charlotte has a bounty of opportunity to keep getting better and better, and potentially develop a richer character.

Charlotte’s progress was enough to allow her a chance to grace the main product at the end of 2014 in another match against Natalya, but as many could see something was off. The two women work well together but the current environment of women’s wrestling in WWE proper is not conducive to what Charlotte, and with many other talent are meant to accomplish.

Whatever comes of the state of women’s wrestling in WWE, the work Charlotte has done in her short time becoming a wrestler does justice to her family name.

 

We’re Just Your Eye Candy

Don’t believe women wrestlers are treated and viewed as glorified lingerie models? Try and conduct a Google Image search of one and find a shot of one in the ring fighting, I’ll wait…

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Welcome back. Maybe I wasn’t specific enough? Let’s try searching for Lita and add the word “wrestler” to the end of it.

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Hmm, still a lot of the same. This probably doesn’t come as a shock to any of you, we know this problem exists yet we choose not to acknowledge it. People cling to the status quo, almost desperately as if it was life or death, often without even meaning to. They accept what is, because it is what is. Which, ironically, is how often in wrestling, it’s still very possible to surprise the hell out of everyone. The bigger issue at hand is that if you were to search for most professional male wrestlers you’ll get the following results:

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If you’re even more specific and search “Lita + Wrestling + Moonsault” then you’ll end up getting photos of her executing a moonsault, but it shouldn’t need to be that on the nose to get a photo of a professional wrestler doing what she does for a living‐ wrestle. But it’s been drilled into my head time and time again, the women of professional wrestling are utilized for a bathroom break, eye candy at best. There are exceptions to this google image search experiment regarding women, and of course it’s when you search a less conventionally attractive fighter, someone they don’t believe can be passed off as a sex symbol:

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There are added layers of complexity to this that aren’t solely in the realm of the internet. When you look up anything to do with AJ Lee, a three time Diva’s champion and has the longest reign in the title’s history, all the content that comes up is regarding CM Punk and their relationship. These women are lessened to a sex object, either available for public consumption or via their attachment to the superior male wrestler.

When you attend a live show you hear chants like “C M Punk” for AJ Lee, “John Cena” for Nikki Bella”, “US‐O” for Naomi, and “Yes! Yes! Yes!” for Brie Bella, which is her husband’s catchphrase. It’s commonplace for fans to chant the name of a wrestler who is not in the match if they are bored with what is going on, but this time the message is loud and clear, we are less important; we are only a perceivable physical threat if we are large and ugly. Last year, I decided to try to turn this trend on it’s head. At a WWE Live house show at the Ricoh Coliseum there was an NXT Division match between Sami Zayn and Tyson Kidd. Tyson Kidd happens to be the husband of Natayla Neidhart, of the famous Hart family. Normally, this wouldn’t be an important tidbit but I had hit my wits end and started yelling:

“Nattie’s husband!” *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap*

A few people around me chuckled, I stood up and started to yell louder. My friends joined in and soon thereafter I had an entire section of the venue chanting along with me. Several of these people went to the live taping of RAW the following week in Brooklyn and began that chant again, it caught on like wildfire. The next day there were posts on social media, made by WWE themselves, asking what we thought of #NattiesHusband last night. They’ve carried this storyline through to their massively scripted ‘reality’ show E! Total Divas, where on a recent episode Tyson through the temper tantrum of a toddler about how he isn’t respected and that he is uncomfortable being overshadowed by Nattie. Nattie used this opportunity to boost her husband’s confidence by introducing him to the world she knows best‐ modelling. To make sure to not further crush his ego, Natalya is back in her place as Tyson’s valet and ringside cheerleader where she rightfully belongs. I’m all for dissent, I encourage heckling and fighting against what is presented to you, but maybe it’s time we dissent towards this status quo where the women are mere arm candy.

Divas Do Double Duty

Monday Night RAW starts and it’s my weekly internal debate of “Do I sit through three hours of poorly booked wrestling or do I follow my twitter feed and live off the recaps from my followers?” I decided to give it a shot to see if Vince was actually going to follow through with his vague promises.

#GiveDivasAChance started trending on twitter 2 weeks ago and it still shows no sign of going away. The WWE tries really hard to be on the ball in terms of staying current, so every week Michael Cole will address anything related to the promotion that is trending on twitter. It popped up during RAW as a result to the Divas match clocking in at less than a minute; that’s right, we have male “Superstars” who have longer entrance sequences on the show than the women were allotted to fight a complete match. Despite all this, the announcers stayed mum. Fast forward to the next day and we see good ol’ Mr. McMahon tweeting the following:

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Does Vince hear us? Is he actually going to take a chance to let us influence the narrative of his product or are we going to see a small glimmer of hope and just slide back into the way it’s been. Their current motto is “WWE: Then. Now. Forever.”; if that doesn’t show a resistance to change, I don’t know what does. Take a skip ahead to last Monday, Michael Cole was given the go ahead to address the hashtag which was trending yet again. He addressed it on air by mentioning that it was trending, but nothing further than that. It seemed your typical RAW with drawn out matches and in ring babbling and added in celebrity appearance since Wrestlemania is just around the corner. This week’s celebrity was Wiz Khalifa who got EIGHT minutes of airtime. The Divas got five minutes total. A five minute match isn’t that atrocious, it’s at least four minutes more than they got the week prior… except this was combined between two matches.

Vince McMahon heard our cry, we kept watching and he “Gave the Divas A Chance” by letting the women have more than one match one the show… but they needed to combine both matches to be shorter than an adequate men’s match. To put some icing on this bittersweet cake, partway through the second match featuring Naomi and Natalya, their husbands (Tyson Kidd & Jimmy Uso) started brawling at ringside and the cameras followed the men. What you’re telling us, Vince, is you hear us but you don’t care.

Who knows if this is a tipping point for WWE in how they treat women, but we need to remember that the buck doesn’t stop with them and they aren’t the end all be all of wrestling. This problem has trickled down to indie level promotions as well. Unless a promotion is all women, such as SHIMMER, League of Lady Wrestlers and Valkyrie, or it’s a women’s event as an exception, it’s extremely commonplace for there to be one women’s match on a card… if any are included at all. Bonus points if your sole women’s match is intergender! There are more than enough talented wrestlers who aren’t cis men that can be booked on your show; what’s the harm in mixing things up?

Women’s wrestling is moving up from what is seen as the mid card “bathroom break” and I will continue to bitch and moan until people like Vince are sick of hearing me and actually make an effort to change. Let’s see if this trend continues and whether or not it’s a genuine effort, or if they’re just pandering to keep us quiet.