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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.

Sasha Banks: A champion we can bank on changing women’s wrestling

They say that the best heels are the ones who are fundamentally in the right. So when the ring general of NXT and current women’s champion Sasha Banks makes a claim that she will match and surpass legends like the Fabulous Moolah as the greatest women’s wrestler in history well… there’s evidence that points to Banks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The phrase “Sasha Banks is the rock of NXT’s women’s division,” can be read as a metaphor or an allusion and still be a true statement. Banks is the foundation of the success of the division, inside her toolbox of wrestling abilities there’s a fix for every opponent in her way, and her adaptability means a high rate of must-watch matches. She can match Becky Lynch’s innovative submissions, be as athletic as Charlotte and go blow for pummelling blow with Bayley. Most of all, Banks has the personality to go with all of that- she is a distinguishable presence who not only talks smack but backs it up. And like The Rock, Banks comes with her own catchphrases, nicknames, and unique personal style. In short: Sasha Banks is the total package.

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Banks among those leading the charge for women’s wrestling in NXT means the opportunities we have been seeing to match quality and character development are only going to continue so long as she has anything to do with it. Growing up as a young wrestling fan Banks loved the legendary Eddie Guerrero, but was unable to really get behind the Divas. Banks’ formative years as a fan were days where bra and panties matches and pillow fights were a hefty fraction of WWE’s women’s content, that and the infamous Trish Stratus and Bradshaw vs. Jackie Gayda and Chris Nowinski match. Banks knew, even at ten years old, that women in wrestling deserved better. She knew that if she was going to make it to WWE, she was going to perform above and beyond the notion of Divas that was offered up to her in the 2000s.

banks breezeSo far, Banks’ performance in NXT is not only backing up the argument that women in wrestling deserve better, fans are clamouring for more good women’s wrestling in WWE. The existence of women like Banks who – as cliche as it sounds – live, breathe, eat, sleep wrestling and therefore have a mind for the business are beneficial on a more mainstream level, because more fans will see a standard of wrestling that women deserve and ultimately demand it.

It doesn’t seem like it’s been all that long since there has been a women’s wrestler in the greater WWE-sphere that has received such unanimous praise from all parts of the fandom, but Banks has managed to maintain support where other well loved Divas have faltered. Part of this is attributable to her workrate, and part due to her openness on social media.

Banks is one of the few WWE related personalities who openly uses Tumblr. Through it fans can relate to her not just as a hard working, badass character (which often comes out in kayfabe reblogs of her rivals with heelish comments), but her nerdy side which includes but is not limited to Sailor Moon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, comic book characters and 90s nostalgia in general. Banks is also a fervent admirer of joshi and along with reblogging the greats of AJW, will post some of the weirder moments in puroresu like Kota Ibushi flashing his bum, Kenny Omega in DDT and even Don Frye. All this amidst a torrent of pictures of Victoria’s Secret models and beauty inspiration.

Banks’ social media presence is so important because it affirms that women don’t need to other themselves and stress they’re “not like most girls,” they can be their authentic self and embrace all sides of the outdated girly girl/tomboy spectrum without tearing anyone apart for their interests. And you can be respected as a woman in your craft doing it.

It also teaches us you can be one of the best wrestlers in WWE and still get a kick out of headcanons, photoshopped images of you with other wrestlers and every now and again ask your following to convince Hideo Itami or Finn Balor to get a picture with you. sasha kentaTo put it bluntly, Sasha Banks looks into the depths of her tag on tumblr and doesn’t flinch, no matter what’s in there. that’s bravery.

So Banks has something for everyone: a developed character, marketability, an inspirational journey and a hint of fangirling, oh and she’s put on some of the best matches this year to boot. It won’t be long until we see Banks wowing crowds at much larger scales and proving that women’s wrestling is awesome.

Becky Lynch: Charming us into Submission

Of NXT’s “Four Horsewomen” leading the charge in changing women’s wrestling in WWE, it’s Ireland’s Becky Lynch we’ve seen NXT_266_Photo_11-3362264059_0the least of. If you tally up the amount of matches each woman has had on NXT television, Lynch has a mere 18, that’s half of Charlotte’s total (36) and a smaller fraction of Bayley and Sasha Banks’ (40 and 48 respectively). And in those 18 matches, not including appearances in backstage segments or accompanying her BAE-partner Sasha, Lynch has not stayed with one fixed character or look for long. She has seen her fair share of hopping (and skipping, and jigging) around things that may or may not have worked. In spite of her character soul-searching on air, there is so much more to Lynch than meets the eye and her depth means we’re going to see even more great things from the emerald of the women’s division.

NXT commentary has reminded fans time and time again about Lynch’s 15 year-old wrestling beginnings. At 18 and 19 years old Lynch was already traveling the world, completing tours in Japan, across Europe and North America. One of the highlights of Lynch’s (then-Knox’s) early years was a 2-out-of-3 falls match in Shimmer against Daizee Haze.

The near half-hour bout was filled with submission maneuvers, mat work and counters. Those technical skills never left her even as a career-threatening injury forced Lynch to take time off wrestling and try out pastures new, none of which could ever replace wrestling.

Over Lynch’s time in NXT she’s had the opportunity to not only regain in-ring confidence and enhance her abilities on the

W0tQ7Rdmicrophone, but bring out her own personality in the face of “reel”-y questionable character traits. Even being a redheaded rocker or backstabbing Bayley to align with Sasha Banks had a vague sense of deja vu. But Lynch has an endearing personality and quite the sense of humour. Lynch is also an esteemed wordsworth, going on warpaths of puns while livetweeting WWE RAW and other events.

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But no piece on Becky Lynch could ever go without mentioning (and grovelling through words) her biggest break yet: the NXT women’s championship match against Sasha Banks at May’s NXT Takeover Special. Lynch introduced the NXT audience to her submission specialties, her holds and suplexes and her attention to detail. The psychology in the match has been applauded by many a fan, calling back to the match structures of decades gone by and ultimately supplying yet another easy addition to the Match of the Year short list.

 

It is all these things that earn Lynch outpours of appreciation from her peers around social media, including a shout-out from the late American Dream in one of his final tweets. Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 1.36.03 PMWe can hope that one day Lynch may have more lengthy holds and counters heavy chain wrestling bonanzas, or that she will have more time to let her naturally comical side out. But with so much to offer, you might as well sit back, grab a pint and enjoy the future for Becky Lynch.

Fan Edition | Shelly Deathlock

In today’s “Who’s That Girl?” we focus on another fan of pro graps and their awesome fashion sense. This time it’s our very own Shelly Deathlock!

Name: Shelly Deathlock

Age: Play Button (see that’s what WWE made the 31 in “Wrestlemania 31” into because 31 sounds like it’s too old HEY WAIT A DAMN MINUTE.)

Location: Connecticut

Describe your ringside style: Early to mid 90’s heavy metal.

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How did you become a wrestling fan?

I turned on Raw one night in 1993. Yokozuna was delivering several Banzai drops to Crush and Tatanka wasn’t coming out to help him. I was AMAZED. Slippery slope from there, and I began watching all the time. It’s totally a prototypical scene for my wrestling fandom: Good guy is getting murdered by bad guy; good guys friend… isn’t helping? How good can good guys be, then? Good guys aren’t very good. So, murdered good guy joins bad guys, gets to hang out with Mr. Fuji and beat the shit out of Randy Savage. Life lessons.

Fave Wrestler: Shinsuke Nakamura, King of Strong Style and saviour of professional wrestling.

Fave Promotion: NJPW

Fave Move: The… @indiandeathlock. 😉

Fave Match: This isn’t even difficult. Nakamura vs. Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 this year made most other matches I’ve seen look like they weren’t pro wrestling at all, but some sad shadowy version of it. That match was amazing.

Before that, it was probably Bret vs. Owen at WM X & also their Summerslam ‘94 cage match. I was super invested in those as a baby Owen Hart fan.

Dream Tag Team: Sasha Banks & Kazuchika Okada. $$$$$$$

If you had to choose your own entrance theme, what would it be? 

But then I’d have to also literally bleed black somehow to keep it kayfabe. I’m working on it.