July 21, 2015 | by Kevin McElvaney

The current big story amongst wrestling fans is the recent introduction of Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch to WWE’s flagship Raw program by none other than WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon. Alright, I hear you already. Globally traded company WWE. “Chief Brand Officer.” Cable television. NOT PUNK ROCK, D00D. Hear me out, though, because the story of how this came to be is a good one, and the performers involved are exceptional.

Banks is a veteran of the indie wrestling scene, who got her start in the New England-based Chaotic Wrestling, performing under the name Mercedes KV. Lynch was trained in the UK by current NXT champion Finn Balor and competed as Rebecca Knox before eventually making her way to the U.S. Charlotte is the real life daughter of wrestling legend “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. All three women are hugely talented, with larger than life personas, and have most recently been featured on weekly NXT programming.

NXT has a reputation as being something of a AAA baseball to WWE’s major league product. In reality, it’s more analogous to Adeline Records – the gritty little imprint label of Billie Joe Armstrong, which features established smaller acts but is, in reality, owned and distributed by the behemoth Warner Records. None of this is to suggest that NXT (or Adeline, for that matter) is a hollow offering. Far from it. Many of WWE’s most devoted fans enjoy the hell out of its weekly shows and quarterly “special events,” in many cases preferring it to the primary product. It’s styled to look and feel like an independent wrestling promotion, and that has also drawn the interest of indie wrestling fans. The wrestlers involved are very good, and they’re early enough in the process of becoming full-fledged WWE stars that fans feel like they’re on a journey of sorts where they can watch them develop.

Sasha Banks is still the reigning NXT Women’s champion, as of this writing. She won the title from Charlotte earlier this year and has defended it against Becky Lynch and other noteworthy challengers. These matches have been some of the most highly regarded by wrestling fans in the past year, which is saying something from a fanbase seemingly conditioned to not take women’s wrestling seriously. (More on that later.)

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Anyway, seeing Banks, Lynch, and Charlotte debut on Raw was a bittersweet thing, not unlike watching a band you’ve loved for a while finally reach that next level of notoriety. Sure, you’re happy for their success and wish them well, but you’re a tad bummed, at the same time, that your little secret is about to become public knowledge. It’s a selfish feeling, for sure. Still, it’s one many of us can understand.

At the same time, there is more to the promotions of these three women than some newer fans might realize. It’s not simply a question of hard work and talented being rewarded. (Compare it to a trio of understudies being called up to starring roles, because they’re just that damn good.) No, this has positive implications for women in wrestling as a whole. Better still: it’s a story that can be traced directly to wrestling’s wild independent circuit which, as I hinted in last month’s column, is a spiritual cousin of the punk scene.

If you’re unfamiliar with WWE’s fledgling women’s division, you likely won’t be happy to hear that its women wrestlers are referred to as “Divas.” The term was tongue-in-cheek when it was introduced, to be certain, not unlike those VH1 Divas Live specials of years ago. It also reflected WWE’s notion that women on its programming were notably different characters. That translated, for many years, to lots of “T&A” and very little in the way of more serious or substantial storylines. The company’s target audience consisted of hetero, adolescent men and they, along with rival promotions WCW and ECW, used sex to sell. If you don’t already know what a “Bra and Panties” match is, don’t Google it. You won’t be happy. Suffice to say, though, that the title of Diva can’t help but feel like something of a pejorative, considering its origins.

While the marketing of women’s wrestling in WWE’s “Attitude Era” was questionable, at best, the content wasn’t all bad. Periodically, gifted female wrestlers would be featured in great, entertaining storylines. Chyna had a famous run in the company in the late ‘90s. All too often, though, those storylines would be relegated to parts of the show where the audience was conditioned to be taking a bathroom break. For example, the women’s match would be under-promoted and then inserted between the two hottest matches on a pay-per-view event. The crowd was almost never interested.

In the early to mid 2000s, there were still plenty of talented women wrestlers, like Trish Stratus, Lita, and Mickie James, who put on memorable matches and won over fans with their characters. (There were others, but I won’t try to list them all, so to not leave anyone out.) As those wrestlers gradually but surely began to depart from the company, their void was increasingly felt. Although there were still great talents working for the company, they weren’t often front and center on WWE television. The women’s matches were attractions, but they were never main events. Truthfully, this has been the case for most televised wrestling in the past several decades, but there were some especially talented wrestlers who came through during that era who were likely underutilized.

The situation for women didn’t get any better as, years down the line, WWE made a conscious decision to move toward family friendly programming. In the so-called “PG Era” of WWE, there were still plenty of conventionally attractive women in revealing outfits, even if their storylines were a bit more subtle. Very few of them were trained professional wrestlers. Because of this, their matches were booked to be short and, very often, plagued with things like hair pulling and other such maneuvers. In more recent years, even as WWE has hired new wrestlers, the so-called “Divas” segments (the long-running WWE Women’s Championship was, appropriately, renamed the “Divas” title) became shorter and shorter. Fans tuned out mentally, if not literally.

Earlier this year, on Twitter, there was a trending hashtag begging WWE to “#GIVEDIVASACHANCE.” What did it say about WWE’s attitude toward its audience – which was becoming increasingly less male and adolescent over the years – if the women were only given a minute or two to show their stuff in the ring? The WWE roster had several highly skilled wrestlers in its women’s division, and the fans wanted to see them perform. Meanwhile, on NXT, the women’s division was all the rage. On many occasions, women’s matches were highly anticipated and delivered the goods. The bouts were lengthy, and full of proficient, athletic in-ring action. This, like just about everything else on the NXT shows, was an extension of wrestling on the independent circuit.

Women’s wrestling has been a major draw around the country in recent years, with promotions like Shimmer Women Athletes and SHINE featuring women exclusively. Meanwhile, intergender competition has become more of a norm in recent years. Men and women will wrestle each in other in everything from highly scientific, mat-based wrestling matches to brutal, no-holds-barred contests. Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch both competed against men in some of their earliest matches. You’d think it might be difficult to watch some of these matches and, at times, it is. Even simulated violence perpetrated by men against women is upsetting. More often, though, the matches are presented as athletic contests and don’t play too hard on the inherent cringe factor.

From tiny, regional outfits to larger promotions like CHIKARA and the Sinclair Broadcasting-sponsored Ring of Honor, women have become far more prominent as they’ve fought their way through preconceived notions and redefined wrestling gender roles in major ways. Whether it’s women competing against men or simply having long, dramatic bouts with other gals, the rules are being reshaped. Some of the most skilled and popular women from the independent circuit have reached journeyman status after years of making the rounds. Some have joined the WWE ranks, at first honing their chops on NXT broadcasts and then some, eventually, appearing on the company’s weekly cable programming. Better still? The NXT brand has begun touring the country, and the Women’s title match has been the main event of many of those shows.

Don’t think for a second that the independent wrestling community’s growing interest in women’s wrestling hasn’t influenced WWE. The NXT ranks (and, increasingly, those of Raw and Smackdown) are full of the indie wrestling darlings of yesterday. The brand is, in essence, a high production value, indie-flavored wrestling product. Again, not unlike Adeline Records and its ilk are for punk rock. It’s designed to be an intersection of the mainstream and underground wrestling worlds. So, as women have become more important to the indie wrestling scene, so, too, have they grown to dominate NXT. Banks and co. become a huge part of the programming and are running out of glass ceilings to shatter. And now, they’re invading Raw.

With the elevation of NXT “Divas” to WWE’s primary programming, there comes the distinct possibility that their characters could be watered down, that their matches will be too short, and that the potential revolution in how women are presented on cable wrestling will be compromised. Still, there is the hope that this is the turning of a corner. On the July 13 edition of Raw, Banks, Lynch, and Charlotte debuted to a huge reaction from the fans in attendance. They ended their introductory segment by applying their signature submission holds to some of the current crop of mainstream WWE Divas. In other words, they were being presented as the badasses they undeniably are.

All of this is good news for people who feel a need for diversity and better representation in media, even if a slight change in the presentation of televised wrestling is the tiniest of baby steps. At the very least, the world of pro wrestling could be setting an example for action films, pro sports, and other loosely related forms of entertainment. Yep, there’s still a long to go. But the very idea that this incremental change has grown, in some small way, out of the scrappy world of underground wrestling is pretty cool. It also has implications for our own day-to-day lives. Go out there. Create. Book shows – whether they’re music, art, wrestling, or whatever. Showcase diverse talent. Be the scene you want to see.

Okay, that’s enough unchecked optimism for me today. I’ll see you all again next month with something new.

 

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