How Female Fans Are Shaping the Future of the WWE

Jed Oelbaum

Late last year, pro wrestling entertainers Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks met in the ring for Hell in a Cell, an annual event fought in a 20-foot tall metal cage. These two rivals didn’t just have fans excited because Banks was set to defend her championship title against a woman she had only recently taken it from. No, this match—in which Flair defeated Banks, taking back her belt—was also the first World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) pay-per-view program in the company’s history to feature women’s wrestling as the main event.

In the WWE, a brand practically synonymous with TV wrestling to most viewers, girls and women now comprise more than a third of the fan base—a stereotype-defying fact that feminist fans and women wrestlers are making the most of. Particularly over the last few years, outspoken performers, social media fan campaigns, and new management have led to a spate of changes in the way the brand approaches its female stars and patrons.

To get a grasp on the progress the world’s biggest wrestling brand has made and the hurdles feminist fans still face, I spoke to Scarlett Harris, who writes for Paste Magazine’s newly expanded wrestling section. A longtime pro wrestling fan, she’s advocated for the WWE to ensure more equitable representation through quotas, and examined the implications of supporting a company with such close ties to President Donald Trump.

What do you love about wrestling? What drew you to it, what continues to draw you to it? 

I think it’s sort of the spectacle of it. The way I like to describe it is “like theater with fighting.” If you consume it like you’d consume any old television show, then I think it makes a lot more sense then trying to consume it, or explain it, or justify it as a sport. I really admire a lot of the performers and their athleticism. And like with any pop culture, if there are some underlying issues you can use to speak about the rest of our culture, or society as a whole, I think that’s really important.

Do you feel connected to a larger wrestling fandom? 

Absolutely. Currently I follow a lot of feminist wrestling fans on Twitter, and that [online subculture] has really allowed me to feel more comfortable in my fandom and discussing certain aspects of the programming that are controversial, or upset me. Because … it can be very isolating, as a wrestling fan, if you’re not a straight, white male. So I think having those sorts of communities really makes people feel more included.

How is the WWE changing, in regards to diversity and women in wrestling, and how have the fans helped to drive that change?  

Whether WWE wants to acknowledge it or not, I think any positive change that has happened is due to fans. [In] March or early April last year, which was Wrestlemania 32, they decided to stop referring to [the women wrestlers] as “Divas.” The Divas Championship, which was like, a pink, sparkly, butterfly championship belt, was retired. They got an actual championship and there was a legitimate women’s wrestling match at Wrestlemania for the first time in possibly 10 years. Previously, there had just been Divas Battle Royales that lasted around 10 minutes. One year, a man won the Divas Battle Royale dressed up in drag. And things like that.

 One of the fan campaigns that really started the whole thing was #GiveDivasAChance, a hashtag started in February 2015 in response to a 30-second women’s tag match between the Bella Twins and Paige and Emma. Not even enough time to get a tag in. I think it was the only [women’s] match on the show, which is a three-hour show, and I guess fans were sick of it.

And how did the company respond?

[Chief Brand Officer] Stephanie McMahon and [WWE owner] Vince McMahon both tweeted saying, “we hear you, just wait,” or something like that. And I guess the WWE jumped in with their own tag, calling it #DivasRevolution or #WomensEvolution. So in the end, they really coopted this fan-based movement.

In June or July 2015, Stephanie McMahon did a promo saying the fans have asked for better representation. They brought up a bunch of women wrestlers from NXT, which is WWE’s developmental program … even though they had heaps of other women on their roster that weren’t being utilized, and they attached the name “Divas Revolution” or whatever. And as I said, last year they finally decided they weren’t going to call women wrestlers “Divas” anymore.

So they are acknowledging it. But the changes they do make can often feel like lip service. Like the #GiveDivasAChance [campaign] happened two years ago…the progress is not fast enough for my liking. Last night on RAW for example, there were no women’s matches.

How do you see Stephanie McMahon’s place in these changes, specifically? Do you see her as an encouraging figure in the organization?

Look, it’s probably not a popular opinion, but I personally admire her. I don’t necessarily agree with everything she does, but I think she’s part of the new guard. Her husband, his wrestling name is Triple H, he runs NXT, and that’s where a lot of the change within WWE is happening. That’s where the whole women’s wrestling evolution thing started, back in 2014 or so. They were actually giving women like 20 minutes to put on a match.

I think WWE fans could see what was happening in NXT, and they wanted to know why it wasn’t also happening up in the big league. And in addition to that, the last three [NXT] women’s champions have been women of color. The past two NXT champions have been men of color. So from fans, to NXT, to WWE—[progress] sort of starts from the bottom up.

Has the overall fan base been shifting, demographically?

I can tell you that as of a couple years ago—I don’t have the updated numbers—women fans made up about 30 percent of the total fan base. So that’s quite interesting. I wrote a piece for Paste about quotas a couple weeks ago, and that has a little bit more in-depth data.

Also, last year, Stephanie McMahon said they wanted to incorporate LGBTQIA representation in their storylines (though that still hasn’t happened, six months later). So we’re definitely seeing them respond to a market for it, a demand for it. Not just from minority fans, but from people in general who are sick of seeing the same white wrestlers, the same wrestlers from 20 years ago, like Goldberg and the Undertaker. I think often the perception of wrestling is that it’s just white men. But it’s not.

Are there any active female wrestlers you would highlight as particularly speaking to the feminist fans of pro wrestling?

Good question. Look, I don’t know if they’re doing it specifically through a feminist lens, or they’re just doing it for themselves. So there’s no one I can say is definitely coming at it from that viewpoint, but I think a lot of the newer women that are being featured in wrestling have seen what it was like before, they’ve overcome that and they’re coming into a new…era, I suppose?

There’s Charlotte, who’s the RAW women’s champion; Lana, who is on the [E! reality] show Total Divas and plays a Russian character; there’s Sasha Banks—I’m actually writing about her at the moment—though some of the things she’s said rub me the wrong way, so I wouldn’t necessarily single her out [as speaking to feminists]… I think they’re appreciative of what they’ve had to overcome. But I couldn’t speak to what their motivations are.

Just to get an idea of what has been overcome here—we’ve mostly talked about the last few years. How far has pro wrestling come from the “bad old days,” when you first took an interest?

Well, that was the heyday of the bra-and-panties matches, highly sexualized depictions of women, women being beat up and thrown through tables by male wrestlers. The male wrestlers would spank the female wrestlers, and they’d have those bra-and-panties matches, in which, essentially, the loser is the first one to get stripped down to her underwear, that sort of thing. That was not a good time to be a wrestling fan. I was in my early teens then. I think I’m really lucky to have gotten out on the other side, to be a feminist wrestling fan that hasn’t internalized that misogyny. Looking back, I’m like, “Oh my god. How was I even allowed to watch this? How was this even on TV?”

On the business side, what are some of the issues that reflect this conversation—in regards to say, pay discrepancy, or the way the different storylines are written?

 I don’t know the numbers of the behind-the-scenes or corporate stuff as much. But I’m pretty sure the creative team is mostly white men. And amongst the management and production, there are a lot of old [male] wrestlers that have transitioned into those roles. … In terms of pay, in a nutshell: even if they are less experienced, bigger or more physically imposing male wrestlers get way more money than women who put on stellar matches that everyone talks about. So there’s still major inequality.

What other writers would you recommend people check out if they’re interested in both WWE and social justice? 

One of my friends, Kate Foray does a weekly infographic called the RAW Breakdown Project. And she figures out how much time [is devoted to] women, how much time for commercials, how much time for authority figures, that kind of thing. She breaks down the whole three-hour episode. Lady J is quite good as well—she writes at Paste, too, and does a weekly Twitter chat for feminist wrestling fans.

Now that you have a bigger platform, what do you plan to advocate for in writing about wrestling? What kind of impact do you think you can have, as part of a larger fandom or on your own?

Well, I don’t know how much of an influence I actually have at the end of the day. I just think it’s important not to shut up. Just keep calling it out until shit changes. And I extend that to the political future we’re heading into. Protests work. Look at the Women’s March. Look at the outrage against the Rockettes being compelled to perform at the inauguration. It works. We just need to remember not to feel downtrodden by consuming media that’s [demeaning to women]. And agitate for it to be better.