Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Past Is Prologue: On "Divas Gone Wild"

Lita is only one part of WWE's problematic history with women.
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Professional wrestling as a whole tends to have massive problems telling the stories (in and out of kayfabe) of female performers. That much is known about the pro wrestling archetypes we've grown to live with in mainstream wrestling, and certainly in the world's featured company known for its male performers that the casual fan could list offhand before even mentioning one memorable figure who identifies as female. Naturally, this is a greater problem than just professional wrestling. Most sports, real or fake, have had trouble embracing female performers as genuine athletes on the same level (or even the same respect) as women.

So it doesn't come as much of a surprise that WWE's episode of its Network documentary series The Monday Night War called "Divas Gone Wild" has a tough time reconciling how to view women through its already myopic lens. Part of this is based on the real whims of Vince McMahon.

When the then WWF shuttered its women's division by 1990, it was because Vince changed his expectation of women as athletes to women as passive valets served to add more intrigue to the main roster. The belief was that the popularity of Elizabeth seemingly destroyed the purpose for the rest of the division. This isn't an inside burial statement culled from the newsletters of the day, either. This is something the narration outright says. And while more active valets like Sensational Sherri and Luna Vachon (both not mentioned) allowed a stretch where the passive became more active, it was more that talented female performers were forced into a rigid box of performance. This can be true for a lot of WWF/E talent regardless of gender, but men also did not have to worry about their whole means of competing being shuttered on the whims of the head man in charge, either.

My assumption is that the narrative of passivity being told has a lot to do with what happens after the division is reformed in 1993, but that would be a dangerous assumption. I don't think there's a malicious point to be made about performers like Alundra Blayze using their WWF cache to "screw over Vince." That's not really the point at all. But this has been a consistent flaw with the Monday Night War series. There is a bizarre allotment of time to the series. The world doesn't really need 20 hour-long episodes detailing every in and out of the six year period known as the Monday Night War, yet in the era of podcasting, it's hard not to feel the subjects of each episode have details that are glossed over or outright ignored. So when Alundra Blayze throws the WWF Women's championship in the trash on Nitro, it feels important to note but also hollow.

And of course, the mostly male perspectives on the women of both promotions leads to genuinely painful moments. Let's get some quotes.

"We wanted to move past lady wrestlers. We wanted to find women with personalities and sex appeal." -- Jim Ross
One of the most thoroughly nerve wracking narratives of the special is that the biggest problem with the women's divisions in the 80s and 90s WWF was the perceived lack of personality in the talent. Now, that can be mocked all to hell considering the same promotion hired Aja fucking Kong before this sudden shift past "lady wrestlers," but I also get that Jim Ross is referring to the corporate byline. Still just so brutal to hear and annoying given how this mentality is likely the reason Sara Amato is training Alexa Bliss instead of suplexing the shit out of her contemporaries on TV in glorious matches. But you expected that.

And to be fair, Sunny was the rare positive of this mindset. The special actually rightfully paints Sunny as important by showing clips of Sunny performing, and while it was a lot of cheesecake bullshit by a company desperate to appeal to a pre-internet teenage market, she was at least good at the art of the promo and was rewarded for that.

Of course, Sunny was the only successful example of this during the Monday Night War. They pay Marlena/Terri a lot of attention, but until the later portion of the era (circa managing the Hardys), Terri was more known for just sitting in a chair smoking a cigar. And sure, I guess that is a character trait, but not the outward edgy "personality" the special pictures. Sable's not much better and Vince Russo willfully makes it more gross with the implication that he became interested in putting her on TV based on a tease she was doing. Because that's personality, I guess.

"At the time, I wasn't a fan of women's wrestling primarily because the level of athleticism really wasn't there on a broad base. There wasn't enough really hot looking women that could really go out and have a great match that was fun to watch." -- Eric Bischoff
WWE admittedly isn't the group to make it far worse, albeit they really like throwing around the word "edgy" like it's anything but a tired term for childlike drivel. Eric Bischoff, who himself shuttered a women's division with talent because I guess he hated four minute Chigusa Nagayo matches, decided to add to the objectification of women in pro wrestling with the Nitro Girls. They sure existed and danced! Here's Booker T with a wonderful quote!

"I think it was a great concept, it was different to have girls open the show and not wrestlers." 
To be fair to Booker, I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that this is out of context. Plus, his wife was a Nitro girl, so of course he probably likes the thing that led him to the woman of his life. With that said, what a poorly phrased point. It's like the Don DiMello character Andy Daly portrays on Comedy Bang Bang come to life with a pervy "Bring on the girls" context. Most WWE main roster talent on the special seem to really not help this feeling. Kofi Kingston and Daniel Bryan are amazed by titillation, even up to where Kingston says "Why would you change the channel?" on a lady taking off her clothes as if to assume the entire audience are just teenage dudes pre-Pornhub. I don't know, Kofi, maybe folks just like athletics or avoiding objectification in stuff or are asexual. A lot of reasons to change the channel, especially is Sable is cutting a promo.

"Lita appealed to our male audience. She had tattoos. She listened to the grunge music." -- Michael Cole
But it's okay, y'all. Because Lita showed up and wrestling was saved*. Also, THE GRUNGE MUSIC is a real thing Michael Cole said.

At this point in the deal, WWE has to talk about Lita and Trish Stratus. And to WWE's credit, both weren't detestably terrible at any particular point in their careers. Mind you, Lita was more successful as a women's division lynchpin in the mid 2000s and Stratus was only the gatekeeper for the division at that same time. Neither had any massive play in shifting the War.

WWE does this often with the Monday Night War specials and it is genuinely irritating. As if to show the limits of the narrative, the show will often bounce forward past the era entirely. Did they not have enough to say about Chyna or were they worried they would have to keep playing JR's "Is that a man?" comment? It's nice to say that women came out of this era and weren't totally shitty or garnish, as Cody Rhodes says at one point to criticize WCW, but it kind of addresses that the era was extremely shitty for women in that context. Sure, WWE has a women's division because of the Attitude Era. But did that make women better over time? That question is still unanswered. WWE does at least have a division, but at this rate, is it just the same garnish? That may be the pessimistic response, but "Divas Gone Wild" kind of makes you a pessimist if this is how the winners think.

* Lita's biggest run of success was outside of the Monday Night War.