Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Gender Politics of WWE Are Still Out of Whack

Fox is being treated as property by Dar, and that's gross
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair wrestled for more than 30 minutes on Sunday at Roadblock: End of the Line, the culmination of a feud that saw them headline RAW several times, close the show at Hell in a Cell, and establish the RAW Women's Championship perhaps as that brand's top title, depending on how one views the kerfluffle around the Universal Championship. One would think that kind of establishment would signal a sea change in WWE's treatment of women, especially given the amount of time Smackdown is devoting to its women's division. Yet watching RAW last night shows that WWE has a long, long way to go when it comes to its gender politics.

Of course, the flimsiness of WWE's push towards a more female-friendly atmosphere for workers and thus fans could be spotted right off the bat when the so-called Divas Revolution was kicked off not by necessity of narrative, but by proclamation of Stephanie McMahon, whose hollowness towards doing good is blatantly obvious by public admission. Each major step forward for the women brought up to the main roster from NXT has almost seemed like a corporately-mandated rollout rather than an organic progression in the feud, of which the last few months of Flair and Banks going back and forth was a microcosm. They weren't put in Hell in a Cell, for example, because the feud required it, even though it did. McMahon and Mick Foley in storyline put them in the match to "make history." And before the match, Foley basically mansplained the dangers of the Cell. To be fair, Foley did make the same speech to Dean Ambrose in advance of his Cell match vs. Seth Rollins in 2014. However, in addition to it being a too-recently recycled trope, it featured a self-described male feminist ally condescending to women who are both cognizant of wrestling history (for fuck's sake, Banks mentions how much she loves Eddie Guerrero at every turn).

Banks and Flair may have very well made history, and they may have done a great job carrying RAW during what has been a bumpy start to the Red Brand's nascence during this most current incarnation of the brand split. However, no matter how well they do and no matter what strides they make, be it for themselves or for other wrestlers of their gender, they are undermined at every turn because the fruits of their labor are being reaped by McMahon and her family and peers as a self-serving pat on the back for all the strides they've made in making WWE a great place for women. It would be gross if their words of self-congratulations were met by their actions, but as with anyone who's way more concerned with receiving public displays of validation than actually paying attention to the work they claim to be doing, it's about as much a facade as Adrian Veidt's public philanthropy in Watchmen.

One only needs to look at last night's episode of RAW to show how far WWE really has to come in order to match its rhetoric towards building equality. Example one, Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady were still embroiled in a feud with Rusev that started when Amore shamelessly showing Rusev's wife Lana his dick. The feud started with that sexual harassment and continued with Amore willingly trying to break up a marriage (even if it was all a trap). Big Cass, instead of letting Amore know that he has been being an utter creep through the whole thing, would rather enable and defend the behavior by fighting Rusev, and judging from last night's match where he got flipped into enough of a rage to pummel Rusev in the corner en route to a disqualification loss, actually seems to think that his buddy is in the right. If you couple this entire feud with the writing having Lana frame herself as property ("Rusev is the only man who can have me"), then it's vomit sauce poured upon a mountain of shit. Of course, the fact that Amore and Cassady are whom the narrative presents as heroes or babyfaces in this situation is the garbage cherry pit on top.

Meanwhile, in the cruiserweight division, a similar story is playing out among Noam Dar, Cedric Alexander, and Alicia Fox. Fox and Alexander have recently hooked up, or at least Fox has a massive crush on Alexander and is valeting him to the ring, but Dar wants to hook up with her. His motivations in character are completely centered around "stealing" Fox for his own. Dar's entire tone towards Fox has treated her as property, as if he can win her as a girlfriend through stipulation or contract. Unlike Amore and Cassady, at least Dar is the heel here, but it's still a gross story that robs a female character, one who actually can wrestle and has held the Divas Championship in the past, of her agency, which is the opposite of empowering women and "making history."

Even in something as innocuous as having a competitor cry after losing a title, WWE shows its tone-deafness towards women in its employ. Banks, in her first promo segment after losing the RAW Women's Championship last night, unsuccessfully fought back tears, which would be normal for anyone after losing a shot to be at the top of his or her profession for an extended period of time, regardless of gender. But in the act of crying, she received criticism for being made to look "weak," which is idiotic. Everyone cries, men, women, persons outside the binary, @dril. But again, WWE's gender politics are such that men crying over something to happen inside the ring is a sign of weakness except in rare, acceptable moments. Shawn Michaels shedding tears over having to retire Ric Flari is the exception, not the rule. But because WWE subscribes to hard and fast gender roles, women be crying all the damn time, thus creating dissonant commentary.

Basically, WWE is trying to rest on its laurels in terms of making women important, but it as a company still has a long way to go. Calling female wrestlers "superstars" instead of "divas," and focusing on better feuds and longer ring times for them is a start, but it's still a pittance if women's agency isn't going to be respected and awful gender stereotypes are going to be perpetuated. Furthermore, people calling WWE out on this bullshit isn't whining or "being a baby." It's attempting to keep a company honest on its promises, especially by female viewers. Of course, yelling at such a monolithic entity that doesn't listen to every single fan voice might be akin to purifying the ocean one Solo cup per hour at a time, but the amount of abuse faced by allies or women, especially by the women themselves, is mountainous and unrelenting, especially since the election of Donald Trump has normalized online abuse towards minorities.

While shouting at the WWE abyss might seem useless, one can help out by reporting online abuse and helping to defend people from it. If you see someone going in on an online critic of WWE's blatant misogyny, step in, or at least report the abuser. Too many people think that "social justice warriors" are doing a bad thing, or that courtesy and fighting for equality are on the same level as bigotry or harassment. Women have just as much a right to watch WWE as men do, and they have just as much right to feel comfortable in expressing their opinions as men do. The fact that the climate allows this and that WWE's programming still reflects such a barrier for women to feel comfort watching it is a huge problem, one that cannot be allowed to persist without resistance.