Monday, October 16, 2017

The Wrestling Women's Wasteland

Try fantasy booking a run for Emma on the indies if she'd ever leave WWE. You can't, and that's a problem.
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Austin Aries and Neville opened the show at WrestleMania 33. I remember the overwhelming narrative at the time was between people who thought this was a slight towards them and others who thought being on the pre-show didn't matter. Actually, that narrative war was mostly centered around the Smackdown Women's Championship match, which ended up getting switched to the main show anyway. However, more than six months later, the argument seems more prescient to that Cruiserweight Championship match. Aries has already been gone from WWE for three months, and while reports say that people higher up in the company were happy to see him go, he still initiated his contract release. Neville stormed out of RAW last week with his release requested according to reports. The reason why both wrestlers stormed out had to do with money.

205 Live contracts are structured differently than main roster ones, in that the money is all tied to appearances, unlike main roster RAW and Smackdown wrestlers who have downside guarantees. So something as trivial-seeming as royalties from the WrestleMania DVD can be a financial boon for wrestlers like Aries and Neville. Of course, that financial bonus only works when your match is on the DVD. The pre-show matches were not included, so yeah, a wrestler has a valid reason to not want to be relegated to the part of the broadcast that is aired for free on YouTube and plays to only the people filing into the building at that time.

Of course, Aries and Neville will have options to make money outside of WWE, just like Cody Rhodes and Jack Swagger have now. Aries mentioned on Twitter that his upcoming slate of indie bookings will be more lucrative than his time on 205 Live. Anytime rumors drop that people are trying to leave WWE, the reactions turn to fantasy booking, but that's only really for men. What about women who want to leave WWE for greener pastures? The harsh truth is the greenest pastures for female wrestlers are WWE, which says less about WWE than it does about everywhere else. In fact, when the most well-cultivated women's wrestling scene in America outside WWE is in dying-on-the-vine TNA Global Force Wrestling Impact Wrestling, the scene for women in America isn't as vibrant as it is for men.

Forget the fact for one second that WWE still has a lot of work to do to get it right by women on its program. Forget that Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair headlining a pay-per-view is less a trend and more an anomaly. Forget that WWE has spent most of the last year shoveling women into non-singles programs centered around the title where no one really has the chance to get over. Forget that WWE is still run by a bunch of sexist ghouls who are only worried about getting a gold star from the neoliberal media. Which is to say, forget that WWE is still not the best place in the world for a woman to work. It's still perhaps the best place for a woman to work by a large margin, which says more about the scene than about WWE, but I digress.

For starters, it offers the most opportunities. You can at least expect one or two matches and a segment or two dedicated to women on weekly television. Women of Honor don't even have a goddamn title yet. New Japan Pro Wrestling has only booked a women's match to further a male feud between two American wrestlers despite the fact that joshi is perhaps the best and most developed women's wrestling scene not just in the world now, but in recorded history. Lucha Underground perhaps has the best theoretical take on women wrestling except that the writing often still skews sexist, and it decided to throw its weight behind Sexy goddamn Star and not someone good. The American and British indies can do well by women, but it's like, you're lucky to get one women's match on a show, and it's usually for a title. You get promotions like Pro Wrestling EVE, SHIMMER, and SHINE, but the middle one runs two weekends and a single show during Mania week and has no real stable means of distribution. The bookends were borne more out of "separate but equal" bullshit that reinforces the idea that women's wrestling is an actual genre and not just a different demographic to be represented in the entire stream of styles of wrestling.

WWE has a roster of regular women too, a sizable one on three of its four major shows; apparently, according to WWE's parlance, it has four genders: man, woman, cruiserweight, and Briton. Either way, if you're a woman, you can find a job with WWE without needing to fall victim to artificial scarcity. Impact Wrestling is the same, even if its number of slots isn't nearly as large as WWE's. Once you start going down the list, the pickings get slim. Most indie promotions don't have steady, contracted rosters, to be fair, but the ones that do hand out contacts don't seem to give them to women. For example, Lucha Underground has Star, Ivelisse Velez, Mariposa (Cheerleader Melissa), Kobra Moon (Thunder Rosa), Taya (Valkyrie), and Black Lotus. They're outnumbered by a six-to-one ratio, however, which may or may not be similar to WWE or even Impact, but it's fighting for one hour a week of airtime to WWE's six and Impact's two. It also may not be coming back for a fourth season, which would suck. However, Lucha Underground at least signs women to contracts, which is more than one can say for Ring of Honor. The next contract to a woman it offers will be its first.

WWE also features its women's roster prominently, which again, the rest of the world outside of Impact and Lucha Underground fails to do. Fuck, it was a big deal when ROH announced that the women's match at Global Wars over the weekend wasn't going to be a dark match. The amount of incrementalism that gets passed off as REAL PROGRESS is infuriating and embarrassing, and it's the only thing that many promotions seem to take from WWE. I'm not here to praise WWE's handling of women because at its core, it's incrementalist bullshit that serves to pat Stephanie McMahon on the back and court other industries that do a similar or better job promoting its female talent, like mixed-martial arts.

However, if innovation happens, it should happen at the grassroots levels and with fewer levels of corportism. Corporations don't innovate; they sop up innovation through varying means of scruples. It's what they are designed to do. They're content agglomerators. WWE agglomerates wrestlers, styles, and movements that are popular. It doesn't create, it reacts. The fact that McMahon's reaction to the market, how more and more women are consuming WWE and wrestling in general, feels more progressive than what everyone else is doing is abhorrent. The fact that one can imagine lush scenarios for fucking Curt Hawkins should he get released again and not for Emma is a travesty.

Wrestling needs to do better, and by "wrestling," I mean wrestlers, fans, promoters, everyone. It's not enough to get mad when some dipshit like Billi Bhatti goes off about how "everyone" liked the Attitude Era better because Sable was exposing her chest and not throwing chops at another competitor's chest. It's not enough to lash out at companies that promote intergender wrestling irresponsibly. It's wondering why promotions aren't working with more women and having more than one women's match on a show. NOVA Pro Wrestling recently ran a card with three women's matches, and it felt like an oasis in the desert. Meanwhile, SHIMMER weekends attract the best female talent on the continent and in the world; where the fuck are they working when they're not congregating at WrestleMania or in Berwyn twice a year? Why can't every promotion that tries to book the same Matt Riddle/Keith Lee/Sami Callihan/and so on and so forth core of wrestlers for their prestige show not try to be different and maybe fly in Nicole Matthews or Kiera Hogan?

For a good portion of wrestlers, leaving WWE isn't going to be the most viable option. Praise be to the Toni Storms and Vipers of the world who can with a straight face and strong backing turn down contract offers and continue their wrestling careers, but they're even rarer than the Cody Rhodeses and Young Bucks of the world who make big livings without having to entertain the WWE sphere of influence. While Lucha Underground, should it survive to a fourth season, and Impact Wrestling have their issues, they're two of the few places outside of WWE where women can viably continue a career without having to rely on customs for a bulk of their income. Everyone else — Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, the indies, wherever — need to step their games up. Women's wrestling can't be just a top-or-nothing scenario, or else any progress made for women in wrestling is going to be washed away the moment Stephanie McMahon's analytics reports tell her the tides are changing.