This week’s Feminist Friday by the Margaret Sloss Center for Women and Gender Equity was led by Isis Walker, a second-year graduate student in the higher education student affairs program, and her presentation was titled “More Than Heels and Faces: Women’s Wrestling as an Act of Resistance.”
Walker started the presentation by saying Black wrestlers struggle to gain the same status as their white counterparts, and there is virtually no queer representation in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) world.
Walker is an avid WWE fan, which is a media outlet most widely known for their wrestling programs. Walker explained she was raised watching WWE and continued to do so throughout her life, but she is now on a WWE hiatus. While Walker still enjoys watching WWE, she said her passion does not blind her to the fact that WWE needs to make systematic changes.
“It’s extremely frustrating being a queer, Black woman wrestling fan of women [who] are treated as second priority,” Walker said.
According to Walker, WWE is broadcasted to over 180 countries and reaches nearly 800 million TVs across the world per week. She also notes that WWE offers pay-per-view programming, reality TV shows and events such as the Monday Night Brawl and Friday Night Smackdown.
Although enthusiastic, Walker did not hesitate to mention wrestling is often associated with males. Walker said this is despite 40 percent of WWE viewers being female.
“Historically speaking, professional wrestling has been built around that male experience — what masculinity looks like, what the male body should or should not look like and what men should or should not act like,” Walker said.
Walker also said women’s wrestling is viewed through the male perspective.
“Up until recently, women were just the sideshow," Walker said. "They were always eye candy to the men.”
Walker said females weren’t valued outside of their relationships with men, and women have been continually sexualized and not given any privilege due to their physique.
“[Female wrestlers are] not respected," Walker said. "They’re not allowed to be athletes. It’s all just about cute — having sex appeal.”
Walker then shifted the discussion to the different eras of women’s wrestling and the impact they had on the sport:
The Golden Era (1980s) - Walker said during this time period, WWE was becoming a household name due to the Wendi Richter Wrestlemania match, in which Cyndi Lauper was in Richter’s corner. This infamous match remains to be the most-viewed WWE segment in history. Although Richter became extremely popular after this match, according to Walker, Richter still was not paid as much as her male counterparts.
The New Era/Attitude Era (early 1990s) - According to Walker, this was the era when WWE was at the height of its popularity. Walker then briefly talked about two influential female wrestlers of the time, Alundra Blayze and Luna Vachon, who were both extremely talented and successful but somewhat disregarded by WWE due to its lack of priority for the women’s wrestling division.
“Women’s segments, in the Attitude Era, they were just used for sex appeal," Walker said. "They weren’t fighting. The only requirement was to make sure that you look good.”
Walker continued to say women’s wrestling quickly shifted to an even more sexualized form of wrestling in the 90s — evening gown and bikini contests. Even with these strict standards of femininity in the women’s wrestling world, Walker said Chyna, a professional WWE wrestler, was able to break down many gender barriers.
According to Walker, Chyna was 5 foot 2 inches and had the muscles of a body builder. Walker said while Chyna wrestled mainly men, she was the first intercontinental champion in WWE history and the first woman to be included in the King of the Ring Tournament and Royal Rumble Match.
The Ruthless Aggression Era (early 2000s) - Walker said this era was the formation of what women’s wrestling would look like for the next 15 years. She then discussed influential wrestlers of that time. According to Walker, Trish Stratus is a seven-time WWE champion and participated in the first women’s main event match of Monday Night Raw. Walker said while Monday Night Raw first premiered in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 2000s that women were included. Walker also briefly talked about the moves and actions of Lita, who was inspired by Lucha Libre.
Walker then introduced WWE’s Diva Search reality TV show. Created in 2003, Diva Search was a form of beauty pageant that prioritized outward appearances over talent.
“That’s not what women’s wrestling is," Walker said. "That’s not what it’s supposed to be, but that’s how it was with WWE.”
The PG Era (late 2000s) - Walker said during this time, WWE wrestling started to become more family friendly.
“During that time, that’s when women were specifically referred to as divas … not superstars like the men — they were divas,” Walker said.
Walker continued to show that the women’s championship belt was pink with a butterfly on it instead of the gold belt the men received.
“One-on-one matches … would be, on average, three to four minutes long. So during this time, women’s matches were literally just seen as bathroom breaks, nothing more,” Walker said.
As for influential women of this era, Walker mentioned the Bella Twins, who were successful wrestlers but whose success was overshadowed by their romantic relationships with other famous male wrestlers.
According to Walker, in 2013, WWE premiered its reality TV show Total Divas, which was centered around the lives of the female wrestling talent. While Walker mentions the show gained more wrestling viewership and showcased the struggles women wrestlers had to face, Total Divas barely included racially and sexually diverse cast members, therefore reinforcing gender and sexuality stereotypes.
Women’s Revolution Era (2010s) - According to Walker, due to a match during Monday Night Raw, the public began to realize women were never given the opportunity to have their match on the main roster. Walker also talked about how the Four Horsewomen — Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Bayley — played an important role in elevating women’s wrestling. For example, the Four made WWE’s NXT the third main roster branch of professional wrestling. Walker also said these women were some of the first to compete in ladder matches, money matches and women’s Wrestle Mania main event.
Walker gave her recommendations on how the world of professional wrestling can become more gender equitable and inclusive.
Walker said her first recommendation is for WWE to hire women and pay them what they deserve. For example, according to Walker, in 2018, AJ Styles, the male professional wrestling champion, was paid $3.5 million, while Charlotte Flair, the female professional wrestling champion, was only paid $500,000.
Walker’s second recommendation was to stop heteronormativity, meaning putting more women and non-male identifying people in places of power. She continued to say LGBTQIA+ representation is sorely lacking. Additionally, there is no transgender representation in the WWE sphere.
Walker’s third recommendation was to hold more intergender matches in order to combat gender segregation in professional wrestling.
“The everyday WWE female superstar[s] … are never in matches with men," Walker said. "And if they are, it’s because the women are being on the receiving end of an attack from a man. It’s never a woman attacking one of the male competitors.”
Walker’s final recommendation was to simply dedicate more time and space to women in professional wrestling.
“I know that women have the drawing power," Walker said. "I know women have the talent, and it’s time for WWE to recognize that.”