Joanne O’Riordan: Gritty ladies of wrestling deserve respect

The women’s revolution has revitalised WWE as athleticism finally trumps titillation

Irish WWE professional wrestler Becky Lynch

Irish WWE professional wrestler Becky Lynch

 

Confession time: I am still sucked in by WWE. There are countless problems plaguing WWE, but allow me to take you back to the beginning of the Women’s Revolution.

I can vividly remember being obsessed with Randy Orton, Triple H and Rey Mysterio. As for female wrestlers, well they were either the matches when I went to the toilet or was forced to recoil at the sight of pillow fights or bra-and-panties matches. It was a shame. Women’s wrestling was a huge thing in the 1980s and a crucial part of the promotions back then. It soon turned into an oversexualised cringeworthy affair at the turn of the millennium.

What people don’t realise is the start of all this came from WWF teaming up with Cyndi Lauper and MTV for a segment called Rock’n’Wrestling Connection, where the female wrestlers were the main stars. It was March 31st, 1985, near the end of WWE’s inaugural WrestleMania event. And Lauper, famous for her flame hair and bops, was in the thick of it all with Wendi Richter and Dave Wolff.

Promoter Vince McMahon’s plan had just started. While the original plan was to include both male and female wrestlers, McMahon began to rely solely on Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Ted DiBiase, Macho Man Randy Savage, Andre the Giant and the Ultimate Warrior to achieve world domination and stretch the WWF promotion to all corners of the globe. Throw in some celebrity star power (Lauper) and the launch of Wrestlemania, and you might tap into something big.

It wasn’t long before McMahon would see his dream become a reality as wrestling was watched in households across the world. However, the sudden global fame came at a cost to the female wrestlers. Soon they turned into gimmicks and sideshows on main TV events such as Monday Night War. Instead of showing their athletic prowess, toughness and ability, the women of the WWF were used to excite male fans and try to push the ratings even higher. These women were used for their bodies, as they ripped off evening gowns, seduced male wrestlers and, in an all-time low, even took part in a Playboy-branded pillow fight at Wrestlemania. They were renamed the Divas Division and competed for the Divas title, complete with a butterfly pink and glitzy belt.

Taking the fight

Despite the misogynistic storylines written for them, there was a core group of women fighting to be taken seriously. There was Lita, who accompanied the Hardy Boyz, came to prominence for her Moonsault off the top rope; Trish Stratus, who began as a fitness model; and the Amazonian legend Chyna. Very rarely did they get their chance, but on December 6th, 2004, the women were given a headline title match on Monday Night Raw between Trish Stratus and Lita.

Fast-forward a few years and as fans said goodbye to legends such as Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Triple H, little did they know that the former Divas Revolution was bubbling. Triple H, or Paul Levesque, became WWE executive vice-president of talent and started carefully growing the NXT promotions. Here he focused on developing WWE’s next wave of talent, which included the women’s division. Ric Flair’s daughter, Ashleigh/Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch would challenge anyone’s perceptions of a female wrestler. Gone are the days when they were only there to model or show their bikini bodies. Under the Levesque regime, they have been encouraged to showcase their athletic ability and wrestling skills.

Although NXT was creating history with these women, Raw and Smackdown, WWE’s weekly TV events, were gradually sinking to new lows, with Raw dedicating 30 seconds to a women’s match during a three-hour broadcast.

Fan backlash

While women in sport were becoming more prominent in other spheres, WWE faced a backlash from fans and quickly promoted Banks, Bayley, Lynch and Flair to a roster that included the Bella Twins, Paige and AJ Lee. The revolution soon took hold and eventually, led to Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, it was announced they were no longer Divas but Women, and it was now the Women’s Revolution.

This revolution included a first-ever all-female Royal Rumble, first-ever all-women’s pay per view, headlining a pay per view (a coup for the UFC phenomenon Ronda Rousey) to finally headlining the show where it truly all began.

Becky Lynch became the first Irish person to headline Wrestlemania, while also becoming the first ever participant in an all-female main event alongside Rousey and Charlotte Flair, becoming the first ever “Champ Champ”.

The women, who were once seen as jokes, sex symbols and Glamazons, are now a bona-fide part of the company. In just over two years, WWE has shown that if you invest in female talent, it will soon become the main draw.

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