If you’re a WWE fan then you know what it’s like to go through a slump. Whether a string of story decisions has left you disenfranchised or you’re just burnt out, its normal to fall in and out of love with the biggest wrestling promotion on the planet from time to time. While I anticipated my current break from WWE would be due to New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual G1 Climax tournament (which has been awesome, by the way), there wasn’t much of interest going on to hold my attention.
I entered the month of August deflated for a number of reasons. I disagree with how Kevin Owens was handled in his initial feud with John Cena. I already feel a great disturbance in regards to Cesaro’s most recent ascent. I have no interest in watching the Undertaker wrestle in the year of our Lord, 2015. I don’t know who Stephen Amell is.
The source of my frustration, however, lies with the “Divas Revolution,” and how WWE is stumbling over its attempt to revitalize its troubled women’s division. To fully understand the scope of just how poorly this is going we have to start at the beginning.
What is the Divas Revolution?
Over the past year WWE’s developmental brand of pro wrestling, NXT, has made waves in the media for its burgeoning women’s division. Anchored by Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Charlotte and Bayley, these four women managed to not only win over an audience programmed to ignore their very existence, but have since gone on to main event NXT’s road tour, something which has never been done in the company’s history. For the first time, WWE women’s matches were being seen as equal to, and in some cases, superior to the offerings of the men.
Meanwhile, on the main roster of WWE, the same story we’d seen repeat for nearly a decade continued to diminish any gains made by the women of NXT. Two minute long matches (sometimes less), incomprehensible story lines and non-existent character development gave audiences little reason to pay any attention or respect to the proceedings.
Enter the Divas Revolution. Spurred not so much by the advancements made by the women of NXT, but the perfect storm of a successful US women’s soccer team, Serena Williams’ Wimbledon victory, and the soaring profits of UFC’s Ronda Rousey, WWE quickly ushered in a new dawn of women’s wrestling.
On the July 13 episode of Monday Night RAW, Stephanie McMahon announces a new era of the Divas division, bringing the debut of Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and current NXT Women’s Champion, Sasha Banks.
I wanted to be happy about this, I really did. And plenty of folks on Twitter leaped into my mentions to see if I was alright. If I was freaking out or not. Instead I screamed internally and braced myself for the other foot to drop.
“Tell them it’s a revolution, damn it!”
WWE has a nasty habit of ruining organic movements with forced branding opportunities, and it typically begins and ends with Michael Cole. Fandango was starting to achieve some sense of genuine popularity thanks in part to fans awkwardly finger-dancing to his cheesy song. So WWE dubbed it “Fadangoing,” and told you to stand up in front of your television and hashtag Fandango with them. He never recovered.
In the main event of Wrestlemania 31, Brock Lesnar, in a startling moment of clarity, took a break from murdering Roman Reigns in front of 75,000 people to spit in ear shot of a hot mic, “Suplex city, bitch!” It was hilarious and fans grabbed hold of it immediately. WWE responded by making “Suplex City” t-shirts customized for all of Brock’s appearances. They hashtagged it, because of course they did, and suddenly everything he did was Suplex City. “Lesnar, taking his opponent to Suplex City!” Oh okay, I guess that makes — “Another Suplex City by Brock Lesnar!” Now wait a second, that’s not even a thing.
The Divas Revolution branding was swift and unrelenting. “It’s a Divas Revolution,” exclaimed Michael Cole. “The Divas Revolution has begun!” “Use the hashtag #DivasRevolution!”
You can’t simply proclaim something to be a revolution without some serious proof to back it up, and to this day there has not been a significant enough improvement of the overall product to warrant the superfluous branding. Instead of building upon the momentum in NXT and organically introducing it into the main product, WWE flinched and attempted to install their supposed revolution as though it were a firmware update to be instantly accepted.
This sweeping set of changes also comes roughly four months after the “#GiveDivasaChance” hashtag movement, which the fans themselves had put into action and championed. The Divas Revolution could be seen as a direct response to this, but without giving the fans a chance to witness these changes for themselves and perhaps even brand it in their own way, it comes across as a cynical reaction to the world of sports outside of WWE.
The Potential of Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte
Those who follow me online were dismayed at how I could possibly be disappointed with the launch of the Divas Revolution. Charlotte, Becky Lynch and the NXT Women’s Champion, Sasha Banks, all made their debut at the same time! That’s incredible! We should all be losing our minds!
I didn’t see the debut of three of the brightest talents in the company, but instead a hugely missed opportunity to make the most of these incredible women. All three women debuted in a single 12 minute segment on Monday Night RAW, smack in the middle of the show. None of them got to speak. None of them got any sort of significant introduction. And just as quickly as they appeared they got split into two pre-existing groups that in no way elevated their status. Welcome to the main roster, ladies, you’re just like everyone else.
Not only did the audience not have much insight as to who these women are, but it also made them look like pawns in a petty story line and not the serious competitors that the hardcore fans have grown accustomed over in NXT. There was no significance to introducing them the way they did other than to say, “Here are some new bodies for the writers to mess around with.”
Worse yet, what made them unique in NXT has been stripped away while performing on the main roster. Sasha Banks is seemingly not allowed to display her NXT Women’s Championship title, despite Kevin Owens doing exactly that for well over a month during his feud with John Cena. Charlotte, who spent the last year developing her own unique in-ring style and character, may as well be renamed “Ric Flair’s Daughter” as she works to imitate her famous father, all while the commentators coo that she’s “Just like her daddy!” Becky Lynch went from show stopping performances in NXT to being the odd one out on a team of established fan favorite Paige and Ric Flair’s daughter™.
Meanwhile, at Full Sail University
I’ve gone on record saying that NXT’s women’s division was, at one point in time, the hottest thing in the pro wrestling business. Incredible talent putting on consistently excellent matches, coupled with solid storytelling and great emotional payoffs. It was the best of pro wrestling on a smaller, more intimate level, and it was fabulous. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the same since the Divas Revolution.
Left out on the road trip to Monday Night RAW is fan favorite Bayley, who has since become the main attraction of the division. This isn’t a bad thing at all as Bayley is my personal favorite of the group, but when the champ is nowhere to be seen and all that’s left for you are those still in training, it sucks the momentum right out of your “childhood dream comes true” story line.
With no one left for Bayley to feud with, what could have been one of the hottest story lines in North American pro wrestling has been reduced to a minor footnote of the current proceedings. It’s hard to find the energy to root for Bayley when the only person she has to do battle with is NXT-turned-RAW-reject, Emma, and we already know how that’s going to go. As of writing, NXT is promoting a #1 contenders match between Bayley and Becky Lynch, but with Lynch already on the main roster, where’s the drama?
In gutting the NXT women’s division of active talent, WWE has sucked the excitement and promise of a once flourishing new frontier of pro wrestling. Surely, this sacrifice must not have been made in vain, right?
Nothing has Changed
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Now the women sometime’s get two matches per episode in which to compete in pointless tag-team bouts where the results don’t matter and there’s no opportunity for character growth or story development. Please use the hashtag Divas Revolution to discuss.
The reason why fans gravitated so strongly towards NXT’s women’s division was because the performers were treated like human beings, which is unfortunately an innovative concept in pro wrestling. Women like Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch were three-dimensional characters with their own independent thoughts, feelings and evolving motivations. We watched Sasha go from a hungry yet naive upstart to the brash, take-no-prisoners champion she is today. We also got to see her turn Becky Lynch into a mirror version of herself, who ultimately broke off and discovered her own voice in the process.
What’s the most character development the WWE Divas division has seen in the past year? Naomi got light up sneakers that change colors when she kicks.
The Divas Revolution thus far has been more of the same that audiences have come to expect from WWE women’s matches over the past decade, only now they’re a bit longer which only serves to magnify all the existing issues. It’s a bunch of women being written with largely the same personality working matches that have little to no purpose or end game. It also doesn’t help that the current champ, Nikki Bella, is something of a lame duck as they let her coast without defenses to wipe AJ Lee from the record books (Only 32 more days to go). Charlotte may have made the champ tap out in a recent match, but is that leading to a title match at Summerslam? Nope, try a triple-threat tag-team elimination match with nothing at stake.
Missing the Point
At the end of the day any “Divas Revolution” will struggle to find success because it’s still a bunch of grown women fighting over a plastic belt shaped like a butterfly. WWE Divas, as a marketing brand, is damaged beyond repair, and if there’s any revolution to be had it’ll come from ditching the belt along with its moniker. When WWE declares its women talent to be divas, they’re hoping to conjure thoughts of women like Beyoncé, Ronda Rousey, and Nikki Minaj: strong, fierce, independent women for whom others can draw inspiration from. Instead, through the on-screen treatment of its talent, it only brings to mind, well, Total Divas. And in the event you’ve gotten this far and think I’m just some sort of crazed, old-school wrasslin’ fan who hates fun, please listen to me extol the virtues of Total Divas.
I understand the reasoning behind sticking to the Divas brand as WWE loves to brand just about everything they do, but they could also simply start referring to the women of WWE as Superstars, just like the guys. And if they’re worried about missing out on sales of butterfly championship belts, I can almost guarantee that a WWE Women’s Championship would sell just as well, as women and young girls are only purchasing the existing belt out of lack of any other option. They could do all this and still keep the Total Divas show on the E! Network without anyone batting an eye since that’s the bizarro universe version of WWE anyway.
WWE’s greatest challenge isn’t changing how they refer to women on-screen, or swapping its championship title for something more respectable, but undoing decades worth of programming that has trained its predominantly male audience to treat women not as human beings and but instead as simply eye-candy fuck objects. Even now, while women may be given more television time than ever before, they’re still met with wolf whistles and cat calls (and sometimes worse) from an audience that has been groomed by an era of attitude that has little to no respect for what they do in the ring. This is something that can only be achieved through reprogramming its audience organically and thoughtfully, not simply by trying to force a hashtag to become an agent of change. I fear this opportunity is rapidly slipping away, though I very much want to be proven wrong.
Update, 8/30: WWE SummerSlam has come and gone and with it, not much has changed in the Divas division that genuinely challenges anything stated in the original post. The exception being that I was perhaps too cynical in dismissing the emotional payoff in Bayley’s NXT Women’s Championship victory. Not only was it the best WWE match produced that weekend (and one of my favorite matches this year), but tears were definitely shed as well.
Since I originally wrote this blog a number of clips and articles have sprung up that have created a groundswell of dissent for what WWE has titled the “Divas Revolution.” From fans, to observers to retired wrestlers, here are a few more pieces on this subject to check out.
From the infamous Pro Wrestling Observer Radio, here’s Dave Metlzer and Bryan Alvarez discussing the pointlessness of the current division situation:
“What’s killing this is that people see them shoving it down your throat as opposed to letting it happen. In NXT they never, ever, ever said, “Oh, our women are more important and we’re making the women wrestle.” They did it, and so people got behind it.”
“They’re giving people every reason to reject it. They’re putting it on a silver platter with every way you’re going to reject it.”
Cageside Seats chimed in with an article titled, “We Want a Divas Revolution, Just Not This One:”
I don’t blame the Barclay’s Center for taking no interest in another six-woman tag match, and I sure as hell don’t blame the women of WWE for working through it. Unfortunately, they continue to be led astray, forced to make something out of nothing.
Finally, retired pro wrestler and current trainer (Dolph Ziggler, Tyler Breeze and Emma are just some of his graduates), Lance Storm, delivered an insightful response to a fan’s question regarding the Divas Revolution:
Since the start of the Diva’s revolution on RAW the title has not been the focus at all. PCB are faces, Team BAD are heels, and Team Bella float back and forth. All are getting wins and losses, no one is moving forwards or backwards and no individual is getting focus on directly. We are constantly being told it’s a new era, but to be honest we are just getting slightly longer, slightly better matches, with a few new faces.