A lot has changed in professional wrestling since I started watching as a kid in the late 90s. Back then, WWE was in the midst of its renowned “Attitude Era” when characters like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were at their peak and the show was geared towards young men, which resulted in a lot of car crash TV techniques, bizarre outlandish storylines, and a high level of violence. Today’s WWE is different: it’s now a publicly shared company and about 10 years ago shifted towards family-friendly PG fare, with a deeper focus on in-ring athleticism. But by far the biggest change in the company in my time as a fan is the portrayal of the women.
Back in the Attitude Era, women were essentially objects. They were run out there to titillate the crowd and were often featured in “bra and panty” matches, mud wrestling, and various other degrading activities. While there were always a couple women who could actually wrestle, they were overshadowed by the slew of models WWE signed for their looks and then trained into mediocre/bad wrestlers who worked sloppy 2-3 minute matches.
In the last couple years, WWE has undergone a “women’s revolution,” where they’ve started recruiting women who are real wrestlers and put them in more high profile matches. This charge was led in part by Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, first on their developmental show, NXT, and then on the main shows Raw and Smackdown. With the addition of former MMA star Ronda Rousey to the division, WWE has finally put some effort into some semblance of gender equality and has by far the deepest women’s division it’s ever had.
Despite this, some residue from the previous era lingers. Vince McMahon still runs this company and has made a habit of booking cute blonde women as champions, regardless of their in-ring ability. The women get more screen time, but they still rarely feel like complete characters, usually falling into a couple broad archetypes: the heels are Regina George mean girls while the babyfaces are just happy to be chasing their dreams and are always hugging each other and crying. I’m about 99% sure that WWE doesn’t have any women writers on its staff, and it’s evident in the way many of the characters are portrayed.
Meanwhile, WWE has gleefully marketed and hyped its self-proclaimed “women’s revolution,” but the only reason it needed to happen is because they were so shitty in the first place. Fans largely catch on to this, and I think it’s part of what is fueling this Charlotte/Becky storyline that I wrote about last month. Because Becky doesn’t really fit WWE’s mold for a champion: she’s kind of quirky, she’s attractive but not in the very specific way Vince McMahon likes, she’s got an Irish accent and an unusual speaking voice, she’s not blonde, etc. All of this fan resentment over the direction of the women’s division is now coming out in the Becky character and the crowd’s response to her.
When we last left off with our hero, she was chasing Charlotte’s title after “turning heel” at Summerslam, and was in an ambiguous character direction where she was acting heelish but getting huge cheers. To WWE’s credit, they’ve stayed the course with this and are finally writing a storyline that is worthy of the women performers that isn’t draped with their “look at what we’re letting the women do!” sloganeering. At the Hell in a Cell event, Becky reversed one of Charlotte’s moves for a surprising fair win. On the next episode of Smackdown, she celebrated in grand fashion in one of the best promo segments on the show in a long time.
If it wasn’t obvious before, this segment made it clear that in WWE’s mind, Becky is unambiguously a heel. She’s gloating, rubbing her win in Charlotte’s face, calling her a bitch and then beating her up. The announcers fall over themselves defending Charlotte and portraying her as sympathetic (which, to be fair, she kind of is). But the fans are still purely behind Becky, because this is an exciting character we’ve never seen before: a woman who simply doesn’t give a damn. After so many obnoxious heels and flat, goody-two-shoes babyfaces, it’s refreshing to see a woman character who has an edge, who is brazen and does what she wants, the way men like Stone Cold Steve Austin did at the height of the show’s popularity.
And Becky has real depth as a character, in part because Rebecca Quin is such a good performer. Sometimes in WWE, it feels like a flip is switched and someone becomes a totally different person when they change their heel/face alignment. This is the same character the crowd loved before, but she’s gained a new focus and has stopped caring about what anyone thinks of her. And now that she’s champion, she’s very proud of herself and is lording it over everybody while egotistically basking in the fans’ love of her.
I want to talk about Becky saying “bitch” at the end of this promo. Because to someone over the age of eight years old, it shouldn’t be a big deal to hear the word, and I’m sure if anyone who doesn’t watch wrestling is reading/watching this, they’re wondering why the crowd is gasping at it. Part of it is that WWE has been in this very safe, corporate PG era for a long time now, so any swearing has become somewhat unheard of. But also, wrestling has this effect on you where it sort of turns you back into a little kid when it really works, so in the moment I was like “OH MY GOD SHE SAID THE B-WORD. THAT’S A BAD WORD. THIS WOMAN IS OUT OF CONTROL.”
And as ridiculous as it sounds, WWE letting Becky say “bitch” might be the clearest sign that the company is fully invested in her now. The only other people I’ve heard say the word on TV recently are Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, who are the two top stars in the company. It’s trotted out on serious occasions when they want a character to look badass. When the guys did it, it just came off as tryhard and misogynistic, but Becky being a woman and delivering it with perfect comedic timing made it work in this instance.
WWE is not a very admirable company and I’m loath to give them too much credit for a story that has been partially told by accident. But this story is sneakily pretty progressive compared to a lot of other media. How many other TV shows have a storyline between two women that isn’t about a man, where both characters feel real, have flaws, and their motivations make sense? Not very many, and I hope WWE sees the success of this feud and does more of this, because they have the talent to do so. This is what a “women’s revolution” actually looks like.