I’m Still Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

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.

I’m Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

At this point, I’m sure many people know of my deep abiding love for professional wrestling. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about more because it fascinates me so much, but it’s pretty overwhelming to try to explain this very complex and weird art form to other people, especially those who aren’t necessarily inclined to be interested in it. Believe it or not, there are many people out there who think wrestling is lame and refuse to let themselves be entertained by it.

So this post will be my one attempt to sell any non-converts on professional wrestling. If you’re wondering why I like it, it’s because I love a good story, whether it’s through music, a sporting event, video games, film, etc. But none of those mediums can compare to wrestling when it’s done well — which is not as often as I’d like, but even then you can always just snark on the product.

One ongoing storyline in WWE encapsulates everything that is great and consuming and frustrating and amazing about wrestling. I tend to watch WWE with more of a detached and analytical fascination (which is how I kind of process all art), but this storyline has me emotionally involved like I was when I was a kid and thought everything that was happening was real.

Part of this is because it involves my personal favorite wrestler, Becky Lynch. She debuted on WWE television a couple years ago along with her friend Charlotte Flair, the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair. They were put into a haphazard team because the writers didn’t know how to write a storyline for women that didn’t involve them arbitrarily organizing into catty groups. Eventually, Charlotte, the member of the group most tabbed for greatness, became the champion. She attacked Becky from behind after losing a non-title match to her to ignite a rivalry between the two, then cheated with the help of Ric to beat her at the Royal Rumble event in January, 2016.

The rivalry with Charlotte helped form Becky’s character as an old-school plucky babyface who does everything the right way and fights with honor. In the world of WWE, this means that her main job is to eat shit from all the heels. She became the first women’s champion on Smackdown when WWE split the brands, but quickly dropped the title to the conniving heel, Alexa Bliss, then faded into the background with few relevant storylines.

Somewhere in this time I became a die-hard Becky fan, and I’m not even sure when. At some point, I realized this was maybe the most talented performer on the roster and I couldn’t believe how little she was used. She is good at the actual wrestling part, but really excels at acting and talking, and she used those skills to organically develop a character that felt real and genuine. She has an uncanny ability to gain sympathy from the audience, which she had plenty of opportunities to show as she got screwed out of every opportunity for the next two years.

Last year, Charlotte was moved over to Becky’s show, Smackdown, and the writers wrote an awkward storyline that mended their friendship, at which point Becky settled into mostly a sidekick role to the more pushed Flair, who won the championship later in the year. Charlotte eventually lost the title to the underhanded tactics of Carmella, an obnoxious heel who isn’t a great wrestler, then took time off to fix her breast implants (yes, really).

With Charlotte gone, Becky suddenly went on a long winning streak on television after months of eating pins and barely being utilized. She was always a favorite of the crowd, but now started to have real momentum, with louder cheers every time out. When she beat Carmella in a non-title match, she was rewarded with a hard-earned title opportunity at Summerslam, having defeated literally every heel on the Smackdown roster as well as Charlotte.

The next week, Carmella attacked Becky, at which point Charlotte returned to save her friend. To punish Carmella, the Smackdown GM gave Charlotte the same deal as Becky: a win in a one-on-one match against the champion and she would be added to the Summerslam match. This put Becky in the awkward position of wanting the best for her friend, but also not wanting her odds of finally regaining the championship to be decreased with the addition of Charlotte.

Sure enough, Charlotte won the match, and over the next few weeks building up to Summerslam they teased possible tension between the two best friends. And using sort of booking logic, it was clear that Carmella wasn’t walking out with the title, just because this wasn’t really her story and the title run she’d been on had run its course and had nowhere else to go. It was pretty much guaranteed that one of Charlotte or Becky would win and then one would turn on the other to set up their feud.

I share this exhaustive backstory because it’s important to understand the long-form, meandering nature of WWE storytelling and how it can get you invested in the characters at a level that doesn’t really have a comparison (except maybe soap operas, which might be the closest analogue to wrestling). I’d been on this two-year journey with the Becky Lynch character, through all the ups and downs (mostly downs) and now was deeply invested in her winning this title, or at least getting a meaty storyline where she could prove herself as a top player in the company after months and months of being underutilized. Another big part of WWE fandom is that the character and the performer (Rebecca Quin is her real name) can become intertwined — it wasn’t just that I wanted Becky Lynch to win, it was that I wanted Rebecca Quin the person to make it to the top because it would be evidence that the people who run WWE believe in her and understand how good she is.

So the match at Summerslam happens and it’s another in a long line of Becky Lynch disappointments. She locks Carmella in her armbar finishing move in the middle of the ring, but Charlotte sneaks up from behind, hits her with her finisher, and pins Becky to become champion. After the match, they hug and cry, but then Becky finally snaps. She hammers Charlotte in the face, beats the crap out of her outside the ring, and throws her into the German announce table. (It starts at 11:30 of this completely legal video.)

This is where the story gets hilarious and fascinating. Because what Becky did is almost always understood in wrestling as a heel turn, and you’re supposed to boo the heel for doing something unsportsmanlike, especially betraying her friend. Instead, the crowd explodes for Becky. They chant her name as she goes on the warpath. They boo Charlotte when they show her on screen and chant “you deserve it” at the end, saying either that Becky should be champion or that Charlotte deserved to get her ass kicked. These are some of the loudest crowd reactions any woman in WWE has ever gotten.

It’s a perfect story that was told completely by accident. WWE, because it is run by life heels like Vince McMahon, actually thought the fans would side with Charlotte in this story. They had no idea what story they were telling, and they underestimated how much the crowd was behind Becky and wanted to see her win. This becomes evident on the next Smackdown, when Becky is scripted to cut a classic “you people” heel promo and the fans don’t buy it whatsoever. If anything, they love her even more, and they’re mad at the company for trying to get them to boo this character that everyone was behind.

The cool thing about wrestling is that the crowd is a participant in the story, and if they’re not reacting the right way, you have the opportunity to change course (unless it’s Roman Reigns). It appears WWE did that last week on Smackdown, when Becky attacked Charlotte after her match to massive cheers, then called her a “bitch,” which in PG-era WWE is about the coolest and most rebellious thing any character can do.

There is a lot of weird wrestling stuff going on in these crowd reactions. On the most basic storyline (or kayfabe) level, Becky’s role in this story was much more sympathetic than Charlotte’s. She worked her butt off just to get into the match while Charlotte got gifted yet another opportunity. And while Charlotte didn’t technically do anything wrong, she also didn’t do anything right and was oblivious to the feelings of her best friend. On a deeper level, this is like a morality play with two characters representing larger ideas. Becky represents hard work, dedication, and the feeling of being overlooked when you deserve better. Charlotte, fairly or unfairly, will always be associated with nepotism and elitism due to her name and the fact that she has been pushed hard as a top star by WWE her entire career. I mean, her entire previous heel gimmick was about how she’s “genetically superior.”

Becky is not behaving honorably here, but who cares? The fans want to cheer Becky because they understand her plight, they’ve been in her shoes (kind of) and they relate to her struggle. Every time she beats down Charlotte, it’s a cathartic moment for everyone who has been thrust to the side or overlooked in favor of someone who was unjustly more favored by higher-ups at their workplace, school, etc. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s defense of “don’t hate me because I’m great” isn’t all that endearing to most people.

This story is still in the relatively early stages, and another fun part of WWE is speculating on where the writers will go with everything. It looks to me like the company has given up on Becky Lynch getting booed and is now positioning her as an ass-kicking anti-hero. She’s fixated on winning back the title and is done letting other people stand in her way. Her character has turned by dropping the silly steampunk gear and not playing to the kids anymore, but they might have accidentally made her the most popular face in the history of women’s wrestling by unleashing this ruthless streak. Charlotte is kind of the loser here, because her character didn’t really do anything wrong, but she’s getting booed because of this building wave of Becky support, which could plant the seeds for her to turn heel again.

I get the sense that this is very inconvenient for WWE, who seem to have long-term plans for Charlotte as a face character and were hoping she could run through a heel Becky on her way to the biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. The fact that it all blew up in their face is what makes this story so compelling. Now we get to see how they adapt to these crowd reactions and what they do with these characters, who are both in a moral gray area instead of the easy face/heel alignment that defines most wrestling feuds.

This story, if it’s not clear, is basically all I’ve been thinking about for the last two weeks. It’s something that only could have been done in professional wrestling, because it needed the long build-up, the crowd reactions, and the physicality. And there are all these layers to it, with the characters, the real-life personas, and the backstage machinations of the company all entangling, which blurs the line between reality and fiction. A lot of WWE is pretty stupid and lives down to outsiders’ perception of wrestling as an idiotic redneck spectacle, but storylines like this are why I stick with it.