As of writing this it has not been a full 24 hours since Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks made history by being the first women to compete in a cage at Hell in a Cell.
Well… *deep breath*
You would be hard pressed to stand in a room of wrestling fans, observing the conversation about booking as it is today, and not to trip over a person who wants to burn the PG era to the ground within the first 15 minutes of chit-chat. For some this is well-meaning. They grew up loving Stone Cold, the Rock, DX, some version of Chris Jericho, the countless other iconic characters that era gave us. It pulled wrestling into the mainstream for the first time and put to rest, for the most part, the bland, one note gimmicks of yesteryear: dentists, doctors, farmers, and worse.
If you fell out of love with wrestling as a teenager, it is easy to romanticize the way it made you feel at 9, 10, 11, and to think that it was all good, it all made sense. But for many self-proclaimed smarks, the PG era is another thing to target in a new wave of supremacy, for the most part white and male, though there are some exceptions. It is a part of the death rattle that encompasses most of America in the year 2016, because storytelling and the mania around it is always indicative of the society it comes from.
Even for those wrestling fans who don’t fully remember how much of an insensitive, racist, sexist, and frankly harmful vehicle the WWE was before the PG era (not to say that it is pure and safe now), there is hesitation to give criticism credence once it’s brought to their attention. When I, at first glance the “cool girl” trope in my ability to go toe to toe with the boys in wrestling talk, bring up how horrible that era made me feel, how dismissive it was of POC, and how those things still rot at the core of WWE today it is usually regarded with an awkward shrug, a stammered “well I’m not talking about that”, or a write off of my keen awareness of the role of media in popular culture and sociology as being “too sensitive”. The thing most used to shut me up by those who want to play “devil’s advocate” (a privilege reserved for those who have not seen professional wrestling devalue them) is the Monday Night Raw main event match between Trish Stratus and Lita.
I, like many other girls, LOVED Lita. I worshipped her. My locker in middle school was covered in photoshoots of the Hardyz and Lita. I cried when I got a pair of black pants with the pink drawstrings for Christmas. I got sent to the office more than once for showing my thong above my pants. And I spent time several days a week with a family friend who wrestled in the southern indie scene, taking bumps on red dirt, and throwing myself to the ground until I fell right.
And every male wrestling fan who watched wrestling from 2000-2007 will tell you they did the same. They loved her, cherished her. No one can compare to Lita.
But let’s take a look at how male wrestling fans REALLY treated her.
Lita’s final match saw her drop the belt to Mickie James. There was no twist, no great moment of grace. Her career was ended with a DDT.
“And down goes Lita… again,” proclaimed Jerry Lawler. And when JR stated that Lita ended her career on her back, Lawler replies, “I’m not gonna say how appropo.”
After all she gave us, she was booed as she came out for her last match. The hey hey, goodbye chants nearly drown out Lillian Garcia’s calls to praise Lita one last time.
Kayfabe is broken for men. Many decry the removal of Hulk Hogan from WWE’s merch and website because of all he did for wrestling. But when a woman PRETENDS to be bad… that’s enough to not respect her.
And then Cryme Tyme, playing the role of one of few racist tropes assigned to performers of color, come out, proclaim that they’re having a “ho sale” and proceed to sell Lita’s panties. And male wrestling fans laughed and cheered and really and truly exchanged cash for her underwear. JBL smells her panties, an exchange that plays over commentary and over the mic held by Cryme Tyme. There are gags about yeast infections, there are gags about vibrators.
And it works because male wrestling fans were excited to throw money at the chance to slut shame her.
It was a different time.
Sure. It is, in fact, not 2007 right now. Thanks.
But we have NXT now.
We do. Because a man, Paul Levesque, Triple H, fought to give women a chance.
I am tired of those arguments. I am tired of them because even the WWE knows that its most vocal fanbase is only really willing to accept the Four Horsewomen and whoever is our current Lita stand in (and by that I mean AJ Lee, I mean Paige, I mean who is currently in dark eyeshadow and alternative clothing, because male wrestling fans think this carefully curated aesthetic means that woman is above caring what she looks like and is just accidentally beautiful and naturally quirky). With the exception of recent developments at Smackdown, the WWE has been giving us Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair, over and over and over again, because they know that won’t cause a ruckus.
If you think the WWE is above all of that, look at comments on social media for Nikki Bella. Nikki Bella has been with this company for near a decade, with her twin sister Brie has created a playing field for women in the way of building an empire from professional wrestling, and has shown up in whatever capacity the company needed her. Like Lita before her, she started as a valet, as arm candy. But it’s not viewed as her working her way up, as her paying her dues. She cheated somehow by being naturally a gorgeous woman. She cheated somehow by dating John Cena.
And that’s another fun thing about the modern era of WWE. Daniel Bryan is worshipped, but will be used as a weapon against the Bellas, because one of them married him. AJ Lee married CM Punk, but that’s different, somehow, and it was considered a “pipebomb” when she told the Bellas that talent wasn’t sexually transmitted (shame, really, because CM Punk is VERY talented, and wow, what a division we’d have).
Sexism isn’t over when hair extensions and a cosmetic surgery are supposed to somehow make all your hard work unworthy. Somehow who you’re dating and your preference of clothing is able to nullify the fact that you’re a walking miracle, returning from a career ending injury and neck surgery in less than a year.
And let me say something about NXT:
It is significantly easier to break through a glass ceiling when Triple H gives you a sledgehammer to do it with. Those women did not fall from the womb perfect Superstars. They were given opportunities. Their matches are handed down from someone else, just as they are on the main roster. Their bits are written by someone else, just as they are on the main roster. There is no doubt that NXT has changed wrestling for the better, no doubt that women there are revolutionizing women’s wrestling.
But they are allowed to. Very often women on the main roster simply are not. And it is not feminist or ally behavior to blame them for that or to hold them to a standard they’re not allowed to strive toward.
It is a miracle that Vince McMahon is alive and two women were allowed to face each other inside steel at Hell in a Cell (in 2014 he told the Bellas no, but thank God we got that Jerry Springer gag). I have already seen countless men try to state that they didn’t really make history or that the match fell short, etc, etc. Many have criticized that the false start was gimmicky. Was that your problem with it? Because my problem with it was that I was worked up into tears because I, with my 26 years as a female fan, couldn’t trust that this wasn’t a swerve, couldn’t trust that those women would be carried off on stretchers, and that the seedy executive producers who have treated women like sex toys for 30 years weren’t going to just pat themselves on the back for technically giving us what we asked for.
I have seen the table not breaking as a reason to not count this as a historic match, as if Sasha repeatedly sacrificing her body against a solid object lessens the historical impact, as if treating minorities as people is contingent upon whether or not a rigged piece of furniture cracks or not. I have seen Charlotte winning, the ending being sad, as a reason why history wasn’t made. How many smarks would ever not count Montreal? How many smarks would ever not count HBK because that match was “sad”?
Those women made history. So many people in the back have been fighting the status quo to make it happen and the chosen chess pieces, Sasha and Charlotte, are so passionate and so aware of what it all means. That is a blessing. We have so far to go in the WWE, in the wrestling world as a whole, but we must acknowledge this milestone. And more important, Sasha and Charlotte, Stephanie McMahon, every woman in the back, as a wrestler, a interviewer, a writer, every single fan, myself…
We DESERVE that milestone.
Lita was tearing up during the match and afterward at Raw Talk. Reread the description of her last match again. Scroll up. Go to YouTube. Use the network.
Lita DESERVES that milestone.
If I have daughters they will be born into a love of this artform, just as I was. And if they want to wrestle? THEY WILL. It’s that simple. It’s now impossible for wrestling schools to keep offering to train you as a valet or “like a girl” and stay in business. It will be harder for people to tell them they’re worried about their safety or that their face is too pretty for fighting. It will be harder for people to tell them that modeling would be easier and would pay more.
And I never thought we’d see that in my lifetime. I have been fighting for it, with my words, with my passion, in every face to face conversation I have with a man who doesn’t get it, but I really feared it would never happen.
Now it has to.
And hey, dudes, if you didn’t like the match, or didn’t like the false start, or didn’t like the ending, or didn’t think it was bloody enough…
That’s okay. Sometimes you don’t like a match.
And guess what?
This isn’t about you.
It’s been about you since February 21, 1980.
We told you the revolution was coming. You just didn’t listen.
image via WWE