Twin Tragic

Bella_Twins
Brie and Nikki Bella, the Bella Twins. Photo credit: Wrestling JAT Wiki

Last weekend, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle involving Paige (former WWE NXT and Divas champion, retired, and current general manager of WWE Smackdown Live), Carmella (former WWE Smackdown Women’s champion), and Steven Luke (contributing writer for wrestling website NoDQ.com). It’s the kind of thing I enjoy commenting on, because (a) it involves women’s wrestling, of which I am a fan, (b) it involves the history of women’s wrestling in WWE, of which I am knowledgeable, and (c), it involves a specific question that isn’t necessarily easy to answer: As WWE builds toward the crowning achievement of its revamped attitude toward women’s wrestling in the form of the all-woman Evolution show, is the company wrongly ignoring the female wrestlers who actually created the change, and focusing instead on the ones who, in the past, were part of the problem?

Here’s how the whole thing went down. On Saturday, September 22nd, NoDQ posted an article written by Steven Luke called “How the Divas are damaging the Evolution.” In the piece, Luke stated his opinion that the Evolution show was in danger of being ruined by an emphasis on female stars of the past. Specifically, he called for a renewed focus on the wrestlers who have defined the women’s division for the last two years, name-dropping Asuka, each of the Four Horsewomen, the IIconics, the Riott Squad, and Absolution. He decried the recent return of Brie and Nikki Bella – the faces of the division in the days before the so-called “Divas Revolution” who also happen to be crossover stars with their reality television shows Total Divas and Total Bellas – criticizing their recent in-ring work and saying they weren’t as “crisp” as wrestlers like Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. Luke also went so far as the criticize the involvement of wrestling legends Mickie James, Lita, and Trish Status on the Evolution card.

“The Bellas should be nowhere near this show,” Luke wrote. “Lita’s hundredth match with Mickie James should stay at the bottom of the card and no other members of the current division should be wasted against legends like Alexa Bliss is against Trish Stratus.”

Later that day, both Paige and Carmella responded to Luke’s commentary piece on Twitter. “You do realize both these ladies were the OG ladies to help kickstart the #givedivasachange trend?” Paige wrote, referring to the social media backlash against WWE’s poor presentation of women’s wrestling, brought on by a 2015 match that lasted a mere 30 seconds. “I know because I was part of it. They deserve to be a part of everything and more, they are the one of the leaders of the movement. Sometimes matches all won’t be ‘crisp.’”

She also wrote that “it happens with everyone. Crappy article. Not just for them but for the ‘divas’ you described that shouldn’t be a part of it, is an unfair statement. Without the divas, there wouldn’t be superstars. Thanks to all the ladies that paved the way before us.”

Carmella, who held the Smackdown women’s title earlier this year, also weighed in.

“This is an embarrassing article. Every single woman from the past and current roster have made women’s wrestling what it is. EVERYONE is deserving. Enough of the negativity around the ‘diva’ moniker.”

There is so much going on here. Does Luke really think that the Bella twins can be equated in any reasonable way with Trish Stratus and Lita? Does Paige really think the Bellas are “leaders of the movement,” or ever were? Should Evolution, a celebration of women’s wrestling, really be limited to current members of the roster instead of legends of the past? Is it fair to negatively compare the wrestling ability of Nikki and Brie to that of Flair and Lynch? Is there too much negativity surrounding the word “diva?” What are the actual contributions of the Bella twins and their generation of WWE divas to women’s wrestling, and would women’s wrestling have progressed to where it is today without them?

 

Chapter One: Ending An Argument Before It Begins

 

First things first: The inclusion of the Bella twins on the Evolution show is an interesting debate with valid arguments on both sides, but you can shut up about Trish and Lita right the hell now. I just don’t see any way you can argue the fact that TRISH GODDAMN STRATUS and MOTHERFUCKING LITA don’t deserve a major appearance on the first ever all-woman WWE card. We’re talking about probably the two greatest pioneers of mainstream women’s wrestling in history, the women who put on a wrestling classic in the main event of Raw 14 years ago. Lita vs. Mickie James might not be the never-before-seen dream match some of us were hoping for, but the fact that either of those women is going to wrestle a show in 2018 is amazing, and the idea that either should be kept off the Evolution card is offensive to anyone who cares about wrestling history. As for Stratus, she’s one of the undisputed best of all time, she demonstrated at this year’s Royal Rumble that she can still go, and the idea that anyone on the current roster is being “wasted” in a match against her is beyond moronic. We were never going to get an Evolution that didn’t include Stratus and you’re an idiot if you wanted one. Period, end of story. Moving on.

 

Chapter Two: The Totalest Divas Of Them All

 

Okay, let’s talk about the Bella Twins. Let’s talk about the Divas era in WWE. Strap in, folks, this is going to be long and we are going deep into this issue, because the Bella Twins are an important part of wrestling history – just not in the way Paige says they are.

Paige was right about at least one thing in her initial tweet: She was there that night in 2015 when #givedivasachance trended on Twitter, and we weren’t. She undoubtedly knows more about the entire situation than we do. Granted. But the claim that they were at the forefront of the growing chance in women’s wrestling is a dubious one considering that the Bella twins, then and now, fairly or not, represent everything the “Divas revolution” was trying to get away from. And it’s bizarre that Paige, in particular, doesn’t want to acknowledge that.

The hashtag in question originated on the night of February 23rd, 2015, after a tag team match between the Bella twins and the team of Paige and Emma lasted a paltry 30 seconds. It was the last straw for WWE fans who wanted to watch women’s wrestling, as the ladies had been treated like throwaway novelty items basically since Stratus’ retirement in 2006. Over the course of the ensuing decade, WWE’s women’s division was increasingly populated by models rather than wrestlers, and even those women were steadily getting less time on television. Their in-ring limitations led to short matches, they tended to get thrown into large multi-woman affairs so all that femininity could be concentrated into a single brief segment and then ignored for the rest of the evening, and their storylines, when they existed, were frequently being tied into a popular new reality show called Total Divas. The name of that show was derived from the fact that while male wrestlers on WWE television were officially referred to as “superstars,” the women of WWE had been officially branded as “divas.” The WWE Divas Championship, which looked like either a pink butterfly or a vagina, depending on who you asked, was introduced in 2008, and the WWE Women’s Championship, which looked like a wrestling championship and had a lineage dating back to 1956, was retired in 2010. The women fighting for the Divas title weren’t all bad wrestlers – Natalya and Beth Phoenix were notably active during this period – but they weren’t given the time or the creative space to have good matches. WWE didn’t want or need them to have good matches. It didn’t matter how good or bad they were at wrestling. What mattered was that they were visually appealing, did what they were told, and played well on reality television.

Just to properly illustrate where WWE was in terms of women’s wrestling when the Bella Twins arrived on the scene, here are the matches involving women from all six Wrestlemania events that took place from 2008 (the year the Bellas debuted on WWE television) to 2013 (the year Total Divas premiered on the E! Network):

  • Wrestlemania 24 (2008): Beth Phoenix and Melina Perez defeated Ashley Massaro and Maria Kanellis in a “Playboy Bunnymania Lumberjill match.”
  • Wrestlemania 25 (2009): “Santina Marella,” the male wrestler Santino Marella in drag, won the “Miss Wrestlemania” Battle Royal that also involved 24 female wrestlers.
  • Wrestlemania 26 (2010): Alicia Fox, Layla El, Maryse Ouelett, Michelle McCool, and Vickie Guerrero defeated Beth Phoenix, Eve Torres, Gail Kim, Kelly Kelly, and Mickie James.
  • Wrestlemania 27 (2011): John Morrison, Trish Stratus, and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi defeated Dolph Ziggler, Layla El, and Michelle McCool in a mixed gender tag team match.
  • Wrestlemania 28 (2012): Kelly Kelly and Maria Menounos defeated Beth Phoenix and Eve Torres.
  • Wrestlemania 29 (2013): No women wrestled at any point on this show.

A few things to note about that breakdown. First, none of the matches on the list are singles matches and none involved a championship, despite the fact that there was at least one women’s title continuously active throughout the period. Second, two of those matches involved men, one of them was won by a man pretending to be a woman, two were showcases for female celebrities, and one was brought to you directly by Playboy. Third, almost every woman named above was gone from WWE by the end of 2013, at the latest. The only exception is Alicia Fox.

Fourth, and finally, you know whose names I didn’t have to type at all while writing this list? Nikki Bella or Brie Bella. They appeared in the “Miss Wrestlemania” Battle Royal in 2009, but aside from that, neither of the twins ever earned a Wrestlemania paycheck during this period. Nor were they out there winning championships. Brie won the Divas title in 2011 and held it for 70 days; during that time, she defended the belt twice, first defeating Kelly Kelly – the living embodiment of WWE’s commitment to looks over talent –and then losing the championship to Kelly in a rematch. Nikki’s first reign was even worse, lasting for all of six days in 2012. It cannot be emphasized enough that for the first half of their careers, the Bellas were nothing more than an inconsistent, unobtrusive presence in the barren wasteland that was the WWE women’s division during its absolute nadir.

So why are the Bellas now being seen and discussed as legends of women’s wrestling? From 2013 to 2014, a variety of factors coalesced to raise the twins’ stock. The most important thing that happened was the premiere of Total Divas on July 28th, 2013. It was clear almost immediately that the Bellas were the stars of that show, largely because their screen presence translated much better to reality television than it had to wrestling television, but also, undeniably, because of who they were dating. I hated writing that last part almost as much as you hate looking at it now that it’s written, but there is simply no question about it. Brie was in a relationship with the wildly popular Daniel Bryan, whose career was reaching new and glorious heights in the summer of 2013, and Nikki was involved with John Cena, who had been the face of professional wrestling, the industry’s single greatest megastar, since 2005.  It only made sense for a reality show about the lives of WWE’s divas to focus on the Bellas, because by focusing on the Bellas, Total Divas was also able to give more screen time to Bryan and Cena. And as the Bellas became the faces of Total Divas, it only made sense to showcase them more frequently and in a better light on WWE programming, as well.

The debut of Total Divas also coincided, as previously mentioned, with the near-total destruction of the existing women’s division. Whether they fell to injury, fled to another promotion, got themselves fired, or simply decided to do something else with their lives, nearly every woman active in WWE during that 2008-2013 period had disappeared by the time of the Total Divas premiere. The Bellas, along with Fox and Natalya, were the last women standing from the previous era. In fact, ironically, there weren’t enough Divas left in the company to populate the central cast of Total Divas, which was filled out by brand new WWE trainees JoJo and Eva Marie, as well as Cameron and Naomi, “the Funkadactyls,” recently debuted valets of “the Funkasaurus,” Brodus Clay. Fun fact: The women’s match at Wrestlemania 29 was originally scheduled to be an eight-person mixed tag involving the Bellas and the Funkadactyls before it was cut for time!

Another fun fact: While Cameron was a former contestant on both the WWE Diva Search competition and WWE’s first attempt at reality television, Tough Enough, Naomi was part of the original incarnation of NXT, which started as a scripted online game show and evolved into one of the most revolutionary endeavors in wrestling history. While WWE had just begun to throw its substantial marketing apparatus at Total Divas, using storylines from the show to try and support its revamped women’s division, NXT had been quietly building since 2010. Former participants like Kaitlyn, AJ Lee, and Aksana had already begun their main roster careers, and after NXT’s transition into full-blown developmental territory, a new crop of extremely talented female wrestlers had begun to emerge. Four days before the first episode of Total Divas hit the airwaves, Paige defeated Emma to become the first ever NXT women’s champion in a match whose critical acclaim sent a ripple through the wrestling world. As the WWE women’s division began to reform, one of its defining traits would be the schism that existed between women who appeared on Total Divas and women who rose through the ranks of NXT.

And that schism began immediately. Less than a month after the Total Divas premiere, villainous Divas champion AJ Lee took the stage after a six-woman tag team match featuring the Bellas, Natalya, Naomi, Cameron, and Eva Marie, and savagely eviscerated them on the microphone, calling them “cheap,” “interchangeable,” “expendable,” and “useless,” saying they had turned to reality television because they weren’t good enough to be either actresses or wrestlers, and implying that they had gotten where they were because of their looks, their family connections, or who they were sleeping with. “You are all worthless excuses for women,” Lee said, “and you will never be able to touch me. And that is reality.”

In terms of who was holding the gold, Lee was right – her first reign as Divas champion lasted a then-record 295 days. In 2014, Lee defeated 13 other women, including the majority of the Total Divas cast, in a single match at Wrestlemania 30. Her reign finally ended the following night on Raw, when Paige, who was still the NXT women’s champion, won the Divas championship in her main roster debut. Paige and Lee feuded with one another over the Divas title for the rest of 2014 and defeated the Bella Twins in a tag team match at Wrestlemania 31. To the casual viewer, it may have seemed as though the NXT side of the divide, the one that represented women as professional wrestlers as opposed to women as reality television stars, had already won the fight.

The truth was somewhat different. Nikki Bella won the Divas championship in November 2014, and while she had worked extremely hard to become a better wrestler and her matches were vastly improved, the women of WWE still weren’t getting the one thing they truly deserved: time on television. At least, not on the main roster. Down in NXT, the wrestlers who would come to be known as the Four Horsewomen – Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Bayley – were tearing the house down on a regular basis. Their biggest matches at the time went for about 12-13 minutes – not anywhere near the time they were due, but certainly longer than any Divas title match. This was the NXT generation that would go on to permanently change women’s wrestling in WWE. In contrast, the generation before them – Paige, Emma, and Summer Rae – were slowly but surely absorbed into the old way of doing things. And the old way of doing things didn’t value the wrestling talent of the NXT alumni as much as it valued the cross-market appeal of Total Divas. The match that started #givedivasachance on February 23, 2015, was, on the surface, representative of the schism – the Bellas vs. Paige and Emma. In actuality, the fact that the match only lasted 30 seconds represented a victory for the reality television system, which gave TV time to the women who participated in Total Divas, but none to the women who wanted to be wrestlers.

AJ Lee was one of the most outspoken critics of WWE’s idea of women’s wrestling at the time, and while we don’t know what happened behind closed doors, Lee was the one “leading the movement” in public. Unfortunately, her WWE career was coming to an end, due to a combination of health issues and the fact that her husband, former WWE champion CM Punk, had left the company under extraordinarily messy circumstances. The tag team match at Wrestlemania 31 was her penultimate match as a wrestler; her final match happened the next night on Raw. And because WWE makes so many of its decisions out of pure spite, Nikki Bella’s Divas championship reign lasted 301 days, just long enough to eclipse Lee’s record. The person who ended it, of course, was Charlotte Flair.

 

Chapter Three: Do You Even Revolution, Bro?

 

Flair arrived on Raw alongside fellow Horsewomen Banks and Lynch on July 13th, 2018. And of course, the specific storyline they were drawn into involved Paige and the Bellas. Paige was the tragic heroine, constantly being beaten up and humiliated by the villainous twins and their allies. Paige had asked every other woman in the division to help her in her fight, but none of them would, and those who did couldn’t get the job done. It was in this context that Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley – who, like her husband, Triple H, spends her television time floating between her evil authoritarian character and her carefully groomed corporate image as a high-level ally of the women’s wrestling movement – came to the ring and personally introduced the Raw audience to Flair, Banks, and Lynch, calling for a “revolution in the Divas division.” Once again, this was a continuation of the NXT/Total Divas conflict, one that was literally playing out on screen. The first NXT women’s champion, Paige, having spent months being tormented by the Divas champion, her twin sister, and Total Divas mainstay Alicia Fox, received backup from three NXT wrestlers who had spent the first half of 2015 putting on a series of undisputed classics.

This time, though, NXT would win the war for good. As soon as Nikki had beaten AJ Lee’s record, she dropped the title to Charlotte. She and Brie would spend the next couple of years quietly lowering their profiles in WWE, focusing their efforts instead on a Total Divas spinoff called Total Bellas, which focused on the twins, John Cena, and Daniel Bryan – the only thing anybody watched Total Divas for, anyway, in other words. As for Total Divas itself, the show is two episodes into its eighth season as of this writing. The first episode drew the lowest number of viewers for a season premiere in the show’s history, and the second episode was the least-watched episode of Total Divas, period. Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions (and one extremely notable exception) the entire main roster women’s division is made up of NXT graduates. And yes, tas he final nail in the coffin, it is once again the women’s division, not the Divas division, as both the “divas” moniker and the Divas championship were retired at Wrestlemania 32. In fact, there are now two separate WWE women’s championships, and rumors of a women’s tag team championship have recently reached a fever pitch.

Did the Bellas have a hand in passing the torch to the Horsewomen and all the others that followed them out of NXT? Almost certainly. They were directly involved in the storyline that changed the game for women’s wrestling, they must have agreed to serve as the losers in that storyline, and in doing so, they stepped aside for the up-and-comers, choosing instead to focus on reality television and their own business endeavors – which they are much better at than wrestling, anyway. So yes, in a way, they did kickstart the new era of women’s wrestling, simply by standing aside and letting the revolution sweep them away. I would not be at all surprised to learn that they had an active backstage hand in making it happen, either, seeing as they had severe injuries to nurse, other projects to work on, and in the case of Brie, babies to have. In that sense, the Bellas do deserve credit for being part of a period in wrestling history that saw women’s wrestling rise again to meet – and surpass – its former glory.

But that’s not how wrestling fans see the Bella Twins. That’s not what the Bella Twins mean to people, that’s not what they symbolically represent. Charlotte Flair was technically the last Divas champion, but she ditched that title for the new women’s championship six months after winning it. The last Divas champion was Nikki Bella. And that’s what the Bellas mean to the fans who follow women’s wrestling. The Bellas represent the Divas, the Divas championship, the Total Divas reality show, and women’s matches that only last 30 seconds. It’s all well and good for Carmella to call out the negativity surrounding the word “diva,” but it wasn’t even three years ago that WWE was triumphantly retiring the term on its own and demanding praise for that action. Those of us who actually cried tears of joy when the Divas title was retired haven’t forgotten what “diva” means for women’s wrestling. And to be honest, despite the clear victory of NXT over Total Divas, it’s not as though the “Divas revolution” has been a walk in the park for the last two years. Because it turns out that WWE is still run by the same people as before, and those people are very, very good at misusing talent, and very, very good at being idiots who continue to value appearance over ability. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is why Carmella – who, while talented, was a manager in NXT and who would have fit perfectly in the Divas era – has won championships on the main roster, but Asuka, one of the best wrestlers in the world regardless of gender, is somehow struggling for – what else? – adequate time on television. Saying “enough of the negativity around the diva moniker” right now is kind of like Obama-era Democrats saying we live in a post-racial America and don’t need the Voting Rights Act anymore. People fought hard for these small victories and the battle rages on; it’s not actually okay to pretend that there’s no threat of losing the ground we’ve gained.

And frankly, it needs to be said that no, the Bellas are not as good at wrestling as your average NXT alumnus. They’re just not. I don’t want to join the dogpile on Brie for accidentally concussing Liv Morgan on Raw this past Monday – or nearly killing herself on a dive the week before – but Paige’s excuse for the Bellas’ recent in-ring work (“some matches won’t all be crisp”) is just another way of saying that some people are better at putting on wrestling matches than other people, whether you measure that by match length, audience engagement, or just not injuring yourself and others. Additionally, it’s inaccurate to claim that the Bellas, as performers, did very much, if anything, to change the perception or the execution of women’s wrestling in WWE. Sure, there were fewer 30-second matches, but neither the Paige/Lee/Nikki-led division of 2014 nor the #givedivasachance movement in 2015 resulted in significantly greater television time for women. Neither of the Bella Twins have ever wrestled a singles match that lasted longer than 13 minutes and 16 seconds (Nikki’s longest singles match) and even considering tag team matches, six-person matches, and gimmick matches like the women’s Royal Rumble (in which both Bellas made the final three) neither them have ever wrestled continuously for longer than 16 minutes over the course of their 10-year careers. Before Flair, Banks, and Lynch arrived on Raw, it was the rare women’s match that lasted even 10 minutes. Now, a women’s match lasting less than 10 minutes is an aberration, and women often get multiple segments per show. Nikki and Brie didn’t do that. The women of NXT did.

“Without the divas, there wouldn’t be superstars,” Paige claims. I disagree. It is in spite of the Divas era that female wrestlers can be superstars in 2018, not because of it. There was great women’s wrestling being performed by immensely talented female athletes throughout the Divas period. It just wasn’t happening in WWE, because WWE didn’t want great women’s wrestling or immensely talented female athletes. WWE wanted divas. SHIMMER Women Athletes, the independent Chicago promotion that at one time or another has showcased almost every female talent on WWE’s current roster, has been contiuously active since 2005. But WWE didn’t want SHIMMER. WWE wanted Total Divas. Sasha Banks and Bayley were out there on the wrestling scene in 2011 and 2012, when the Bella Twins were winning their first Divas championships, but WWE didn’t want Sasha Banks and Bayley. WWE wanted the Bella Twins. The Divas era was a setback for women’s wrestling – and for women earning respect in the wrestling industry – that took years to overcome. It was not a foundation.

Personally, I think the Bellas do have a place on the Evolution card, if wrestling is something they want to do. The problem wrestling fans are having (or should be having) is not that Nikki Bella is wrestling at Evolution; the problem is that it looks like she’s going to main event Evolution against the current Raw women’s champion, RONDA ROUSEY. Who is already probably a better wrestler than the Bella Twins, but who, nonetheless, also represents that cross-market appeal, the company placing value on non-wrestling factors over wrestling ability. And while there are some hopeful signs that the future of women’s wrestling will be represented at Evolution (the finals of the second Mae Young Classic and an NXT women’s title match between Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler) it’s hard to ignore the fact that Sasha Banks doesn’t currently have an Evolution match, that Bayley doesn’t currently have an Evolution match, that Asuka doesn’t currently have an Evolution match, that Ember Moon doesn’t currently have an Evolution match. Charlotte Flair is wrestling Becky Lynch for a championship, but there’s no way they’ll main event over Rousey and Nikki Bella. Despite all the years of the divas, despite the rise of NXT, despite the schism, despite everything that people like AJ Lee and the Four Horsewomen went through to elevate the WWE women’s division from “Playboy Pillow Fights” to critically acclaimed five-star matches, despite all the work that had to be done for there to be an all-women WWE wrestling event in the first place, the main event of the show is still going to be a reality TV star against a UFC fighter. That hurts. And it’s okay to be angry about it.

Unless you’re talking shit about Trish Stratus and Lita. At that point you can fuck right off.

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