World Wrestling Entertainment is a company defined by contradiction, a globe-spanning symbolic representation of problematic popularity. They sell a product – professional wrestling – that is simultaneously genuine and artificial. Their content is inherently violent, but at the same time, it’s more theater than combat, more of a dance than a fight. And while there is certainly a right-wing political element to WWE’s leadership (the McMahon family is notoriously friendly with Donald Drumpf, to the extent that the future president was featured in a major storyline culminating at Wrestlemania 23, and would return the favor by putting Linda McMahon in charge of his Small Business Administration upon taking office) there is a younger element behind the scenes that has, for the past few years, been slowly but noticeably shifting the company’s direction.
Paul Levesque and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, while more than willing to step into the ring for the occasional match, seem to be allergic to politics outside of the façade of wrestling, focusing instead on putting forward an image of poker-faced corporate beneficence. They have taken what appears to be near-total control over WWE’s business dealings, and their rise to power has been characterized by several years of aggressive expansion. Their pet developmental promotion, NXT, is one of the most critically lauded products on the wrestling market, and now we have the British version, NXT UK. Between both of those feeder programs and other sub-promotions like 205 Live, WWE’s talent roster has grown exponentially, swallowing up independent wrestlers in huge gulps. Raw and Smackdown, the so-called “main roster” promotions, are almost entirely populated by NXT graduates or veterans of the independent scene (these days, most WWE wrestlers are both). Vince McMahon, Stephanie’s father and reigning godfather of American pro wrestling, remains in charge of the company’s creative direction at the main roster level, but there is no doubt that the Levesque branch of the McMahon family will eventually be running the entire show. Vince is 73 years old, after all, and the Levesques sign the paychecks and own the loyalty of wrestling’s present and future.
Consider the six-day period between October 28th and November 2nd of this past year. On the 28th, WWE presented Evolution, the first all-woman wrestling show in company history. Vince McMahon and his creative team didn’t do much when it came to building stories for Evolution. They were clearly disinterested in writing for women. But the Levesques have been the driving force behind WWE’s newfound commitment to women’s wrestling since NXT came into its current form in 2012, and the NXT crew produced the event itself. Evolution was a huge critical success, not to mention a major milestone for American women’s wrestling, a celebration of the history of women’s wrestling, and, as it happened, a glimpse in the future of wrestling as a whole, the first harbinger of Becky Lynch’s upcoming ascension to superstardom. It was magical, and the Levesques had given it to us.
On the 2nd, WWE presented Crown Jewel, a show in which women were not even allowed to compete, because it was taking place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it was taking place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a month after the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi by agents of the Saudi government. That month had been filled with outrage and defiance against the Saudis, and everyone from John Oliver to Lindsey Graham called on WWE to reconsider their travel plans. But the money was too good, and Crown Jewel went forward as planned – a dreadful show that featured the first televised appearance of Hulk Hogan since he abruptly vanished in a cloud of righteous derision after being caught on tape making racist comments in 2015, and Paul Levesque himself, along with three other semi-retired wrestlers, stumbling through the main event. It was almost universally despised, primarily due to the impression that WWE was putting on personalized nostalgia plays for a corrupt and murderous regime, and given their role in WWE’s international business dealings, the Levesques had almost certainly given us Crown Jewel, as well.
This is WWE. Slowly transitioning from something actively conservative to something with no ideological standing at all, contradicting itself all the way. The only difference between the old era and the new one is that the new era understands that the times have changed, and how to change with them. The new WWE is Gillette, embracing the #MeToo movement to score points with consumers. The new WWE is Nike, offering Colin Kaepernick a platform because they know it will be good for their bottom line. The new WWE is Disney, taking over an entire industry like a virus while knowing that, in the minds of many, their conquest is justified by superb product quality and an emphasis on diversity and progressive values, even though everybody knows they’re really just pandering to a growing demographic. This is the context in which any discussion of gender in WWE must take place.
Now, with that in mind…was the 2019 Royal Rumble a great show for women’s representation in wrestling or what?