On December 18, Stephanie McMahon announced that for the first time ever women will get their very own Royal Rumble. Rightfully so, many are excited. On the heels of many firsts for women in WWE, it’s undoubtedly a historical milestone that necessarily will be celebrated. But the context makes me more wary than I am glad.
WWE is a sport, sure, but it’s more a modern-day gladiators, an ever expanding long form work of poetry the likes of Beowulf, a soap opera about a pantheon of gods who may or may not ever reveal their true form or true motivations. There is no doubt that what professional wrestlers do requires incredible athleticism, but the context of the show itself makes more sense if it’s about demigods than any varsity team or even street brawlers. The entertainment half of the equation means that what we’re dealing with, and what we love about it, is often more Mortal Kombat than UFC.
If I can believe that Daniel Bryan can defeat Randy Orton, Batista, and Triple H in ONE NIGHT in one of the most beautiful WrestleMania narratives we’ve ever seen, then why can’t I believe that a woman can fight a man, that a woman can enter the Rumble amongst peers of any gender and fight and scheme and form momentary alliances and backstab and hide, do whatever is necessary, to strive for victory?
There are certainly pros to the women having their own Rumble: more women will be highlighted. There is, in theory, the potential for each woman in the rumble to start on her own narrative journey, her own climb to Wrestlemania, we could see character development, relationships born, the beginnings of feuds or factions, just as we do in the traditional male-driven Rumble.
But considering the history of women in this company and considering the limited history of women in this specific match alongside the men and the current climate of women’s wrestling and WWE fandom today, giving the women their own Rumble instead of letting them demand a spot in the existing Rumble continues to place this as a sideshow. Women, no matter how many of them now get a pass on the inherent misogyny of reviewers and fandom, are still an optional appetizer, their budding equality easily avoided with a channel flip, a fast forward, or a foray into your favorite app.
In the Royal Rumble’s past, three women have entered: Chyna in 1999 and again in 2000, Beth Phoenix in 2010, and Kharma in 2012. All three women were booked as outside of and often above the women’s division, because size, stature, or attitude made them more manly, and so, better than a woman. The tool of flattery by which they were measured was one that insists that women are inherently weak. Each woman eliminated someone one man per Rumble. Only Chyna’s came close to furthering a story or setting up a narrative, which is one of my favorite things about the Royal Rumble. In her second Rumble entry, she eliminated Chris Jericho, who she had a consistent narrative with for some time. Beth Phoenix’s entry was cringe worthy. She eliminates The Great Khali, and while there is merit to a competitor using brains over brawn, the way she does so is to kiss him.
Do you get it? Because she’s a woman. And she’s got all those wiles just lying around.
To CM Punk’s credit, he treats her like a person. He doesn’t handle her with kid loves or make any reference to her gender at all. He puts her to sleep and tosses her aside, but even this leaves a bitter taste in your mouth if you consider that Serena, the sole female member of the Straight Edge Society, stood doe-eyed ringside.
For six years, no woman has entered the Rumble.
Since the first women’s Hell In A Cell in October of 2016 (I wrote about the disappointing critical and fan response to that) WWE is seemingly eager to drop milestones for the women, often without considering the full scope of booking possibilities or what merit those firsts could really hold for representation and for their own history. A prime example of this is Money in the Bank. Carmella won the first ever women’s Money in the Bank, but she did not climb the ladder and take the briefcase for herself. James Ellsworth, a gimmick ripe for endless exploration of harmful tropes in modern wrestling, climbed the ladder FOR her and threw it down to her.
Never in the history of the match has anyone won that way. No controversial ending or interference has ever amounted to that. At best, it was using the first ever women’s Money in the Bank to highlight a frankly kink-based dynamic as male fantasy fulfillment out of complete out of touch innocence. They attempted to redo the match the very next Smackdown, but it was too late. For many, myself included (I have not watched more than a few clips from Smackdown since), the aftertaste of female recognition met with the image of a joke and tool of male fantasy standing on top of that ladder was doomed to linger.
And this has been our disappointing dance with intergender wrestling in the age of the so-called revolution.
Ellsworth went on to have a match with Becky Lynch, a match where no one could win. Ellsworth’s entire thing was that he wasn’t good enough to fight the men… so what does a woman beating him really mean? At best, it means that they rank second, still under men, still less than. Ellsworth is even weaker than you dumb girls, ain’t exactly heart warming. And the match itself was a real, competitive match. What this says is, Becky had to put up a fight to beat Ellsworth, so how could the women’s roster ever stand a chance against real men?
With the recent teasing of Nia Jax as someone to contend with by men and women alike, a device we’ve seen before with Chyna, that often ends up making the remainder of the women’s division left behind, it’s for WWE to either commit to intergender wrestling—with intention, deliberation, and awareness of its past mistakes—or to start giving these milestones real weight. Title shots on par with something like the Universal title. Stories as deeply dug as the Shield. Trust in their performers to fill a gimmick that comes from themselves.
And in theory, here at the Go Home Raw (and 25th year celebration), we could have that. The growing rumors, however, point to something entirely different…
image credit – WWE
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