A Cautious Optimism on WrestleMania 35

Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair - promotional image for WrestleMania 35 main event

A womens‘ match is the main event WrestleMania 35 and it is cool as hell. It’s the biggest news about WrestleMania as far as I can tell, and if we were writing a novel about womens’ wrestling, this would be the climax. We started with bikini matches, and now we’re here!

Even better, I’m seeing remarkably little backlash about it. Everyone seems to agree that these women have been working hard, that they’re good wrestlers, and that it has a lot of potential to be a great match.

Honestly, I think the real things to be said about this match have to wait for after WrestleMania. Right now it’s a lot of talk and hype, but how it’s handled in the heat of that “WrestleMania Moment” is what’s going to determine what it means to the trajectory of women’s wrestling. We’ll have to wait on that front, so in the meantime, I have a scattered handful of thoughts on the topic of Becky Lynch vs. Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair.

The Culmination of a Revolution

Women have been climbing up along in presence at WrestleMania, the superbowl of kicking each other in the head for entertainment. I decided to go back five years, and it’s clear in the numbers and the participants that we’ve been working up to this moment.

  • WrestleMania 34 (2018) had three women-only matches and one mixed tag match.
  • WrestleMania 33 (2017) had two women-only matches and one mixed tag match.
  • WrestleMania 32 (2016) had two women-only matches.
  • WrestleMania 31 (2015) and WrestleMania 30 (2014) each only had one women-only match.

It’s not any revelation for me to tell you that one womens’ match is code for “use the bathroom now, the real fun starts soon,” though that doesn’t mean that the women wrestling in those matches weren’t a draw and doing their damn best with the work they had. AJ Lee was popular in the two years that she had matches at WrestleMania (vs. 13 other women at 30, and in a tag match with Paige vs. The Bella Twins at 31).

But there was clearly a shift between 2015 and 2016, which isn’t obvious when you just lay it out in numbers. AJ Lee is frequently credited for being a huge spark in the fire that finally caught and started what WWE called the “Womens’ Revolution.” WWE cites this revolution as starting in July 2015, with Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair. (I’m going to come back to this at a later date.)

In 2016 we saw WWE put their money where their mouth was, when it comes to calling what was happening a “Revolution,” and retire both the Divas’ belt and the word “Diva” when referring to a woman wrestler. That year at WrestleMania, the “first” Womens’ Champion was minted.1

WWE's women wrestlers on the RAW following Charlotte Flair's inaugural victory of the Women's Championship
via Miguel Discart on Flickr

A Few Concerns

I have no beef with WWE right now. The writers have legitimately not made this match about anything other than the three women wrestling without any mean-girls nonsense that womens’ narratives sometimes lean on. But outside of wrestling, there’s definitely a bit of awkwardness in how to relate to these women. The three were on SportCenterAM (at 7:45AM Eastern, which I can’t think is a high-profile time) and two things happen:

  1. The very first thing they talk about, and ask Ronda Rousey about, is a man’s retirement from UFC.
  2. Charlotte Flair is subtitled as “Daughter of WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair,” whereas Rousey and Lynch are subtitled with their accomplishments.

It’s not like Charlotte was the inaugural women’s champion or anything else worth noting, so I understand why they couldn’t think of anything more topical to put there. (I will say that in their article on the topic, WWE also reminds us that she’s Ric Flair’s daughter — but at least they list her own accomplishments first.)

When this hit Twitter (I saw it via @kojiclutch), I noted that while this may not bother Charlotte2, the optics of it bother me. While talking to three women making huge waves in their sport, SportCenter shoehorned some men in there anyway. It’s a three-minute clip! They couldn’t even make it that long.

I suspect that there’s some lingering, “Okay, but it’s wrestling, not a real sport” going on there as well. While my interest in womens‘ wrestling is spurred largely through a fascination with watching women kick, punch, and claw their way through a testosterone-defined and male-dominated industry — to a lot of people it’s still logged under “guilty pleasure” in the way that other sports don’t seem to be.3

I think in the way they approach Rousey4 reflects that too. She’s noted for being the first woman inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, and that’s an accomplishment! But I’m willing to bet it’s also something ESPN covered extensively when it happened last summer, and it’s not relevant to what she’s doing now as a wrestler. They also immediately ask her about another UFC fighter. To the wider world, Rousey is a famous UFC fighter — and that name recognition is certainly part of why she’s getting such a promotional push from the WWE.

All the same, might be nice when she’s out talking about wrestling that she be looked at as a wrestler.

I have a few other lingering concerns, relatively minor and all speculative worry — the most useless kind.

  • I’m a little worried some surprise act will show up after the women’s match, snatching their main event thunder.
  • I’m very worried Ric Flair5 will be there in the wings for the camera/commentary to salivate over when it should be focused on the women wrestling.
  • I’m actually minorly concerned that they’ll be too focused on the “history” of the moment to let the match just stand on it’s own.

There’s a thing that happens when women do things for the first time in a male-dominated industry where it’s held up as THIS IS HISTORICAL but also treated with a disproportionate weight — that this first time is the balance of their whole thing. Drawing the comparison, Captain Marvel (and Black Panther before it) were the “If the movie about this minority is bad, it proves they can’t make money and no one cares,” of their industry. And I’ve seen it said that this match is their “prove it” moment to Vince McMahon6 that people care about womens‘ wrestling.

Men are allowed to have mediocre matches at WrestleMania, and it doesn’t seem to ruin their momentum. I didn’t hear anyone say in 2015 that they just couldn’t take mens‘ wrestling seriously anymore, or that the main event proved that men just can’t handle the pressure of main eventing the show. If this match doesn’t live up to its potential, it shouldn’t be said about womens‘ wrestling either.

I’m also hoping that it’s not a fluke, where people say, “Look, women did it,” and then act like that’s enough. There needs to continue to be more womens‘ main events, and more women on the WWE roster. I want it to get so normal that it’s not worth nothing when womens‘ storylines get the focus.

I could see this moment as being very easy to dismiss for a certain subset of sexist, saying that the popularity and hype aren’t about women and their wrestling work in general, but about the star power of these three women. It would be a disservice to womens‘ wrestling to do so, and if we don’t continue to see an upward trajectory in womens‘ stories and prominence in wrestling, then this is all just a PR stunt.

I’ll hold on to my cautious optimism all the same.

  1. There was already a Womens‘ Championship, from the 1950’s and up until they unified it with the Diva’s Championship and then just sort of forgot about/ignored it in 2010. But wrestling is a narrative that frequently revises and reinvents its history, so I’m not gonna raise too much shit about that. “First Women’s Champion” is a weightier “moment” than “first in 5 years.”
  2. I have an entire post on Charlotte’s identity as filtered through her father. I just didn’t have time for it this week.
  3. Because y’know, American football is so dignified, serious, and worthwhile of the time spent on it.
  4. Also a person I have a post’s worth of thoughts on, as she relates to the current WWE.
  5. I swear I’m not trying to run a Ric Flair hate-blog here, it’s just that Charlotte is such a big deal right now, and he seems to pop up all over womens‘ wrestling as a result. He sure was there when Charlotte Flair won the women’s championship, and he has a knack of soaking up the glow of her moments.
  6. If at this juncture Vince McMahon needs it proved to him that viewers care about womens‘ wrestling, I’m not optimistic that any match could convince him. And arguably, the fact that it is the main event means the point is already proven.