It feels like a bit of a cliché to describe anyone or anything in pro wrestling as ‘problematic’. It’s not like it’s untrue or unfair, but it’s unoriginal at this point. Still, it’s in the same category as calling JBL a ‘bully’ or Corey Graves ‘the best WWE commentator in years’ – it might not be news, but that doesn’t mean you should stop saying it.
So while I’m keenly aware that I’m often mocked for ‘only talking about women’, there are some issues I’ll keep talking about until they stop being issues. Until WWE is a better environment for female performers, you’ll find me here writing about sexism among the management, locker room and fans.
So, Stephanie McMahon. She holds a unique position as a heel authority figure on Raw, which plays on her real-life position as Chief Brand Officer of the publicly traded company. She’s also the daughter of the owner and the CEO, and the wife of the head of talent relations and Raw authority figure Triple H. Oh, and she’s the only woman in a position of authority on TV, so yes, I’m saying the word ‘problematic’.
Putting bosses on screen has generally worked for WWE. In the same way that Hulk Hogan and Trish Stratus became archetypes that the company spent years trying to replace, since Mr McMahon took a step back from TV the Fed has tried to fill that void. Without doubt, Stephanie is the closest the company has come to replacing her father: easily one of the best promos in the company, oozing charisma and boasting the kind of disdainful sneer that only a McMahon could possibly muster. She’s damn good in her role. Unfortunately, it isn’t working for her.
Vince got into scenarios where he would get his comeuppance, which led to feuds with a real blow-off which made them meaningful. In the world of professional wrestling, that happens by getting your ass kicked. Steph is a woman acting in storylines between male performers, and because WWE doesn’t do intergender wrestling, she never gets hers. She has carte blanche to verbally abuse anybody she likes, but is never subjected to the physical violence that pro wrestling supposedly demands she suffer by way of retribution. That tension leads to endless smarky complaints and demands that she be taken off the air.
Now, arguing that The Authority is overexposed to the point where the characters are stale is one thing. I don’t necessarily disagree. There’s also a legitimate concern that some of her tirades fail to get her opponents over because they just stand there and take them. But it’s quite clear that in some cases the argument doesn’t come from a place of constructive criticism. The reason we know this with absolute certainty is because those commentators describe Steph’s impact as “emasculating” or “castrating”.
Piss off with those emasculation complexes, folks. Take this out of the wrestling ring for a second and imagine you have a bad manager at work. Is it worse if they are of a different gender to you? I’m a straight cis female and I appreciate that I’m not the right person to answer this question, but if you feel less of a man because your bad boss is a woman, I feel like that’s a problem with you.
It may not always be conscious, but every time someone calls Steph an “emasculating” figure, they tell me that the definition of manhood is being able to hit whoever pisses you off. Now we’ve established that hitting people to settle a score is one of the primary tropes of pro wrestling, but it doesn’t actually need to be the heavily gendered act that it becomes in the WWE. If ever you needed proof that the Fed’s particular product trades in toxic masculinity – well, you’re welcome.
As the face of the next generation of company management – and frankly, one of the best performers in the Fed – it’s unlikely the Steph character is going anywhere. Her current absence is likely to be temporary. Vince is 70 years old, so it’s a fair assumption Stephanie McMahon could be an active performer for another three decades, and the company had better figure out how to solve the Steph problem.
She should be a face.
I think there are ways to handle the character while keeping her as a heel. They involve what would be seen as quite radical changes in the logic behind WWE storytelling – for example, writing her to be verbally humiliated in a promo battle and letting her sell that as hard as a table bump. (Good luck to whoever has to hold the mic against her.) The more obvious solution would be to have one of the female Superstars finally turn on her. She’s been kept so strong it’s hard to imagine many women standing up to her but dude, what a way to finally turn Nia Jax face.
Even so, the most satisfying and sustainable way of managing Stephanie’s character is to give her a long-term future with logical character development.
The seeds have already been planted.
How this didn’t win our 2016 Promo of the Year Stompie I still cannot fathom. In keeping with WWE’s tried and tested formula of having people rightly call out racist and sexist bullshit yet somehow be heels, Steph makes a lot of points which are not only completely valid, but in any other context would be generating wild cheers.
It’s a perfect example of the weird blend of shoot and kayfabe characterising WWE storytelling now. Shane’s promo the previous week, where he accused Steph and Triple H of “running this company into the ground”, channelled the criticism levelled at them by certain sections of the internet. The age-old rumours around Shane’s departure focused on backstage power struggles: Shane may not have been happy he wasn’t automatically handed the keys to the kingdom, which gave credence to the idea that he was coming back to “save” the Fed from his sister and brother-in-law. It went down a storm.
Here, Stephanie responds by pointing out that she has taken all the shit because she has actually been here running the company while her brother fucked off for years. Now he wants to blackmail his way into seizing power for himself and his sons at the expense of Steph and her daughters and she is livid.
That’s a babyface. She even admits that she loves her brother, and there’s a sense of genuine hurt when she explains that “whenever I let my guard down, he stabs me in the back”. Take out the bits where she berates the crowd and Steph is a feminist hero.
There’s plenty of groundwork on which to build a face turn. Triple H clearly didn’t tell her that he was planning to turn on Seth Rollins – what happened behind the scenes that persuaded her to side with him? Does she need her husband’s support so she has “muscle” to enforce her will on the men she employs?
What’s more, that turn was just the latest example of the male cruelty with which she grew up. Her dad is a famous piece of shit; she married a man known for his backstage politicking whose character seems to embody heelishness; her own brother has been blackmailing her father. She applies similar management techniques, but certain groups of people have a bigger problem with her than with them. She should be the one telling people to piss off with their emasculation complexes – and she could also be the one who starts trying to effect change in an organisation where heavily gendered misconduct is the norm.
There is so much potential in the Stephanie character. If my dad had made a woman bark like a dog on all fours on national TV, I probably wouldn’t work for him. Steph does, because her life is caught up in the family business. How she dealt with that tension would be sweet, sweet nectar to any writer not confined by WWE tropes. Unfortunately, it’s a psychodrama about a non-wrestler, which means it isn’t easy to tell on Monday Night Raw. It could be developed through her regular interventions and appearances in men’s and women’s storylines, where a match needs making or a complaint is raised. If the story is told well, those scenes could tell us everything we need to know about the shifting attitudes of a Stephanie in transition.
I know it won’t happen. It’s a dangerous shift from the Vince McMahon model, as far as the Fed is concerned. Raw also relies on faces being underdogs, which you can’t become if you’re the boss – unless you’re Shane and keep booking yourself against actual trained wrestlers. But honestly, I think the biggest roadblock is that WWE isn’t ready to portray a woman with that level of depth and honesty. Main roster creative teams can barely write for Sasha Banks and Bayley. At the very least, the Fed might need some female senior writers first.