Watching women’s wrestling can give you all kinds of mixed messages. Especially if you’ve grown up watching nothing but WWE, there’s been a pattern for decades where the women who have been pushed and promoted as the company’s poster girls were the eye candy. They were thin, with big boobs (often silicon-aided), perfectly tanned skin, and the really stratospheric stars were usually blonde.
I’m talking about Sable. I’m talking about Trish Stratus. I’m talking about Sunny, Stacey Keibler, Kelly Kelly. Honourable mentions should also go to the brunettes like Dawn Marie, Candice Michelle and the Bellas. Some of these women could wrestle, but let’s just say that wasn’t why they were hired.
Above all, the recurring theme that emerges is that the big stars have similar body types. Even Lita, who blazed a trail with her dyed hair and unique look, had her curves emphasised with tight tops and an obvious thong.
Look at the women who broke the mold in different ways: they were always presented as exceptional. Chyna was treated as a bizarre sideshow who could only wrestle men, then squashed other women; AJ Lee got over by being the antithesis of the rest of the division; Kharma was a monster who rode roughshod over the division; Jazz’s brief run saw her athletic, muscular build used as part of the “scary black woman” archetype. Gail Kim was allegedly only hired after Kevin Dunn convinced Vince McMahon that some men are attracted to Asian women.
You’ll notice that many of WWE’s women of colour are placed in this category, and the company’s treatment of race is an article in itself that will be written by somebody far more qualified.
Women’s bodies have historically been used to determine the roles they should play in kayfabe. Smaller women, like AJ and Gail Kim, were scrappy and “feisty”, a characteristic that has occasionally also been ascribed to Paige. When it comes to bigger women – well, the only example we really have is Kharma, whose brief run established her as a monster heel who wiped out opponents.
The so-called “Divas Revolution” – or the “Women’s Evolution”, as WWE revisionism would have it – has actually gone some way to diversifying the women’s division. Pale and dark-haired Paige is joined by Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss in the ranks of the smaller women, and Becky Lynch is better known for her deltoids and abs than T&A. Even Nikki Bella has put on muscle during her transformation into an actual wrestler. Yet the woman who was chosen to carry the new Women’s Championship out of WrestleMania was Charlotte – a seriously powerful athlete with muscles on her muscles, but who also happens to have the blonde hair, tall frame and curves that we know Vince McMahon has often favoured.
The only thing most WWE women have in common is that they don’t look like Nia Jax.
WWE’s treatment of women with body types that don’t match their standard template suggests a pretty obvious trajectory for Nia. She’s a giant, intimidating heel who will destroy every challenger in front of her, until finally, one smaller, underdog babyface will overcome the odds to pin or submit her. She stays strong so that when she puts someone over, they come out as a star.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this for a while. She’s still new on the main roster, and it’s an important means of establishing her as a fixture of the women’s division. Moreover, she’s clearly good at it. Nia Jax has mastered brutality and I genuinely think she could snap most people like twigs.
She needs to move on from squashes to proper feuds – a move which I had hoped might begin with Alicia Fox – and eventually she needs a title feud to prove that she’s reached the top echelons of the division. However, for now she will benefit from being an unstoppable force in a division of smaller women.
But then she needs to turn face.
It might not seem like the obvious call. As WWE viewers, we haven’t been conditioned to expect bigger women to be heroines. WWE as a promotion likes faces that fight from underneath, which doesn’t automatically gel with someone of such physical dominance.
I maintain that’s exactly why it would work. Every woman (and man) who has ever watched pro-wrestling knows what Vince McMahon sees when he thinks of a female wrestler. Women who don’t fit that template tend to be at the smaller end of the spectrum. This company has never had a relatable female character with Nia Jax’s body type.
I am convinced that there is an appetite among women to have someone like Nia to cheer for. It’s time for a confident, powerful woman, comfortable in her own body even if it doesn’t meet society’s expectations for what a woman “should” look like.
We know it’s a trope that can work: last year Viper became the first ICW Women’s Champion when she pinned two heels who looked like they weighed less than her combined. She’s a beloved face in the promotion, although she has since become a great heel in Japan. When Kharma left WWE, she had some spectacular matches under the Awesome Kong moniker which cemented her babyface status. But it hasn’t been done properly in WWE, and it would be a fresh, new and exciting prospect for the legions of fans who only watch Raw and Smackdown.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for women like Charlotte, or Sasha, or even Eva Marie. A great women’s division in the 21st century should require a wide range of body types, ethnicities and backgrounds. Not only does that increase the variety of stories you can tell in the ring, but it’s good business – it widens the company’s appeal to different market segments.
If the “Divas Revolution” is even partially about reaching out to female audiences, Nia Jax needs to be at the heart of it, and she needs to be a hero, not a villain.