I know I should be excited about Evolution. It will be the first all-female pay-per-view event in WWE history, on the back of a couple of years of women consistently stealing the show whenever they’ve been given a chance to show what they can do. It represents a huge platform that could draw new attention to the company and help some of the top women to consolidate their mainstream appeal, while also giving overlooked wrestlers time to shine (your day will come, Alicia Fox).
With the most talented women’s roster the company has ever had, there is no reason to think that this won’t be a great show. WWE easily has the performers to fill a complete pay-per-view without a single bad match. Easy as it may be to be cynical about the state of WWE’s booking and creative decisions – we’ve been burned before, after all – the company has no shortage of women who are killer promos and quality workers. Especially if some titles change hands at SummerSlam and a pay-per-view build scares the writers into making some storylines, this could be one of the most interesting events the Fed has run in years.
So why does it all ring so hollow?
Imagine that we give WWE a pass for dropping women from the Greatest Royal Rumble to keep that sweet Saudi money coming in – and I’m not sure we should, considering that Evolution feels like a direct response to that criticism. But imagine that we accept it as the cost of doing business and look elsewhere to judge how WWE treats its women’s divisions.
Genuine progress has been made, but it’s a mixed picture. Women are referred to as serious athletes on Raw and Smackdown, and their matches are usually taken seriously as sporting contests in the context of each show. We would have more time to appreciate this if they didn’t receive a depressingly small proportion of screen time on three-hour Raw episodes.
Female performers are being hired and developed on an unprecedented scale, and the Mae Young Classic proved audiences will seek out high-quality women’s wrestling. Women have been in the main events of pay-per-views and featured more prominently than ever in the run-up to major shows. But for all the additional responsibility on their shoulders, most women still earn substantially less than their male peers in the company.
A gender pay gap is even more frustrating given the money WWE sees in women’s wrestling now. The reputational damage caused when #GiveDivasAChance became a worldwide trend in 2015 was a risk to the bottom line, which almost certainly drove the Fed’s initial response. In turn, this developed into a longer-term strategy to diversify WWE’s audience by appealing to more women, one of the driving forces behind the ‘Divas Revolution’. When the Fed realised everyone hated the word ‘Divas’, it became a ‘Women’s Revolution’, and, eventually, a ‘Women’s Evolution’.
That word really sticks in my throat. The word ‘evolution’ implies that the process by which we got here was organic – a natural development, as each generation built on the improvements made by the last. In turn, that suggests that previous generations of female wrestlers couldn’t have delivered a show like this, and that an all-female pay-per-view was somehow inevitable.
Both ideas are bullshit.
Wendi Richter defended her women’s championship in the main events of house shows throughout the mid-1980s. Trish Stratus had celebrated feuds with both Lita and Mickie James that fans still remember fondly, as anyone who heard the pop when Trish and Mickie squared off in this year’s Rumble can attest. Chyna, Ivory, Alundra Blayze, Jacqueline, Victoria, Molly Holly and Jazz all did fantastic things with the small amount of time they had. If they had been given the ball, they would have run with it. An all-female pay-per-view with that talent could have been incredible.
Yet none of this happened, because WWE wasn’t interested. The 1990s and especially the Attitude Era saw women’s roles in the company reduced and rolled back, as female characters became props to be desired, rejected, or attacked. Even by the time of #GiveDivasAChance, NXT was the only glimmer of hope for WWE’s women. Disastrous call-ups like Emma suggested the NXT model was not about to be replicated on the main roster. There was no indication that WWE would be taking women seriously anytime soon.
The current growth in the Fed’s women’s divisions is not evolution. It was certainly never inevitable. It is a revolution that came on the back of years of work from performers and passionate lobbying from fans. While presenting itself as a progressive, benevolent corporation, WWE is doing a disservice to everyone who fought for the opportunities today’s wrestlers enjoy.
WWE wants praise for providing opportunities for women, without acknowledging its role in holding them back for decades. It wants to be seen to give women bigger roles in the company, but it doesn’t want to deal with its gender pay gap. When Vince McMahon sits down for those conversations, maybe I’ll finally be able to sit back and enjoy an all-female show.