By Jerry Chandler
I hated writing that headline, but I’m certainly starting to feel that it’s true. The WWE has been making a lot of noise about their women’s division of late, and, to a large degree, it’s deserved. On a purely technical level, the division has some of the best workers in it that it’s seen in a long time. On a purely entertainment level, you’ve got a larger number of workers who show a stronger and better foundation for being able to engage an audience than they’ve had on their roster in a long while. But, in the end, none of that may matter in the here and now because of who currently makes the ultimate creative decisions for WWE programming.
Leading up to the most recent WWE PPV, last Sunday’s Money in the Bank, the WWE ran a lot of promotional material hyping evolution and revolution in the WWE women’s division. It was feel-good material designed in part to help promote the first ever, “historic” women’s Money in the Bank ladder match. If you were watching the PPV last Sunday night, you sort of wondered why they bothered. I’ll get back to that.
I hate to be the wet blanket here, but I think a lot of us bought into the hype of the last couple of years- especially the hype generated by the use of the ladies in NXT both there and initially on the main roster –over the WWE’s rebuilding of the women’s division. It absolutely is better than it has been in a long time, but, in all reality, is that really saying a lot?
Right now, a lot of the hype about the evolution period that led to the revolution is being focused on the women of the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars. That’s understandable. The Attitude Era gave us a number of hugely popular women wrestlers as well as a few hall of famers. This is the period of time that gave us names like Ivory, Lita, Victoria, Trish, Jacqueline, Chyna, and Medusa as champions. This was the era that saw the women of wrestling marketed in the mainstream almost as heavily as the men were. Of course, this was also the era that proved that, no matter how popular the ladies were, in the worldview of Vince McMahon they were never even close to or equal to the male champions or, at times, even champions that were to be taken seriously.
See, this was also the era where Vince showed that treating the women’s championship as a serious title was sometimes an afterthought in his entertainment kingdom. During a time when you had to be able to do just about everything- work in the ring, talk on the mic, control an audience in any way needed, act as a public face for the company –to be chosen as the man to wear the WWF championship, all you sometimes had to do to be the women’s champion in the WWF was be popular for looking good in a bikini (or less) in the ring. Sable could barely wrestle and was horrible on the mic, but she was popular with the male audience members for looking hot. She was made the champion and put over solid wrestlers like Tori and extremely solid all around performers like Luna. But if you looked good enough, like a Sable, a Kat, or a Debra did, you too could be the champion just for looking hot. Well, or you could be a gag women’s champion like Harvey Wippleman in drag as Hervina.
Then there were the matches. The men fought for titles in some seriously demanding matches. The women’s title changed hands in matches like evening gown matches, lumberjill snowbunny matches, and evening gown pool matches. Former champions who would again hold the title down the road were often found in all of the above plus mud matches, pudding matches, lingerie matches, etc. You can argue the value of any of these match types in the women’s division at the time as entertainment or about how needed some may have felt such things were in the “life or death” war between wrestling companies at the time, but you can’t argue that the women’s division was treated with far less respect than the men’s division by the WWF powers that be. The closest thing you’ll find to an evening gown match on the men’s side of the show is the tuxedo match, and that was absolutely seen as a joke match. It was for feuds between managers, referees, or ring announcers and played for laughs. It certainly wasn’t the match you put Stone Cold and The Rock in as the title match of the evening.
Slowly the landscape changed, some of the ladies who were still managing to earn the respect of the fans left, and the respect for the division in the WWE slid a little further. By the time the Women’s Championship was unified with the Diva’s Championship, the Divas Division was filled with largely cookie cutter wrestlers there for seemingly more T&A value than anything else. Matches on TV might last a whopping three minutes, and some of the most talented women in the division were being given gimmicks such as being embarrassed by having constant, uncontrolled flatulence. In the meantime, women were proving that they could be draws and the best matches on the card as a part of the TNA Knockouts, but the WWE’s only seeming interest in that was hiring away Knockouts to never be used properly as Divas.
How bad was the state of women’s wrestling on the WWE main roster? Lots of wrestlers, both male and female, talk about wanting their “WrestleMania moment” as a career highlight. Talking on (if my memory serves) Jericho’s podcast a few years ago, Natalya talked about finally having what was her (at that time) “WrestleMania moment” in the company. It wasn’t on a major PPV. It wasn’t on Smackdown. It wasn’t on Raw. Hell, it wasn’t even on one of the various barely watched Sunday night shows the WWE has had on the air in the past. No, it was on the still little seen NXT in the early days of the network against Charlotte. The match that she at that time viewed as the best match she was allowed to have, the highlight match of her time in the WWE to that point, was off the main roster and in the developmental territory where the main roster powers that be were not calling the shots. That’s actually a somewhat sad statement about the treatment of the women on the main roster at that time.
But, that match was a sign of things to come. It was a sign of what many saw as hope for the future of seeing a quality women’s division in the WWE again. NXT wasn’t an official brand in the WWE. It wasn’t overseen by the same WWE creative team that oversaw the Raw and Smackdown shows, and it wasn’t really a show that was ultimately run in the same way as the rest of the company was by Vince. A lot of the wrestling and the wrestlers that were going through NXT were getting to show what they could do as wrestlers and personalities; including the ladies.
All of the NXT talent were gaining notice and getting raves from a large chunk of fans. The women may even have been getting more than the men at times because the difference between the NXT women and the main roster Divas in presentation and in execution of the matches and feuds was night and day. There was no comparison between the two. The fact that there were women on the main roster with more experience and skill than the women in NXT made what was happening to the main roster women all the more frustrating.
Slowly, the women of NXT started getting called up to the main roster. The problem was that they weren’t really being allowed to make the type of impact there that they could actually make. The shift in how they were treated on the main roster wasn’t really happening yet. Then it happened.
Two women, Bayley and Sasha, headlined one of NXT’s special events, NXT: Respect, their version of a PPV on the WWE Network, in what was being hyped as a historic first. Women had never been the main event match in a WWE PPV or special event broadcast. The event was promoted heavily, the buildup was as perfect as you could ask for, and the match was given all the time it needed to blow the audience away. Then they were set up with the rematch, and Iron Man Match, at the next NXT Takeover.
Both matches were played up to be historic affairs. They were built up ahead of time as something special, something groundbreaking. They also had two performers who could work their backsides off and they let them do it. The respect the matches and the performers were given as well as the level they themselves upped their games to perform in those matches made a lot of people stand up and take notice. It was also the final run of matches for Sasha in NXT before heading up to the main roster.
The women of NXT were invading the main roster in some fairly sizable numbers (comparatively) for the division they were entering. There was a lot of talk about the “revolution” taking place, and the fans were looking forward to what was to come. The WWE even decided to get rid of the Diva’s Championship (long derided as “the butterfly belt” by fans) and reintroduced a proper women’s title. It was debuted for WrestleMania 32 and won by Charlotte in a triple threat match against Sasha and Becky Lynch.
But then things sort of started to get a little off course. The division started to feel like it was spinning its wheels. Some of that was being attributed to the bad booking on the main roster vs the booking in NXT. Fans were getting vocal about how more than a few NXT stars were coming up to the main roster and being used poorly if not outright having their talent wasted. A lot of things seemed to be happening in the women’s division that looked like less than great treatment though. I’ll skip a bit of it and bring us up to the here and now. Well, the here and last weekend rather.
WWE had its Money in the Bank PPV last weekend. There was a lot of talk about this one leading up to the PPV. The PPV was going to be historic. Why? It was going to feature the first ever women’s Money in the Bank match. WWE history was going to be made that night, so it was promoted as something you didn’t want to miss. Watch it. Be a part of history.
The winner of the match, for those of you reading this who don’t know the rules, would be whoever could climb a ladder in the center of the ring and take the Money in the Bank briefcase off of the chain suspending it above the ring. The winner would then be able to cash in their briefcase at any time they wanted to in the next year for an instant, on the spot match against the champion.
The contenders for the match were announced as Carmella, Charlotte Flair, Natalya, Tamina, and Becky Lynch. Some solid talent, and more than capable of putting on a memorable match of this kind. Unfortunately, the match would end up being memorable for the wrong reasons.
In an interesting move, and one that should have told us something was up, the match was made the first match of the PPV. That’s a position on the card that’s sometimes derisively called the curtain jerker match. You don’t make the first match of the night the one you expect people to be so blown away by that the next few matches have a hard time following them and being properly appreciated. It’s the warmup spot, or the spot you put something when you know you’re going to swerve the finish in a way that doesn’t make anyone happy.
The match itself was mostly good. Then they got to the end of the match. One wrestler climbed the ladder, unhooked the briefcase, and held it up high. That man was Carmella’s sidekick and longstanding joke/comedy wrestler in the WWE, James Ellsworth.
The “historic” first women’s Money in the Bank match was a curtain jerker, and the match was won when James Ellsworth climbed the ladder, grabbed the case, and dropped it into Carmella’s arms. The first ever women’s Money in the Bank match was, essentially, won by a man. History wasn’t made by the WWE so much as the opportunity to make history squandered.
Word is that there will be an attempt to make this less bad than it seems on (at the time of this writing) tomorrow’s Smackdown. I hope they can pull it off. I hope they can figure out how to make chicken salad out of this particular chicken… well… you know the rest of it. But, unfortunately, no matter what they choose to do next they will never be able to get rid of the huge asterisk they just planted in the history books next to the listing for the first women’s Money in the Bank ladder match.
Well, unfortunately, I feel right now like they can keep on starting this revolution without me for a while. Because, frankly, there will be no real women’s revolution in the WWE until a lot of the powers that be who are there now are gone. Very likely, until an almost entirely across the board new generation is calling the shots, the main roster women’s division will continue to be treated as second rate on its best days, and a joke on its worst.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.