The history of women in wrestling is not exactly flattering. There are a few bright spots. Mildred Burke, The Fabulous Moolah and the joshis of Japan all stand out as anomalies to even the better examples of portrayals of women in the mainstream of wrestling. Even Miss Elizabeth was nothing more than a damsel in distress rather than a strong-willed female lead character. It's 2012, and we're still waiting for a feminist revolution in the corporate world of wrestling. I'm not sure we have to wait much longer though.
As Selina Kyle ominously warned Bruce Wayne in this summer's landmark blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, a storm is coming. It was a storm that started when girls who watched wrestling the Attitude Era wanted someone to look up to who wasn't just used as sexy cattle. The Sara del Reys and Cheerleader Melissas of the world weren't looking to Sable or Sunny as their role models. Instead, they looked overseas and found women like Manami Toyota, Aja Kong, Mariko Yoshida and Megumi Kudo to idolize and emulate. These women were part of an established scene in Japan that at that time had been approaching two decades in age, one that drew massive crowds of girls who finally had been given decent representation in what was one of the national pastimes of the Japanese culture.
From that fomenting of desire came promotions like SHIMMER Women Athletes, IWA Mid-South's women division, Chick Fight, nCw: Femmes Fatale and Women's Superstars Uncensored. Even as IWA-MS and Chick Fight have seemed to go the way of the dinosaur, their spirit has kept alive the notion that women can be as good if not better than men, and it has given promotions like Anarchy Championship Wrestling, Chikara, Beyond Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and even Combat Zone Wrestling to break down gender barriers and promote a fuller, richer color palate of potential matchups.
Still, this isn't enough to sate the crowds who want to watch women wrestle. SHINE Wrestling and the unfortunately named Bombshell Ladies of Wrestling (I refuse to refer to its awful, awful acronym) are two new ventures aimed at sating the gender-based market inefficiency. While the latter is doing no one any favors through their name in initial images, SHINE is important for several reasons.
For one, as a sister promotion to SHIMMER, it provides a yearly presence for that brand that its designed taping schedule – two weekends a year for eight DVD releases – precludes it from having. Secondly, it provides a great proving ground and tryout avenue for heretofore unknown women who might be the next big thing (or at the very least a solid hand). Thirdly, and most importantly, its regular presence on iPPV goes a long way into keeping these wrestlers in the minds of everyone on a more regular basis.
The critics of the proliferation of women's wrestling will say that it's mostly men who fetishize and fantasize about seeing women beat the crap out of each other is why it's so popular. They'll also say that this proliferation is bad because it's shoving untrained women into the ring at an alarming rate. They're both fair criticisms on the surface, but they're wrongheaded in that I'm not sure that we should curtail a movement as important as this just because of a few perverts. It's true some people are only going to see women as sex-meat, but those people were going to do the same regardless of how they're portrayed. So, why should women who want to be wrestlers feel marginalized because of the actions of a few idiots who only want to see women on pedestals if they're attractive and have 36-24-36 as their measurement statistics?
Also, once upon a time, wrestling promoters didn't so much as have a network of schools to choose prospective performers from as they went out and scouted bouncers, ex-football players or anyone else who looked the part of a menacing bruiser. The only difference was that it was in pro wrestling's relative infancy and adolescence. The caliber of woman wrestler on the whole is still inferior to that of men, but not because of any differences in gender or physiology. The fact that the top-line of women in this country in del Rey, Melissa, Rachel Summerlyn, Portia Perez, Saraya Knight and the rest are all comparable to the top male talents says so itself. It's going to take work to get the numbers, but we're definitely on our way to that.
I'd love to say that wrestling is special in its regard to its backward thinking about gender, but even with all the social work being done, women on a whole are still very much behind in perception. I mean, all you have to do is listen to your local, backwater politician speak about things like rape and you get an idea. That being said, the push in entertainment media in general is trending in the right direction. The Selina Kyle character in TDKR was sexy, but the sex wasn't the only draw nor was it the main one. She was a very strong-willed, fully-formed character with her own agenda that didn't involve jumping Wayne's bones. The same could be said of Black Widow in The Avengers and even the cast of females in Game of Thrones, many of which forged their own paths in a society more backwards than what we have today.
The fact that this revolution, this storm, has not only overtaken the independent level but is now spreading to the corporate level is a great thing. Reports out of Stamford are saying that even though Triple H is said not to be a fan of women's wrestling, now that he's replaced John Laurinaitis, they've stopped going to modeling agencies and other sources where the "talent's" only assets are their looks and started scouting real live pro wrestlers for their Divas division. These reports are mollified by the spate of signings made to that roster. Kharma, Sara del Rey, Tenille Taylor, Britani "Paige" Knight and Raquel "Shaul Guerrero" Diaz are all either experienced wrestlers or women through whose veins the business flows.
Of course, for this to continue, we have to do our parts to support the rise of the female wrestler instead of the model who happens to be in the business to further her career. We should react to women like del Rey, Beth Phoenix and any other woman who actually seems good at her job instead of those like Kelly Kelly. More importantly, we need to support the companies on the independent level who are doing right by all wrestlers, regardless of gender, whether they're female-only companies like SHIMMER/SHINE, WSU or nCw: FF or coed ventures like ACW or Chikara.
Because unlike the storm in Batman, this is one we should be encouraged to help continue to grow and consume the wrestling industry.