Don't look now, but after a year of cookie cutter matches that treated women on WWE television like interchangeable Barbie action figures, where any character development for a woman not named AJ Lee occurred on the E! Network (and AJ's character was that she was the one who wasn't on Total Divas) and that saw women who shone on NXT get called up only to be told to smile and stand next to a male wrestler (or in Paige's case, smile with the Diva's title while showing no other character traits)...last night's episode of Monday Night Raw featured four different storylines for the Divas.
It's not Shimmer or joshi. All of the angles still have the potential to veer back to blatantly sexist garbage. One of them produced one of the least entertaining segments in recent history last night.
But credit where credit is due. Creative has given the female wrestlers characters with motivations and stories within which to interact. Production has alloted them time on Raw, SmackDown, and pay-per-view (PPV) to execute.
It's more than Zack Ryder gets these days (sorry, Z).
Let's take a look at each of them:
The Authority vs. The Bellas
While this started as a Daniel Bryan angle, it currently is center on Nikki Bella and Stephanie McMahon - and there's nothing wrong with being a subplot of one of the hottest programs of the decade. It's rumored to be heading toward a high profile match between Steph and Brie Bella at SummerSlam, which would have Brie's job on the line - a job she gave up rather than watch her husband (Bryan) surrender the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. That he later had to surrender it due to his injury lingering sucks, but is no one's fault.
The problem is that the powers-that-be seem to think that two months of watching The Authority put Nikki in situations where she gets her ass kicked will keep this hot. While in theory it's a good way to get sympathy for The Bellas (and provides a callback to The Beard's 2013-14), in practice it's already gotten boring. Or in the case of last night's Alicia Fox vs. Nikki, one-hand tied behind your back match...ugly.
An upside is that they've actually bothered to turn the twins face rather than just assuming they'd be cheered because they're the stars of a reality show. Sticking up for your husband or your sister isn't nuanced, but it is wrestling do-gooder 101.
If we can just get to SummerSlam where an improved worker like Brie gives a terrific character actor like McMahon the comeupannce she deserves, it might produce a defining moment for women in WWE. But as last night showed, getting there could be painful.
I wanna dance with somebody
This freaking angle.
On it's surface, this is nearly everything that's wrong with how pro wrestling utilizes female performers. Two women are both defined by their relationship to a male character and have no other issues with one another besides their competition over that man. A dance contest later, they throw disgusting looking liquids on each other, and then all that's missing is a bra and panties match or some HLA for a good old Attitude Era party!
Layla was once an entertaining part of female stable in LayCool that worked programs that didn't involve fighting over guys. Summer Rae is arguably the best actor that NXT has produced, where she owned the screen as an updated version of Layla's old partner, Michelle McCool. That they're now reading soap opera dialogue and screeching their way through cat fights is really disappointing.
BUT...this can still be saved, from both feminist and pro wrestling perspectives. As Geno has pointed out several times, if Summer and Layla just wise up and rise up against the increasingly creepy bastard who they're fighting over, everyone wins. The women at least end up in a place of empowerment, and Fandango can become a major heat magnet heel that Johnny Curtis' commitment to the character has prevented him from being - at least to smark audiences. And a program over a version of Fandango that we loathe could only benefit a certain Show Off whom he's feuding with...
The Funky Powers Explode!
It's worth asking if the Funky Dinosaur gimmick is cursed. Cameron and Naomi are the only ones still standing from a posse that has included Brodus Clay (released), Tensai/Sweet T/Jason Albert (missing from NXT commentary) and Xavier Woods (over 9000 and still jobbing in developmental).
Naomi wants to be taken seriously as a championship contender. Cameron doesn't understand why everyone loves her partner and doesn't give her the same consideration. Jealousy breeds disrespect and -BAM- wrestling feud. We could call it a classic tag team break-up, if there was anything resembling a serious women's tag division.
I don't watch Total Divas, but from what I read and hear, this seems like decent continuity of their characters from that show. The major concern is that Cameron is fairly atrocious as a wrestler, and Naomi has potential but isn't the ring general to carry someone else to a good match. But the former showed some promising acting last night with her lip gloss on the apron schtick, and the latter has enough moves that will pop a crowd to get them through a program of short matches.
This isn't going to change the world, but a world where WWE gives time to rote women's feuds the same as they do telegraphed men's ones wouldn't need as much changing.
Two-woman power trip
Nobody knows what's going on with AJ Lee, Paige, and the Divas championship right now.
As DDP would say, that's a good thing.
It would be completely premature to judge this. It's only a week old, and all we've been given so far are conflicting clues which could be used to guess where the story might go, but it would be just that - a guess. In a few weeks or months, we could be praising this as career-making program for both women or pulling our hair out in frustration.
For the time being, I'm just thrilled that they're letting Lee's considerable fan base cheer her for the first time in years, and giving Paige's character layers that hint at something going on beneath the surface. For that, they've earned my patience.
I honestly would not be surprised if at least three of these angles made their way onto the Battleground card. The company is viewing PPV a little differently in the Network Era, but that's still a remarkable statement when the Diva's championship wasn't even a lock to appear on Sunday nights for much of the last few years.
Twenty to twenty-five minutes of Raw on July 7th was dedicated to the above storylines. And this is with Alicia Fox adrift as a pawn of The Authority, Emma in purgatory until the negative press surrounding her shoplifting arrest blows over, Natalya working an angle designed to get her husband over as a heel on NXT and at least three or four really talented workers in Developmental who could contribute on the main shows now if there was a need or an opportunity.
Much work is still needed to get to anything like gender equality in WWE's on-screen product. Perhaps the most significant challenge is educating the audience to consider women wrestlers as more than cheesecake or a bathroom break. To that end, while the stories we're getting right now might not be deep - and even have the potential to reinforce existing stereotypes - the fact that they exist and are being featured is a positive step.
For now, it's on Vince McMahon and company to stick with it, the women to deliver with their performances, and those of us in the audience to pay attention .
What do you make of the Divas scene right now, Cagesiders? Is what we're getting a sign of progress, or just more of the same? Is there hope for women's wrestling in WWE?
All photos coutesy of www.wwe.com