by C. LeMar McLean (@MarzMediaUS)
Two weeks ago on WWE Raw, wrestling legend Ric Flair endorsed John Cena, the already longstanding face of the company. Immediately afterward, the internet wrestling community made fun of Flair’s pronunciation of Cena’s first name (“Joan”), turning yet another page in the cringe-inducing twilight of Flair’s career.
But the gaff unintentionally raises a question concerning WWE Divas: is there a dyed-in-the-wool heroine among them? While John Cena represents heroic contemporary principles to which children can aspire (“Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.”), a similarly principled female counterpart in the company is virtually impossible to identify.
WWE Divas have more mainstream exposure now than they ever have, with Total Divas on E! reaching female audiences that had little experience with WWE prior to the program’s premiere last July. Unfortunately, it appears as if the drama depicted on the reality series undermines the potential for any Diva to emerge as a positive role model for young girls in the same way that Cena has been for young boys over the past decade. Total Divas, cut from the Kardashians cloth, has apparently precluded WWE Divas from establishing a respectable presence in the ring over the cacophony of bitchiness that has made them more famous outside of it.
Worse still, the ‘heroinemia’ afflicting WWE extends to in-ring performers that are not in the cast of Total Divas. Among the fan favorites in WWE, none of their identities exist to inspire anything other than erections. Divas barely represent narrative archetypes and they hardly stand for a virtue beyond prettiness. For example, if a non-wrestling fan asked, “So what’s [NXT rookie] Bayley about?” the answer would be, “Well, she’s happy, and she likes to hug.”
“What about Becky Lynch?”
“She’s Irish, therefore she dances. A lot.”
“This Alexa Bliss is a looker. What’s her deal?”
“Yes, she is very pretty. She also likes glitter.”
“Ooo! What about Paige? She looks all goth and she screams.”
“That about covers it.”
“Tamina seems pretty badass, though.”
“Yeah, but she never talks, so no one has any idea what her deal is. She hasn’t been on TV in months, either. But hey, her dad wrestled!”
And the Divas’ top spot is not immune to this lack of dimension, either. WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee’s gimmick can be most easily described as ‘deranged adolescent,’ easy for young girls to emulate but hard to earn respect with in the real world. Even the most proficient of Divas, Natalya for example, has not had the opportunity to assert the strong character of which her wrestling style suggests she is capable. Natalya’s most recent on-air storyline frames her as the apologetically more successful wife of Tyson Kidd, who resents her more like a petulant son than a life partner (that WWE frames the couple’s success as an either/or binary is a suggestion far more dangerous than any allusion to a shot-down Malaysian airplane).
Investigating additional examples of gendered limitations will yield the same underwhelming results. And although the same kind of indictment could be made of WWE Superstars, the airtime given to the men leaves more room for forgiveness when a character leaves something to be desired; there is always another guy one segment away. Conversely, the limited time that Divas have to showcase their abilities makes it even more critical that they are represented from a place of strength, whether as heroines or villainesses. As it stands, Divas are set up to remain secondary with no hope of breaking through the system’s engineered ceiling.
Wrestling fans may be generations removed from Hulk Hogan’s ‘demandments’ of “training, saying your prayers, taking your vitamins, and believing in yourself,” but broad characters like his are still key to expanding an audience with a family-friendly approach. Hogan remains one of the biggest WWE stars of all time, and Cena owes his success to attributes they share. How Divas have not been tapped to engage the kids, whose parents spend the most money on the product, seems fiscally irresponsible and socially indefensible.
In fairness to WWE, they have no experience with a breakout female star the ilk of Hogan or Cena. The Fabulous Moolah held the women’s championship for nearly 30 years as a ruthless competitor who prided herself on being…well…fabulous. Still, even Moolah made a point of making sure everyone knew she was the best lady wrestler in the world.
This generation of Divas does not seem to carry that distinction in such high esteem. And when an entire cast of women is not allowed to declare the importance of their goals, then little girls watching WWE must learn to nurture their dreams elsewhere. But the first Diva who steps into the ring with a microphone and says, “I kept moving forward in a business, where men told me I should quit, because I love wrestling and no one was going to make me stop, and I did it for all of you little girls out there with dreams of your own,” will be the Diva that Vince McMahon walks up to and says, “I smell money.”