I came to professional wrestling because of men. In the late 2000s, my family hung out with a couple whose trio of rough and tumble boys were obsessed with World Wrestling Entertainment. While our parents talked and drank at the kitchen table, my brother and I joined their boys for long nights of wrestling.
The boys started with a video game, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw. I was the only girl, so even though I was older than all of them at about eleven years old, they told me to watch. In watching, I was drawn to the storylines, the feats of athleticism, and the spectacle of entrance music and pyrotechnics, but kept an impassive look on my face. Rarely did they offer me a controller because wrestling and video games were not for girls.
Before each gaming session, the screen would tell us that the moves were done by trained professionals and that they should not be tried at home—this did not stop the boys. When we were banished into the playroom of bare white walls and creamy carpet, the boys would wave their hands in front of their faces and shout, “You can’t see me,” like John Cena. They’d call themselves Bret Hart, minus the stringy hair and wrap-around sunglasses, and put the youngest of the three brothers in a submission move designed to tear his back apart. They’d call themselves Jeff Hardy, minus the color-blocked face paint, and jump off the couch to land a poorly executed dive onto the carpet below.
They’d only let me play the referee and count the 1-2-3 for a pinfall or call for the end of these playroom matches if the littlest brother tapped his hand on the floor in pain.
March 5th, 2001
On an episode of Monday Night Raw, Trish Stratus, a wrestler who is still met with deafening pops of applause anytime she appears on WWE television today, walked to the ring in Washington, D.C. The commentators made objectifying remarks about her ass, and the camera panned up to and zoomed into her breasts. From the ring, she demanded that Vince McMahon, the chairman of the company, join her before the crowd.
McMahon swaggered to the ring as his entrance music blasted that any opposition to him had “no chance in hell.” Stratus begged for her boss’s forgiveness for some indiscretions that had happened on previous shows, and McMahon asked her to prove to him just how sorry she was.
He had two requests for her that night:
1. Bark like a dog on her hands and knees.
She followed through; she woofed and took her clothes off to reveal a black bra and thong. The men in the crowd cheered and were disappointed when McMahon stopped Stratus just before she unsnapped the clasp of her bra.
Soon, my younger brother started watching Monday Night Raw and its counterpart, Friday Night SmackDown, every week. He was only eight, and our father watched with him, ready to turn off the television if the show was too crude or violent in its language, stories, or matches.
At first, I’d stay away and only glance at the television when I’d walk up and down the stairs, but from the steps, I saw the pixelated characters from that PlayStation 2 game morph into real people with fresh storylines. I was hooked.
April 1st, 2001
At WrestleMania X-Seven, a group of three, two-men tag teams put on what is considered one of the greatest Tables, Ladders, and Chairs (or TLC) matches in history. The match was full of high-flying spots, broken tables, and assaults with metal ladders in a trial of athleticism and vitality at WWE’s biggest show of the year.
During the match, Lita, one of the team’s allies, ran to the ring to make a save. She delivered an offensive move, toppling a man double her size by putting her legs around his neck and swinging him to the mat. In her victory, she ripped off her pink tank top and stood gloriously in loose sweatpants and a bra. A commentator’s strident voice came across the broadcast:
Take it all off. Take it all off, Lita.
Every Monday and Friday night, my brother and I sat in front of the old television in our parents’ bedroom and watched the men—the “Superstars,” as they were called—in enduring feuds. Spit, sweat, blood.
We had our favorites. Mine was an opportunistic antihero, known simply as Edge, and my brother liked Shawn Michaels, who was considered one of the greatest of all time while an active wrestler. I don’t think my brother had a favorite female wrestler, but I did—Kelly Kelly.
Kelly Kelly wasn’t a great technician in the ring or reliable to give a great promo on the microphone. She was just beautiful—perfect teeth, clear skin, blown-out hair. The men cheered for her, and one commentator in particular was clearly horny for a woman almost forty years younger than him. At eleven, my teeth were in danger of needing braces, my acne was by far the worst in my class, and no shampoo could keep my hair clean for a day. Kelly Kelly was everything I wasn’t, and according to WWE creative, all women were good for were their physical appearance, not their physical ability in the ring.
November 26th, 2006
Five years later at another pay-per-view, Survivor Series 2006, Lita wrestled her retirement match, enduring chants of “crack whore” as she grappled with Mickie James for eight minutes (it is also worth noting that these were the only eight minutes to feature women wrestling in comparison to the seventy minutes the men received). At the end of the match, Lita lost the WWE Women’s Championship to James.
Somehow, things turned even worse after the loss and chanting. As the crowd booed her, Cryme Tyme, a comedic tag team, entered the arena carrying a cardboard box. One of the two men revealed that the box was filled with Lita’s undergarments and that they were about to have a “ho sale.” Bras and panties flew high like shooting stars over the Philadelphia crowd.
The women weren’t called “Superstars” like their male counterparts when I watched wrestling as a preteen. Their label didn’t conjure cosmic and gold images of larger-than-life characters. Instead, the women were called “Divas.”
The top male championship in the company was a belt with the WWE logo in its center. The top women’s championship was a pink rhinestone belt shaped like a butterfly.
November 22nd, 2009
Mickie James led a team of heroines to defeat a team of villains in a five-on-five elimination tag team match at Survivor Series 2009. When James stood in the ring, victorious at the match’s end, Layla, one of the villains, called James’s attention to the big screen.
Layla’s best friend, Michelle McCool, appeared on the screen in pigtails and a knotted plaid shirt with an animated farm in the background. McCool yelled “Piggy James” to get James’ attention and sang:
Michelle McCool had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.
And on that farm, she had a pig, E-I-E-I-O.
An image of a pig with Mickie James’ face on it cut across the screen. McCool finished her song, and when the camera panned back to James, a tear fell down her cheek.
This began months of on-screen bullying about James’ weight. James was thin but had a more athletic build than some of the other women. James left the company soon after the angle finished.
Our parents bought my brother and me the video game—WWE SmackDown vs. Raw. I wasn’t any good at the squares and circles and analog sticks of the controller when it came to “in-ring competition.” I liked creating stories for my brother to play out instead. Admittedly and regrettably, my angles didn’t often involve women; I was more concerned about elevating our favorite male wrestlers to WWE Champion.
The trio of boys also liked the creative aspect of the game and spent our nights in Create a Wrestler mode. They’d tell the game they wanted to create a female character and immediately go to the breast sliders and make them as big as possible. I’d sit on the couch, staring and silent. I’d then look at the strap of my training bra where it peeked out from underneath my t-shirt as they laughed at their creation on the screen.
January 31st, 2010
The main event of WWE’s Royal Rumble event is the thirty-man Royal Rumble match. Two wrestlers begin in the ring, and every ninety seconds, another joins. Once a wrestler’s thrown over the top rope and both feet hit the ground, they’ve been eliminated. This winner is the last person standing in the ring.
During 2010’s Royal Rumble match, Beth Phoenix entered at number six—the second woman in WWE history to take part in the match. Phoenix charged the ring and stared down a seven-foot man in its center. He picked her up like she was nothing and put her on the ring apron, on the opposite side of the ropes.
Not yet eliminated, Phoenix grabbed his head and planted a kiss on his lips. While in the kiss, she pulled him over the top rope and dropped him on the floor. A commentator was disgusted and reminded his partner:
Never trust a woman.
Phoenix was then dumped onto the floor by the only other competitor in the ring.
I’m not dumb. I knew then and know now that professional wrestling is, as they say in the business, “a work.” These predetermined matches, filled with athletic spectacles, exist in a world called “kayfabe” where fans suspend their disbelief and treat the matches, feuds, and characters as real.
I’m not dumb. I know that these moments I’ve listed were scripted and planned by a creative team. I know that the women were probably privy to these events before they happened. That doesn’t mean they sat well in my pubescent eyes.
Some of the moments reach deeper back into WWE’s history than what I actually watched live—only the Mickie James segment and Beth Phoenix Royal Rumble moment stick out. Still, I reckoned with the lingering history of the mistreatment and objectification of female wrestling greats like Trish Stratus and Lita because things hadn’t changed for the Mickie Jameses and Beth Phoenixes of my time.
I stopped watching around 2012 because no other girls in eighth grade did. I turned to shows seen as more conventionally feminine like The Bachelor and The Real Housewives franchise and erased my three-year love for professional wrestling.
April 3rd, 2016
At WrestleMania 32, WWE discontinued the butterfly belt and declared that their female performers would no longer be called “Divas” and instead “Superstars” like their male counterparts. They were newly cosmic and golden.
Standing in a ring among the current female talent, Lita unveiled the new belt, which had the WWE logo in the center. Charlotte Flair, the inaugural WWE Women’s Champion, wore the red belt proudly on her shoulder, and the newly dubbed Superstars cheered.
My first boyfriend loved Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I was nineteen and amazed that he didn’t know Johnson’s background in professional wrestling. Johnson would eviscerate his opponents on the microphone and in the ring and refer to himself as “the most electrifying man in all of sports entertainment.”
I mentioned to my then-boyfriend that I still saw Johnson as that wrestling character—no matter the action movie. Before my boyfriend took issue with that, he expressed his shock that I had once watched professional wrestling. I told him that my father and brother liked to watch it together and positioned myself as forever that proxy-viewer on the stairs.
June 18th, 2017 and January 28th, 2018
Money in the Bank. The Royal Rumble. Both of these shows have special eponymous matches as their main events. In these pay-per-view programs, the female Superstars finally got their own Money in the Bank ladder match and Royal Rumble match. They got to throw each other off ladders in the summer and over the top rope the next winter. Carmella became the first Miss Money in the Bank, and Asuka won the first women’s Royal Rumble.
In late 2019, I was president of my college’s quiz bowl team, successfully positioning myself as the head of a male-dominated extracurricular. We played a pop culture packet of questions to end practice. My team got a three-question set about the entrance music of various WWE wrestlers. The men on my team were stumped and bemoaned our bad luck of such a niche topic. I answered all three correctly.
My friends on the opposing team sat slack-jawed.
October 28th, 2018
WWE put an all-female show on pay-per-view: WWE Evolution. No male performers were in in-ring action that night. Two out of the three voices commenting on the action from the commentary desk were female. Nearly two hours of just women’s wrestling. A true revolution.
At a pub trivia night in early 2020, the host asked what TLC stood for in the world of professional wrestling. My trivia friends swiveled to me. I took a sip of my water, put my cup back down on the coaster, and said:
Tables, ladders, and chairs.
My teammate smiled as he wrote out the answer.
November 12th, 2018
On an episode of Monday Night Raw, the SmackDown Women’s Champion, Becky Lynch, led the SmackDown women’s locker room in an invasion of their rival brand.
Becky Lynch got punched in the face—actually punched in the face. A woman had swung and connected with Lynch’s nose.
Lynch didn’t stop and laid into the women of Raw with fists and steel chairs. When her team was victorious, she led the SmackDown women through the crowd, and the Kansas City audience boiled over for the woman who Pro Wrestling Illustrated would soon declare the most popular wrestler of 2019—the first time they had awarded that title to a woman since its creation in 1972.
Before leaving, she turned to face her rivals in the ring from high on the arena’s steps. Arms extended, cracked nose, face caked in blood, Lynch welcomed a fight.
I left my university in March of 2020. With uncertainty around my classes, senior thesis, and the state of the world, I was desperate for an escape.
My father and I sat in front of the television, and he flipped through the channels. Soon, a familiar logo filled the screen. WWE and Monday Night Raw had continued in my absence. We only watched for about five minutes, and I smiled at some familiar faces. When the show went to commercial break, the network advertised a network showing of WrestleMania 35. I tracked down the block of programming and recorded it.
April 7th, 2019
For the first time, at WrestleMania 35, women headlined WWE’s biggest show. Becky Lynch. Ronda Rousey. Charlotte Flair. Triple threat match. Main event. One woman would leave with both the SmackDown and Raw Women’s Championships over her shoulders.
Lynch won. She ended the show with her orange hair frizzed, black makeup around her eyes smudged, and most importantly, both championship belts. The New Jersey crowd cheered like she were a top male Superstar of the early 2010s. She was on par with John Cena, with Edge, with Shawn Michaels—with any man who had come before her. At that moment, Lynch was, as she called herself, “the Man.”
WWE in 2022 is far from perfect. The men still receive far more television time than the women and headline shows more often, but there’s been progress. The women are treated like top-tier athletes and talented performers—not as sexual objects.
I picked up watching professional wrestling again in 2020 and have continued through 2022, and things are far different. Asuka dances to the ring with her grand robe and screams at her opponents before spitting green mist at them. Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross explore their acting chops through supernatural and superhero gimmicks, respectively. The partnership between Bayley and Sasha Banks spent most of 2020 in a twisting storyline that teased their implosion for months and paid off at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view event. Io Shirai jumped off the top of a cage inside of a metal trash can onto a crowd of women below at an event for WWE’s third brand, NXT. Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair headlined WrestleMania 37, the second women to do so and the first pair of Black wrestlers to do so, in their match for the SmackDown Women’s Championship.
Over the summer of 2020, Bayley called herself “the role model,” and despite her villainous character, she and the other female Superstars would’ve been role models to me if I was twelve years younger now. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if I had had the Kirifuda Clutch of Shayna Baszler or the signature chops of Charlotte Flair. Those boys never would’ve seen me coming, and certainly wouldn’t have laughed at me or the female Superstars on the television.
And even if I had ended up with a broken nose and blood all over my face and t-shirt in the playroom, Becky Lynch had withstood just the same with a taunting grin, so why couldn’t I?