If you follow me on Twitter, you likely know that I love professional wrestling. I get crap for it all the time, but I am not here to discuss why wrestling is unfairly disregarded as a cultural artifact or get into those obvious taste arguments. Instead, I am going to pretend that wrestling is as respected as it should be and then spend the next hundreds and hundreds of words talking about how unfortunate certain events are and how interesting other, related events are. For those of you who like reading my stuff but are not familiar with wrestling or current-era WWE, I will do my best to either explain the details or link you to places where you can fill in the blanks quickly.
Wrestling has an unfortunate history with its treatment of women. It also has an unfortunate history with its treatment of people of other races, people with alternative lifestyles, people with certain political ideologies, etc. Basically, if you are not a white male, wrestling has and likely continues to do you wrong pretty handily. Chances are, even if you do not watch a second of wrestling each week, you know this. It is an unfortunate truth.*
*To be fair, the independent wrestling scene does a much better job with female performers and really anything with subtlety. But for better or for worse, WWE dominates the pro wrestling (or as they call it, the sports entertainment) landscape and it is impossible to say that Vince McMahon’s company doesn’t define mainstream culture’s assumptions about the “sport.”
Throughout my time as a pro wrestling fan (which dates back more than 15 years), female performers get to fall into two roles: overly-sexualized prop or hateful bitch. That’s basically it. During the so-called heyday of pro wrestling (1997-2001), the most visible females were WCW’s “Nitro Girls,” a group that basically functioned as more provocative cheerleaders, a bunch of WWF/E “Divas” who looked like this, this and this and served as a feeder system for the yearly Playboy cover and Mae Young, an elderly former women’s champion who sporadically appeared to have sex with random male superstars and give birth to a hand.*
*I wish I was making that up. Actually, no I don’t.
That era, also known as the “Attitude Era,” featured dozens of pillow fights, lingerie matches, swimsuit competitions and god knows what else. Stacey Keibler, George Clooney’s current love-of-the-moment, became popular because she did this. Over the last 10 years, major WWE Divas (even those who were legitimately good wrestlers) have been forced to get on their knees and bark like a dog in front of CEO McMahon. They have been at the center of stories primarily making fun of their weight. They have been part of “live sex celebrations.” And fairly constantly, they have heard the “WWE Universe” yell “Slut! Slut! Slut!” at them.
Obviously, pro wrestling is a super-weird world where typical or progressive representations of gender (or race or class or sexuality or again anything that’s not big muscular white dude) are few and far between. WWE’s representations of masculinity are just as heightened and stereotypical as its representations of femininity, though those are typically not as offensive. And arguably, the fans, excuse me, the Universe, is as much to blame for this as anyone. WWE creates characters or storylines solely to get a reaction out of the audience. Wrestling fans (who are, shockingly, mostly white males) have responded to a certain construction of femininity and female characters the same way for decades, only now it tends to stand out more because the rest of society has moved on a bit more (though not completely, obviously).
I bring all this up to contextualize what has been a really odd week for the WWE and its relationship to women, a relationship that points out the weird place pro wrestling/sports entertainment finds itself in with the rise of social media.
This all started, as most things do, on Monday Night Raw. Well, let me back-track and explain some of the convoluted portions of the story that came to a head on this week’s Raw. Over the past few months, WWE’s primary hero John Cena has been battling with the ridiculous character Kane. I won’t spend too much time explaining Kane’s muddled backstory (check Wikipedia for it all), but just know that in canon, Kane can control fire, appear wherever he wants at any time and may or may not have a set of keys for hell. In any event, Kane returned to WWE action in December and randomly decided to set his sights on Cena, in hopes of getting the ever-positive and milqtoast Cena to “embrace the hate” (which is of course fitting since Cena’s new T-shirt says “Rise Above Hate”).
In any event, getting Cena to embrace the hate meant that Kane had to torment Cena’s best friend, the up and coming Zack Ryder, the Jersey Shore-aping “Long Island Iced-Z.” And to get to Ryder to get to Cena (I think I mentioned this was convoluted), Kane had to torment Ryder’s mega-crush, Eve. After weeks of thinly-veiled language that suggested he would rape and murder (or vice versa, because he has the history of doing so) Eve, Kane attacked Ryder and left him with a broken back that was, a day later, upgraded to something much less severe because apparently WWE doctors are not good at their jobs. ANYWAY, with Ryder out of the way, Kane tried to put Eve in ambulance (because he and Cena were about to have an ambulance match, duh) and take her somewhere (probably hell). Of course, Cena prevented this and saved Eve, who returned the favor by planting an in-the-moment kiss on him (which Ryder saw, in one of the legitimately great moments in WWE history). Cena, who I think is married in canon, definitely didn’t stop the kiss, at least at first.
CUT TO: This week’s Raw. One night earlier, Cena defeated Kane in said ambulance match and although he lost his friendship with Ryder, he was ready to move on to his hyped showdown with The Rock at April 1’s Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, the WWE needed a way to get out of the storyline outside of just telling the audience the truth, which was that the writers needed to give Cena something to do for two months before Wrestlemania. So, instead of using the story to actually force Cena to even remotely embrace the proverbial hate (something much of the audience has been waiting on for years), everything basically boiled down to “SuperCena” triumphing again while pointing to his shirt and saying, “I told you.”
The solution for the story’s resolution? Turning Eve heel and subsequently slut-shaming her to death. This past Monday’s Raw opened with Eve backstage, discussing how her “relationship” with the still-wheelchair-bound Ryder was all about raising her profile. Eve claimed she used Ryder to raise her profile and that she hoped to use Cena even more to do the same. Of course, Cena just happened to be standing right behind her. He made his way to the ring with Eve following, crying her eyes out for being caught.
The next six or seven minutes were some of the most uncomfortable and disparaging that I can remember in recent WWE history. Cena, the guy wearing the Rise Above Hate T-shirt, the company’s hero, and the man who has literally cashed in more Make-A-Wish wishes than any other person on the planet, called Eve a “Hoeski,” a play on Ryder’s “Broski” gimmick.* He noted that Eve had been “sipping the skank juice” and called her a “scandalous bitch.” Eve then got on her knees, weeping, and asking for forgiveness.** Well, until she tried to kiss Cena again, just for good measure. Sometime later, I recall Cena saying something about Eve being diseased.
*Of course, the WWE Universe immediately chanted “Hoeski” in response. You’re welcome.
**At this point, the Universe booed heavily and continued to chant, you guessed it, “Hoeski.” Seriously, you’re welcome.
It is 2012. The WWE is a publicly-traded company. It and its superstars, most notably Cena, have hands in all sorts of media properties. Raw airs on USA Network, basic cable’s highest rated network. Wrestling isn’t just some backwards performance for people in various small territories around the United States (and the world, to be fair). Vince McMahon wants the WWE to be a global entertainment entity and brand. Not to mention, he has guided WWE into what’s referred to as the “PG Era,” where the blood and sex and controversy of the halcyon late 1990s are gone. This is supposed to be entertainment for youths, and Cena is supposed to be their hero.
There is absolutely no excuse for this sort of story. There is no context where this okay. It is sexist and degrading. Everyone involved, from Cena to Eve to the writing staff, should be embarrassed (and hopefully they are). It is moments like this that prevent people from ever taking pro wrestling seriously as a cultural artifact or as an art form. Unfortunately, it is hard to see a world where mainstream wrestling, guided by the WWE, allows women to do anything other than crap like this. In recent weeks, female superstar Natalya, a member of the famous Hart wrestling family and a fantastic performer, has been caught up in a story where she cannot stop farting. Seriously. Every week, she ruins a situation because she can’t keep her bowels in check. This is a thing that’s happening.
What is especially interesting about WWE’s treatment of Eve or Natalya (or all the women before them) is how it rubs up against the other big reason the company is in the news this week. The current WWE Champion is the outspoken (both on-screen and in real life) CM Punk, a sarcastic, straight edge performer who came up through the indie ranks and raised all sorts of hell this summer when he considered leaving the company amid a battle over the title with Cena. Punk delivered a “worked shoot” promo taking down McMahon, Cena and other WWE hypocrisies that set the internet wrestling community on fire. Although he eventually re-signed with the company and lost a bit of that spark, Punk still set off what he and Grantland’s David Shoemaker have dubbed wrestling’s new “Reality Era.” The Punk fans see on-screen each week is more or less the Punk his family presumably loves and that sense of “real”-ness is what makes Punk such an appealing hero (and alternative to Cena’s somewhat strained larger-than-life persona).
Punk’s identity is, like so many of us, on display on Twitter. This past weekend, Punk caused a bit of a stir when he took to Twitter to criticize the deserving Chris Brown for his treatment of women. Brown, as he is wont to do lately, responded in an immature and ridiculously misguided fashion by accusing Punk (who, again his straight edge) of using steroids. The Twitter fight continued through Monday and Tuesday, with the two exchanging barbs and Punk eventually publishing a two-minute TwitVid discussing how he never meant to start a controversy, but he certainly didn’t back down. The Punk-Brown issues have been covered by all the major entertainment publications, from TMZ to E! It is now officially “a thing” in current popular culture.
To me, the weirdest thing about all of this is how the WWE is actively directing its viewers to the Punk-Brown nonsense. The company “discovered” Twitter this summer, right around the same time that Punk became a super-duper star, and so anything Twitter-related is going to get at least a mention on WWE TV, but I was a bit surprised to see how many times it was mentioned on Tuesday’s live episode of Syfy’s Smackdown and how detailed it has been covered on the WWE’s official web site. Well, I shouldn’t say I was surprised per se, because the WWE loves mainstream media attention more than anything else, but I was compelled and perplexed by this.
On Monday night, the WWE opens its programming with a contemporary version of The Scarlet Letter, with the constant use of the word “Hoeski” to refer to one of its most visible female performers and the most visible male star degrading her ad-nauseum. On Tuesday night, the WWE constantly refers to a story about one of its biggest male superstars defending the treatment of women and addresses the most visible case of harmful action towards women in popular culture. I don’t know about you, but that’s a heck of a 24-hour period with a boat-load of dissonance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I admire Punk for standing up against Chris Brown because let’s face it, Chris Brown is a son of a bitch. I would pay money to watch Punk beat the living hell out of Brown for real. And I sort of, in some way, appreciate that the WWE is pointing their feud out, if only because it implicitly celebrates a better treatment of women. Nevertheless, Punk’s actions as an individual who certainly controls his own Twitter account and would never agree to get into it with Chris Brown for some backwards publicity stunt (even the WWE is smarter than that, I think) doesn’t negate all the horrible things the company let happen the night before. There is something very uncomfortable with how the WWE presents women in these two contexts.
Ultimately though, these two events reflect another complex issue pro wrestling is facing in contemporary culture. Punk started all this with social media. And as I said, he decided to suggest he would like to stomp on Chris Brown because, well, that’s what he believes as a man, not just because he is a performer. Obviously, the WWE is capitalizing on this because the publicity is astronomical (though, I’m guessing if Punk knew it would cause a storm like this, he would have avoided it altogether), but this event still shows us how challenging it is for something like wrestling to fold in social media.
“Real” actions can become part of the less-real WWE presentation, which both reinforces and subverts the façade of pro wrestling’s existence and presentation. Punk’s actions and his hope for a Reality Era overtly challenge wrestling’s outdated mode of thinking in a lot of ways, and this is just another instance of that. I’m not sure if Punk’s stance on women is going to have much of an overall impact on the WWE’s handling of the gender, but at least he (unintentionally) shook things up in a way that was actually progressive in a larger sense, and not just in a wrestling sense.
For quality writing about the Eve-Cena events of this week’s Raw, check out the work of Brandon Stroud, K Sawyer Paul and Razor. All those folks write about wrestling much more often and much better than I do.