The photo of a trash bag. The piece of tape with the word “Mickie” written on it. The accompanying tweet that read, “Dear @VinceMcMahon Im not sure if you’re aware, I did receive my @WWE care package today. Thank you. #AlwaysBlessedandGrateful #WomensWrestlingMatters.”
Then the outrage began, and rightfully so. How could a company so dominating, so popular, so advanced treat a talent like this? Mickie James gave that company so many years of her life. She carved out a hall of fame career and became one of the leading wrestlers of her generation. How did this happen? How could WWE be so stupid?
Or, perhaps more importantly …
How could WWE be so disrespectful?
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for four days now, since James tweeted that photo. It sparked a plethora of thoughts and questions that I still can’t answer. Beyond that, though, it brought to mind one key notion that I’m not so sure a lot of people consider when they think about professional wrestling. That thought?
My goodness, it’s got to be unfairly difficult to be a woman in professional wrestling.
Go all the way back to the Moolah days. Perhaps the most famous name in the history of women’s wrestling, The Fabulous Moolah’s reputation is one that’s become checkered at best. The stories of abuse she dolled out to the women she trained, the ways she allegedly ripped women off for decades and the tales of manipulation that either made or broke her colleagues’ careers. The accusations that came to light were so damning, even WWE took her name off a battle royal that was supposed to be held in her honor.
That’s not to say the business still adheres to those practices, of course. Or, well, if it does, very few people know about it. By and large, we are led to believe that the world of pro wrestling has evolved since those days. And maybe it has. There is tangible evidence that things have changed, the business practices are different and, at the end of the day, the sport is much more accepting now than it’s ever been.
But anyone who wants to think it’s where it should be in terms of fairness and growth needs to take a step back to see precisely how far away the business is from treating women with the respect and authority that women deserve. Why do I say that?
NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP
I say that because as I was reading up on this very subject over the last week, I stumbled upon a screenshot of a tweet that outlined how Smackdown — WWE’s flagship weekly television program on FOX — hasn’t had more than 10 minutes of women’s wrestling on a single episode in 2021 since the end of January. The closest it got was on March 26, when Bianca Belair and Natalya went 9:24.
Now, sure. You’re going to tell me that the first night of WrestleMania this year was headlined by Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks, and that should indicate how far everything has come. And to be fair, yes. That was a landmark moment not just for both women, but also women’s wrestling in general. It’s something everyone involved should be proud of, and it suggests that perhaps things are moving in the right direction.
But if it was moving in the right direction, then can you please explain to me why only one other women’s match on Smackdown since the end of January went more than four minutes? It was March 5 when Bianca Belair and Shayna Baszler went 4:23. All the other women’s matches on the program for the last four months went less than four minutes. Four minutes on a two-hour show.
Again. Four minutes. On a two-hour show.
This is the most important television program WWE puts out every week. No matter what all the company people say in front of cameras or in newsprint, Smackdown has to be the biggest priority on a week to week basis in the WWE. The best stories are told on that show. The biggest superstars in the company are on that show. NFL commentators hype it up. You can’t go through the local news without seeing an advertisement for it. Nothing else touches the Blue Brand in the company.
And yet that’s all the women get. Four minutes. On a two-hour show.
Which leads me to think this …
WHAT IS GROWTH?
Is it really growth if it’s a one-off?
Maybe I’m wrong, but my interpretation of what true growth becomes is sustainability. It’s not a stunt designed to check a box; it’s a change to the fabric of what is accepted as normal. If WWE really wanted to make a statement, it could devote … oh, I don’t know … more than four minutes of TV time to women’s wrestling on its most important weekly show.
That’s not to take anything away from Banks or Belair and the moment they shared at WrestleMania. Nor does it take away anything from WWE’s decision to put them on last for the event’s first night. All of those things are great, and they should be celebrated accordingly.
But to tout the company as some trailblazing entity that does so much for women’s wrestling is a bit misleading. Or, in some ways at least, impure. There are a lot of women on that roster who we don’t see on TV often, and why is that? So we can watch the Viking Raiders go bowling with the Street Profits? Or maybe watch Bray Wyatt play with hand puppets while wearing a size-too-small sweater?
The advancement of women’s wrestling in WWE hasn’t come naturally; rather, it’s been forced. Forced by amazing women doing amazing things, forced by the sheer level of talent that could not go ignored any longer than it already had been ignored. If there was ever a door slightly cracked open, the group of women at the top of WWE currently kicked it down.
Just take into consideration Jim Ross, who stated multiple times on his podcast that he was instructed to hire “athletic tens” from the bosses at WWE when he was head of talent relations. Can we pause for a second to reflect on how sexist that mantra is?
There was no directive to hire good wrestlers, no directive to see who threw the best punches or landed the smoothest dropkicks. It was merely a search for women who could make the company money by one day posing in Playboy, and, in essence, women who had no problem offering suggestive poses on live TV. Obviously, that’s changed in the years since JR was at the helm, but let’s not act like that was 50 years ago, when time can work its magic by justifying questionable business practices. This was at most 25 years ago, if not less. In a lot of ways, that era is still fresh in our minds.
Now, I know what you’re going to say …
MORE THAN LOOKS
Wrestling is an aesthetic business. And you’re right. It is. With the exception of Earthquake and Tugboat, we are accustomed to seeing men who have chiseled bodies in very little clothing get into a ring and have at it. If the powers that be at WWE make their own rules, what can any of us really do about it? They aren’t going to hire people — men or women — who aren’t in shape, and who don’t have a particularly striking physical look.
But do you ever think Vince McMahon hired any man with this thought in mind: “Wow, pal. We need to get you on the cover of Playgirl!” All Shawn Michaels jokes aside, my guess is that’s rarely been at the forefront of his mind while evaluating male talent. There was a time, however, when those thoughts were obviously there in regards to female talent.
And while that might not be there now, it does underline all the nonsense we see on a daily basis that women wrestlers have to put up with from fans on social media. So much of it is disgusting. It’s like the minute the pro wrestling business started giving women the respect they deserve, something called Instagram or Twitter popped up and now every step forward is accompanied by a half-step back.
A guy posts a selfie from a workout and messages of encouragement are offered. A girl does the same thing and though there might be some messages of encouragement there, they sit beside a gang of remarks asking the girls on dates, or judging their bodies in gross ways. There’s an inherent lack of respect, a double standard that becomes grating to see so much, so often.
And that’s just me talking as a bystander who’s a guy. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a woman and have to deal with that kind of stuff as often as women do. The mere fact that so many females have carved out so many incredible paths in the wrestling industry is a testament to both character and work — especially when it’s historically been so dominated by misogynistic males, who more often than not view women as secondary performers.
That, of course, brings us back to the beginning.
And Mickie James.
Since the Trash Bag Incident of 2021 happened last week, other stories of wrestlers being disrespected on their way out surfaced. Suffice to say, it is probably very likely that she wasn’t the only one in the history of the company to receive their things in that manner, and we can all probably agree WWE has most likely done that with its male talent as well.
The irony, though, is that it took someone who had zero flips to give in order to bring this to light. If you’re 29 years old, still feel like you have another couple decades in the ring left in you and want to hopefully make it back to WWE one day, my guess is you’re going to keep your trash bag to yourself. Mickie James, though?
Mickie James bravely exposed WWE for what it is, and in so many ways, what it is, is a place that lacks respect for its talent. Why, then, am I focusing only on women? Because WWE wants you to believe that it’s the torch-carrier for all that’s right in the world, and the hypocrisy there goes beyond laughable and into enraging territory. Let’s say you’re a serial killer. You’ve murdered nine people. You get to your tenth victim and you allow the person to live. The person goes to the police. You get arrested. Do you really think the “Well, at least I didn’t kill the 10th person” defense is going to get you off the hook?
Sure, that’s drastic and dramatic and overstated and all of that stuff. But WWE shouldn’t be lying to us, claiming to be the most altruistic wrestling promotion in the world because it ran a few commercials during Women’s History Month that celebrated its female superstars. If you want to change things, give the women more matches on Raw and Smackdown. Build pay-per-views around women’s programs. Pay more attention to women’s stories. Make women’s wrestling a priority.
It’s presumably hard enough as it is to be a woman in wrestling (I can’t say for sure because, well, I’m not a woman). Or, at least that’s what history has told us. So, do better than trash bags and 90-second matches, WWE. If you want to talk the talk, do a little bit of walking as well. After all, the path of enlightenment is never-ending.