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WWE, Female Empowerment, and a Zero Tolerance Sexual Harassment Policy: A Culture of Change

Updated on January 25, 2018
Joel Eisenberg profile image

Joel is an author, screenwriter, and producer. He has developed projects for TNT, CBS, Warner Brothers, FOX, Ovation Network, and more.

Promotional poster for this year’s inaugural Women’s “Royal Rumble” match.
Promotional poster for this year’s inaugural Women’s “Royal Rumble” match.


Two movements in play, intersecting on January 28, 2018: WWE’s so-called Women’s Revolution, and #MeToo. To be clear, I will not equate a cultural tide to stem sexual misconduct with a well-intentioned professional wrestling match. I will, however, give credit to a public company, oft-reviled based on its past misdeeds, that has turned a corner in its quest for continued advertising revenue and worldwide expansion.

They’ve turned the corner, however, while continuing to exploit its most misogynistic and financially lucrative era (the Attitude Era in company parlance, popularly considered from 1997-2002) without quite embracing it. There surely is cynicism in these words, but there is also hope. For footage of former WWE Diva Trish Stratus stripping to her black underwear while barking like a dog and crawling on her knees, at the behest of the storyline version of company head Vince McMahon, search for it on the company’s paid subscription service, WWE Network.

Pay for that sub, and you can also regale yourself with The Rock’s (Dwayne Johnson’s) People’s Strudel - in a not so innocuous moment with then-ring announcer Lillian Garcia - Triple H having revenge sex with a corpse named “Katie Vick,” Sexual Chocolate Mark Henry enjoying the nectar of 80+ year-old Mae Young, Degeneration X telling women and children everywhere to “Suck it!” and various swimsuit, mud and chocolate pudding matches as wrestled by the women.

Such was, apparently, the best use of their female performers at the time.

Google WWF’s Sunny, or WWF’s Sable, the shows’ then-resident sex symbols, the latter of whom stood the ring nude from the waist up, save for painted black hands covering her chest, as ring announcer (and wrestling legend) Jerry Lawler wildly boasted about her “puppies” until we feared for his health. Visit the WWE Network to again view Goldust’s real-life wife, Terri Runnels, sleeping with his avowed foe, the late Brian Pillman.

And on it went. The on-air female performers had a long way to go. Thing is, multi-time champs Trish Stratus (real name Patricia Anne Stratigeas) and Lita (Amy Dumas) were two of the most athletically-inclined athletes of either sex in the entire company.

I feel compelled to add all of the above as perspective. In the interests of disclosure, I’ve been a fan since I was six (presently 54). I wrote for pro wrestling shows and newsstand periodicals back in the 80s. I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit that I still watch, but I’m long passed apologizing about it. Even today, I’m developing a pro wrestling-themed dramatic television series. Consider me an old addict.

One more thing: I laughed 20 years ago. I honestly enjoyed such daring, trainwreck television and didn’t give a thought as to any form of sexism. In the passage of time, however, some of the then-WWF’s efforts indeed make me, a hardened fan, cringe.

I’m thankful my sensibilities have evolved.

In fairness, the tone of the aforementioned sequences, angles, and matches is long gone, having been replaced first by All-American babyface John Cena as the company figurehead, currently transitioning to Roman Reigns. The so-called WWF Attitude Era took no prisoners in its TV-MA iteration, a winning strategy implemented to defeat and then purchase Ted Turner’s WCW (World Championship Wrestling), which threatened to end the McMahon family empire. Both were must-watch programs during those iconic Monday Night Wars, but only one promotion would survive.

Today, WWE-produced shows wouldn’t dare be so controversial. They are a public company now; they have responsibilities to shareholders and advertisers. They replaced the initial F with E, and altered their brand from (the) World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment over a legal issue with the other WWF, (the) World Wildlife Fund.

This, though, is old news, and may be confusing to some not nearly as well-versed in this circus world. I’ve elected not to include images here from that well-trod period; a casual online search will do that for you. As for me, remaining on this course herein would be exploitive.

Let’s just say that time has passed. The Attitude Era has ended. Vincent Kennedy McMahon, as the company’s largest shareholder, presently runs a business that has made a hell of a lot of progress in a area where such progress has become crucial.

I am referring to the perception, and progress, of their female performers.

Official “Attitude Era” logo
Official “Attitude Era” logo

The Road

Women have long been considered sexual objects in the wrestling world, no different than groupies if not independently contracted by the company, or eye candy if hired as talent.

Professional wrestlers are on the road for much of the year. Mileage may vary. They have to perform at a consistently high-level to earn their push, and subsequently their income. By now, we should all be well past the pre-determined aspects of the matches. That cockeyed allusion aside, the physicality is brutal. The pain is real, as are the meds and their ocassional side effects. The touring is a pressure-cooker, and hell on relationships. Ring rats are a truism. Illegal drugs happen, hence the organization’s drug-testing policy, said to be unbeatable but questions abound about favoritism and true efficacy. The wrestlers make numerous personal appearances - Cena is the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s most requested celebrity - the necessity of remaining in peak physical condition is paramount, and at no time can the hunger of the performer subside as they are all expendable.

If you tell a wrestler he or she is “fake,” you just may get punched.

One more thing: Though temptations of the road are not, of course, seductive solely to wrestlers, for them it holds a particular pull as there is no off-season. Sex-related videos and images of the performers have been passed from cellphone to cellphone, most recently with a high-profile trio; the road stories of the present roster alone can fill volumes. In the modern-day wrestling world‘s current public PG environment, the boys, most especially, must be role models out of the ring.

Not all professional wrestlers sleep around, of course. Neither do all musicians or actors. I am not implying a stereotype of any sort.

I am stating that from this general picture, nonetheless, has come responsibility, from a most unexpected industry that just may lead the way.

Cyndi Lauper (left) and Wendy Richter.
Cyndi Lauper (left) and Wendy Richter.
Lauper, Richter and friends, in a promo shot for the inaugural “Wrestlemania”
Lauper, Richter and friends, in a promo shot for the inaugural “Wrestlemania”

Preamble to “The Women’s Revolution”

In the then-WWF’s Hulkamania era, the 1980s, the country’s number one top-selling recording artist Cyndi Lauper jump-started the company’s Rock and Wrestling boom. WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan represented rock n’ roll; the evil Rowdy Roddy Piper threatened its destruction. Lauper challenged the evil duo of Piper and Captain Lou Albano to choose a women’s wrestler for an upcoming match. Lauper would choose one of her own.

Albano, the Manager of Champions, selected then-current Women’s World Champion The Fabulous Moolah. Cyndi’s choice was the new number one contender Wendy Richter. Moolah was undefeated for decades. The bout aired on MTV, a first for the network, the interest in the league at an all-time high.

As was MTV’s rating for the card, which the promotion called The Brawl to End it All.

Richter won the title. The seeds of Wrestlemania, the promotion’s biggest show of the year, were planted. For a brief period, Richter was nearly as popular as the top male performers, until a contract dispute killed her momentum. She lost the title back to Moolah, disguised as The Spider, in a match some say was a legitimate double-cross to remove the belt from the now-disenfranchised ex-champion.

The company had a chance back then for a revolution. And it turned its back. Over the subsequent decades, the organization featured a plethora of women, of varying talent, booked as though they were interchangeable.

The women would not be taken seriously again until the advent of the Bella Twins.

The Bella Twins
The Bella Twins

Nikki and Brie, the Bella Twins, are real-life twin sisters who debuted in WWE in 2007. Born Nicole and Brianna Garcia, the twins eventually morphed from the usual pro wrestling female eye candy, as intended, to incongruously the stars of their own reality show on E!, entitled Total Divas.

The show was hugely successful for the E! Network, in part based on its scripted shenanigans, affording WWE fans a (partially-scripted) glimpse of the company’s backstage universe. During the program’s early run, the women of the company were known as Divas (the men were Superstars) and many were featured as regulars. Again, reality and illusion blurred, as with most reality programming, but scenes such as Brie Bella’s real-life husband Bryan Danielson (known as Daniel Bryan to the fans) breaking down upon learning he’d be forced to retire due to multiple concussions was not light fare. The show has at other times achieved such a delicate balance of pathos and entertainment, such as when wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes passed and the news was broken on-camera to the other performers featured in the episode. Total Divas spun-off Total Bellas, also for E!, as well as the upcoming Miz and Mrs. for USA Network, featuring WWE Superstar Mike Mizanin and his expecting wife, Maryse Ouellet.

The Bellas proved to the WWE braintrust that their female performers could be ratings draws if they were so featured.

The women wrestlers were gradually allowed to develop personas of their own. Some in the past had successfully attained that objective, and the fans responded. However, such attainment was rarely rewarded. The women did not receive the opportunities as did the men. Theirs were most frequently utilized as break matches, come-downs between the men’s grudge matches and main events. As the E! Network proved the efficacy of its risky programming, Vince’s daughter, Stephanie, publicly cheered for a company-wide women’s revolution, posting on Twitter and other social media venues that the time has come for the women to break from their staid booking, and show the world what they could achieve if the reins were loosened.

Another risk, another payoff. It just so happened that NXT, WWE’s development system and a weekly WWE Network favorite, had taken off like a bullet after several years of finding its format. Performers such as Charlotte Flair (real name Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr), daughter of all-time great Ric Flair (Richard Morgan Fliehr), Sasha Banks (Mercedes Kaestner-Vernado), Becky Lynch (Rebecca Quin), and Bailey (Pamela Rose Martinez) were overshadowing many of theIr male counterparts in terms of character and in-ring performance.

Comic Steve Martin once said, “Be so good at something you can’t be ignored.” The women of WWE could no longer be ignored.

Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky were the first to be called to the main roster. The Women’s Revolution was about to begin in earnest.

July 13, 2015: The NXT Invasion

“The Women’s Revolution”

They entered as a trio on Raw, and took no prisoners while laying waste to the Divas in the ring. Statement made, on the main roster.

Weeks passed, and two new women’s titles were added: one for Raw, the other for their televised Thursday stalwart, SmackDown. The Divas and the Divas Championship were no more (though the moniker continues on the E! program). The titles were changed to the SmackDown Women’s Championship, and the Raw Women’s Championship.

The women were now known, along with the men, as Superstars. In the pro wrestling world, or more accurately the sports entertainment world, this switch was major. The WWE Universe, the company’s name for their collective fanbase, accepted the Revolution with open arms.

For many, it was about time.

Stephanie McMahon 12-18-17 Live In-Ring WWE Announcement for First Women’s “Royal Rumble” Match

2018 In-Ring Royal Rumble Announcement with Historical Perspective

The First Annual Women’s “Royal Rumble”

The company’s annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view (now included in the cost of a subscription to the WWE Network) has been their second-most watched yearly event, after Wrestlemania, since its inception.

Beginning in 1988, the Royal Rumble has been a consistent hit for the promotion, a 30-man over-the-top rope battle royal with the winner being the last man standing. The wrestlers enter the ring in timed intervals, usually every two minutes, and the object is to toss all other opponents over the top rope and out of the ring. Storylines for Wrestlemania are frequently initiated in the match, and the winner typically receives a title shot against one of the promotion’s two reigning world champs (Raw or Smackdown) at their annual biggest show of the year.

On January 28, 2018, the first-ever 30-women Royal Rumble match will take place on the same card as the men’s. Again, this is historic. Stephanie McMahon announced the match on live television, without the in-ring participants knowing anything in advance. Their televised reactions were genuine. See above for two versions of the video footage.

I would understand if you’re shaking your head. “Big deal. A fake match in a fake promotion,” you may say. I’m sorry if you do. The WWE exited that closet ages ago. Kayfabe is long deceased. WWE openly promotes sports entertainment, dramas in separate acts no different in some ways than Broadway plays.

The women performers have earned their advancement. Next, with their increasing popularity will come demands for increased paychecks.

This is all progress. And there’s more.

Eric Arndt, aka “Enzo Amore”
Eric Arndt, aka “Enzo Amore”

Eric Arndt, aka “Enzo Amore”

On January 23, two days prior to this writing, the performer known as Enzo Amore, the then-current WWE Cruiserweight Champion, was released by the WWE. Enzo, real name Eric Arndt, was accused of rape by a young woman via a Twitter post. The specifics are easily accessible online, are quite graphic, and will not be rehashed here. Arndt’s attorney, perhaps predictably, subsequently released a statement claiming the innocence of his client.

The tie-in with this article is that the WWE, once a hotbed of televised sexism and sex and drug-fueled road antics, has cleaned up its act. Arndt was released not over the accusation, but due to the fact that he was aware of an investigation into the matter, and said nothing to the company. He would have likely been dismissed anyway, as he was suspended the prior day for the incident once made public.

Once upon a time, “Boys will be boys” may well have been the entirely unacceptable response.

In much the same way as the easily-dismissable porn industry frequently pioneers advances in media technology, the modern-day WWE is paving the way for controls and change as to how the entertainment industry treats women. In an era when, finally, female writers and directors are beginning to receive consistent and due recognition in Hollywood, the WWE has already been flexing its muscle in that direction. They maintain a strict no-tolerance policy as it regards sexual misconduct. They are pushing their women performers unlike ever before in company history.

You’re growing up, WWE. I have to give you credit for a promising image reboot, one I sincerely hope is not financially motivated.

P.S. “Virtue Has Never Been as Respectable as Money”

My cynical yet cautiously optimistic view of the WWE’s actions is best represented by the old Mark Twain quote above. I was tempted to add this postscript as a final thought on the matter. At some point, change must be embraced, regardless of what has passed before.

For your consideration. I personally look forward to seeing what’s next, and I will be tuning in on Sunday with an open mind.


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