It’s both interesting and tragic to ponder what the WWE might look like if it had embraced Chyna before she passed away. That’s not to suggest that there would have been massive, sweeping changes; it’s not even to suggest that she would have worked at the training center like Lita or made cameo appearances like Trish Stratus. But for someone who was, no matter how much she had been erased, as important a figure as she was during what many consider the WWE’s last great era, it’s just kind of sad that she wasn’t around to help usher in the WWE’s new era of women’s wrestling.
Chyna was special. She had the look and an innate charisma that helped fans buy into her character. Without her playing the straight person to Degeneration X’s goofball antics, it’s possible that it takes another few years for the WWE to finally get Triple H over. People bought into her so much, the company was able to give her multiple Intercontinental title runs.
And that’s really where the WWE of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s and the WWE of today deviate from each other when it comes to how they are willing to present their female wrestlers. Chyna was treated as equal to her male peers, to the point that when she did start having matches with other female wrestlers, it felt like she was being, at best, regressed. One thing you will almost certainly never see in the modern era of WWE wrestling is a woman taking on a man in a serious match.
It’s not hard to understand why the WWE would take this stance. In its current role as full-on family entertainment, the optics of having a man punch a woman in the face are bad, and likely not worth the risk to sponsorships and TV deals.
And yet, other wrestling promotions are running intergender matches and doing so quite well. From Chikara putting its top title on Kimber Lee to Candice LeRae being in one of the most successful tag teams on the indies with Joey Ryan to Sexy Star being one of the breakout figures of Lucha Underground, non-WWE female wrestlers are making moves and telling stories that are way better than anything that came out of the WWE’s now thankfully dead “divas revolution.”
Now, if you’re a wrestling fan who isn’t afraid to look at things from a feminist perspective, this does bring up the question: Should female wrestlers be pushed as equals to their male counterparts?
Feminism, much like wrestling fandom, is not a hivemind where everyone agrees on everything. As such, it would be foolhardy even to speculate on what the consensus answer for either group would be. Because the violence is rehearsed, some would argue that women and men fighting isn’t problematic because the violence is no different from what you see in your average superhero movie. Others would likely argue that it’s unrealistic, because hey, boxing and MMA commissions don’t sign off on women-versus-men matches, so why would this “combat sport"?
For this wrestling fan, sad to say, the answer is a bit of a cop-out: Women should absolutely have the option to be treated as equals to their male counterparts…
...everywhere but the WWE.
Wrestling is not an athletic exhibition, although that’s certainly part of it. Wrestling is storytelling. The things that happen in front of the cameras provide a peak into a fictional world not entirely unlike our own that just happens to take place in front of a live audience from our world.
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For Lucha Underground, having Sexy Star face off with the male wrestlers makes perfect sense because on a wrestling show that features wrestlers who, among other things, are supposed to be reincarnated dragons, a time-traveling spaceman and Death itself, a woman fighting a man is one of the least fantastical elements of the show. Chikara, as a promotion, has always treated its female athletes as equals to their male counterparts, which is why it’s not unbelievable at all that the company would put its top title on a wrestler who happens to be a woman.
The WWE, however, has had an extremely problematic relationship with its female wrestlers. From treating them as an afterthought for more than a decade to putting women in questionable — some would say tasteless — angles, there’s plenty of fodder out there for anyone looking to make a supercut of “ways the WWE has treated women poorly.”
Storytelling is hard, long-form storytelling even harder, and even with decades of history and a writing team full of people, the WWE still struggles at times with storytelling. To tell stories that involve men and women coming to blows, in the reality that they’ve built, requires a touch I’m not sure they have at the present.
I would love to see a woman hold the WWE’s top title. I could absolutely buy a scenario where, for example, Asuka had the strap. But the WWE isn’t there yet. It may never be. Like many things when it comes to the complicated world of the WWE, it is what it is.