That Was The Week That Was: 20th-26th May 2013

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Seven days is a long time in wrestling. Each week Rachel will cast her eye over the landscape and handpick the stuff that stands out. Sometimes they’ll be the most obvious events, but often more subtle shifts in the business. They’ll always be written from her own unique point of view. Unlike the original That Was The Week That Was, she won’t be singing the news. 

AJ Lee’s T-Shirt

One of the first of many rants I wrote on this site was about WWE’s women’s merchandise. By that I mean both merchandise made for women and that devised to promote female performers. Has it changed since then? Yes. As much as I want it to? Not even close. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Four years ago WWE had little-to-no shirts cut for women and, just generally, most of their stock was dull. WWE Shop was a sorry sight, but over time it’s improved. The design turnover has been quick, the clothing pages aren’t a sea of black anymore and there are now shirts designed to fit a female figure. Women have curved waists, tits and don’t want to dress like men. Who knew?

It still irritates me that the choice is limited. I hate that someone in an office decides which shirts women will buy. They regularly get it wrong. Why on earth was the Antonio Cesaro shirt not made available to women when you can buy a slim cut Prime Time Players shirt? Madness.

I also take issue with the policy that women’s shirts aren’t stocked at UK live events. When Andrew and I went to Raw, we both intended on buying the yellow CM Punk shirt as a momento. Andrew bought his but I couldn’t find any for women. I decided I’d buy online the next day. That never happened because even when applying a discount code, the extortionate shipping charge made it a $43 shirt. I don’t love it that much.

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This needs to change. And a few more v-necks wouldn’t go amiss while they’re at it. I prefer when my chest doesn’t look like it’s growing straight out of my neck.

There may have been some progress on the buying side, but the promotion of female wrestlers when it comes to merchandise has been dreadful. The problem was the same old cycle of no character, no interest, no merch. I have no idea where the Divas’ division is heading at the moment. It’s in a weird place. I’m both tentatively excited at the prospect of a higher mainstream profile and terrified that it means the death of any matches at all. I’m putting all my faith in Sara Del Rey’s influence and a sympathetically edited reality show.

AJ Lee, though, has done something a little special. I may not always have approved of the stories WWE placed her in, but what’s crucial is that she’s had top-billing placement that made people care. The audience wants to see what happens next. She’s not the piss break. It’s been an awfully long time since the crowd cared this much about a woman. Even the cringe-making narratives that played out between Mickie James and LayCool didn’t produce t-shirts, and LayCool were coming out in custom branded shirts and hoodies every week. 

I cant say that I love the design of AJ’s shirt. It’s not my style, I doubt I’d ever wear it and I feel a little old for it. But if I can stomach the shipping cost I’m sorely tempted to buy it just to drive home the point that if you make the Divas relevant they will shift stock. And the dollar’s what WWE is all about, right?

Good for you, kid. Never has a t-shirt launch seemed quite so significant. Dare I whisper ‘tipping point’?

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Current WWE Shop splash

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What you see when you’re not looking – Part Two

The first ‘What you see when you’re not looking’ post was originally going to include this topic. Then the first turned out to be longer than I expected and I didn’t want to do this point a disservice by tagging it onto the end of something else. So, this is part two – on why wrestling has to stop clinging to the sex industry. 

When we took a step back from blogging and observed without commenting, it became clearer to me just how much the sex industry remains unnecessarily intertwined with the wrestling business. The truth is, we should have cut those apron strings years ago. It’s outdated. It’s harmful to the business as it moves forward and becomes more popular – especially with children – and it’s damaging to the position of women in the industry. WWE is probably cleaner than it’s ever been, but on the independent scene, wrestling’s fixation with the sleazier side is reigning in its potential to be a legitimate and credible form of entertainment. It’s not good enough to say that wrestling is sleazy and always will be. It can change, if promotions are inclined to put the wheels in motion.

For all the rose-tinted harping back to the late 1990s and the 2000s, it was murky. When the American government feel the need to intervene, you know you’re getting something wrong. It was time to start cleaning up wrestling. The government’s concerns largely surrounded health, but wrestling needed an overhaul in every way. The landscape has changed dramatically since I first became a wrestling fan in 1997. It’s changed since we started this blog in 2009. But it’s hit a stumbling block, particularly when it comes to women.

I’m confident we’ll never see a repeat of Trish Stratus barking like a dog on her hands and knees on worldwide television again. I sincerely hope that bra and panties matches have been left in the ‘what were we thinking?’ category of wrestling history. But the connection to the porn industry that hangs around wrestling like a stale smell the day after a party is just one of the reasons I sometimes find it embarrassing to plug it as entertainment to my friends and family and to the young children in my life.

I fully appreciate that not all promotions are looking to be family friendly, although I think they could do a better job at letting families know when a show won’t be for kids. I also acknowledge that being a woman in my early thirties, I’m looking for something very different to what I was searching for when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Your tastes change. You become more discerning. You have a clearer view of what you will and won’t let slide without comment. When I was much younger, when hormones were raging, I was terribly unsure of myself and every conversation felt like it had to be loaded with sniggering innuendo and sexuality. I wasn’t as concerned with women’s place in wrestling. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t really know how to protest it. I have changed, the world has changed and wrestling has changed. It just needs one last, very easy push to make itself properly current.

Outside the CHIKARA and Shimmer bubble, wrestling still feels sexist. It makes me sad when fans at British wrestling shows are genuinely surprised when the couple of women on the card put on a great match. It’s especially disappointing when they feel the need to point out that they’re ‘Really good, and not just good for girls, either’. WWE has to take some of the responsibility here. For almost everyone it’s the first wrestling they’re exposed to. If their promotion of women involves nothing but one-minute matches and boyfriend or beauty stories, we’re not telling the young people and children watching that women have more to offer. It should be a given, but it isn’t. It just feeds the notion that the female purpose in wrestling is merely decorative. The rest of the responsibility lies with anyone who doesn’t make an effort correct these archaic views.

Women already struggle to get their names on the card in both mainstream and indie wrestling (British and overseas) simply because the impression is that crowds won’t get behind them. When, for example, porn stars or exotic dancers are hired to act as valets, interval entertainment or even makeshift wrestlers, the female wrestlers find themselves competing with both the male talent and the additional bookings. Very rarely are men hired in wrestling because they’ve had a career in the sex industry. You’ll never see a man on the roster overshadowed by someone who works in porn. It’s blatant pandering to dinosaurs of the game and hormone infested young men who have money to burn. Just because the lowest common denominator sells, it doesn’t mean you should sell it. If your wrestling and your stories are good you shouldn’t need porn, and a little social conscience goes an awful long way.

I’m not on a crusade against sex. We’re all grown-ups and we all enjoy our sex lives. I’m not even trying to banish pornography. It’s not my cup of tea, but as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s universally a terrible thing. Most crucially, I’m not suggesting we rid wrestling of ‘attraction’. It’s a highly visual medium and aesthetics are crucial. Wrestlers, particularly in the mainstream, are hired for their good (or less so) looks to fit who the company wants them to be; just like actors in a TV show. It’s obviously not the only reason talent are hired, but having ‘a look’ that you then shape the stories around – whether appealing to the eye or not – is a fundamental part of wrestling. The irony that I’m writing this post on a website called Wrestlegasm isn’t lost on me. And I’m definitely not ignoring that ultimately wrestling is a load of oiled, half-naked folk rolling around with each other with a story as its backdrop. But there is a stark difference between Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee kissing on camera to sell their relationship, for example, and sex for the sake of selling sex. The latter is what we need to move away from.

Wrestling, and indie wrestling especially, needs to think carefully about the language it uses, too. You can only pull the Jack Swagger/Zeb Colter trick of being outlandishly politically incorrect if you’re making it absolutely clear that the views your ‘characters’ are peddling are completely unacceptable. Without the caveat of million-dollar TV contracts hanging over your head, there’s little incentive to get that balance right every single time.  It’s not enough just to book women on shows. How they’re treated is important too. On the unregulated and non-televised circuit, women are sometimes on the receiving end of unsavoury sexual banter. Eva Wiseman recently wrote an excellent column in the Observer on lad culture in universities. She talked about how you can find it difficult to remove yourself from derogatory behaviour and language because when you’re in a group where it’s expected, you play along to fit in. It’s the only option. There is an awful lot of that in wrestling. I believe it’s one of the reasons so many people leave wrestling as they grow older.

There’s a great deal of tolerating what was once acceptable and it’s very disappointing. I’d like to see braver booking, cleverer stories and less reliance on the sex industry to raise interest in wrestling products. The gap between the two needs to grow larger. Fans will follow where promoters lead. They just need to have the courage to move forward.

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A Song For Whoever: Shimmer & WWE Superstars Edition

BOSS LADY RAY: Just a quick one this week, as we’ve got a lot of posts to share with you during this Wrestlemania/blog birthday week. As you know, we’re active champions of our fellow countrymen and women on this blog. Our cooing over Mason Ryan, Wade Barrett and Layla, for example, is unflinching. With this in mind, this week’s song is dedicated to the UK-born ladies who made their Shimmer debuts this past weekend; namely Rhia O’Reilly, Britani Knight and Saraya Knight. We love seeing Brits do well, but we especially love seeing the ladies prosper. Lord knows it’s difficult enough for girls to get ahead in wrestling. Well done, ladies. We’re proud of ya!

SIDEKICK ANDREW: It’s not all good news though. This week also saw the confirmation that WWE Superstars has been cancelled by WGN America, leaving it no TV home. Now I realise that most people don’t watch Superstars, but it has become a very close second behind Smackdown in my WWE TV of choice recently.

People don’t seem to watch Superstars because you don’t get the big names on there each week. But what you do get in place of your John Cenas, HHHs and Undertakers is a group of mid and lower card wrestlers making the most of their limited TV exposure by putting on really fun matches. Over the last few months we’ve had a really fun feud with Curt Hawkins (yes, that Curt Hawkins!) and Trent Baretta, a short series of great William Regal and Darren Young matches (yes, that Darren Young!) and the rennaisance of Chris Masters and Tyler Reks – two guys I couldn’t have cared less for until recently. That’s not to mention current Wrestlegasm favourite Zack Ryder (or, as my favourite commentator Scott Stanford calls his team with Primo, Long Island Iced Z and Primo Colada.)

See? That’s something else you’re missing out on! Rather than having to sit through the interminably dull meanderings of Jerry Lawler and Booker T, or the confusingly genius annoyance that is Micheal Cole, Superstars has commentary from the amazing Scott Stanford and Jack Korpela (the man who “has your back” in the “Please buy our PPV on Sky Box Office” videos) as well as Matt Striker (and you know what we think of Striker here in The Bunker)

If you listen carefully, you can hear Boss Lady Ray swoon at the wink

Anyway, the long and short of it is Superstars was great and you didn’t watch it. Because you didn’t watch it, it’s been cancelled. Cause and effect people… you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

PS. The main event from Superstars last week was a really fun Mixed Tag match that you should probably watch. Click here and see what you were missing out on. You can thank me later.

Heroines Wanted: Apply Within

Back in the day, when my love affair with wrestling was at its climatic peak, there were three kinds of women in the WWE/F. These were the times when, in my eyes, it could do no wrong. Every twist and turn delighted me and I overlooked even the most ludicrous storylines. Ah, memories. As I said, there were three kinds of ladies back then.

1) Girls Who Look Like Boys (The Chynas)

You remember them, right? Overdeveloped, manly, muscle machines with chins that would put Edge to shame.  They usually got to work with the guys, because physically they were evenly matched. We’ll call them The Chynas.

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2) Pretty-Girl Wrestlers (The Trishes)

The women who seem able to maintain their femininity but still manage to pull off hot-shot, eye popping wrestling moves. Like Trish Stratus. We’ll come back to Trish later.

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3) The Fluff (The Keiblers)

I doubt this category really needs any explanation, but basically the girls who look drop-dead gorgeous but have extremely limited wrestling skills. Stacey Keibler:  Hot pins, bad at pinning.

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Fast forward to today’s bizarre state of WWE affairs and one category, The Chynas, has completely disappeared. Times have changed. Vince McMahon and his production staff’s job is to make money. They seek to pinpoint the most bankable trends in popular culture and apply them to their own product. We live in a celebrity obsessed world. For women, you’re not accepted if you’re not the perfect height, the perfect weight, the perfect amount of pretty, just the right amount of sexy. If you look like this……..

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…..you’re not marketable any more. Not to men or to women. That’s why these women have slipped away from the limelight. I haven’t lost any sleep over it. It always kind of bothered me that they were the only ones who got to hang with the boys anyway. Even back in the late 90s when overdeveloped female wrestlers were the norm, they still had to battle for recognition. I’m still not convinced that Chyna would have been involved in any main eventing had it not been for her dalliance with Triple H.

The Trishes, however, have soared. They fit the current bill. Gorgeous creatures that girls want to be and boys was to do. I’m talking Beth Phoenix, Gail Kim, Natalya, Melina, Mickie James, Michelle McCool, Maryse, Maria etc. (SIDENOTE: If I change my name to something starting with an M, can I join the Trishes?). Their athleticism is awesome and I will argue all the live long day that it is equal to that of the best performing men in the company. I would kill for just an ounce of it. In some cases their fitness is probably superior to some of the male wrestlers. Women are held up to different physical standards to men. It’s alright that some of the guys have a paunch. It’s never perceived as ok for women the lose their training grip.

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The Keiblers are still there.  Occasionally it bothers me, but not that much. It would be great if every woman employed by Vince McMahon had a fantastic, athletic, in-ring presence, but not everyone is made for taking bumps. They play their roles just like everyone else. The trend seems to be to get all women in to this middle ground of beauty and athleticism. Some just excel at being beautiful but can’t pull off top moves. And that’s fine. The fact that they’re out there trying and giving it their best to entertain makes me really happy. And who could possibly hate Kelly-Kelly anyway? She’s so damn cute. She’s like a cupcake with pink frosting and a cherry on top.

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Lacey, your boyfriend's not thinking about you right now.

I don’t even mind that guys drool over them. It would be wholly hypocritical of me to be insulted by that kind of behaviour, being that I have a segment in my Smackdown recaps which charts the weekly colours and contents of CM Punk’s trunks.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that when it comes to storylines, screen time and ring time, the women of the WWE are second class citizens. This is not a feminist rant. I just want to see the ladies getting a fair crack of the whip.  They are skipped over on several Pay Per Views, they have significantly less time in the ring, bearly enough mic time for us even to know what their voices sound like and non-existent storylines. It’s disappointing and an insult to the intelligence of those us interested in more than just the fact that Maryse wants a man who takes regular showers.

I sometimes wonder if the writers don’t give the women any storylines because they don’t believe anyone would care. Nonsense. People don’t care RIGHT NOW because there are NO storylines. Everyone knows that when wrestling/sports entertainment is good, the balance between dramatics and athletics is bang on. At the moment, there are NO female storylines and a tiny blot of athletics.  It doesn’t work.

A short while ago, Trish Stratus threw a cat among the pigeons when she expressed that the WWE Women’s Division is currently disappointing and that there are too many women on the roster all round. She also suggested they should concentrate on developing just a couple of women rather than spreading things too thinly over more talent. She’s got it partially right. I do NOT think, however, that there are too many women in the division. There are just too many women without a public persona or an identity. The matches have no context.  With no context, who cares who wins and loses? They’re just pretty, sexy girls grappling with each other. The pendulum is swinging all out of whack. There’s no balance between context and action, and no balance between the investment in to the men and the women. And by investment, I’m not just refering to financial investment. I mean, time and recognition too. The Women’s Division is not taken seriously at all. That’s a real shame, because the potential for business, sporting and entertainment expansion is huge, and completely untapped.

I’m going to use the Smackdown from 8th May as an example. Teddy Long, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho and Jeff Hardy spent 14 and a half minutes setting up a match between Jericho and Hardy to take place at the end of Smackdown. Almost 15 minutes of a two hour show, just talking. And it was great. It was entertaining and it began preparing the ground for the PPV matches between Mysterio and Jericho, and Hardy and Edge.  The entire Hardy/Jericho match on that particular Smackdown lasted almost 20 minutes, by the way.

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On the same show Gail Kim and Michelle McCool wrestled extremely well for five minutes. But that was it. No promo, no mic time, and with no purpose.  And that was a good week.

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Later in the same show, Cryme Tyme emceed an arm wrestle between Layla and Eve Torres. Why? It had no meaning. And apparently neither woman seemed allowed to speak. Cryme Tyme spoke on their behalf. It was infuriating and utterly pointless, and it was given just as much time as the McCool/Kim match.

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Wrestlemania. The grandest stage of the them all. The highlight of the wrestling calendar. Millions of people watching around the world. And who won the Miss Wrestlemania contest? A man in a skirt and a wig with a chin strap. I get the joke. Really. I do. But what a waste. Santino Marella is a great comedian. He’s a natural. I’ve laughed with him at certain points through this whole Santina story. But seeing Beth Phoenix chasing him/her around for the past six weeks is a major let-down and a shameful waste of her talent. She is one of the most accomplished female athletes in the company and yet her skills are bearly tapped in to.

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Maybe the WWE believes that female fans wouldn’t support female superstars if they upped their profile and marketed the directly to women. There is this odd myth that all women hate each other and that ladies will only cheer for male wrestlers. That’s incorrect. Those women do exist, but I’d be unpleasantly surprised if they made up the majority. If the female fanbase really is 40% of the entire WWE Universe, give us the same role models and heels the male fans have. Build feuds. Create identities and heroines. Give us characters to look forward to seeing and discussing and supporting. There are some amazing women in the WWE. It would make my day to see little girls wearing Mickie James t-shirts. Those shirts don’t exist.  Little girls wear Jeff Hardy shirts because WWE promotes him to that market. Promote the women to women and young girls and I guarantee it will get a favourable response.  Allow young girls to see the female wrestlers succeeding in the same way and at the same level their male counterparts do and it will give them a work ethic to aspire to.

I can’t speak for any of the female talent. I don’t know them. I haven’t met them. Even if I did I highly doubt they would be so unprofessional as to air any personal grievances in front of fans. But it’s got to be frustrating for them, hasn’t it? As a woman, the lack or interest the WWE shows in its Women’s Division sometimes makes me feel like it doesn’t care about me either.  So, apart from the obvious, why should I keep coming back?