The Evolution of the Diva

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This weekend World Wrestling Entertainment holds Evolution, the first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view in the company’s 66-year history.

The event takes its name from the evolution of women wrestlers from being called Divas and wrestling in their underwear to the serious athletic display that warrants a stand-alone show today.

Evolution has been a long time coming. The event has inspired hearty debates on social media about who is to thank for the change in perception of women’s wrestling.

Some would say that Paige and Emma’s 20-minute match on WWE’s developmental show NXT in 2014 was the catalyst. Others credit the “Four Horsewomen” of NXT—Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair, the latter two of which will be wrestling for the SmackDown women’s championship at Evolution. There is a cohort who contend that all women involved in wrestling had a part to play in the evolution, while fans on social media agitated for WWE to #GiveDivasAChance back in 2015. WWE lore posits that NXT showrunner, wrestler and WWE executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque and his wife, heir to the WWE throne and an executive herself, Stephanie McMahon, with giving women’s wrestling the credence it deserves. And some would say that this transformation didn’t even take place in wrestling: that it was the achievements of sportswomen at large, such as Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey, that bled over into the wrestling ring.

It’s interesting then that Rousey, who has been wrestling since April, has been slotted into what will likely be the main event of Evolution for her Raw women’s championship over all of these women who paved her way in the decades before.

The argument could be made that Rousey’s stratospheric rise to the top of the wrestling world will bring eyes to the product, especially the first-ever women’s pay-per-view, but there have got to be some women in the WWE locker room who are salty over this predicament.

The debate that surrounds the mainstreaming of women’s wrestling envelops Rousey’s competitor in the match, Nikki Bella, as well. Nikki has long been discounted from “serious” women’s wrestling by virtue of her and her twin sister Brie’s beginnings firmly in the “Divas” era, their involvement in Total Divas (which Nikki has campaigned to have changed in her role as an executive producer) and Total Bellas, and her high-profile relationship with John Cena, which has occupied the storyline surrounding her match with Rousey and, indeed, pretty much all of their storylines for the past five years, despite the fact that they’ve now broken up.

So while the physical act of women’s wrestling may have evolved, the rhetoric surrounding it hasn’t. When Total Divas first premiered in 2013, former wrestler and Divas champion AJ Lee slut and fame-shamed the stars of the show in her infamous “pipe bombshell” promo, most of whom were in relationships with other wrestlers, asserting that “talent is not sexually transmitted”. (This, despite the fact that Lee is married to wrestling darling CM Punk.)

Rousey has done much the same in the lead up to her match with Bella. Rousey, as a ~serious athlete~ said that “everything the Divas era stood for made me sick to my stomach”. Bella has long defended herself as breaking down doors for women in the industry, while Rousey retorted last week that “the only door you broke down was the [one] to John Cena’s bedroom”.

Bella has been doing the media rounds in the lead up to Evolution, telling The New York Post that she “want[s] to see WWE eventually move beyond the idea of ‘saying women slept their way to the top or [got there] because of a man that made a woman. ‘I think we are taking some old ways and bringing it into [Evolution],’ she said. ‘I definitely hope it changes, and I think it will because I think the women are better than that. I think we can tell empowering stories that have nothing to do with men or how men define us because that’s the point of Evolution.’”

And remember Rousey’s “Do Nothing Bitches” video that went viral a few years ago for its so-called empowering message? Now it’s “Do Nothing Bellas”, even though they star in and produce their two aforementioned reality shows, in addition to their fashion line, wine brand, and wrestling. Oh, and Brie’s juggling motherhood as well. Listen a little closer and you’ll hear that “Do Nothing Bitches/Bellas” isn’t empowering at all: it puts down conventionally attractive women who happen to be romantically involved with influential men in a poor attempt to build other women who fit with what they now deem as on-trend up. Which could be seen as a metaphor for WWE’s women’s evolution and its disdain for the women who came before.

Bella went in on this concept in an interview with CBS Sports:

“Because Triple H decided to make [Diva] a bad word, we were like, what do you mean? You taught us for years to make this an amazing word. And that’s what we did for years: we put our blood, sweat and tears into this… And when [credit] gets taken away from the Diva[s] era, that hurts me… What those women [who carried the Divas championship] represent—Michelle McCool, Beth Phoenix, Melina, AJ Lee, Paige, Brie Bella—they’re strong, fierce women [who] cared and worked really hard, and I’m here to remind people of that history. You want to discredit women who worked hard because of a butterfly on a championship that we didn’t design? That’s not okay with me. That’s not empowering. I hope that after Evolution we can stop talking about Diva being a bad word. My sister and I and the other Total Divas [cast members] are always like, ‘oh, we’re sorry for giving you a hit reality show!’”

Despite Beyoncé’s declaration that a Diva is a female version of a hustler (now that’s a feminist anthem!), as I mentioned above the word has become synonymous with the era of women’s wrestling that prioritized models and conventionally beautiful women over wrestlers. These two aren’t always mutually exclusive and, in fact, a lot of women who started in WWE as models, such as the Bellas and Trish Stratus (who I’ll return to), have moved beyond that station to be hard-fought champion wrestlers. A couple of years removed from the “Divas era”, and many so-called “Divas” will tell you that they wanted to be more physical in the ring but the WWE house style would only allow them open-handed slaps and hair-pulling.

Now the term Diva is usually wielded as a slur, by fans and wrestlers alike, while others seek to reclaim in. In a recent promo between Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and the then-SmackDown Women’s Champion Carmella, Flair spat that Carmella was a “Diva living in a women’s era” in an attempt to diminish her in-ring skills. And when an anti-Diva article went viral in September, the Bellas, Paige, Carmella and Maria Kanellis, the latter two of which will be wrestling at Evolution as part of a thrown-together battle royal (because even though the pay-per-view was announced in July, apparently that wasn’t enough time to craft individual storylines outside of the ones mentioned here. But I digress…), tore that notion to shreds on Twitter.

Some other women who have managed to secure a match at Evolution with a semi-coherent plot are trailblazers Lita and the forenamed Trish Stratus, the latter of whom was a fitness model in the late 1990s before busting her ass to become a legend in the industry. They will take on Mickie James, herself an icon who enjoyed a major feud with Stratus in the mid-2000s and wrestled Lita in her retirement match in 2006, and Alicia Fox, who replaces Alexa Bliss. Bliss, made in Stratus’ image and originally scheduled to wrestle her one-on-one, is unable to compete due to concussion symptoms, but Fox as her replacement actually makes more sense, especially after James and Fox’s altercation with Lita and Stratus on last week’s Raw.

Now what was dubbed as a “generational face-off” by Stratus actually is: she and Lita were icons of the Attitude Era, while James and Fox were Divas-era stalwarts, all of whom (Fox, as a black woman, less so) were allowed by the men who run wrestling to push past those limitations that they adhered to for so long. Any long-time women’s wrestling fans will remember that the former three women were casualties of this status quo: James was the butt of fat jokes, Stratus was made to bark like her dog in her underwear by Vince McMahon, and Lita was slut-shamed on-air when her private relationships were made public. Shaming the women who experienced this workplace harassment isn’t standing against misogyny; it’s putting them down for being at the mercy of a male-dominated industry and for doing what they had to survive in it.

It’s not really surprising, then, that Vince McMahon is running Evolution and WWE’s writers’ room is made up almost entirely of men, given the regressive discourse and cobbled together matches surrounding the build-up to it. They don’t think that being a Diva—a category they resigned women to—is a positive thing because for so long it was meant to subjugate women. And in their imagining of it, it’s not.

So, to be a Diva today is not to be feminized in the way wrestling has traditionally positioned it: beautiful but weak. Those who are reclaiming or defending the term recognize it as the embodiment of the resilience and drive that comes with constantly being underestimated; to remember the journey women’s wrestling has taken through a male-dominated industry, and to never stop evolving.

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.