Happy Mae Young Classic Day, everyone! The first four episodes of the much-anticipated women’s tournament officially debuted Monday on the WWE Network. Along with the excitement, however, comes a very real and serious amount of trepidation.
Decades of reductive female content left fans reticent to trust that WWE truly believes in their self-congratulatory “Women’s Revolution” talking point. You don’t even have to go back that far to find the fuel for fans’ niggling concerns about WWE’s hamfisted treatment of female characters and “history-making” matches.
After the incredible successes of Network affairs like the Cruiserweight Classic and U.K. Championship Tournament, not only are the MYC competitors expected to strand on their own, but also live up to the groundwork laid by the Brits and the lightweights. But should they be?
One thing WWE consistently fails to realize is that their female Superstars do not have to live up to the expectations of men. There are those who are want to jump into the comments crying “oh, what, so you just want to ignore an entire demographic? Doesn’t sound very equal to me!” First let me say this: haha, it sucks, doesn’t it? Secondly, and unequivocally, yes I do. Women need to be able to fail on their own merits, not be criticized and picked apart when they were set up to fail by the very people profiting from their labour. Setting them up for success seems to be the biggest stumbling block in this whole ‘revolution.’
Now, the Mae Young Classic presents an opportunity for a whole new group of athletes to do just that. Will WWE give them the chance to shine, or hamper them with the same restrictions as they have with female performers in the past? Or, sadly, the Bayley’s of right now?
After the tournament announcement, we spoke to four experts about these concerns, as well as their greatest hopes for what the Mae Young Classic can accomplish. Here’s our panel:
LaToya Ferguson: LaToya is With Spandex’s bravest writer, covering the new era of Impact/GFW every week and not turning in her resignation after she’s done. She loves women’s wrestling, has the correct opinions about Josie and the Pussycats, and has forgotten way more about CW programming than you’ll ever know.
Stacey Costabile Wenslauskis: Stacey is a Chicago librarian and an OG friend of Uproxx dating back to the halcyon With Leather days. She’s a life-long wrestling fan who survived the Attitude Era (and a crippling Shawn Michaels obsession) and lived to tell the tale.
Starting on a positive note, what is your greatest hope for what the Mae Young Classic can accomplish?
Stacey: I want it to change the world! Seriously, there are so many amazing women’s wrestlers on the circuit right now from around the globe that there hasn’t been a better time to have this sort of tournament. My greatest hope is that by showcasing the women in the same way as the Cruiserweights were, more and more people will see that there is a generation of women who grew up watching wrestling and wanting to be wrestlers and are working their asses off, taking the same bumps, paying their dues like the guys and are putting together amazing matches. These aren’t the “divas” of before who can’t seem to run the ropes; these women are out there working on the circuit, honing their skills, and are capable of putting on a show like you’ve never seen.
Elle: I hope it increases the number of WWE fans with a real respect for women’s wrestling, hopefully both by bringing fans into the WWE fold and by teaching that respect to some of the reluctant fans who are already there. I’d also like to see it lead to more time for women across the company. They’re facing a real talent bottleneck where every show has more women than they make time for, and they’ve signed all these talented women that they don’t even have spots for. Whether it’s a weekly show that’s just women or a commitment to more time for women across the shows, something needs to give.
Willow: My greatest hope is that years from now we’ll see this as a tipping point in the history of wrestling where we saw women take the stage and never leave. I want this tournament to be so good that it would be impossible to deny a woman her spot within the industry of professional wrestling whether that be on commentary, as a referee, a booker, or a wrestler. We’re more than capable of doing all of these things, but a persistent mentality that wrestling is only for men has kept many women from breaking in. I pray this tournament breaks that glass ceiling for good. I think that’s the best case scenario.
LaToya: For the most part, I really hope that the women’s tournament can be like the Cruiserweight and UK tournaments just in terms of exposing wrestling fans to how many fucking great women wrestlers there are outside of WWE. A knowledge of wrestling outside of WWE — even under a WWE banner — is always a good thing, in my opinion. I don’t want to undercut the WWE contracted women though, because this could also be eye-opening for any of them who might be in this tournament; I have no doubt they’ll have more latitude in the ring for this tournament than they would on RAW and SmackDown.
Speaking of WWE-contracted women, do you think this tournament could have any effect on the main roster, especially with Triple H stating time and again that NXT is WWE’s only competition?
LaToya: Yes, but I’d like to hope (and even assume) it would be a positive effect. I mean, we all remember how ill-conceived, albeit well-intentioned, the “Divas Revolution” was … But remember, the fact that NXT took women’s wrestling seriously led to the crowds eventually demanding that the main roster do the same. We’re apparently in a “Women’s Evolution” now, and this is obviously the next phase in that. I hope I don’t sound to brand-y with that answer, because wow, that’s more optimistic than I usually am. But can you imagine this tournament even happening five years ago in WWE?
Willow: I would hope if the women’s tournament has any effect on the main roster it would lie within the bar being raised in all facets of Women’s wrestling such as characters getting time to be fleshed out, the women getting more than one or two segments per show and more than one feud being presented on pay per view. If WWE is serious about women’s wrestling then there needs to be something resembling equality. They don’t necessarily have to put on Intergender Matches or anything like that to achieve this, but merely use the women you have in ways that aren’t embarrassing or minimizing to their skill set and talent. I’d also just love to have more women on the main roster so feuds do not get as stale. I don’t know the exact math, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the guys outnumber women by A LOT.
Elle: I don’t know. I imagine they’ll use the women on the main roster to promote the tournament, doing promos about how excited and inspired they are and so forth, but beyond that I don’t have high hopes for any immediate effects. I’d like to see it lead to the bar being raised for women’s wrestling and the booking thereof across the company, but that’s more hope than expectation.
What is the one thing you want to see the most in the tournament?
Willow I’d like to see Kairi Sane win!!!! And then face Asuka ending her undefeated streak … but I think you mean beyond the realm of fantasy booking [ed. note: oof, way to kill Willow’s dreams, Asuka’s collarbone]. The one thing I’d love to see would be a show where women are given free reign to have long, exciting matches of varying length and purpose and narrative to sort of prove to anyone who had ever doubted women aren’t as good at this as men shown they are totally wrong and foolish. I guess I just want it to be a great tournament. It wouldn’t hurt if it ended up being the best WWE tournament of all time. I don’t think that’s a ridiculous thing to want. If it was then maybe women’s wrestling would stop being seen as a niche and simply just become wrestling.
Elle: Character work. I don’t doubt the wrestling will be great, but what I’d like in addition to that is some storytelling for new women coming in (or previously unestablished NXT women) that sets them up as characters going forward. I think about the way Pete Dunne was established as an amazing heel over the course of the brief U.K. Tournament, and I’d love to see something like that happen with Kimber Lee or Mary Dobson (whatever their names will be), or new women who I don’t even know yet.
Onto the less-positive, what’s the one thing you’re afraid of with the release of this tournament?
Elle: That it’ll fizzle, basically. That it will be one of those things where a bunch of WWE fans will blithely tell you they didn’t bother watching it, and WWE won’t pull the trigger on any kind of ongoing women’s show or anything, and we’ll be left with a bunch of amazing women under contract with no TV time.
Willow: My greatest fear about the tournament is that it exists as a victory lap for Stephanie McMahon instead of being about the wrestlers, their opportunities, or their skills. She has taken credit again and again for spearheading what they are referring to as the “Women’s Revolution” when it’s a lot more complicated and way bigger than any one person. No one should be taking sole credit for the progress that has been made, because that isn’t the reality. I would hate to see the tournament merely be a PR stunt by WWE and the wrestlers neglected after putting on what I’m assuming will be very good matches and stories. That would be so debilitating, and I don’t think it’s foolish to be afraid of this happening. Look at the Warrior Award; his continued existence as this paragon of humanity when the bigger story is that he hated gay people. WWE will spin anything to make themselves look better. I’m sort of horrified they’d do the same here instead of this being about how damn good these women are at wrestling.
How do you reconcile loving a female performer for her abilities when WWE says they’re committed to talent and athleticism, but also keeps churning out ‘sexy’ themed photo shoots instead?
Latoya: Here’s where I get somewhat rambly, so apologies in advance. As a black woman, I basically had to grow up learning how to compartmentalize even more as a wrestling fan. So it was always a lot easier for me to find a way to accept WWE female talent for her actual abilities (even when WWE would rather present her as sexy first), because I was basically too busy being frustrated with the company’s portrayal and depiction of black wrestlers. I grew up learning to ignore (as best I could) Jerry Lawler’s lascivious commentary to find even a smidge of entertainment in a lot of women’s segments, while at the same time wondering when black wrestlers would ever be anything other than “athletic” and lovers of having fun (I’m still kind of waiting on that latter part.)
To a point, I understand and understood WWE’s presentation of the sexiness of its women, because that type of presentation doesn’t necessarily hide the women’s talent. People can call me a “smark” or “indie snob” if they want, but at the same time, I’ll still sing the praises of Trish Stratus and Lita any day of the damn week. Because for every WWE beach photoshoot they were in, that couldn’t hide their mic/character or in-ring abilities, so I focused on that. At the same time, I could tell which women were clearly just there because of their sex appeal, and I had to acknowledge they were #NotForMe and suffer through it.
This is another thing I think can be good about the women’s tournament: When younger female audiences especially see different types of female wrestlers, they have a better chance of seeing women’s wrestling (just like men’s wrestling) doesn’t have to just be one thing. That was a perspective I didn’t really have until I got interested in indie wrestling, and that was when I was 17.
The way things have changed in the WWE’s women’s divisions (both main roster and NXT) helps a lot though. I sadly can’t remember recommending a WWE women’s wrestling match to non-fans before the era of the Four Horsewomen. Last year at a friend’s birthday party, a fellow wrestling fan friend and I put on Sasha/Bayley’s TakeOver: Brooklyn match on a big screen, and people were actually into it. They were into these characters, they were into their athleticism, and they were into how little it resembled what anyone I believes or remembers about WWE women’s wrestling circa, say, the Attitude Era.
I swear, these past couple of years, women’s wrestling has been a big talking and entry point for me with friends and colleagues who weren’t otherwise interested in professional wrestling at all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with female wrestlers being portrayed as sexy, because, like the male wrestlers, there’s a lot of sexiness to go around. The transition away from that being the driving force in their portrayal is key.
Stacey, you’ve been going to shows for…well, basically ever. How have your experiences at WWE events recently differed from growing up in one of the most male-dominated, anti-female eras of pro wrestling? Do you think WWE is doing enough to merit the praise they keep heaping on themselves?
Stacey: In high school, I got a whole group of my female friends into wrestling and we’d all go to shows together and had such a blast, but as the women became increasingly more scantily clad ‘props’ and less ‘wrestlers,’ there was a noticeable vibe change in the arenas. Very few young fans and less women were sticking around as fans. I remember walking through crowds with my younger sister, and saying “Excuse me” as we tried to get by, and guys really thought yelling “Hey! HEEEEYYYY! Let the puppies through guys!” was an endearing thing to say to two young women. Be still my heart. I mean, the future COO of the company was encouraging flashing in the area by pointing out women cheering and miming them to take off their tops. Certainly didn’t make you want to draw any attention to yourself. But I loved wrestling so I stuck it out.
While there were periods where I wasn’t as involved, I always made sure to tune in occasionally and sooner or later something would click that would bring me back in. But make no mistake, it was hard. It sucked if you liked women’s wrestling. Before the revolution, there was still the feeling that the women wrestlers were the bathroom break but to be honest, WWE did nothing to deter that. They seemed to be discouraging any attempt by the women to put on a great match. You knew that some of them could have stolen the show.
But since the “revolution” I can’t tell you how many more young girls I see in the crowd and it’s amazing. I see them with their signs, cheering their favorite women and it’s like seeing myself watch Alundra Blayze pinning Bull Nakano with a German suplex. I’ve gotten to sit next to so many little girls who I get to talk to about our favorite women wrestlers. To be honest, I never thought I’d see that again. And not only that, but I’ve found myself surrounded by an area where the majority of the fans are CHEERING for the women just like the male Superstars. No puppies chants (or worse) like I can recall from the dark days. There is palpable excitement and I get chills just thinking about it.
So yeah, WWE has earned some of the praise they’re getting (and giving themselves) but I really wish they would own up to the fact that they have a long way to go, and that mistakes were and are still made. Certain women have called them out for their pay discrepancies (*cough* AJ Lee *cough*) and tried to make them own up to it. It’s not one that’s just going to go away, especially when it’s a huge issue in other mainstream sports like soccer and hockey.
So yeah, while the WWE does merit some praise for their recent efforts, it certainly doesn’t make any of us forget their past mistakes. I know they know we’re going to be watching to make sure we don’t ever slide back into a pool of gravy or pillow fights. WWE can and should continue to be at the forefront of championing female athletes and they have my full support in this. We want them to succeed. I want people to think of WWE as being at the forefront of these battles. It’s a long road, but I’m not going anywhere.