It began as anyone may have expected it would, with two solid workers from WWE’s women’s division, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, getting the crowd hot for the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. Both competitors are two of the most memorable women to ever step foot in a ring, with Banks as the biracial, purple-haired cousin of a rap star and Lynch the roughhousing siren with a thick Irish accent. This was as fitting a start as the current women’s roster deserved, especially considering the plurality of women who would follow in succession to the ring after the first bell rang.
On paper, the list of entrants reads like a checklist of diversity. There were women of color as well as women over 30, 40, and 50. There were mothers, old and new, women who are married, women that remain single. There were plus-size and fat women, visibly tattooed women, and even one gay woman. In many ways, the women’s Royal Rumble was more inclusive than the men’s roster ever has been. WWE even allowed an Asian woman — a vastly underrepresented, if not stereotyped, group — to win the Rumble. It seems the brand is becoming less and less afraid to roll with the tides of changing times.
The beauty of the women’s Rumble is one that male fans can only appreciate in the most basic sense. Because it was the first installment, it was a celebration and homage to where the women’s division has been over the last 20 years, where it is, and where it could be going. This was evidenced by the large number of nostalgia entrants, ranging from forever faves like Trish and Lita to beloved athletes like Molly Holly and Beth Phoenix.
Thoughtful recognition of these female legends took form in the fact that more than a third of the eliminations in the match came from women not currently active on WWE’s main or NXT rosters. While usually a tactic that is bemoaned when done on the men’s side, in the women’s Rumble it worked because we can be pretty assured that none of the women who appeared from the past are slated for full-time returns anytime soon. It was all in good, lighthearted fun, and a metaphorical way to say, We see the road you paved for us; you get a piece of this pie, too. As a woman who grew up watching each of these Superstars in their own ways make the best of what they were given, the place of nostalgia in this match was more than heartwarming.
Regardless of the era that each woman represented, one of the better, lesser discussed aspects of the match was the ways in which the women let each other shine. While the match did lag in parts (with the women doing the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs trying to find opponents to pummel), these slower moments allowed almost every woman in the match to get some visibility. We were able to see most of the entrants’ finishers or face-offs with old rivals plain as day, and it felt that this was a calculated move by all of the women.
In addition, because of the magnitude of the match, it was one of the first times we were given the opportunity to see how truly unique the characters these women have crafted are from one another. From Kairi Sane to Ember Moon to Carmella to Bayley, there are few women on the roster with identical gimmicks. With increased visibility, standout personas, and a spectrum of female identities, this match was easily the most feminist WWE has ever been with its product, and it wasn’t because Stephanie McMahon was on commentary shoving “history” down our throats. When it comes down to it, feminism is more about doing than saying.
Taking this further, the women’s Royal Rumble had all of the same things that the men’s did. Storytelling, fan-service face-offs, comedy, surprise returns, suspense, and feel good moments. Yet, the women’s Rumble still had a different feel to it, instead of a copy-paste vibe that women’s segments often have. The match felt fresh, and as long as WWE is interested in telling different stories with the women, it has the potential to grow into something out of the men’s division’s shadow.
Feminism, in the nuanced sense, is about acknowledging the foremothers who have laid the groundwork for the present, and uplifting other women to create a better future for all women inclusive of race, gender identity, sexuality, and religion. This often takes the form of women trying to achieve the same social and political freedoms as men by subverting structures that have created power imbalances. This is where Ronda Rousey complicates the Rumble’s progressiveness.
With Rousey interrupting Asuka’s moment at the end of the pay-per-view, we were are snapped back to reality. WWE is a product to be sold, and the company needs to make a profit. Rousey is a gold credit card to the McMahons and Rousey knows that she is viewed as such, and therefore expects to be compensated accordingly. Just as the men have a (white) UFC fighter who occasionally wrestles to collect a giant paycheck and “legitimize” the product, so now do the women. Only in this case, the added stinger is that Rousey isn’t even a homegrown WWE talent. Is this the “equality” the women were striving for?
As one Twitter user put it, Rousey’s appearance at the end of the Rumble (arguably dulling the shine of a woman of color’s moment) in many ways felt like a white feminist statement unto itself. Even though she has signed a full-time contract and swears up and down that she’s not in it for the money, fans can assume that eventually her ego will grow with her paychecks.
Capitalism is the name of the game, and WWE’s biggest stars know this all too well. Feminism cannot thrive if money is the motivation for the people who have the most power, even if those people happen to be women, too. True solidarity comes from advocating for your sisters to get to your spot rather than ascending to comparable power as your male counterparts.
Some have made the argument that Rousey’s star power will bring greater exposure to the women’s division to casual fans, thus elevating it. There is room for that argument, and it may prove to be true. But, it still can’t be denied that if it weren’t for the women who put in the work for decades, Rousey would have never been in a position to “elevate” any division. It is even more metaphoric that only after 30 women fought in a ring for almost an hour did Rousey made her entrance. The work was already done; she was only there to steal the glory.
However, my hope for the division lies in the fact that despite all of the rumors and buzz that Rousey would be in the Rumble — she wasn’t. For once, WWE trusted the women on their roster and the legends that came before them to put on a good show with enough time to do so. The women were able to pull it off without a big mainstream athlete. They did that. If WWE doesn’t fall victim to the same fallacies of the men’s division with the women and actually allow their fantastic roster to shine, they can revolutionize not only women’s wrestling, but wrestling in general, for the better.
From far and wide
And light years away
The one force of nature they call by name
Fallen idols, scream yesterday
Cast from the shadows
Now light my way[…]
I came from tomorrow to take back today
I am the future.
Allyssa Capri is a Chicago-based writer and pop culture critic. You can read more of her pop culture critiques and analyses on her blog. Or, you can follow her on Twitter for cultural hot takes and random thoughts at @allyssacapri.