Photo credit: Ron Frehm/AP

Recently, Netflix released the first season of GLOW, a dramedy based on the production of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the comedic late ’80s women’s wrestling promotion that was, ever so briefly, a smash hit in syndication. Many reviews have focused on how a gifted, majority-female cast and creative team have reclaimed something long considered an oddball, corny excuse to put aspiring actresses in skimpy clothes, and made it something empowering.

It’s similar to the arc that women’s wrestling proper has taken in the last several years, with WWE finally embracing a serious, more empowered version of women’s wrestling that is treated with similar gravitas to the men’s wrestling that takes up the majority of its shows. And it’s about time, because let’s face it: Pro wrestling has a fucking miserable history with women.

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Women’s wrestling was treated as a sideshow in the United States, for, depending on how you figure, somewhere from 20 to 60 years. This was largely thanks to the Fabulous Moolah, who took over most of America’s women’s wrestling scene in the 1950s with her booking office and training school. Since she wasn’t actually any good, most of her trainees favored her wrestling style, which was heavy on hair-pulling and light on athleticism and drama.

Moolah, whose charges have described her having “pimped them out” and instilling values like “get naked and be willing to have sex when someone knocks on your motel room door,” was just one of a number of awful behind-the-scenes figures who have plagued women’s wrestling. Consider that she and the following people were the bosses of the vast majority of history’s full-time female wrestlers:

  • Billy Wolfe, a wife beater who was going to try to fuck you.
  • All Japan Women’s Matsunaga brothers who, while they promoted a largely non-sexualized product that was often geared towards young girls, imposed rules called “the three ‘no’s” (no drinking, no smoking, no men) and forced a mandatory retirement age of 26.
  • The various former AJW wrestlers and office workers who started their own promotions when the Matsunagas, from whom they learned the business, lost their touch.
  • Vince McMahon.

After Moolah faded away from the scene in the late 1980s, the WWF ran hot and cold on women’s wrestling. Though a mid-1990s revival built around champion Alundra Blayze (Debra “Madusa” Miceli) was more athletic and credible than what Moolah did, there were usually just two or three wrestlers on the roster, and it lasted only two years. Women’s wrestling returned for good a few years later, but that was thanks to the rise of Sable, who was unathletic and actively opposed to doing matches because it wasn’t what she signed up for. Since she was the biggest female star in company history, though, she set the template: Recruit models, teach them how to wrestle, and hire a few experienced hands to make them look good. It was the rise of Ronda Rousey in the UFC a few years ago, as well as the indie scene having numerous talented women, that led to WWE finally deciding to remake the division a couple years ago.

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That took some work for many reasons, among them that on the national level, women’s wrestling had generally never been presented as being entertainment for girls and women in the United States. Female fans, both children and adults, would gravitate towards it, and at times there were signs that individual wrestlers had real potential with young girls, but WWE never capitalized on it.

In the early 2000s, when Lita was catching fire, she clearly had potential as someone who could be marketed to young girls. It made sense. With her prominent shoulder tattoo and red hair, she was different. She could do the coolest moves that the guys did, and was a tomboy who was comfortable in her own skin. As a result, she came off as much more real and much more relatable than WWE’s other women, and from both crowd reactions and her lines at personal appearances, it was easy to see that she had a different following than they did. It took over a decade for this dynamic to manifest again, this time with one of of those girls who grew up idolizing Lita, A.J. Lee. Even though she was a heel, because she was different, had some childlike mannerisms (like skipping to the ring), and was the tiniest woman on the roster, she had a noticeable fanbase among the younger girls who go to WWE shows. But the company never really tried to capitalize on her appeal with kids.

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Instead, WWE was trying to market fans like the guy I sat behind at an independent show once, who was incessantly chanting “SHOW YOUR TITS!” at April Hunter. Later, I happened to be using the restroom at the same time as him. Addressing nobody in particular, he expressed that frustration that he had to chant alone. Citing Hunter’s Playboy photos, he argued that if the chant got big enough, she would have obliged. Everyone around him tried to hurry up, finish their business, wash their hands, and get the hell out of an incredibly awkward situation.

Given all of the above awfulness, plus the stories about WWE actively telling the women not to “wrestle like the guys”—something they’ve actually admitted more recently, no less—it’s a near-miracle that so many talented women were still undeterred and decided to try to make it as pro wrestlers.

The noticeable uptick in the number of talented women breaking into the industry started around the early to mid-2000s. At first, there was a big problem, which was that women usually did not have a lot of options to work with on local indie shows, and so often had to wrestle the same opponent over and over again. Eventually, promoters like Dave Prazak started promotions like Shimmer, which would book women from around the country and eventually the world on all-women’s shows where the talent could expand their horizons and gain valuable experience against new opponents. With Shimmer’s success, other promotions soon followed suit, broadening and deepening the talent pool, and by now it’s gotten to the point where most of the best women under WWE contract came through Prazak’s group. While the numbers still make this something of a problem for female wrestlers, it’s an area of the business that has improved greatly.

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The rise of Shimmer and promotions like WSU, ChickFight, and Shine is the main reason why the WWE women’s division has such a talented backbone in 2017. It’s why when fans started to revolt at the sheer absurdity of minute-long women’s matches, and Rousey was catching the eye of WWE management, there was a crew of women ready to go in the NXT developmental program. WWE may lay on the self-congratulation a bit thick with their “women’s revolution” marketing, but where things are now is a real change from where they were, and it’s showing in all sort of ways. More and more of the women have actual last names, for instance, rather than being mononymous, which often carries vaguely sexualized and even stripperish connotations.

When it comes to “wrestling like the guys” and being “allowed” to do so? It certainly doesn’t look like there’s a barrier there anymore, as the women’s matches are often considerably more violent and heated than the men’s matches.

WWE isn’t all the way there yet. While the promotion has often put the women in the main-event slot on weekly TV shows, they’ve done so just twice on pay-per-views/WWE Network specials, with one of those being in NXT. There’s far more parity than there used to be in terms of the positioning, but with only about half a dozen women each on Raw and SmackDown, there are absolutely still times where the women’s matches feel like part of a lesser, different universe than the men’s matches do. In fairness to SmackDown, its creative team has a better grasp of how to make its women’s division feel more lived-in and functional, with its shows often having more women’s segments and those segments feeling like a more cohesive part of the whole than Raw’s do. But this is still an issue, and not one that will be resolved any time soon.

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It is just a couple weeks before the taping of the Mae Young Classic women’s tournament for WWE Network. Like 2016’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, it’s going to feature a lot of previously unsigned international talent in a relatively sports-based presentation, at least compared to most of WWE. Unlike the cruiserweight tournament, which aired a new episode each week after NXT on the “linear,” traditional TV-style feed that forms the backbone of WWE Network, the women’s tournament will be released in two cycles in the service’s on-demand area, making them perfect for binge-viewing. Since the on-demand content is what is tracked by the various network apps’ “most watched” list, those numbers will be interesting to watch. Is women’s wrestling done straight and without established stars viable yet in the biggest promotion in the world? This would be the strongest proof yet that it is.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.