Last night marked the five-year anniversary of WWE’s “Women’s Evolution,” the night they called up Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Charlotte to the main roster and decided they were going to completely alter their women’s division. It was the culmination of the #GiveDivasAChance movement, which had spawned in WWE’s NXT as those three women, along with Bayley, made fans take notice of women performers as just as serious and talented as their male counterparts and a desire to see the same level of attention and sincerity at the top of the industry.
It ran alongside the fans’ frustration of how WWE handled its women’s division to that point, with subpar performers and barely any time on television while the women in the developmental form of NXT were tearing everything up.
Last night, four women main-evented Monday Night Raw, with Banks, Bayley, Asuka, and Kairi Sane putting on an absolute banger of a tag team match that ran for over 20 minutes. If you only knew those two facts, you’d think that everything was hunky-dory with women in WWE, and AEW, and the wrestling industry all over, that they had risen to the same level as male wrestlers and we’re given the same attention and creative storylines.
Since that day five years ago, women have accomplished a ton in the company, no question. They’ve main-evented pay-per-views, put on the best matches of a couple of Wrestlemanias, and then main-evented one. We’ve seen Becky Lynch rise to the top of the company for more than a year. Ronda Rousey, while her run in WWE was uneven, gave the division a crossover appeal. There was the first all-women PPV, “Evolution” in the fall of 2018, and even though that show was hastily put together, sandwiched between multiple other PPVs and lazily booked, it still shone through as one of the best shows of that year. The company ran two wildly popular women’s tournaments, the Mae Young Classic, that introduced Shayna Bazler, Kairi Sane, Rhea Ripley, Io Shirai, and Toni Storm among others.
NXT has continued to churn out talent in the women’s division and run a dynamic division, even while continually bleeding performers to the main roster. From that day, from Bayley to Asuka to Ember Moon to Bazler to Sane to Ripley to Io Shirai, NXT’s women’s division has been pretty much an equal to its men’s.
And yet, there’s still so much more on the table. While the women did headline Raw last night, there was only one other women’s match in the three-hour show, a tag between Bianca Belair and Ruby Riott against The IIconics, which ran less than five minutes. Shayna Bazler had a promo, and that was it. And with how Raw and Smackdown have been run, that’s not even a paltry amount of women’s division content compared to what’s usually on offer.
When women have been on TV, it’s only been stories around the various women’s championships, which the company have now mashed together the women’s tag-team titles and their two singles titles being combined in the same stories. They’ve struggled to run multiple storylines for the division at once on either show, whenever they’ve even tried. When they have, it has often been weak, easy, and sometimes insulting fare dealing with husbands or boyfriends (Lana, Rusev, Bobby Lashley) , or high school-level jealousy, pettiness or cliqueiness, or the like. It still feels that performers have been pushed simply based on their looks (Lacey Evans or Eva Marie), or had their characters reformed to be about their looks (Liv Morgan, Emma before she was let go). Fans never feel safe that Vince McMahon won’t default to his Barbie-doll leanings.
There hasn’t been a second Evolution. Talent disappears and reappears on the main roster with little explanation, including the division’s biggest current star, Banks. While the women may be getting more time, it’s been more about shuttling one or two stars around all three of WWE’s shows rather than developing new stars. First it was Lynch appearing on both Raw and Smackdown, Then it was Charlotte doing the same and adding NXT to her slate. Now it’s Bayley and Sasha doing the tour (obviously all the shows taking place in Orlando due to the Coronavirus aids this). The 15-20 minute match that Banks and Bayley have been allowed to run of late is still something of a rarity and restricted to one per show for the women. There’s still a wealth of talent and stories to be tapped.
And higher up the chain, the only women listed on WWE’s creative team is Dana Warrior, the Ultimate Warrior’s widow, who is, shall we say, problematic, and Betsy Kelso, who was hired to run Smackdown’s women’s division but hasn’t been heard from much since. Clearly WWE needs more women writing stories for women performers and the women in their audience, which they’ve never really taken that seriously and are a bigger number than you might think The company itself touts that 40% of their fans are women, and yet it feels that nowhere near 40% of their content is.
Down the chain, the #SpeakingOut movement proved that though women performers are taken more seriously and beloved by fans, they are not getting treated within the industry but outside the ring any better. It could be argued that it’s a small step in the right direction that at the very least, women in wrestling around the world felt they had a foothold or platform for coming out and sharing their stories, which wouldn’t have happened even a couple years ago.
AEW has had the same time-distribution problems as WWE for its women’s division, though some of that can be chalked up to its still nascent state, injuries, and its initial reliance on Japanese talent which is not available to them at the moment. Elsewhere, Tessa Blanchard became the first woman to hold a men’s championship in a major company, winning Impact’s World Championship. Of course, there are other issues with Blanchard.
There’s no question that since that troika of Lynch, Banks, and Charlotte were introduced they rocketed the division to places fans could only dream of before. It has trickled down to more credibility across the industry. There certainly have been steps.
It’s sobering to think just how much ground needed to be made up because of how far they still have to go.