WWE’s television programming has taken a sharp turn in the past week or so, or more precisely thrown it in reverse and slammed on the gas. The last time pro wrestling’s dominant promotion truly broke through to mainstream popularity was 20 years ago, and came largely on the back of vulgar, sexed-up mayhem. In that sense, WWE’s decision to amp up both the sex and sexism in recent weeks doesn’t seem surprising. But in the context of the promotion’s broader turn towards a more stable prosperity buoyed by ballooning TV rights fees, it’s startling.
Even setting aside personal taste, WWE’s decision to clean up its act was clearly the right business move. Today, WWE is peaking in terms of corporate acceptability, with what had been rock-bottom ad rates for wrestling programming making a turnaround as a result. The aforementioned rights fees have gone up in parallel. Even if the old McMahon formula of blood and boobs had been a recipe for success in the past, it’s untenable in a world where WWE sends executives to fancy conferences and is more reliant on corporate money than ever before. At least in the short term, with key revenue tied up in long-term contracts, week to week popularity doesn’t really matter. There’s just no reason to take risks given how well everything is working.
And so, for at least a decade now, WWE has taken a conservative approach when it comes both to gambling on potential new stars and pushing the limits in terms of acceptable content. Lately, though, that last bit appears to be changing. WWE had been notably—nothing about any of this is subtle—“sexing up” the Mandy Rose character on SmackDown over the last few weeks. They had her appear in what looked like just a towel (she had her ring gear on underneath) as part of a larger plan to try to seduce Jimmy Uso, in an attempt to get an upper hand in her rivalry with Uso’s (actual) wife, Naomi. That story came to a head this week, with a lingerie-clad Rose luring Jimmy to her hotel room as part of a plot with an evil paparazzi photographer. It turned out that her married foes were wise to her, and Naomi was waiting outside and quickly materialized to kick Mandy’s ass.
There are definite issues with the storyline, especially relative to WWE’s newfound willingness to portray its women as actual athletes, but there are also some (faintly desperate) excuses to make for it. After all, Mandy is the only WWE female character in the Conniving Harlot Using Her Looks archetype these days, which counts as progress only by default and relative to the promotion’s less-than-enlightened history. She has agency in the storyline, too. In isolation, this might almost be excused as giving a villain something villainous to do, especially since the other women aren’t bogged down in relationship storylines. It was, of course, probably just what it looked like—an excuse to get Rose on TV in revealing outfits other than her wrestling gear. But there are other explanations to reach for.
Or there were, anyway. On this week’s Monday Night Raw, which aired the night before the hotel room skit, Alexa Bliss’s “Moment of Bliss” talk show segment, which she’s doing while recovering from a concussion that has kept her sidelined for several months, became an excuse for cameras to catch her as she was “getting dressed.” The segment existed entirely in isolation, and was not referred to again after the announcers’ confused immediate reaction. It was all so stupidly gratuitous that there was no reason for it to be in the show other than to sex it up. Combine that leering in Bliss’s dressing room with the broader Mandy Rose storyline and a clear pattern emerges. If YouTube views are any indication, WWE won’t break that pattern any time soon.
As of this writing, the simultaneously gratuitous and strangely chaste Bliss segment has over 5.9 million views; that number built up quickly, hitting 2 million within a day. The Mandy Rose/Jimmy Uso/Naomi hotel room skit from 24 hours later has passed 2.7 million. Both figures are way ahead of the average WWE YouTube video, with WrestlingInc reporting that the Bliss clip is WWE’s most watched on the platform since a Ronda Rousey tag team match from November hit 4.3 million. With WWE’s TV audience dwindling over time, this latest shift feels like an obvious attempt to bring back a certain type of fan before the promotion’s lucrative new TV contracts take hold in the fall.
But if it’s clear what WWE is doing—again, it’s hard to miss—and why, the bigger question is where things go from here. Amping up the prurience would look like an indictment of the company’s performative variety of feminism—the one where they brag about “evolving” the women’s division while rarely taking blame for what it had to evolve from.
Most famously, there was the “Attitude Era,” a period when WWE’s shows were built around gratuitous swearing and sexual innuendo. Women were scantily clad as a rule and placed in storylines that framed them as victims, connivers, sex objects, or some combination of the three. In 1999, when the Attitude Era was at its most attitudinal, all of this happened:
- Marianna Komlos, reeling from her breakup with Chaz, fabricating domestic abuse on his part to get back at him.
- Terri Runnels faking a miscarriage of her and Val Venis’s baby so that D-Lo Brown would run errands for her.
- The Undertaker making repeated attempts to kidnap and “sacrifice” Stephanie McMahon and Ryan Shamrock, as well as forcibly wed Stephanie in “unholy matrimony.”
- An episode of Monday Night Raw ending with a cliffhanger of D-Generation X attempting to rape Stephanie McMahon.
- Stephanie McMahon working with Triple H to feign that he had drugged and raped her as part of a larger scheme to get back at her father and brother for their involvement in The Undertaker kidnappings.
- Vince McMahon’s “stooges” sexually assaulting Chyna during a match with her by grabbing her breasts.
- Runnels’ “Terri Invitational Tournament,” or T.I.T.
That’s far from a complete list, and leaves out the more generic weekly sex and violence; both Venis (a porn star) and The Godfather (a pimp) were mainstays of the promotion at the time. This kind of content, plus WWE picking up a broadcast network television slot for the then-new SmackDown show, led to criticism from L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council and the loss of a bunch of sponsors. Sponsors were troubled by WWE’s caveman impulses before PTC got involved—Ad Age’s coverage didn’t even mention the right wing “family” organization—but it was clear that, whatever the precise catalyst, the Attitude Era would have to end. It worked while it worked, at least in terms of growing the audience, but while the company reach new heights, it wasn’t a fit with the promotion’s broader ambitions. In 2000, the promotion was more toned down and wrestling-centric; it was an even bigger year for WWE financially than 1999 was.
That isn’t to say WWE never went back down the well, or that women were suddenly treated and presented better, or that WWE even learned any kind of lesson. It’s WWE, and learning lessons isn’t a big part of what the promotion does. In 2006, a “live sex celebration” involving Edge and Lita and a later segment in which an unnamed woman performed oral sex on Triple H and Candice Michelle under a table got WWE cancelled by Canada’s TSN, at least according to the July 24, 2006 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. But it was WWE’s major upgrade in toy deals, from Jakks Pacific to Mattel, that coincided with the biggest change yet. With all those toys to sell, WWE made a concerted effort to produce family friendly shows that could run with a TV-PG rating. That rating was so important, in fact, that a corporate partner—long believed to be but never confirmed as Mattel—got Daniel Bryan fired in 2010 for choking ring announcer Justin Roberts with his own tie as part of an on-screen angle. It was standard wrestling fare, but it simultaneously created and crossed a new line in the sand.
If WWE doesn’t go much further backwards than they did this week, there are unlikely to be any real repercussions. But if Vince McMahon sees a need to make a prolonged turn in the “Attitude” direction, any short-term ratings benefits are likely to be outweighed by corporate consequences. Those horndogs on YouTube aren’t the only ones watching.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.