When Women Are Always the HeelWWE’s Attitude Era Mistreated Women In Service of Ratings

Misogyny and the WWE go together like Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley. Like Stone Cold Steve Austin and overflowing cans of beer. Like Rikishi and ass. Since the company’s inception in 1972, misogyny has been so firmly ingrained in the DNA of the WWE that, despite their many efforts to become more progressive, the company is still fraught with sexism both inside and outside of the ring. In recent years, the WWE has been taking deliberate steps to shake the stink of decades of glaring sexism—but are they doing enough?

Even if you’ve never watched professional wrestling, you probably equate the WWE with outlandish plots, offensive story lines, and so much sexism that it makes The Honeymooners look progressive. This is largely due to the wildly popular “Attitude Era,” which began in the late ’90s and ended in the early 2000s, and was punctuated by the WWE’s (then the WWF) penchant for raunchiness and debauchery. (I mean, they literally had a guy named “Mr. Ass” on their roster.) If you’ve ever had a boy emphatically thrust his pelvis at you and tell you to “suck it!” you can thank the Attitude Era for that.

Huge stars and came out of this era, such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and D-Generation X (Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Chyna, Rick Rude, and later, X-Pac, and the New Age Outlaws.) But with these larger-than-life wrestling personas came a tidal wave of toxic masculinity that still poisons the WWE. Under the creative direction of CEO and chairman Vince McMahon, the Attitude Era boasted completely insane story lines. Women’s wrestling legend Mae Young gave birth to a severed human hand on television. The Big Boss Man fed an oblivious Al Snow his own puppy. Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle doused Stone Cold Steve Austin with gallons of milk after driving a milk truck into an arena. In many ways, the Attitude Era felt like it was written by that group of dudes in high school who would film each other jumping off roofs or eating bugs—shock factor was everything. It was a bizarre and problematic time, and it is also the period that many fans now look back on as the penultimate era of wrestling.

WWE wrestler Jacqueline Moore

WWE wrestler Jacqueline Moore (Photo credit: Impact Wrestling/Design by Margot Harrington)

The ratings reflected that, too: In May 1999, Monday Night Raw reached an 8.1 rating. Now, an episode of Monday Night Raw nets an average rating of somewhere between 1 and 3 million viewers. But this was also an era where the company’s female talent was regularly regularly disparaged in kayfabe (staged events within the story lines of the show) and in real life. Women of the Attitude Era were mostly used as props and plot devices to enhance the male characters and their character arcs. Absolutely no woman was immune to being written into an overtly sexist plot, including Vince McMahon’s actual daughter, Stephanie. At first, Stephanie played the role of the boss’ virginal daughter, but soon, the character of Stephanie McMahon became a plaything for the male wrestlers to seduce, drug, and rape.

In one segment, D-Generation X (also known as DX) pranked their boss by raping Stephanie McMahon in a locker room, only to find out that it was really just “some college girl” who looked a lot like her. Soon after, the stable’s leader, Triple H, drugged, raped, and married Stephanie as an ultimate fuck you to the “authority” who ran the wrestling company. In a feeble attempt at damage control, the company later wrote into the story line that Stephanie was in on the ruse the entire time. As Stephanie McMahon the character and Stephanie McMahon the woman became more powerful in the WWE, ill will toward her also grew. Scott Steiner tried to rape Stephanie McMahon in the ring while the audience chanted “slut.” The Rock and Chris Jericho constantly called her a “$2 slut,” which was met with laughs and cheers from the audience. (Yes, this is the same Rock who has starred in several children’s movies, has won the hearts of millions, and is threatening to run for president.)

Part of this mistreatment was because Stephanie played an entitled princess whose daddy runs the company, but the WWE justified the disturbing behavior and abuse by playing Stephanie as a spoiled brat. In kayfabe, Stephanie McMahon is a heel, or a bad guy, and the wrestling community likes to justify problematic writing by saying that it puts “heat on the heel,” meaning that certain scenarios will prompt the audience to boo the heel. However, the gender-specific insults hurled at her from the audience and her male counterparts prove that at least a portion of this disdain came from Stephanie being a woman. And when it comes to the power dynamic of Stephanie, a small woman, versus several large, aggressive men who beat people up for a living, the words “shame” and “abuse” feel more relevant to me than “heat.” It is important to note that Stephanie’s own father willingly put her into these positions, basically giving fans permission to abuse her, knowing that the WWE’s demographic would love nothing more than to break an outspoken woman.

It is not surprising then that, according to a 2006 DVD on the McMahon family, Vince pitched an incest story line about himself and his daughter in 2003. Apparently, Stephanie shot the idea down herself, but for a man to even think that audiences would want to see a man have sex with his own daughter for ratings gives you a bit of insight into what kind of person Vince is. Of course, McMahon was enabled by his male-dominated writer’s room, especially head writers Vince Russo and Chris Kreski. The WWE has done a pathetic job of hiring women writers. Multiple employees who used to work for the WWE have told me and other reporters that there have never been more than two women writers at a time.

“In a male-dominated writers room, a female perspective was needed as WWE’s women wrestlers were expected to rise above their traditional role of full-time arm candy and part-time wrestler to share consistent (though limited) air time with their male, superstar counterparts,” former WWE writer Nico Gendron wrote in a column for Birth Movies Death. “I learned quickly that this wrestling dynasty hadn’t caught up to the main cultural dialogue around feminism and female empowerment that was electric outside WWE.”

At age 72, Vince, who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times, still owns and runs the WWE, and still dictates what story lines make it to air. He is the head of the snake, and his creative chokehold on the company will keep the WWE from ever truly becoming an inclusive space for fans of all genders. Stephanie was not the only women subjected to Russo and McMahon’s dastardly collaborations: Terri Runnels was forced into a fake miscarriage story line, later revealing that she thought the entire angle was “horrible.”

“I really begged Russo. I was like…my daughter is in elementary school and I don’t want kids hearing about that and saying, ‘Oh your mom, you know, had this other baby…’ I didn’t want to put her through that and I thought it was tacky and that was one fight I lost,” Runnels told Freak and Nitro TV. “I fought and fought and fought that angle. I begged Russo–I’m like ‘dude, don’t, just don’t’ and he won and I lost that one.”

Stephanie McMahon

Stephanie McMahon (Photo credit: Facebook/Designed by Margot Harrington)

Wrestler Lita was also put into a fake miscarriage storyline where she loses Kane’s baby after being forced into marrying him. Unlike Runnels, hers occurred on TV at ringside. Hall-of-fame wrestler Trish Stratus was also put into a fake miscarriage story line after playing Vince McMahon’s mistress for months. Unlike Runnels, hers occurred on TV at ringside. Stratus was also ordered by McMahon to strip, get on all fours, and bark like a dog in one disgusting segment. Sable, a huge star at the time, left the company in 1999 after they allegedly wanted her to go full nude on TV, and later filed a $100 million lawsuit against the company. WWE settled the lawsuit, but the terms of the deal were confidential.

There was truly great women’s wrestling happening during the Attitude Era as well, but it is seemingly buried by the slapstick approach the WWE took while portraying women characters. The “Divas,” as they were called up until 2015, still delivered great in-ring work even though their matches were short, their feuds were often catty, and they were still being used largely as eye candy. Stratus and Lita put on truly fantastic matches throughout the Attitude Era and defied any icky politics that came along with their gender. Jacqueline Moore was a pioneer as a Black woman wrestler. Chyna, who set herself apart from the rest of women’s division with her impressively muscular build, was one of the most prominent figures of the WWF, and was even allowed to wrestle men at various points in her career.

Today, the Attitude Era is revered by fans as the WWE’s golden era. Perhaps nostalgia plays a big role in why so many fans, particularly male fans, are still fawning over the “good ol’ days” of professional wrestling. It is clear that the WWE has made a conscious effort to bury their more controversial story lines (they are almost impossible to find online despite the company’s expansive archives) and reinvent themselves to appeal to a wider fan base. To borrow one of Vince’s most-used catch phrases, it is “best for business” to market to women and children because it expands their audience to sell for merchandise, tickets, and WWE network subscriptions.

In an attempt to appeal to advertisers, the WWE “went PG” around 2008, taking a big step away from the “edgier” content the company had become known for. The change was slow and painful, with the company negotiating this uncharted “family friendly” territory by stumbling through it. If the story lines for this purgatory called the Ruthless Aggression Era was any indication, WWE has no idea what “family friendly” actually means. The company hired more women than ever before, but still hinged the majority of story lines on their sexuality, having female athletes compete in “Pillow Fights,” “Mud Matches,” “Dance Contests,” “Bra and Panties matches,” and “Bikini Contests.”

During this time, the company also took a bizarre and unnecessary step back by completely eradicating the Women’s Championship title, replacing it with the pre-existing “Diva’s Championship.” Now the divas competed for a sparkly, pink, butterfly-shaped belt that looked like it was straight out of Claire’s. Yet women wrestlers kept their heads down and continued working, despite being written into feuds better suited for teens on a CW show than adult women athletes.

WWE Divas Mickie James, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Paige, Mandy Rose, and Sonya Deville

WWE Divas Mickie James, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Paige, Mandy Rose, and Sonya Deville (Illustration by Margot Harrington)

Then, in 2015, everything changed. On the February 23, 2015, episode of Monday Night Raw, The Bella Twins faced Paige and Emma in a widely criticized match that lasted around 30 seconds. After the match, #GiveDivasAChance trended worldwide on Twitter for more than one day. Fans urged the WWE to give divas longer matches, more substantial story lines, and the recognition they deserved. The very next day, wrestler AJ Lee ignited a real-life Twitter feud with Stephanie McMahon, now WWE’s chief brand officer, after McMahon tweeted about women’s rights following Patricia Arquette’s 2015 Oscar speech that focused largely on the wage gap.

“Your female wrestlers have record-selling merchandise and have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times,” Lee tweeted, pointing out McMahon’s hypocrisy. “And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster. #UseYourVoice

All it took was a nationally trending hashtag and an awkward Twitter feud for Vince to understand that more equality might be what is “best for business.” The public pressure ignited the WWE’s “women’s revolution.” The movement felt just as organic as Daniel Bryan’s “Yes! Movement” because fans demanded the change. Later that year, a “women’s revolution” story line was introduced, with Stephanie announcing a slew of new female wrestlers brought up from NXT, the WWE’s developmental promotion. The WWE has a habit of acting retroactively, and only making necessary changes after the demand from fans becomes too loud. In 2016, WWE rebranded the “Diva’s Title” as the “WWE Women’s Championship,” and created a belt for both Raw and SmackDown. With the “women’s revolution” well underway, the WWE toted their new “girl power” attitude with pride, pointing out that they were “making history” by doing the bare minimum and treating their women superstars somewhat similarly to men.

The Women’s Revolution was also ripe with financial opportunity: By not treating women like garbage, the WWE could expand the minority demographic of female fans who may have been turned off by the sexism, violence, and mistreatment of women. Mattel and the WWE released series of “fashion dolls” in the likeness of female wrestling champions. It is now more common than ever before to see women main event an episode of SmackDown or Raw—and even occasionally a PPV.

People of all genders can buy women’s wrestling merch, and seeing a man wearing a “Legit Boss” shirt or a “I’m a hugger” hoodie is really not out of the ordinary. In an appearance on ITV’s Lorraine, Stephanie McMahon revealed that women now comprise 40 percent of the WWE’s audience. The company branded itself as “feminist,” but still managed to fall short when giving women equal opportunity in the ring. Kate Foray founded the Raw Breakdown Project to show how much air time women and women of color get each week, and realized that women are still struggling for equity. “One of the reasons I started the RAW Breakdown Project was because I noticed how little time WWE was giving their women’s segments,” she said. “I was curious to see, percentage-wise, just how much time they were being given considering it’s a weekly three-hour show.”

Foray has tracked the “Women’s Revolution” since its inception, and although she has noticed an improvement in the airtime women receive, she does note that the numbers still don’t quite feel consistent yet, even after more than 2 years. On top of the uneven air time between male and female wrestlers, both Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live are still fraught with disturbingly sexist story lines. It’s not as overt as it was during the Attitude Era, but women are still used as props for male talent (Alicia Fox was a “trophy” two males fought over for a particular story line, all while being portrayed as the “crazy” girl). Former six-time Women’s Champion Mickie James was stuck in the tired narrative of being “too old” to wrestle while feuding with the younger Alexa Bliss.

James is 38, but that means she’s nearing her expiration date for the WWE. Male superstars like John Cena, 40, Kane, 50, and Kurt Angle, 49, continue to compete without their ages ever being brought into question. Nikki Bella, one of the WWE’s most famous female wrestlers returned to the ring this year after overcoming a career-threatening neck injury. Yet she was pigeonholed into a story line about relying on her fiancé, John Cena, for fame. When she enters arenas, she is usually met with a “John Cena sucks” chant. On June 18, 2017, WWE held the first-ever women’s Money in the Bank match. To win Money in the Bank, a wrestler has to climb a ladder and retrieve a briefcase that includes contract that the winner can cash in at any point for a championship title opportunity. The inaugural match was hyped for weeks as a watershed moment, a long-overdue and well-deserved chance for women wrestlers to finally be granted the same opportunities male talent had been given all along.

Yet at the end of this historic match, Carmella’s valet James Ellsworth climbed the latter and grabbed the briefcase. The image of a wrestler seizing the briefcase after a hard-fought battle has always been iconic, so it was another slap in the face to fans who bought into the narrative of equality and acceptance the WWE was falsely toting in the weeks leading up to the match. Since the Money in the Bank match, the WWE has continued to pat itself on the back for giving women the same opportunities as men. The all-women’s Royal Rumble was widely regarded as a success because women from all eras wrestled. Lita, one of the most prominent women wrestlers, wore the words #TimesUp on her gear and sported the names of legendary female wrestlers on her arms who did not live long enough to see the match.

It was a beautiful redemption of Lita’s character after her personal life and romantic relationship became plot-fodder for the WWE, and ultimately pushed her to quit the company in 2006. Ronda Rousey also made her first TV appearance during the Royal Rumble pay-per-view. This year, on February 25, the women also competed in their first-ever Elimination Chamber match. However, we shouldn’t applaud the WWE for doing the bare minimum 25 years after Monday Night Raw debuted. Yes, wrestling is scripted. The characters, stories, and feuds are all written and manufactured. But like any good soap opera, the fans’ investment is completely real, and at times, the WWE’s obtuse sexism feels like a taunt, like a constant reminder that women are to be kept at an arm’s length. It’s a reinforcement of what so many women wrestling fans are told every day by shitty men on the internet: this is not for you. In a world that can be divided cleanly into two camps—faces and heels—sometimes it feels like there is no bigger heel than the WWE itself.

This post previously misidentified Mandy Rose with Alexa Bliss.

by April Lavalle
View profile »

April Lavalle is a writer, actor, and comedian from New York. 

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader: