Sunday 8 March 2015

AJ Lee's Search for (WW)Equality

On Monday 23 February Stephanie McMahon took to Twitter to congratulate Patricia Arquette1 on striking a blow for women's rights by speaking in favour of equal pay for actresses. It was the sort of thing Steph does from time to time, designed as much to try and capitalise on the latest trending topics on social media as to express any genuine sentiment. It was a non-issue.

Two days later that changed when AJ Lee responded to Steph's tweet with the following message across two tweets:

Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise and have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times, and yet they receive a fraction of the wages and screen time of the majority of the male roster. #UseYourVoice

Steph acknowledged the tweet and thanked AJ for her opinion. The following RAW played host to a Nikki Bella versus Paige Divas championship match which was noticeably different to the average WWE women's offering. Both wrestlers hit harder and used a wider variety of moves than they usually would. After the match AJ Lee returned and united with Paige to clear the ring of the Bellas. Although no mention was made of AJ's tweets to Steph it looked as though the desired effect had been achieved.

Main event draws?
On the one hand AJ has a fair point. Matches featuring WWE's female performers are routinely positioned as toilet breaks before pay-per-view main events, get short TV matches, and are generally presented as inferior to their male counterparts. Companies like Shine and SHIMMER, the once great Knockouts division in TNA, and the way women's wrestling has been and continues to be appreciated in NXT show that a modern audience can appreciate women wrestlers as more than eye candy and filler material. The presentation of women on the main WWE roster is behind the times.

Unfortunately some of Lee's points are questionable. Not knowing the pay scale of WWE's main roster performers it's impossible to comment on whether or not women are paid fairly. What is known is that the majority of the women in NXT are paid more than the average male performers there (that's basically everyone who's not Owens, Zayn, Bálor, Itami or Neville). The reasoning behind this is that it's tough to maintain the "look" the company expects from its female performers on a developmental wage. It's not progressive reasoning but it is still more money.

The merchandise sales are harder to comment on. Most important to note is that (as revealed in an interview given by Nikki Bella) all WWE performers receive the same percentage of merchandise sales. It's also worth noting that there haven't been any reports of fans being unable to purchase the T-shirts of female performers at house show booths, as was the case with Randy Orton's shirts last year. That indicates that WWE are managing to keep up with whatever demand there is. It's also worth noting that no wrestling shows ever see an overwhelming number of T-shirts for female wrestlers in the crowd. Bullet Club's dominance in that field is safe for the time being. Basically, any deficiencies AJ detects in her merchandise cut can be attributed to her not being as popular as she thinks she is.

The biggest question regarding Lee's comments can be levied at her claim that female wrestlers have "starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times." This is true but put into context it's a far lesser deal than Lee would like it to be. First of all there are only two women currently under contract who have been in these segments: Stephanie McMahon and AJ Lee herself. In Stephanie's case she is almost always interacting with male performers. While this doesn't disprove Steph herself is an effective, believable character it doesn't prove she is either. People are just as likely watching because Triple H or John Cena or Seth Rollins are also involved, or because she generally appears in the opening and closing of the show, which are always positioned as the most important parts of WWE television shows.

To find proof of AJ's history in high rated segments you have to go back to 2012. At the time she was one of the most over performers of either gender in the company. She'd gained this popularity through a combination of having a character that was different from the norm and by being involved in a storyline with the supremely over Daniel Bryan and WWE champion CM Punk2. It's entirely accurate to say she was involved in the highest rated segments of RAW at this time, but anyone in her spot would have been because they were in segments with Bryan and Punk. The success was only partially attributable to her. I think it's fair to say it was primarily attributable to Punk and Bryan: Punk remained popular until he left WWE while D-Bry remains popular to this day.

AJ herself was over at this time. I'm not claiming that she had no effect on the success of the storylines or segments she was involved with. But I don't think they would have been any less well received without her involvement. At the time I saw it as a forward-thinking move by WWE, getting audiences used to female performers associating with the male main event stars. Looking back I still see it that way, it's just a move they failed to follow through on (hardly a surprise as they fail to follow through on so much).

"Come on, Nikki. Let's practice our staring!"
On the issue of screen time Lee has a point. The main roster is (very) roughly twenty-five per cent female. Based on this it could be argued that a quarter of every show could be dedicated to women's wrestling. In practical terms this simply wouldn't work because of the fourteen women on the main roster only four definitely have characters that the majority of people care about: the Bella twins, Paige and AJ Lee (and even Paige is a shaky claim outside of Britain). Beyond them only Natalya, Summer Rae and Naomi have a semblance of character. These aren't enough names to construct a division around.

WWE's programming is currently structured around the guys who headline pay-per-views. As the success of any pay-per-view not named WrestleMania generally rests on the popularity of the wrestlers in its top one or two matches this is a sound approach. There is an argument to be made in favour of fleshing out the women's division with more interesting characters and giving them more screen time but that's a gradual process that rushing won't help with.

Lee is right in her sentiment. WWE doesn't treat its female performers as fairly as it could. Looking back to the early naughties3 and seeing the way in which Trish Stratus, Lita, Mickie James and Victoria were booked shows us that it can, which only makes the current situation even more frustrating. But her view that the current batch of female wrestlers are proven draws is incorrect. They can be, and should be given the chance to prove it, but they're not there yet.


1 She's an actress. I mention this because I've never heard of her and I'm assuming other people may be in the same position. Maybe she's related to the former WCW champion...

2 Kane was also involved.

3 Do we have a better term for this yet? No? Okay, can someone just shoot me, please? Thanks.

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