“We are women, we are attractive, we have great bodies. You can’t escape that fact, so why not use it to our advantage? If sex sells, I’m all for it.” -Lisa Leslie
Hello! Today, we continue a mini-series of articles looking at the Women’s Revolution in wrestling, and who deserves the utmost credit. I will not be giving an answer to the title until we conclude the last article. Missed the previous two? You can check them out here: Vol. #1 – Vol. #2
Up to the beginning of the Attitude Era, you will be aware (having read the volumes) of women’s wrestling enduring a tough time. By the end, it was in a much better place. To bolster its small and effective division, WWE picked up a few former WCW talents, like Torrie Wilson, Stacy Keibler and Molly Holly. With the company full to the brim with incoming WCW & ECW talent, it wasn’t easy to get airtime. Still, women had to resort to the sex factor to justify taking up 5-15 minutes of a show. Some embraced it, while others endured, knowing it was part of the game.
We’re going to begin by looking through some of the worst times of the Ruthless Aggression era. After that, we’ll look at introducing contests like the Diva’s Search. Finally, we will look at the positives of the time, and how it affected the women of today. If any, how did it help to bring about the Women’s Revolution?
Hot Lesbian Action
I was 14-15 years old when Eric Bischoff began what he called HLA. Now, I still didn’t have the internet, so in my young mind, this was a colossal tease. He would introduce a couple of lesbians, have them strip, kiss a little, and then stop the act just as it got heated. None of this had anything to do with wrestling, so why am I bringing it up? It’s important to note, because it showed how WWE perceived women on TV. They remained objects of sexual desire, not just in 2001-2002, but for many years to come. It would be an enemy for a women’s revolution to defeat.
When I look back on some segments, the guys in the audience are like… “whoa, this is the greatest thing ever”, while Jerry Lawler sounds like he needs a change of pants at any moment. The women? Yeah, unless they were lesbian too, they look bored & unimpressed. Homosexuality is fine. It has come a long way on TV, but this was clearly a desperate gimmick for ratings. Let’s get a bunch of hot girls, pay them off to do the business, and we won’t see them again. Great, right? Not really. The only good part was Bischoff doing his “3-Minute Warning” thing, to bring out Rosey & Jamal.
Did You Know? The lesbian (Looney Lane) Jamal attacks is a wrestler, but he kicks her so hard she’s winded, and even more so after the splash. WWE had to get EMTs out to see to her. She’s good friends with Edge & Tommy Dreamer, and they were there when she got backstage. They said it was completely unacceptable.
Not only was WWE desperately bringing in lesbians for ratings, they put Lane in harm’s way with Jamal (AKA Umaga), who was later released for being dangerous. As Eric Bischoff put it, “sex & violence sells”. After they phased out HLA, lesbian action continued, but differently. Torrie Wilson & Mickie James are the most famous for this.
If we put this in the context of a man blackmailing another man (or woman) to have sex, that wouldn’t be acceptable. You would say this isn’t suitable for TV, especially with kids watching, right? We would always look at the blackmailer like a sexual predator. However, WWE normalized lesbian action so much that Dawn Marie blackmailing Torrie Wilson in to sex was fine. Marie used her devilish ways to lure in Torrie’s father Al, and they were to be married. However, if Torrie went to bed with Dawn, she would call it off. So, we see this play out, like an uncomfortable starting plot (or so they say?) to a porno.
Torrie is reluctant, but Dawn talks her through, gets her to bite a strawberry, strips her down, and starts kissing her. Of course, Torrie eventually reciprocates, because she loves her father and doesn’t want him marrying a succubus. The problem? Marie is a heel, but she is encouraging something much of the thirsty audience wants. They exacerbate this when Al, bless his soul (RIP), does not want to see the rest of the video. Al is booed because he doesn’t want to see his soon to be wife having sex with his daughter. Can you blame him? The commentary team hates Al, as do the fans. Yet, any upstanding father would do the same thing.
Fans should have been cheering Al for sticking up for what’s right, but they wanted HLA. After marrying her (Dawn lied to Torrie) anyway, he passed away during (in the storyline) the honeymoon. All the sex with Dawn killed him. It was unexpected, but I don’t think the fans showed any remorse. They were glad, because he didn’t let them have their precious HLA. He hadn’t made fans of them. Let’s face it though, did anybody think for a second that they jumped in to bed with each other? I know I didn’t, and I was young enough to want to believe it.
Many wanted to believe Torrie & Dawn got it on, and they didn’t care that 1) Marie was a sexual predator, and 2) Al didn’t want to see or hear his daughter having sex. Had that happened today, the internet would have blown up, and WWE would be condemned for showing what was obvious sextortion. People say the Diva’s got “proper storylines back then”, but does this count? Wilson defeated Marie at the Royal Rumble, but her “stepmother” had already “killed” her Father, so was justice served? Not really. Also, this was Dawn Marie’s peak. We will most remember her for this, and her time in ECW with the Impact Players.
Mickie James & Trish Stratus would continue this trend, with James being infatuated with her hero. At WrestleMania 23, she got in trouble, not for touching Trish’s crotch, but for making a licking gesture between her fingers. On the WWE Network, the grab isn’t censored, but the camera pans away when Mickie does the gesture. Even Vince McMahon felt it was in poor taste. It turns out there is a limit to HLA, but a women’s revolution remained as unlikely as anybody liking Al Wilson (RIP).
While WWE was having more serious wrestling matches, it always made room for the other kind. Following in the footsteps of the Evening Gown gimmick, came the Bra & Panties match. This was the most commonly used strip match for Diva’s, something which Torrie Wilson, Stacy Keibler and a few others embraced. They knew their wrestling skills were under par, so being sexy on TV played to their strengths. Keibler & Wilson had an eggnog match once, and Torrie gave her all she had. It’s not appropriate to share in this post, but you can find it here: Eggnog Match
There were other pool types, with mud, chocolate pudding, and even gravy. As a teen, I only enjoyed seeing it initially because I didn’t know what to expect, but it quickly got old. Other gimmicks include School Girl, Lingerie, Wet N’ Wild, Pillow Fight, Paddle on a Pole, and more. Some Divas suited this line of encounters, but the others wanted something which would get them respect with their male counterparts and the audience.
As long as they were being used as sex objects, it devalued women’s wrestling. Sure, they were getting airtime, but for what? Sable, who we know left WWE to get away from the debauchery, returned and got back on the horse. When she wasn’t snogging Vince, she was kissing Torrie. There was also a moment when Stephanie tore off her top and exposed her breasts on live TV. What did all of this achieve? It got Torrie & Sable on Playboy together, making them the first duo of WWE Divas to do a shoot. As far as selling sex goes, it was bringing WWE the exposure it lusted after. Did it contribute to the women’s revolution? It’s tough to say. And no, sorry, I can’t post any of the Playboy stuff here. I’d get in serious trouble!
Diva Search / Tough Enough
With the rise of reality television, WWE wanted to capitalize, and they went all out to find new talent. How successful were these shows? Did WWE find enough female talent to justify their time and effort? And would it help the women’s revolution? I’ll let you be the judge. We’ll be looking at all the shows from 2001 to 2015, so we don’t have to go over it again in another volume.
Instead of specifically looking for fully trained professional wrestlers, WWE sought after talent from all walks of life. If they hadn’t been in the ring before, WWE promised they would get proper training. Below, if you see “DS” it means Diva Search. “TE” means Tough Enough. I’m only including those who were known in WWE.
Winners: Nidia (TE), Christy Hemme (DS), Jackie Gayda (TE), Ashley Massaro (DS), Layla (DS), Eve Torres (DS), Eva Marie (non-televised DS)
Runner-Up: Mandy Rose (TE)
Ok, so Nidia was around for a while, won nothing and was later released. Christy Hemme’s crowning moment was having Lita train her up on the way to facing Trish Stratus for the title at WrestleMania 21. She lost and never looked like getting there again. Hemme left WWE and spent many years announcing for Impact. Jackie Gayda was better as a manager for husband Charlie Haas than anything else. Ashley Massaro, bless her (RIP), got a massive push, but never got over and wasn’t skilled enough in the ring.
Layla & Eve Torres are the two who stand out. They both won titles, although they were never considered the best in WWE. Eva Marie is questionable, but gets a lot of heat (actual or go-away), which is something you can’t say about many of the others. Fans care enough to comment about Eva Marie and won’t forget her in a hurry. Mandy Rose, as a runner-up in the last Tough Enough, is by far more successful than the winner and most other participants, male or female.
In the below list, everyone except Candice Michelle made it to the Final stages of their competition. The numbers show where they were ranked:
Candice Michelle (semi-final DS), Maria Kanellis (5th DS), Michelle McCool (7th DS), Rosa Mendes (4th DS), Maryse (7th DS), Taryn Terrell (7th DS), Cameron (1st eliminated in TE), Alexa Bliss & Lana (unknown in non-televised DS), Chelsea Green (3 episodes before elimination in TE), Sonya Deville (11th TE)
Outside of winners & runner-ups, the most successful are those who took advantage of being signed. Michelle McCool, Maryse, Alexa Bliss & Lana made the most of their time in WWE. Sonya Deville, despite being the fourth eliminated out of 14 contestants, was signed up along with Mandy Rose & Velveteen Dream. Candice Michelle was all about sex appeal (and Godaddy.com), but still became women’s champion.
Maria Kanellis, Rosa Mendes and Lana were around a long time and made decent money. Taryn Terrell & Chelsea Green are more known for what they did after WWE, by becoming Impact Knockouts Champions. Alexa Bliss, despite not winning over Eva Marie in the last Diva Search, has surpassed everybody. Michelle McCool dominated the women’s division for a while, and doing so with Layla (a winner) backing her up. She would have done a lot more had injuries, mounting pressures (being Undertaker’s girlfriend), and wanting to be a Mother hadn’t got in the way.
The Bella Twins did not make the cut for the 2006 Diva Search. However, they were still signed to contracts, and we’ll talk more about them in another volume.
Question: Were WWE’s reality contest shows successful?
Yes and no, but mostly no. WWE scoured the globe and looked over so many people. Hundreds, if not thousands, did not make the cut. Who did they find? The biggest assets, I would say, were The Bella Twins, Maryse and Alexa Bliss. I only say The Bella’s and Maryse for helping them launch reality shows Total Divas, and the more recent Miz & Mrs. The only genuine star they found is Alexa Bliss, and the jury is out on Mandy Rose & Sonya Deville. Eve Torres & Michelle McCool held the women’s division together while they were around. You could take the rest out of history and it wouldn’t change WWE much.
The Diva Search & Tough Enough helped WWE to create Total Divas, which was far more successful in the female demographic. Although, it’s not something I want to detail here, it’s important to remember for later. WWE’s original contest shows were a success if you consider them precursors to later reality programming. However, to find actual wrestling talent? It’s a big thumbs down. You don’t find quality wrestlers or sports entertainers this way. The last two attempts to bring back the Divas Search (as Superstar Search) have failed. Nobody believes this concept works, because it has proven itself as a failure many times over. A women’s revolution does not need to reach out. Women’s wrestling never needed to bring in talent who most, but not all, were just looking to get famous.
To close out this section, let’s pay our respects to Ashley Massaro. She requested her release because her daughter was sick, so there was always a chance she could have improved. Ashley’s legacy may be one of helping the wrestling community to respect the seriousness of mental health in the industry. She will be remembered.
The Birth Of TNA Knockouts
When TNA Wrestling opened its door in 2002, it was tasked with taking up a void left behind by WCW & ECW. Neither company were doing much with their female talent in late-2000, and TNA carried on this trend. The company introduced a title (in name only) called “Miss TNA”. Taylor Vaughn won it on the 2nd show, but she lost it a few weeks later to a homosexual guy called Bruce. He felt that as he was homosexual, he may challenge for it. However, after breaking up with his tag team partner, it was later revealed he only pretended to be gay. Of course, the creative team was Vince Russo and Jeremy Borash, so it’s easy to see what’s going on here. They dropped the Miss TNA title not so long after.
In 2003, the company introduced cage dancers around the venue, but this didn’t last long. The best-known female talent of the time included manager Belladonna, cage dancer Lollipop, Trinity, Desire, Traci Brooks, Cheerleader Melissa, and Alexis Laree, who would later become Mickie James. Alexis joined Raven’s stable called The Gathering, along with a young CM Punk. She is the only woman to have worked in a Clockwork Orange House of Fun match. She sent tapes of her work to WWE, who signed her to OVW the following year. TNA’s division was already giving women the platform to get noticed by other companies. Other future mainstays to join the brand include Angelina Love, Daffney, and ODB.
With Vince Russo’s departure in 2004, many of the women left too. Only Traci Brooks stayed around, but was more of an on-air talent than a wrestler. Trinity continued wrestling, but left for WWE in late-2005. By the end of the year, TNA introduced the show “Impact!” on Spike TV, and picked up former WWE Diva’s Gail Kim, Jacqueline, Jackie Gayda and Christy Hemme. There was still a long way to go. TNA did not have the Knockouts Division yet, and sporadically used the women they had in matches. They were mostly used as valets, or for other reasons. For example, Gail Kim managed the America’s Most Wanted tag team.
After Vince Russo returned in late 2006, things changed, including a shift toward featuring more women’s wrestling. It was a slow build, but Gail Kim and others led a revolution beginning in early 2007. Jacqueline attacked her after returning, and their feud continued through to May when Kim beat her in a street fight. After a few more appearances, TNA announced the introduction of the Knockouts Championship. A match would decide the first title holder at Bound For Glory in late-2007. Gail Kim became the first champion in a 10-woman battle royal and later named the TNA Knockout of the Year. By December, Gail Kim squared up to a monster who would become her nemesis, the much larger and stronger Awesome Kong.
While WWE had cemented its Divas in to their product by 2007, TNA’s Knockout Division had just been born into existence. It would change the history of women’s wrestling forever. Some will go as far to say that the seeds of the women’s revolution began here.
Aside from promoting sex and reality TV, something more important was happening. For the first time in so long, the women’s championship was gaining prestige. WWE had not taken the title seriously in the Attitude Era, but it all changed when Jazz defeated Trish Stratus in early 2002. As there was a brand split, they made some titles exclusive, but being the women’s champion meant you would appear on both shows. This created a competitive environment, because whoever was champion would enjoy added exposure and money.
Many people understate how important it was for Jazz to win the title. Formerly of ECW, she wasn’t there for looks; she was there to destroy anyone labelled a Diva. Jazz was a wrestler, and she wasn’t afraid to state that. I hated her at first, because she wasn’t appealing. Yet, after seeing how dangerous she could be, I accepted her as a new breed. She wasn’t somebody to lust after, or laugh at. Jazz made me respect skill and toughness in women’s wrestling, which is something WWE hadn’t tried before.
Jazz’s work rate encouraged everybody to up their own. She reminds me of guys like Eddie Guerrero & Chris Benoit pushing others to become more technically sound. From here, Trish Stratus improved exponentially while trading the title with the likes of Molly Holly, Victoria, and Gail Kim. All these women could work on a level we had not seen before. It could be named the most skilled women’s division in WWE history. Yes, we still had the bra & panties matches on the side, but at least some of those had actual wrestlers working them.
Mickie James & Lita were Trish Stratus’ biggest foes. She wasn’t the most skilled of the bunch, but Stratus’ popularity helped to bring the rest up. Although, yes, Mickie got in trouble at WrestleMania, Trish made her a star that night. By 2006, the women’s title could be taken seriously, thanks to everyone’s hard work. WWE’s women’s division proved it could be sexy, entertaining, powerful, skilled, tough, and respectful. Nothing highlights this more than the match between Trish Stratus & Lita at Unforgiven 2006. The two biggest female stars in WWE fought in the PPV main event, and it wouldn’t be marred (like Stephanie vs. Lita) by tons of male interference.
This was about Trish ending her career on top of the mountain as women’s champion. It was beautiful. To see that live, I was so happy for them. Going through all the hardships, dealing with so little airtime, ridiculous gimmick matches and storylines. To be here, doing it for women in the main event of a PPV? That’s a damn good feeling. It’s major progress for women’s wrestling. A far cry from the days when they weren’t allowed in the ring. Surely, the women’s revolution would not be far behind? Find out next time, when I get around to posting volume #4! Thanks for reading.