If you know me IRL, you know that I am an avid wrestling fan — or specifically, a fan of WWE. I am a big cheerleader for the women’s division, and a large reason I was brought back to WWE fandom after a long hiatus was because I’d heard that the company was finally deciding to invest in their female competitors. So naturally, milestones in women’s wrestling are important to me, as they are to many female fans. The ladies of the locker room hit another milestone at the most recent WWE pay-per-view, Money in the Bank. For the first time ever, a women’s Money in the Bank Ladder Match would take place.
The match, a staple in WWE for the last decade, guarantees the winner a blank contract for a title match that they can “cash in” at any time for up to a year. The rules of the match seemed pretty straightforward for years: the first competitor to retrieve the briefcase containing the contract from high above the ring would be declared the winner. In the past, this was typically done when a competitor climbed a ladder and unhooked the briefcase themselves. But in this match, the trailblazing women’s MITB, it would be James Ellsworth, noted male specimen and lackey to competitor Carmella, to climb a ladder, unhook the briefcase, and drop it down to her below. This somehow made Carmella the winner of the match, despite her not actually retrieving the briefcase for herself.
Twitter was in an uproar about the joke ending to what was hyped by WWE as a historic match. Many women lamented that a man shouldn’t have been the one to “win” in a match for women, especially since it was the very first match of its sort for WWE’s female Superstars. As the initial shock wore off, it became apparent that WWE (as they often do) swerved fans on purpose, as they used the screwy result to hype the following Tuesday’s Smackdown show in advertisements.
On Smackdown, Carmella and Ellsworth came out to the ring to address the controversy. Carmella explained that she wasn’t in the match for “girl power” and said that her intelligence won her the briefcase, in that she figured out she and Ellsworth could pull such a win off. Her mantra was that she couldn’t break a rule that had never existed. And to her (and the writers’) credit, she is right. It was announced at the beginning of the show that general manager Daniel Bryan would make a decision on the fate of the briefcase’s ownership, and it was treated as a big deal throughout the night. After Carmella’s opening promo, each of the other competitors in the match were spotlighted in segments venting their frustrations with the finish to Bryan, complaining that the spotlight was taken away from their hard work. And even though Bryan ended up stripping Carmella of the briefcase by the end of the night, it all still felt a little….off.
And that’s when I started thinking. While I remain firm in my resolve that the ending to the women’s MITB was shitty and sexist, I had to admit that it got the spotlight on the women for the entirety of an episode of Smackdown. For the first time in a while, each woman felt genuine and showed signs of depth. I was excited about this, but at the same time I was pissed that it took the writers giving the women a sexist match finish to actually write them well. And, that in order for them to do this, they needed to involve men in the form of Ellsworth and Bryan to an extent. Do the ends justify the means? Why must there be a barrier for oppressed characters’ triumphant story arcs, one that says they first must endure oppression to rise above adversity? Why can’t we just write them as triumphant despite their marginalized status?
As my wheels starting turning about these essential questions, I thought of two popular examples — Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black. Both shows due to their settings (medieval fantasy world and New York prison, respectively) have imagery and plotlines that arguably necessitate violence against oppressed people. “Arguably,” because while many fans of GoT and OITNB let the violence portrayed against women and people of color slide because it makes the shows “realistic,” many other fans have been critical of the degree to which writers include this violence, saying that much of it is unnecessarily gruesome.
First, there’s Game of Thrones. Every GoT fan goes through an initiation of sorts with the first season, with casual female nudity in almost every episode and abuse to women’s scantily-clad bodies featured just as prominently. Acknowledging that sexism, fans typically excuse it to a degree, chalking it up to the show’s Middle Age feel and remembering that the writers wrote the women on the show in this way to portray that world “authentically.” However, as the seasons progressed, it seemed this casual violence against women was beginning to have a smutty feel. It began with Jaime Lannister’s rape of his sister, Cersei, in season four. The scene was markedly more aggressive than what took place in the books, and fans definitely noticed. Then, the entire fifth season infuriated lady fans everywhere, with Shireen Baratheon’s burning at the stake, Arya’s constant abuse, Sansa’s rape, and Cersei’s walk of shame. Season five was the final straw for droves of women, sweating off the show for good.
Yet, for those that did stay with the show into the sixth season, it was clear that the abused women of the previous season got their redemption arcs. It’s unclear whether this was the writers’ plans all along or if they were doing damage control in response to season five’s backlash, but either way, the main female characters seemed to finally get their comeuppance. Cersei killed pretty much everyone and became queen, Arya became a “faceless” warrior, and Sansa had her rapist viciously killed. But the question remains: why did all of these women have to go through hell and back to get to their Promised Land?
Then, there’s Orange is the New Black. For its first few seasons, fans were pretty much in agreement that the show managed to humanize its characters while still portraying the very harsh realities of prison life for women. But, with OITNB‘s fourth season, that perception turned sour. Scores of fans (specifically black, brown, and queer ones) wrote scathing reviews of the season on social media, proclaiming that it was essentially “trauma porn” for oppressors. The death of Poussey — not forgetting all of the other awful and sadistic ordeals the inmates faced that season — was inexcusable to many during a summer when police brutality against black bodies was plastered all over the news. It was also yet another death of a gay character, adding to the “Bury Your Gays” television trope. And, since the show focuses on women in prison, it was uncomfortable to watch male guards abuse them for the entire thirteen episode run.
Despite the gut-wrenching (and frankly, triggering) ending to season four, the show powered on for a fifth season, wherein the inmates get their bitter revenge against the guards that harmed them and killed one of their own. And while the imagery of these women beating their abusers may have been cathartic to some viewers, again I wonder why they needed to be utterly exploited for our voyeuristic gaze in order for the writers to give them some sort of power. Wasn’t the original intent of the show (or so it was marketed to us) was to show how these women still had some sort of power within themselves, despite their criminal history?
These TV shows, while all different, share a common thread. It is clear that these narratives, those of oppressed people attempting to reach their full potential, break barriers, and find happiness only to be humbled by some sort of obstacle, become tropes when the writing of these characters are controlled by largely white, straight, and/or male authors. Much of the anger toward OITNB last season came at the revelation that its writers are primarily white. It is par for the course for Game of Thrones to exclude women on almost every level of production. And I’m not sure about WWE’s writing team, but given my own long history in knowing the company, I can be pretty certain they don’t have a good number (if any) female writers. They did after all hire their first female trainer only a couple years ago.
Therefore, the writers of these shows only relate to these characters insofar as what they see them go through in everyday life, which is typically pain and working excessively hard to reach their goals. You can’t connect to the emotions of a person who doesn’t share your identity. You can’t create stories that lend themselves to making characters look strong if you believe they must be weak first. It is true that in life, we must overcome struggles and discomfort to reach become fully realized individuals. It builds character. But it seems that when in the wrong hands, the stories of the marginalized become subjugated, essentially breaking down characters to be nothing more than the oppressed identities they hold. In a supposed effort to have characters overcome oppression, these writers are actually undermining the strength that these characters gain in the aftermath of their struggles. It means more to have characters that don’t feel as if they were created with the gaze of their oppressors in mind, a la the audience of white people, men, and straight people.
It is a complicated dynamic to portray, despite my criticism. My own critique is imperfect, as I still love Game of Thrones and WWE while simultaneously expressing indifference toward Orange is the New Black. If done with enough care and foresight, this trope may even work. Still, it’s worth investigating why these barriers seem to exist for specific characters and not others, and who writes those stories. If these bland writers’ rooms handed the pen over to the people who have stakes in these representations, the day may come sooner that marginalized identities become more than a demographic to check off on an EEO form.