WWE’s first all-female pay-per-view event, “Evolution,” felt miles away from an all-too-common refrain: “I can’t wrestle her. She’s a girl!”
That night, the regal Charlotte Flair body-slammed bad girl Becky Lynch through a folding table. Tough Ronda Rousey kicked flirty Nikki Bella to the floor. A full ring of female wrestlers tossed each other out of the ring until only the indomitable Nia Jax remained standing.
Despite WWE’s history of depicting women as sexual objects, “Evolution” celebrated the diversity of female athleticism—just two days after the organization announced a new partnership with the UN Foundation’s Girl Up initiative, Sports for a Purpose, at a forum in October in New York City, in a room crowded with over two dozen high school and college-aged girls.
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon took to the stage that day to celebrate the changes women have seen in the industry. “In 2015, three years ago, our women were treated as secondary, if not tertiary, characters,” she said, recounting the #GiveDivasAChance movement on social media and the rebranding of WWE’s Diva’s Division to the Women’s Division. “Now our women are regularly headlining our pay-per-view events.”
Girl Up Co-Executive Director Anna Blue spoke, too, reminding the crowd of the disappointing disparities that persist for women and girls in sports: only 61 percent of girls participate in sports compared to 75 percent of boys; male college athletes receive 36 percent more scholarship money than their female peers; only five percent of sports media coverage is of women athletes. In spite of the dramatic mental health, self-esteem and academic benefits of being an athlete, she noted, girls still have fewer opportunities in sports across the world.
“WWE is doing something that no other partner has done,” Blue declared, by asking Girl Up to let girls design the partnership. The forum put that model into motion: It kicked off the initiative by letting the girls in the room craft potential solutions to the barriers that continue to face them and their peers in sports.
Divided into two groups, the girls rattled off lists of obstacles still standing for women and girl athletes: lack of support, funding, representation and opportunities; uncomfortable and tight uniforms; low community turnout at their events; struggles with body image and gender roles. Decades after Title IX was passed, the girls called out the need for better enforcement at their schools; in the midst of groundbreaking times for female athletes, they noted the persistence of the myth that they aren’t as fast or strong as boys.
But then came solutions. The girls dreamed up body-positive Instagram campaigns, Facebook live videos hosted by female role models and in-person opportunities to celebrate each other. They talked about collaboration and teamwork, female friendships, self-love and the importance of seeing their athleticism reflected in the media. They want toolkits to teach girls about their rights to equal opportunities under Title IX, school events to raise money for their sports teams and opportunities to train with professional female athletes.
Names like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams filled the air as girls across the room described how meaningful it has been to see assertive, muscular, driven women celebrated in popular culture. And at the forum that night and on the bus to Evolution a few days later, they described their excitement at seeing WWE give female athletes the spotlight.
“I used to watch [WWE] when I was younger, and it’s crazy now that there are so many females,” said 16-year-old Autumn Maynard. “It’s empowering to see strong women, especially in a sport like wrestling.”
WWE’s female wrestlers were role models for many of the girls, examples of how to be assertive and confident. “There was this old wrestler that I used to watch, AJ Lee,” said 18-year-old Licette, “she came from the same town as me.” Watching the wrestlers speak into the microphone and stand their ground, Licette explained, taught her how to be assertive.
“Evolution” marked a feminist rebranding for WWE—and modeled the kind of sports culture those girls in New York City, and their counterparts across the country, are looking for. Girls in the stands wore Rowdy Ronda Rowsey shirts and wove champion belts. Women in the ring performed bold stunts. Girl Up’s members hope that seeing strong women in the ring and on television will change the narrative of sports—that representation will teach young women that it’s all right to be muscular and assertive, and prove to young men that women are equal competitors.
“I think it’s really cool,” 17-year-old Sienna Campbell said, referring to wrestler Charlotte Flair, who wrestled at “Evolution” and spoke at the forum, “that there’s a female at the front of the movement.”
Rebecca Fairweather, 16, reflected on “seeing the evolution that WWE has gone through,” even just within her lifetime—how women at wrestling matches had formerly been seen as objects to cheer on the male wrestlers, flirt or be taken advantage of in rape-like scenarios, but now were the protagonists of their own stories.
What comes of Sports for a Purpose isn’t certain, but the girls surrounding the ring were eager to celebrate that wrestling like a girl is really a compliment.