On Monday, more or less the eve of tomorrow’s Survivor Series, Becky Lynch led a tenuous coalition of female SmackDown wrestlers into the Raw ring, with the expressed purpose of sending a message to their inter-company rivals. Survivor Series is sold on the premise of open conflict between WWE’s two televised brands. As such, segments like this have become an annual tradition — a big, chaotic brawl with competitors wearing their brand’s colors in order to visually illustrate the rivalry. All was going according to plan until Raw wrestler Nia Jax — one of the largest, most intimidating workers in the division — reared back and slugged Lynch in the face, seemingly for real. Of course, with wrestling, you must always ask the question of what is or isn’t part of the show. This, though, looked completely authentic. So much so that for the remainder of the segment, Lynch bled out from a cut around her left eye socket, an image bordering on iconic from the moment it aired.
With a severe concussion and unspecified facial injuries to deal with, you might expect Lynch, the fiery Irish WWE’s Women’s Champion on the SmackDown brand, to not be so aware of the many cameras trained on her. But if anything, it seemed to intensify her focus. From almost the start then, she used her bloodied face to her advantage, mugging and posing for the cameras as she declared Monday Night Raw “her house.” The crowd went nuts, loudly chanting her name. The rivers of crimson smearing her makeup signaled to the primarily male audience that she could hang, that she was worthy, that she is as she professes to be: The Man.
WWE is in the midst of what it reverently refers to as the “Women’s Revolution” — a concerted PR campaign to declare its female talent to be on par with the men who have dominated the sport since its inception. Part of that is thanks to the ascension of Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE emperor Vince McMahon, who is a proud woman in the executive ranks of one of entertainment’s most powerful brands. Equally important is the steady momentum of the zeitgeist — the backlash to Trump, #MeToo and the reckoning that comes with it. It’s good business for WWE to empower its women, to put them in the spotlight and to promote ideas of gender equality — even as they grapple with the complications of a massive deal with the repressive, sexist Saudi government.
Mainstream celebrity Ronda Rousey, the Women’s Champion on Raw and former UFC legend, is an obvious standard-bearer for that campaign. She’s known in the legit sports world. She’s as tough as anyone on the planet. She’s used to the scrutiny of stardom, but like any great wrestling storyline, there must be an antagonist. Since Rousey debuted with WWE in January, the question was who would be that foil. Who would give WWE the money match they so desperately craved for its biggest show of the year, WrestleMania?
Almost by accident, the question was answered last Monday. Defiant, cocky and covered in her own blood, it was Becky Lynch — a fan favorite who recently found a mean streak that immediately connected with audiences in a way no one expected. When WWE decided to pit Lynch against her former best friend, Charlotte Flair, the expectation seemed to be that the crowd would embrace Flair and be disgusted by Lynch’s tactics. They stripped Lynch of much of what had initially made her popular: her steampunk-inspired attire (complete with easily merchandised novelty goggles), her bright red hair and bubbly demeanor. After Flair stole the victory in a triple threat championship match at this year’s SummerSlam event, Lynch attacked her, then claimed that she was owed the title. The crowd, however, roared in approval. Those audience reactions continued week after week, until WWE had no choice but to embrace Lynch’s folk-hero status. Her feelings of resentment, frustration and determination resonated with WWE’s predominantly male audience.
Quickly, Lynch became the most buzzed about performer on the roster, earning her a highly anticipated bout against Rousey at Survivor Series. The injuries Lynch suffered on Monday forced the company to scrap the match, lest she be open to exacerbating her condition, but the expectation is that they will complete the story at WrestleMania in April at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Lynch is that female badass, in the mold of Stone Cold Steve Austin, that the company has craved, but she’s seized her moment by emphasizing character traits that wrestling fans typically equate with male performers. She’s not a sex symbol. She doesn’t smile for the cameras. She doesn’t beg for your affection. Take it or leave it, she is who she is: The Man. As she told the U.K.’s Pink News last week, she is the “top dog, gender be damned. ‘The Man’ is not about gender.”
And yet, it really is. Gender is an inescapable part of our lives, a thing that defines us at birth, but that we all struggle with through the rest of our time on this planet. It’s the reason why the WWE’s Women’s Revolution campaign exists — to right the wrongs of decades of sexist storylines and institutional inequality. There’s meaning to Lynch coming out each week on SmackDown to declare that she’s “The Man.” In an industry defined by traditional ideas of masculinity, it should be no surprise that WWE’s fastest rising female star would embrace that moniker. The nickname symbolizes the freedom to exist outside of the norm, while also simultaneously acknowledging the inescapable fact that wrestling demands machismo. The cult of Becky Lynch is growing because she’s the first female performer in WWE to truly be allowed to be both, to exist in the gray area where gender is nothing but a label.
During the WWE’s second Golden Age, now affectionately referred to as the “Attitude Era,” both as a reference to the company’s ad campaign at the time and as an appreciation of the time’s edgy content, women were mostly sex objects. The most successful female competitors were the ones who most fit the preferred aesthetic of the contemporaneous male gaze: breast implants, skimpy outfits and little-to-no wrestling prowess. Female wrestlers were called “Divas,” and were given short windows of time to have their matches. For the most part, those matches were designed as breaks from the more serious action — a chance for the audience to take a breath between epic conflicts. Women with names like Sable, Sunny, Torrie Wilson, Terri Runnels and Dawn Marie were eye candy, while more proficient wrestlers (seasoned veterans Jacqueline, Molly Holly and former GLOW wrestler Ivory) were tasked with walking the newbies through their paces.
Some could fill both roles — Trish Stratus and Lita being examples of women who could work in the ring while fulfilling the company’s need for sex appeal. The biggest female star of the era was a character who might never be duplicated: Joanie Laurer, better known as Chyna, the Ninth Wonder of the World. Chyna was tall, muscular and as physically intimidating as the men. At first, she was meant only to intimidate, to act as the heater for male wrestlers Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Eventually, a makeover turned her into a sex symbol. She was big enough to wrestle the men, while also fitting into a bikini. It was the perfect scenario for WWE, and she was simultaneously pushed as a champion in the men’s division and as a Playboy cover model. Chyna was lightning in a bottle, but after she left the company, she fell into addiction and passed away in 2016.
When the McMahons chose to reboot the women’s division in 2015, they did so with a roster of talented performers from NXT, their developmental territory: Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Lynch. That said, wrestling will never not consider physical attraction in its talent, both male and female. (The history of the sport is filled with men who were handsome and fit, but clumsy in the ring.) So Banks, Flair and Lynch obviously fit that bill, too, but they’re also exceptional wrestlers. Their matches often stole the show. Still, when they moved up to the WWE, what remained from the Divas era was a need for the women to smile, to preen and to be appealing to the male audience.
In NXT, Banks was a devious, cruel, selfish character. On the main WWE roster, she became cheerful and eager to please. Lynch had always been cast as a pure-hearted babyface, but more so in the spotlight of the big show. Only recently has she been allowed to show a mean streak, to embrace character traits usually reserved for men. In the build-up to her blowoff match with Flair at the Hell in a Cell event, Lynch made a habit of attacking her opponent from behind in backstage segments, in the ring and even at the WWE’s Performance Center training facility. The story the writers were telling was one of a cold-blooded street fighter who would take the fight to her enemy wherever and whenever. This new Lynch is unrepentant, harsh and aloof. To the fans of North American pro wrestling, this felt like a revelation. Even Rousey, with her shooter’s background in MMA, was asked to smile more, to be approachable and to not be quite so scary.
Obviously, that all fits what a traditional idea of a woman is. She doesn’t rock the boat or make the audience uncomfortable. They’re still women, after all. “You should smile more” is the phrase that’s the bane of many women’s existence, a male demand to not threaten or provoke. Male stars like Austin, The Rock and others rarely smiled, lest they seem weak. The scowl is a part of the persona.
That’s what makes Lynch, in her current incarnation, so revolutionary. She can frown. She can look mean. While it seems odd for her to refer to herself as “The Man” while also waving the flag for women in sports entertainment, what she’s been able to do in the last few months is fully divorce herself from the preconceived notions of what a female wrestler should be. She doesn’t have to be purposefully sexy. Maybe you find her confidence and aggression sexy. Maybe you don’t. That’s beside the point. As with anything in the scripted conflict that is pro wrestling, all that matters is if you buy into the fantasy. Do you believe this person, be it Becky Lynch or Steve Austin, is experiencing the emotions they claim to — that they’re as tough as they profess to be?
Rousey has a leg up in that department, as we’ve all seen her legitimately beat up other people. Lynch’s path is more complicated. She had to make us buy into the illusion as just a pro wrestler and as a woman. She had to bleed for it, as so many of her male peers have done in the past, but she got it nonetheless.
Much has been made of her character’s resemblance to Austin — the rebellion, the intimate connection to the audience, the underdog mentality, the fierceness. But it’s unfair to both performers to make that comparison. What sets the greats of wrestling apart is their uniqueness. Austin was different than Hulk Hogan, who was different than his predecessors on top of the industry. Lynch is special because what she’s doing is a landmark achievement in the sport. She’s fashioned a persona that’s like no other in the history of women’s wrestling. Just like Chyna broke the mold fighting men, Lynch has broken the mold by not even acknowledging the distinction. She’s a woman, but she’s also “The Man.” It’s not quite explicit in its disregard for gender binaries, but it’s a huge step toward a different idea of what women’s wrestling should be.
If Lynch does end up taking center stage with Rousey at WrestleMania — WWE’s most mainstream moment of the year — she’ll be able to bring that concept to the forefront, to wipe away the lines that divide performers and to forge a new path for the sport. But even if she doesn’t make it to WrestleMania, the image of her standing tall, her face a red, swollen mess, will never be forgotten.