This week saw one of the coolest moments in the history of WWE women’s wrestling. Stephanie McMahon took to the ring to give an impassioned speech about “a revolution”, before introducing some of the top NXT talent to the main stage, to a rapturous reception. Several news outlets have echoed Steph’s words, signalling a change in the way in which female wrestlers are treated in the WWE. Although it’s awesome that these ladies are getting a bit more of the spotlight, because of an otherwise uneventful episode of Monday Night Raw, it’s not really a new time for them, for one very specific reason: Total Divas.
The hugely popular E! reality show, which features various Divas supposedly going about their day-to-day business while juggling the demands of their chaotic work lives, just started its fourth series and, considering it’s still going, is considered to be a major hit. But, who the hell is it aimed at? And what exactly is its purpose? Wrestling fans will find the weird, sort-of Kayfabe story-lines and conveniently edited match segments jarring, and non-fans surely won’t care about women they know nothing about, right?
In fact, the most shocking element of Total Divas’ popularity as a reality show is just how much it’s over with non-fans. People who have no idea who Nikki Bella or John Cena are delight in him purchasing her a ten grand handbag. They’re sad when Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan have money problems. They’re confused about why AJ Lee was never featured on the show, because doing so is seen as such a huge honour (hilariously, certain people complained that Lee’s husband must be really mean and controlling to stop her from taking part).
I’m really confused by Total Divas. Not because it’s offensive that these (mostly) hugely talented women must take part in a reality show in order to get over with the fans – especially considering their sisters in NXT are killing it in longer matches, better angles and on a shorter once-weekly programme. The show confuses me because it blurs the lines between fiction and reality to such an extent that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously, and yet the story-lines are often strangely compelling as a result.
The fourth series première just aired here in the UK, and one of the teasers for an upcoming episode featured Dolph Ziggler supposedly confessing his undying love for Nikki Bella. This is a man who’s currently embroiled in an ill-advised angle primarily concerned with his fake relationship with a fake Russian woman. And soon he’s going to be involved in a similar angle on a reality show. What’s the end game here? To endear us to Ziggler? To sell his angle with Lana? To encourage non-fans to check out RAW for similarly relationship-centric drama?
Considering the runaway success of shows such as Shahs Of Sunset, The Real Housewives Of Whatever and Rich Kids Of Beverly Hills, I suppose it isn’t that inconceivable Total Divas would be popular with those who know nothing of our beloved carnie show. Nobodies are nobodies, after all. And it’s not like anything that happens on the show even relates to the events detailed on RAW, Smackdown, et al. At least, not in the first three seasons.
The action has taken a turn in the fourth season. Nattie and TJ, for example, are still doing their insufferable marriage-is-constantly-on-the-rocks bullshit but, now, when she visits a sex shop, it’s not to spice up their sex life, it’s as “research” for her character. Likewise, she refers to TJ’s partnership with Cesaro as a “heel” tag team, a turn of phrase that would never have been uttered in season one for fear of alienating people, or suggesting that anything in the world of pro-wrestling is predetermined.
In fact, what made Total Divas so impenetrable in its first few seasons was its resistance to showing the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes. The featured women acted as though they had no idea of the outcome of their matches. We watched them endlessly discuss their so-called tactics and hopelessly guess who would come out on top. Clever editing led us to believe there was more at stake, and that their matches were lengthy, hard-fought bouts.
Everything arguably changed again when Paige joined the series, much to the chagrin of fans who couldn’t fathom why she would even agree to it in the first place. This is a chick who has worked her butt off for a decade to get where she is. But the sad reality of it is that she probably didn’t have a choice, it was either appear on Total Divas or get lost in the mire.Weirdly, Paige has turned out to be the best addition to the show. Consistently funny, charming and, crucially, believably real, she’s arguably the main reason fans tune in (if they do).
Total Divas presents the lives of these girls as real, but we know deep down they’re really not. In Paige’s case, however, it seems like it might be the real her we’re getting a glimpse at, and it makes her more likeable as a character, along with making the show more watchable, too. The rest of the cast, on the other hand, play up to the tongue-in-cheek show title.
Their roles basically involve them acting like complete bitches for no discernible reason, particularly Nattie who is such an insufferable harpy at times it’s a wonder TJ has stayed with her this long (in story-line, I mean…or do I?) Not to mention the biggest plot point this season concerns Eva Marie, who everyone hates, and who, you may recall, was booed out of it on NXT not too long ago.
The girls are (understandably) pissed that Eva is getting special treatment from the WWE, in spite of having, as they see it, not earned her spot in the first place. Although this is clearly an angle engineered for drama, it’s also rooted in real life in a way that other plot points on the show – Nattie and TJ’s marital troubles, Trinity and whatever Uso she’s married to doing whatever they do, Brie’s vegetable patch (that’s not a euphemism) – are not.
The Divas should be pissed that Eva’s getting yet another shot. They should be pissed that she gets to train at home instead of in NXT. They should be pissed that she’s a part of the division at all. But an equally important grievance should be having to take part in a reality show that requires them to voice their concerns again and again, whether playing it up for the cameras or not, only for little to nothing to change.
In spite of what happened on RAW this week, the Divas still get a rough deal (at the time of writing, they have no match scheduled for Battleground). And they will continue to get a rough deal by taking part in this weird show, which pitches them as crazy, back-stabbing loons who will do anything to get ahead and yet, seemingly, never actually manage to get ahead.
Can any of us imagine Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, hell, Charlotte Flair finally ascending the ranks only to take part in Total Divas? And yet, surely that must be the end game for them. What else is there? Being the champ doesn’t make a difference, having good matches doesn’t make a difference, even cutting a good promo, as Nikki did this week, has to relate back to the show.
I wouldn’t go so far as to claim to be offended by a flimsy reality show that usually diverts my attention for an hour on a Sunday evening, but Total Divas does irk me in the context of women’s wrestling in general, and WWE in particular. There’s a weird dichotomy at play here. By all accounts, things are improving for the Divas; they’re getting longer matches, better responses from the fans, and they’re no longer the laughing stock of the company.
However, there’s still only one Divas story-line featured at any one time on the main shows. And it rarely extends beyond “this one hates that one”. The sort-of introduction of the NXT Divas this week might mean this is all about to change, and indeed multiple angles and, dare to dream, maybe even multiple matches at PPVs would be something to celebrate if so, but it seems unlikely given the prevalence of Total Divas advertising. The stupid theme tune even played the ladies out, for no apparent reason.
Like it or not, the main selling point for these women is the show, and it has been for some time. It bleeds into matches and angles, and it’s often the basis for feuds. There’s even widespread speculation that AJ Lee retired because she refused to take part. It’s doubtful this was the main reason for her leaving the company, but Total Divas probably didn’t help endear her to a place where she was growing increasingly uncomfortable.
Lee’s absence is still being felt, and Total Divas may be the only way in that the writers have right now, but it doesn’t reflect the division, or the women. For example, even though the show pushes the Bellas as the main stars of the WWE, we know better. Nikki might be growing with each week that passes, but she cannot hold a candle to Paige or many of the NXT ladies. She’s over because she’s champ, she’s the girlfriend of John fucking Cena and because, of course, she has a starring role on Total Divas.
Things may be steadily improving for these super-talented ladies, and anything that gets them cheers is a good thing, but the question remains: can we really herald a revolution for female wrestlers in the WWE when Total Divas is still their main selling point?
You can follow Joey on Twitter at @JoeyLDG