The views expressed in this article are those of the author (unless otherwise noted) and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff
Over the past several months there has been a lot of discussion about female wrestling fans, and what can be done to attract more of them. Women fans make up a huge percentage of wrestling fans, WWE's corporate site claims that 40 percent of WWE fans are women. Yet to some fans, female fans are still an anomaly. Part of the problem is that wrestling is still very much a boy's club; a huge majority of performers are men, almost all wrestling promotions are owned by men, almost all of the creative decisions are made by men, and by and large, wrestling programming is aimed at the male viewer.
I wanted to examine this closer, but instead of writing a column about what I, a male wrestling fan, thinks need to be done to attract more female fans and to represent women more prominently in wrestling, I wanted to use this space for a more authentic and meaningful piece of work. So what I did was reach out to several female wrestling fans who I knew of, and asked them the same series of questions, and then I'd publish their responses in this week's article.
I'll admit that part of the reason I wanted to do this was for my own curiosity; as someone who studies the business I wanted to hear directly from female fans about what they thought about the industry and how it relates to women because that would help shape my own views on the subject. It is all about learning and trying to further educate ourselves. Frankly, female voices in wrestling media are underrepresented, so I felt like this was a good time to step out of the way and hopefully readers will learn as much as I did when looking at their thoughtful responses.
Sarah Shockey - @sarahjoyshockey - Co-host of Marty and Sarah Love Wrestling podcast and color commentator at Black Label Pro.
Christy Olson - @CHRISTYreports - Sports entertainment and reality TV news reporter, pro wrestling announcer, and co-host of the Wrestling Inc. Daily podcast.
Kristen Ashly - @KristenAshly - Owner of Association of Women in Wrestling and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Bell To Belles.
1. How did you become a fan of pro wrestling? What stood out to you about it that made you want to keep watching?
Shockey: A group of friends and I used to hang out at this little dive bar called Cardinal in Chicago. They always had RAW on the TV for us, and for a while I would go just to hang out. But I got pulled in by (at the time) Dean Ambrose. I couldn't believe this guy, wearing jeans, looking like a lunatic, but having lil dimples and then throwing punches like wild. It was the most complex character I'd seen on TV in a while! I started asking questions about him, and that led to the Shield, and to WWE, and eventually the world of local indie wrestling, New Japan, podcasting, WrestleCon, and everything else!
Olson: I guess I was watching before I can even remember. My dad says he would sit me down in front of the TV as a baby and turn on wrestling—probably so he could go back to sleep! According to him I loved to watch all the bright colors flying around. As I got older I remember my dad switching back and forth between WWF and WCW. What stood out to me then was the characters. I would get so excited to see Hulk Hogan, probably just because I saw everyone else getting excited for him. Miss Elizabeth was my favorite, as I loved her beautiful gowns and thought she was nice. In contrast, I remember being so terrified of Jake Roberts and his snake, but I still loved to watch him.
Things changed for me when the attitude era started heating up though. I was preteen age and the Spice Girls had turned me into a mini girl power crusader. When the women's role started to be about bra and panty matches and who landed the cover of Playboy that month, I was super turned off. I started to think of wrestling as a "boy thing" that I should be against, based on my young feminist principles.
About a decade and a half later Total Divas premiered. I saw that things were changing for women in wrestling, women's in-ring action was being taken more seriously, the individuals were getting the recognition they deserved beyond their sex appeal—and I was intrigued! So I started watching Raw and SmackDown again, which turned into covering wrestling news, then becoming an announcer myself, etc. Now I feel like I can never not watch!
Ashly: I was always that person who made fun of wrestling for being "fake", until my brother and dad told me to just sit and watch a WWE pay-per-view with them, without judgement. I don't remember which pay-per-view it was, but I remember watching Dean Ambrose and falling in love. I was hooked after that.
2. What do you think wrestling companies can do to attract more female fans? Do you think that attracting female fans requires a different focus than attracting male fans?
Shockey:Good storylines, more time for female matches, and then giving the women good storylines too. Women are showing up and busting their asses, but a lot of times they are given bookings that feel like a second thought, not the main focus. The things that women like about wrestling are very often the same thing that men like about wrestling. We want to see people succeed, we want to see villains try to get away with things, we want to see humans making choices that affect one another. And on top of that, we want to experience great wrestling moves, big thundering drops and wild maneuvers. If you make your company the absolute best place it can be, you will attract fans of all kinds of backgrounds.
Olson:Yes, I believe attracting female fans requires devoting much more time to storylines, character history, and creating more intricate relationships between characters that ultimately drive the action. In short—less in-ring competition and more vignettes and reality segments that tell us why the competitors want to engage in a physical battle. I hate to contribute to the stereotype that women love to watch drama, because I think this focus would increase viewership overall. But if at least one hour of Raw looked more like a soap opera than a boxing match, you would definitely get some women to switch over from whatever other soapy crap they're watching. Seeing more of who the characters are supposed to be outside the ring would attract women in the same way that Total Divas made me want to start watching again.
Ashly:I don't know the ratio of male fans to female fans, but I do know that the women I have spoken to would be much more open to watching wrestling if it treated women in the field better. The content and aesthetics of wrestling are still very much catered towards men.
3. Do you think that a wrestling company has to have a prominent women's division to attract female fans?
Shockey: I think there are plenty of female fans who grew up watching wrestling that didn't see very strong women's divisions and still enjoyed the product. It's not all about the booking, of course. There will always be people who are booked poorly that still stand out to fans for any number of reasons.
I don't think it should so much focus on what places "have to have" to attract a certain type of wrestling to bring in a certain type of fan, female or otherwise. I think the focus should be on: how can we get the best talent to put on the best matches, and make the best shows? That being said, women and non-binary people should absolutely have a bigger place at the table. The more diverse your roster is, the greater the possibility they will connect with and bring in fans that are diverse too.
Olson:Absolutely, a strong women's division attracts female fans because it's empowering to watch what they can do in the ring. But what sets one company's women's division apart from another goes beyond that. The players must also be great storytellers in and out of the ring, have believability as characters, be able to deliver an invoking promo, engage fans on social media, and display charisma in media interviews. Attracting female fans by touting your women's division requires more than putting on a great women's tournament or marquee match. (Knockouts is the strongest women's division of all but no one is watching them!)
To use AEW as an example, launching AEW Heels and building a community that is inviting for female fans and gives them an opportunity to get to know the competitors better, while doing the first ever women's tag tournament clearly piqued more interest. So they're on the right track, but they just got on it. I don't think of their women's division as being a must-see attraction. It is not why I tune in each week. But it's starting to be, and I think their female audience will start to grow quickly now because of the focus they've put on their women competitors.
Ashly:Not necessarily. There are plenty of women who love New Japan. It would depend on the fan. I personally like women's wrestling more, but that's not always the case. I will say that today, fans are much more interested in equality, and if a promotion shows any sort of "ism", they're less likely to succeed. That includes sexism.
4. What are your thoughts on intergender wrestling matches? What about male-on-female violence in storylines?
Shockey:I'm all for intergender wrestling matches. I'm for any storyline that is told well, is empathetic, respectful and showcases the talent of the people involved. Anything can be done well, the trouble is taking the time to get it right. I encourage bookers to float storyline ideas to trusted woman and non-binary friends to get their honest opinions and listen to their thoughts.
Olson: Since I understand the choreographed nature of a pro wrestling match, the idea of intergender competition makes sense to me. I don't have a problem with it theoretically. But I will admit it's sometimes difficult to watch. Also, I know the majority of people flipping through their TV channels do not understand what is happening in a pro wrestling match, that the performers are actually protecting each other. I see how watching an intergender match could be jarring, confusing, or even traumatic for them. That's enough of a reason to keep those matches off of TV. Intergender action is more acceptable at an indie event because we can assume those fans understand what they're watching and sought it out.
Male-on-female violence in storylines is very different because of the lack of athletic competition and added element of reality. It is unnecessary, sends the wrong message no matter what consequences are presented, and is exactly the kind of lowbrow, desperate, inappropriate stuff that critics of wrestling use to label it as garbage.
Ashly:If the male-on-female violence in storylines echoes domestic abuse, it's never okay. However, I have no issue with intergender wrestling. I have never considered it promoting domestic violence because, let's be honest, wrestling is not real. If the match features a woman and man who through skill and talent can wrestle each other believably, I see no harm in it.
5. The creative decision makers in the wrestling industry are overwhelmingly male, do you think that impacts how wrestling shows are presented to women?
Shockey:Yes, and likely it's harder for the women they do staff or the female talent to push for their own ideas.
Olson:Yes, it all goes back to having women in roles of power, leadership and decision making behind the scenes. That's the best way to ensure attention is being paid to attracting female fans. It's not rocket science. If there isn't a female writer in the room to give her perspective how could what's being written appeal to women? If Stephanie McMahon hadn't pioneered the role of on-screen character who is also doing real work behind the scenes, would companies have ever cared about hiring women for backstage roles? If Brandi Rhodes wasn't the CBO of AEW would they be building a community for female fans? Probably not and definitely not.
Having women be a part of the creative decisions also ensures a company's women's division is not overlooked for opportunities. In my experience female performers are more comfortable when there are other women they can go to with any problems. All that helps make a strong women's division. If the women of the division feel strong and heard and valued, their confidence will be apparent on-screen and female fans will be attracted to that.
Ashly:Absolutely. The creative departments in many promotions lack any serious diversity, which in turn presents a problem with proper representation in story. It's a simple case of wanting as many point-of-views as possible when creating anything. Life is too complex to be just told from the point-of-view of one segment of the human population.
6. Do you think that female wrestling fans are more likely to be faced with stereotyping, harassment, or discrimination from other people (both fans and non-fans) because they are women?
Shockey: It's not something I like to focus on. If someone talks down to me, closes a door to me, or harasses me because I'm a woman, they aren't someone I want to know. I'm going to do my best to make sure they aren't a part of my life. And that applies to companies as well.
Olson:No, if someone looks down on wrestling fans the fans' gender seemingly wouldn't matter. But I think if a person who is going to discriminate against another because that person is a wrestling fan, the critic is more likely to question themselves if the fan is female. Like by being a proud fan I can make someone think, "Well, if she likes it maybe it's not cheesy, sexist, or outdated."
Continuing to use myself as an example, I feel like I can state a great case for the empowering aspect of pro wrestling for female fans and have my own personal story of all the great experiences I've had because of my love for it. A lot of female wrestling fans I know would tell you the same thing, and they're not at all afraid to tout their fandom. So I guess even if a critic is more likely to look down on a female fan than a male fan, we don't really care!!
Ashly:I think harassment affects both sides. I can only speak from my own experience, which is to say as a journalist and a fan, I've experienced sexism, harassment, and stereotyping. In certain sectors of the wrestling fandom, it's more prevalent than others, and so when I deal with certain fanbases, I experience it more. But, I have male friends who experience just as much discrimination as I do.
7. Is there any particular major change in the pro wrestling industry that you believe could make a significant impact on the popularity of wrestling with women?
Shockey:Giving women's storylines the same care and precision of booking as the top men in each company. I'd love to see what everyone would do with 3 months of only female storylines. Good storylines aren't confined to gender, which is great, because there really are so many more genders than two, and it's important to start thinking that way so that more people are comfortable being who they truly are in the craft that they love.
Olson:Beef up those storylines! Tell us more about who a character is as a person outside the ring, give us more authenticity in romanic storylines—focus like 30% on setting the scene and giving viewers a reason for the in-ring action, not 2% story and 98% action. I want Dynamite and SmackDown and Impact to look more like a reality show sometimes. Give us a Real Housewives/Total Divas-like scene of the women going to dinner together before the show. Maybe one of them mom shames another over a glass of wine and they get a little physical…but they can't throw down in the restaurant! They must have a match on TV tonight! OK, that's pretty basic booking, but you get the idea.
Ashly: I think the popularity of women's wrestling is second to dealing with the real issue: safety and equity. Once women in the industry feel they are safe and being treated fairly, they'll be allowed to perform at a top level, and the fans will follow.