Let’s not beat around the bush on this one. For a long while, women’s wrestling has not had the best reputation. In fact, until recently you were likely to hear the average wrestling fan refer to women’s matches as a waste of time, a complete joke, or —as Sasha Banks tearily recalled in an interview—a toilet break. And through Sasha’s exasperated sobs, you can tell that these comments hurt the women who had dreamed of wrestling in a division that focused not on their attractiveness and sex appeal, but on their skill, passion and competitive spirit.

Now, I’m not going to start spouting the feminist mantra about how women should be given the exact same amount of spotlight in the WWE as their male counterparts. To be quite frank, there isn’t enough hired talent to fill the roster and producers are dubious as to whether women are really a top-card draw. However, I certainly wasn’t the only one anticipating the changes that the “Divas Revolution” would potentially make when it was first officially announced by WWE in mid-2015, only to be left waiting for the bomb to go off.

And finally, during WrestleMania 32, the explosion took place.

The Four Horsewomen: Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley & Becky Lynch, are the most symbolic figures of the “Divas Revolution”. They embody the relentless determination that has driven a new era of women’s wrestling on the biggest stage of them all, and their praise is well deserved because the change they have been pushing for has now been born.

However, many women in the recent past have had to endure storylines and gimmicks that either objectify them or demean their capabilities; Superstars like Lita, Mickie James, Gail Kim, Chyna, AJ Lee, Natalya, and many of those on the current NXT and WWE rosters. These include narratives that insult their appearance (the ‘Piggy James’ angle), imply—or out-right display—their sexual promiscuity and extort their vulnerability (Eve Torres breaking Zack Ryder’s heart by kissing John Cena, then being slut-shamed), and gimmicks that are poorly constructed with little or no meaningful character development that are centred around their physical features (there are too many to count).

Let us also remember the tribulations that plagued the women’s division in WWE, whereby female wrestlers have been sexually harassed and emotionally abused; one example being Trenesha Biggers (Rhaka Khan) who revealed her alleged mistreatment by the hands of Bill DeMott during the developmental stage, stating that her opportunity was chastened as she was accused of fraternising to advance her career. Female wrestlers have been exploited and extorted; many former wrestlers came forward to report how they were short-changed and manipulated by Mary Ellison (The Fabulous Moolah) so she could maintain her grip on the women’s division. There’s a whole bunch of horror stories that surround the scene, involving domestic violence, drug abuse and blackmail. Some are based on fact, some on rumour.

Building upon that wonky foundation, it’s probably no surprise that the Attitude Era’s women’s division was wrought with surgically enhanced models catfighting in thongs and platform boots. Competing with WCW for the viewership of a predominantly young, male demographic, WWE really had to pull out all the stops to make an impression. And I’m sure that Sable’s post-watershed nudity did just the trick, since her shocking attires (or lack of) certainly left an imprint in my mind.

I’m not going to sit here and trash-talk about all of the mistakes that were made along the way. Indeed, we learn from our mistakes. The women Superstars in WWE today may not have come so far without having to watch and experience the cringe-worthy tactics that the company employed in order to tantalise young men across the globe. There wouldn’t have been such a need for change; the state of women’s wrestling in the 21st Century had the business crying out for salvation as fans increasingly cheered for women—not because of their assets, but because of their abilities.

Well, what a long way we’ve come in such a short space of time. In about a decade we have gone from hysteric banshees ripping off each other’s clothes in frenzied jealousy for just about any reason, to respected women—portrayed as legitimate threats—using their athleticism and prowess to propel their careers to dizzy new heights. The contrast is a stark improvement over how women are, and have been, represented within the sports entertainment realm. If you paid close attention, you could even hear this progress – through the voices of the commentators.

I recently read a great paper written by Jessica Castellon and Farah Nasir in 2013 about the representation of WWE Divas by the commentators that accompanied their matches, and the types of comments used to describe them. Comments about the competitors were split into two types: those that described the athleticism or ability of the wrestler: labelled as ‘positive’ in this article; and those outside of this criteria, which would include commentary about the wrestler’s appearance (not related to ability, like muscle-mass), sexuality, emotional/mental state, and any other non-skill-related remarks: labelled ‘negative’ in this article. Naturally, the former comment-type would give way to more positive representation of superstars, while the latter would typically (but not always) connote a more negative approach.

Castellon and Nasir analysed ten matches between 1995 and 2011—half men’s/half women’s—all including high-profile performers that were relevant to the wrestling audiences of the time. They found that overall women’s matches were dominated by negative comments that did not attribute their physical ability, with 65 percent of commentators’ observations focusing largely on the appearance and dramatised storylines of the women. This was in contrast to the 28 percent of negative comments made during men’s matches at the time. The general consensus described by the commentary was that the women were attractive, crazy or promiscuous (or all three).

Visually, we’re a far cry from those days now as the women in WWE don more practical attires that are less obvious at accentuating their cleavage or buttocks, for the most part. These performers are determined to show that they can bring the heat both on-screen and in the ring. But have WWE really gone the full mile with improving women’s representation in pro wrestling/sport entertainment?

I had often wondered if the “Divas Revolution” was a serious approach to rejuvenating the women’s division, as on-screen promises are not often kept when it comes to viewer expectations and pro wrestling promotions; the card is subject to change.

It’s not like we never had any good female workers on the card—there were plenty. But those workers were in a company that appeared to stifle female talent to an extent; sexiness was endorsed above all other attributes and would, therefore, stipulate who would make it to the main event card.

Attractiveness has, of course, always been a quality that holds fair importance in modern professional wrestling, and that stands for the men too. However, men are held to a different standard—if they are viewed as unattractive, the commentators will often play on one of their non-visual features that redeem their lack of beauty, like strength or agility. Interestingly, women wrestlers who are not viewed as conventionally attractive are also validated by commentators in this way, although there is also a particular emphasis on how masculine or unfeminine they are as a result of their looks (Chyna is a good example of this, particularly before her surgical transformation).

So has any of this changed in recent years, especially as women are now under the spotlight in WWE? Are the women being acknowledged for their skill over their sexuality? And to what extent? How are women being represented by the commentators’ table? I decided to carry out my own research by studying the commentary of 14 matches (seven women’s, seven men’s) that have taken place since Castellon and Nazir’s research in 2013. By selecting high profile matches with varying talent, and sticking to the criteria used in the original trial, the number of positive/negative comments made about the Superstars during each match was analysed to assess how they were audibly represented.

I have to admit – I didn’t quite expect the results. Although there are some major variable factors that have affected the commentating style over time (different commentators, distinctive differences in WWE’s brands and styles, and changes to audience demographic and perception), the outcome is quite apparent. There has been a stark turnaround in the way that women Superstars were described than before, and it was extremely rare for commentators to mention their sexuality or make any sexual remarks about them at all. It must be said that the vast majority of negative comments centred around their emotion, or the drama of their storyline – these mostly did not reflect the sexist connotations present in matches that took place only a couple of years prior.

The percentages tell the full story: the overall positive comments made during the women’s matches constituted 82.7 percent of the total comments, a whopping difference of 47.9 percent from the previous study. These matches exhibited the number of positive comments filling anywhere from 40 percent to 94 percent of the matches’ total comment quota, and negative comments ranging from 6 percent on more recent matches to 59 percent in 2013. Comparably, the men’s matches achieved 84 percent positive comments overall, compared with 72.1 percent found in the previous study. In fact, the men’s division reflects consistent results from 2013 through to 2016, with negative comments rarely peaking over 25 percent of the total comment quota, and positive comments ranging between 74 percent and 94 percent.

Most noticeable is the u-turn in the way women were represented by commentary between 2013 and 2016. The data I gathered shows that commentators are now calling women matches indifferently from men’s matches, with the number of positive/negative comments matched (almost exactly) during the PPV matches at NXT TakeOver: Dallas and WrestleMania 32. Honestly, I almost lost it when I counted the results. Based on this outcome, it’s fair to assume that WWE have upped the ante when it comes to match commentary by establishing verbally that the women performers are as legitimate and deserving as their male counterparts.

Of course, counting comments isn’t a fail-safe way to test how seriously WWE are taking the women wrestlers in their company—the nature of a comment can be highly subjective, and there are many matches that weren’t covered, particularly in the initial study. There was also a 10 percent increase in positive comments during male matches between 2013 and 2016, so there appears to be an all-round improvement in the quality of commentating. However, I believe that these results give us an inkling as to how WWE have started to tackle the representation of women in the business. Needless to say, the commentators are not the only influence that WWE have thought of.

There are strong women scattered across the sports entertainment giant who have been making waves for years; the most prominent example is Stephanie McMahon. Steph, who bears a startling resemblance in mannerism to her father, is a top contender as a role model to young women and girls watching, with her fiery aggression and unquestionable power. She’s not afraid to go up against anyone—a sentiment shared by her mother Linda, another strong woman with huge influence over the company. When Linda was more involved with WWE she was hands-on behind the scenes and managed various aspects of the business, including product merchandising (negotiating the deal for the first line of wrestling action figures in 1984) and securing other important business deals with outside vendors. Her political campaign runs are testament to her aspiration and business acumen.

There are, and have been, many great women performers in WWE. This is not forgetting hosts and interviewers like Renee Young, who became WWE’s first full-time female commentator in over a decade as a colour commentator for Superstars in 2014. Her input sounded both natural and refreshing; I look forward to hearing more of her commentary in the future. Lilian Garcia, long-term ring announcer, has consistently maintained a feminine presence in the ring, helping to dramatise matches and further many storylines since 1999, and she can also match Stone Cold beer for beer.

Behind the scenes there are likely many other women who help to keep the machine running. And without a shadow of a doubt, trainers like Sara Del Rey and Superstars like Natalya, who devote their time to developing the future WWE women’s roster, are core to the movement and have helped put the building blocks into place for the women’s card today. With their experience they have managed to guide an entire division into a new era of mainstream women’s wrestling; it’s women like these that deserve to see a new generation of Superstars flourish and push the boundaries so to improve the representation of women in sports entertainment.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman Superstar that doesn’t deserve some credit for their contribution to the current women’s division, and there are far too many women wrestlers (including those outside of WWE) to mention in this article. Thanks to them we are enjoying more and more women’s matches, and their collaborative effort can only bring us more remarkable matches and memories as they continue to break ground and prove the naysayers wrong.

I, for one, am eager to see how the newly branded women’s division will turn out. Although sceptical to begin with (an approach I tend to make with many assurances that the WWE present), now I don’t see the “Divas Revolution” as a quick gimmick that will disappear into obscurity. These women are making history and have opened up possibilities that seemed futile a decade ago. The company has recognised this, and have voiced their achievements in equal standing to the men’s card for the first time ever. The spirit of the “Divas Revolution” – or perhaps more suitably, the WWE Women’s Revolution – is alive in the hearts of the wrestlers, trainers and producers that are driving it forward, and you’re a damn fool if you think they’re going to squander it all away for cheap pops and sleazy thrills.

Match Athletic/ Skill Remarks Sexuality/ Non-skill Remarks
Women
WWE Diva’s Championship
AJ Lee vs. Kaitlyn
Payback (June 16, 2013)
15
40.5%
22
59.5%
NXT Women’s Championship
Charlotte Flair vs. Natalya
NXT TakeOver (May 29, 2014)
40
93%
3
7%
WWE Diva’s Championship
Paige vs. AJ Lee
Summerslam (August 17, 2014)
15
48.4%
16
51.6%
NXT Women’s Championship
Bayley vs. Sasha Banks
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (August 22, 2015)
68
88.3%
9
11.7%
WWE Diva’s Championship
Charlotte Flair vs. Nikki Bella
Night of Champions (September 20, 2015)
45
86.5%
7
13.5%
NXT Women’s Championship
Asuka vs. Bayley
NXT TakeOver: Dallas (April 1, 2016)
52
94.5%
3
5.5%
WWE Women’s Championship
Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch
WrestleMania 32 (April 3, 2016)
63
94%
4
6%
Overall 322
82.7%
67
17.3%
Men
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton
Night of Champions (September 15, 2013)
56
80%
14
20%
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio vs. Bray Wyatt vs. Antonio Cesaro vs. Kane vs. Randy Orton vs. Roman Reigns vs. Sheamus
Money in the Bank (June 29, 2014)
75
78.9%
20
21.1%
NXT Championship
Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville
NXT TakeOver: R-Evolution (December 11, 2014)
75
88.2%
10
11.8%
NXT Tag Team Championship
The Vaudevillains vs. Blake and Murphy
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (August 22, 2015)
35
74.4%
13
27.6%
WWE Intercontinental Championship
Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens
TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs (December 13, 2015)
35
79.5%
9
20.5%
NXT Championship
Finn Balor vs. Samoa Joe
NXT TakeOver: Dallas (April 1, 2016)
51
94.4%
3
5.6%
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Roman Reigns vs. Triple H
WrestleMania 32 (April 3, 2016)
52
94.5%
6
7.3%
Overall 379
84%
72
16%