WWE Evolution, the first all-women’s PPV in the company’s history, will air live on the WWE Network on October 28. It’s a landmark occasion. Female performers, once considered by some fans as the “bathroom break” portion of the show, will now carry an entire production on their own. And the main event–a title match between Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey and Nikki Bella, is a sort of meta-commentary on the Women’s Evolution, and how the division will continue progressing forward.
The Bellas Twins debuted on the main roster in 2008, and they functioned as models and valets nearly as much as in-ring competitors. Their appearance and their twin gimmick, rather than their in-ring skill, kept them on TV. But in their defense, they were neither an exception nor a special case; they were emblematic of the way that most women wrestlers were promoted a decade ago. The Bellas were the ideal representatives for the era they dominated. And they were a far cry from the mud wrestling, bra and panties, lingerie, and Playboy shenanigans just a few years prior.
Progress is incremental, and the Bellas Twins were a necessary prelude to the current, modern era. They were sexy but not debased. They were passable ring workers, even if they weren’t great ones, and they featured in the sort of 5-minute matches that the #GiveDivasAChance movement was built on. And when Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte Flair debuted on Raw, the Bellas took steps to raise their game. Nikki, in particular, evolved into a solid competitor before a serious neck injury sidelined her.
But transitional, intermediary steps to change are rarely celebrated; it’s the people who definitively break the mold that get the hype, even if the smaller transitions are necessary to make that break possible.
Nikki and Brie position themselves as underrated pioneers in the Women’s Evolution. But even if that’s true, they’ll never have the same critical acclaim as Lynch, Flair, Banks, and Bayley, who served as a storyline rebuttal to the “Divas Era” that Brie and Nikki dominated.
On the October 15 episode of Raw, Rousey leaned into this perception; in addition to calling the Bellas DNB’s (which she claimed was a “PG” acronym for Do-Nothing Bellas), Rousey fired off this controversial zinger:
“My entire career I’ve been knocking down doors. The only door you ever knocked down was the door to John Cena’s bedroom. And he eventually threw you out of that exact same door!”
Brie looked shocked, Nikki looked pissed, and the audience went wild. Some critics have derided Rousey’s promo–that it cheapens the women’s division to reduces Nikki to a sexual opportunist. But it’s also a self-critical, meta indictment of the narrow ways that WWE female performers have been booked and stereotyped in years past–as the supportive girlfriend, the manipulative valet, or the hungry gold digger. And in a subversive way, Rousey came off a little heelish in this exchange because she’s attacking two women from an earlier, more limiting era, who cannot be fairly judged on the same merits as the up-and-comers.
Rousey promotes herself similarly to how Paul Heyman promotes Brock Lesnar–as a lethal force that the audience can believe in. And this promo, which implicitly contrasts her own decorated, competitive history to Nikki’s scripted one, is a continuation of that narrative. Rousey has more real-life legitimacy than any other woman on the roster, but she is also a recipient of the goodwill they’ve generated. And although the Bellas are not in Rousey’s league, skill-wise, they have a point. They moved the needle by inches–necessary inches–to get the women’s division to a current state that would promote Rousey as its champion.
WWE has done something clever. Rather than making Rousey and Nikki’s title match at Evolution a comparison of prowess–which Rousey obviously wins–they’re making it into a referendum on the Women’s Evolution itself, which is more debatable. Who deserves credit? Who broke which ground? Who’s underrated and who’s overpraised? And who gets to tell this story, when all is said and done?
These are questions that will be litigated for years; everyone wants to take credit for a success. And this storyline is the first of many meta narratives. Let’s hope to see more; these feuds are, above all, something that WWE’s savviest fans can invest and believe in.
Make sure to come back to GameSpot on Sunday, October 28 for live coverage of Evolution.