Othering of Women in AEW: Integrated Wrestling as a New Normal

In this four-part series, Jason Norris and Jacqui Pratt, PhD, discuss the implications behind the AEW practice of “othering” their women’s roster. This is part 4, the final part, of the series.

Definition of “Othering”: the reductive action of labelling and defining a person who belongs to the socially subordinate category of the Other. To exclude and displace a person from the social group to the margins of society, where mainstream social norms do not apply to them, for being the Other.

In part 1 of this series, Jason highlighted how AEW is failing their women in the way they treat the entire women’s division. In parts 2 and 3, I overviewed how applying the rhetoric of separate but equal to gendered divisions helps us see how, whether or not they are conscious of this problem, AEW leadership participates in Othering their women—an example of a much larger issue in professional wrestling.

In part 4, I conclude this series by offering a solution to the inherent problem of Othering in gender-segregated wrestling: integrated wrestling.

In a performance space where the assumed normal is male (coding women as “other”) and the action itself is make-believe, dividing or classifying talent based on gender continues to relegate women to a subordinate position; it denies them the opportunity to insert themselves into the ongoing conversation concerning who is the best in the business (currently and historically).

Further, this conversation will only continue to feature men so long as only men are allowed to compete for the highest honors. If wrestling promotions want to demonstrate their commitment to female talent, if they truly want to brand themselves as champions of women’s equality, then the best option is to desegregate, in some capacity, in order to allow women to compete for titles previously only held by men.

Fortunately, there is now precedent for how to desegregate wrestling and build championship storylines that feature performers of all genders. Be it out of necessity (small talent rosters) or political action (women can carry the company), independent wrestling promotions are leading the way in modeling integrated competition.

In these integrated environments, women fight other women and men fight other men, as traditionally done. Sometimes, though, women and men fight one another. Other times, men and women team up to fight other teams of various configurations. And occasionally, in any one of these hypothetical matchups, a championship is on the line. All types of contests and matchups are normalized in these environments, which not only raises the value of non-male talent, it also creates new storytelling possibilities that are impossible with male-only or female-only participants.

It would be an easy task for AEW to desegregate in the way I am suggesting. Despite becoming a major player in the business rather quickly, AEW was born out of the independent scene. The roster is teeming with elite (pun intended) talent, including a who’s who of indie pioneers from the past decade or so. Further, many of the wrestlers continue to compete on the independents, meaning a sizable portion of the roster already competes in integrated environments.

As such, AEW remains directly tapped into the ethos of the indie scene, even as they produce a successful mainstream television program. Ideologically speaking, then, shifting to an integrated environment simply means continuing to embrace the independent spirit that started the whole company.

So, how exactly could AEW integrate? I propose two simple solutions: allow all non-male competitors to compete for both the TNT and Tag Team Championships.

The TNT Champion (aka the television champion) is the person who is specifically representing Dynamite to a larger (non-wrestling) television and pop culture audience, thus serving as something akin to a cultural ambassador. Whoever holds this title embodies at least one core aspect of the identity of the program as a whole. By not allowing women to compete for this title, AEW is implicitly telling their audience that women can never be representative of the televised product—that their entire division is something other, something else, that doesn’t belong on Dynamite.

Unfortunately, as Jason highlighted in part 1, the televised booking of the division (or lack thereof) backs up this implicit idea. Whatever future strides the company might make in presenting their women’s division (elevating their status with the company as a whole), until AEW integrates the TNT Championship, women are going to continue to be presented and treated as “other” on Dynamite specifically, as they are quite literally barred from accessing the television title and representing not just the brand but the television program to a larger audience.

While integrating the TNT Championship has broader cultural stakes outside the world of professional wrestling, integrating the Tag Team championship matters to the business. Currently, there are zero opportunities for a woman to be a tag champion in AEW, a company built upon elevating tag team wrestling and attracting the best teams in the business. That is, tag team wrestling is an essential component of AEW’s identity as a brand.

Much like the TNT title, barring women from this space sends an implicit message that women can never be considered among the best in tag team wrestling, and any woman who wishes to compete as part of a team (regardless of the gender of her partner) must do so somewhere else. That is, there isn’t even space for her to compete without creating something else, some Other space (see my previous work on The Deadly Draw tournament).

Until AEW integrates the tag division and allowing teams of all genders (and any configuration of such) to compete for and hold the Tag Team Championship, they’ll continue to send a message to the larger wrestling community that only individuals who compete in men’s divisions are eligible to represent the company in this key aspect of their identity.

These two simple changes create a looser structure around the gendered divisions, still reserving space for both a men’s and women’s champion while also opening up substantial opportunities for women and other marginalized genders to excel without creating anything new or additional or Other. And seeing as both short- and long-term programs are necessary to build drama and excitement around title matches, integrating these two championships creates ample opportunities for additional non-title match-ups between all wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender.

Thus, these two simple changes allow AEW to elevate the overall status of women in their company, ceding existing space to them to generate buzz, revenue, and professional opportunity without segregating women into separate but effectively unequal spaces that actively inhibit their success.

As I hope to have demonstrated, in order to push back against the separate but equal rhetoric that currently dominates professional wrestling and inherently presents women as secondary to men, women need access to the same opportunities and symbolic accolades given to the best in the business.

Only when the dominant rhetoric of separate but equal gives way to a new assumed normal in professional wrestling, an inclusive one where the best wrestlers compete for the top prizes regardless of gender, can women finally celebrate their deserved seat at the table.

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