Othering of Women in AEW: Rhetoric of Separate but Equal

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 2 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, Jason discussed how AEW continues to “other” the women in their employ by refusing to give them substantial time and space on Dynamite (and even Dark). In the rest of this series, I argue that one way the company can successfully do this is because, like the majority of televised wrestling, women and men compete in separate divisions.

Gender-segregated wrestling— promotions that feature wrestlers of all genders yet maintain separate men’s and women’s divisions—may best be understood as a contemporary iteration of separate but equal rhetoric: the false assertion of equality in a segregated environment. In part 2, I summarize the legal history of separate but equal rhetoric in order to demonstrate how segregating wrestlers by gender perpetuates the inequalities women experience in the profession.

While on the surface men’s and women’s divisions may appear equal, the separate but equal rhetoric breaks down when confronted with the historic inequality of women in professional wrestling, the reality of non-binary competitors who are neither male nor female (and, thus, without a designated home in segregated wrestling environments), and the reward structure of title opportunities and reigns for individual performers.

But more on that in part 3. For now, by understanding how gender-segregated wrestling environments use the rhetoric of separate but equal to rhetorically preserve male superiority, we can better see the urgent need for women to be given adequate opportunity to generate buzz, revenue, and professional success, for what’s at stake here is nothing less than who is allowed access to the power and prestige awarded to top performers in the business.

For those who might not be familiar, under separate but equal doctrine, segregated experiences are justified by the superficial appearance of equality (that is, each group has access to a version of the opportunity or experience in question), though the actualization of those opportunities/experiences are tangibly inequitable.

For example: while technically there were public schools available to both white and black children in the American south leading up to the civil rights movement, the actual experience of attending those segregated schools varied greatly, with white schools being given clear preferential treatment.

While historically tied to racial segregation in the United States, I argue that applying the rhetorics of separate but equal to gender-segregated wrestling environments helps us better understand how a lack of equal access to TV time, compelling storylines, and professional investment is an inherent injustice that furthers the inequality of women (and others) in the business.

In order to do so, however, I need to first overview three vital United States court cases that helped shaped the rhetoric surrounding separate but equal and its legal deployment in the 19th and 20th centuries: Roberts v. City of Boston (1849), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). By taking a moment to parse its dense legal history, I aim to demonstrate how separate but equal rhetoric, in general, works to consolidate power and opportunity among one group of individuals while simultaneously concealing the unequal treatment of others.

One of the earliest legal documentations of separate but equal doctrine is an 1849 court case, Sarah C. Roberts v. the City of Boston, which centered around “competing notions of what ‘equality’ should mean in American civic discourse.”

During this case, Peleg Chandler, the defense attorney for Boston’s school board, argued ”that only the total absence of schools for blacks could be an actionable cause for complaint.” Since black children had the opportunity to attend publicly-funded schools, they were, in fact, receiving equal treatment; the question of how that education tangibly manifested and the social impact of such was irrelevant to the case. Charles Sumner and Robert Morris (Roberts’ attorneys) insisted, however, that equality meant equality in the eyes of law, both politically and socially.

They argued that Roberts’ mandatorily-attended, segregated school “did not have the same funding, faculty, or other materials that were available in the white schools of Boston. In order to be fair, Sumner and Morris maintained, the Boston school board needed to intervene and provide identical, integrated facilities” for all students, regardless of personal distinctions such as race or class.

In the end, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw sided with the Boston school board, establishing a legal precedent for upholding separate but equal doctrine that “resulted in the maintenance and legal codification of inherently racist views and institutions” by validating segregation in taxpayer-funded schools.

Even though Justice Shaw’s decision in Roberts v. City of Boston was essentially nullified in 1855 (when Massachusetts state legislature passed a bill integrating public schools), it was invoked in Justice Henry Billings Brown’s decision in what is widely considered to be the national origins of separate but equal doctrine: the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

The case originated in 1892, when Homer Plessy, one-eighth black, was arrested in violation of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act after sitting in a white-designated railroad car instead of a non-white one. He argued and lost twice in lower courts that the Separate Car Act was unconstitutional before appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation via the separate but equal doctrine.

Codified as national precedent in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, this doctrine effectively prohibited black citizens from receiving social and cultural recognition as equals while still maintaining a veneer of equality, simultaneously consolidating and protecting the power and social prestige of white individuals.

The ramifications of Plessy v. Ferguson and separate but equal doctrine were felt for nearly 65 years until eventually overturned in the landmark civil rights U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The plaintiffs argued that “segregated public schools are not ‘equal’ and cannot be made ‘equal,’” thus violating the constitutional rights of black students. Further, they argued that this fundamental inequality had a lasting negative psychological impact: it made black children feel inferior to white children in all walks of life.

This psychological component proved vital in swaying the Court’s decision, as Chief Justice Earl Warren acknowledged that a symmetrical understanding of equality (that is, equal opportunity) wasn’t enough to decide the case, and “we must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education” to fully comprehend the issue.

He observed that “to separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” This fact ultimately led to the Court’s decision that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” in public education and that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” a ruling that effectively put an end to the legal execution of separate but equal doctrine across all public venues in the United States, not just education, and firmly established that equality is as much a social and cultural issue as it is a political one.

By examining these three moments in legal history, it becomes apparent that a rhetoric of separate but equal carries with it an inherent socio-cultural inequality that cannot be addressed through any surface (i.e. visible or material) measure of equality alone. As established in Brown v. Board of Education, though on the surface it may appear that segregated groups are equal, no experience occurs in a vacuum; the mental, emotional, and social impact as well as the particular historical context must also be considered. 

So what does this look like in action at AEW? Currently, the predominant separate but equal rhetoric mirrors the symmetrical understanding of equality forwarded in Roberts v. City of Boston and Plessy v. Ferguson: equal opportunity constitutes equality, even if the opportunities themselves are different.

From this perspective, since women are being featured as serious competitors and they do have championships for which they can fight, they do not have a valid claim of inequality.

Much like the court rulings on separate but equal in the 19th century, this perspective does not recognize the socio-cultural equality women strive for in the world of professional wrestling; it only grants equal access to being there, to participating in some capacity. However, Brown v. Board of Education established that such an understanding of equality is fundamentally discriminatory, as segregated environments are inherently unequal.

To riff a moment on Justice Warren’s findings that I quoted above: separating wrestlers from others of similar qualifications solely because of their gender generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may never be undone. Given the fictionalized nature of professional wrestling as well as its deep history of sexism, the insidiousness of the separate but equal rhetoric when applied to men’s and women’s divisions in professional wrestling becomes apparent: male talent will always be able to protect their power, privilege, and prestige by barring female competitors from accessing the top-most status symbols and rewards in the business solely based on gender.

So, there you have it: a brief history of separate but equal and what’s at stake when we view AEW (and all gender-segregated wrestling) through such a lens. But what exactly does the resulting picture look like? Check out Part 3 for a deeper dive into how segregating wrestlers by gender specifically works to “other” women in the profession.

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