Wrestling looks a lot different than it did just six years ago. Women like WWE's Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair are headlining pay-per-views, while others like All Elite Wrestling‘s Awesome Kong and Riho are given creative freedom to create fully-realized and engaging characters to back up their impressive in-ring skills. It's a far cry from the '90s and early aughts, when women wrestlers in major promotions were mostly relegated to two-minute bikini matches, pushed to the sideline as valets, or left off of televised programming altogether. This recent evolution, spurred by audiences' overwhelming demand that women competitors be given more opportunities to shine just like the men, has helped foster massive change in a sport that had been stagnant for women for decades. What used to be a dog-eat-dog environment is now much more inclusive and bursting with loads of talented women.
“I think that a lot of us got accustomed to the fact that there are rules, that there's always going to be one female that can do this — maybe. And it's gonna be me so I'm gonna cut everybody else around me because it's gotta be me,” AEW's Brandi Rhodes told TV Guide during this year's New York Comic Con. “That's not the way that it should be and that's not the way that it is now. There's room for a lot of people to succeed now.”
It's been a laborious process to get to the point where women, especially black women, are seen as regular competitors and not just in-ring anomalies. Current melanated stars, including WWE's Sasha Banks and WOW's Kiera Hogan, reap the benefits of the monumental steps made by trailblazers like Ethel Johnson, Marva Scott, Babs Wingo, and Kathleen Wimbley, the first black female professional wrestlers who received top billing during the Jim Crow era in the '50s; and Hall of Famer Jaqueline, the WWE's first black women's champion who also went toe-to-toe with the men.
Although wrestling has come a long way for its in-ring talent, there is still plenty of progress to be made behind the scenes. Representation amongst high-level executives remains abysmal in promotions like Ring of Honor and New Japan-Pro Wrestling, where women in top positions are practically non-existent, while the WWE and AEW currently employ a handful of women for executive roles. It's a step in the right direction, but according to Rhodes, it can be taken even further.
“I would love to see more women making their way into more executive positions in wrestling,” said Rhodes, who also serves as AEW's chief brand officer. “Sure, there are some. But why can't there be 20, or 30, or 50? There's no set number for anything. You've checked the box because I'm one black female executive? Great, where's the next one? I'm ready for her like yesterday.”
“I would love to see more women, especially women of color, backstage in executive roles,” added wrestler Nyla Rose, a member of the indigenous First Nations who broke ground as the first trans wrestler in a major promotion. “I love seeing Brandi [Rhodes] do what she does and knock it out the park. Of course, there's leaps and bounds we've made in the ring, but backstage, it's still a little bit like it used to be. Those areas could definitely use some attention, and I personally would love to see that.”
Same, Nyla. Same.
Catch Rhodes and Rose in action when All Elite Wrestling's Dynamite airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on TNT.