WWE: Nikki Bella was vital to the Women’s Revolution in spite of WWE

Credit: WWE.com
Credit: WWE.com /

If you’re reading this article, something about WWE or professional wrestling in general lights a little fire in you. Or, maybe you’re here to roll your eyes at me.

Maybe you’re reading to outright call me a liar. But in some way (I might say the wrong way) you love wrestling. How did it start? Were you, like me, born into it? Did you see a cool action figure commercial and fight your parents for extra TV time? Did your cousins or your neighbor get to watch cable with a naughtier rating than you? Maybe you’re 20 or 30 or 40 and it’s very in right now and it makes your friends so happy that you’ve tuned in and holy hell, you love it!

What if that love, that enjoyment, that spark, said to you, “hey, you’ve gotta do this… you’re meant to do this?” What if you find a way in? If the in you get is a Divas Search… what do you do? Do you not show up because you want the respect of hypothetical dude bros so badly you’d rather take no chance at all?

That’s what the Bella Twins have been punished for their entire career.

Nikki Bella is a lifelong athlete. She was intending to play soccer in Italy after healing a leg injury that prevented her from fulfilling her sports scholarship to Arizona State. Her sister Brie sees that there are tryouts for women for WWE. Professional wrestling. It’s insane, it’s over the top, it’s dangerous. It’s everything they want.

Nikki and Brie Bella then showed up prepared for athletic tests, but they didn’t get any. Divas Search treats athleticism as an afterthought. Show up, be pretty, be coy, be flirty. Shut up unless it’s sexier to not shut up. They roll with it. Divas Search has never dealt with twins. It’s unfair to the other hot chicks. They’re sent home.

Still, Kristin Prouty, WWE’s casting director for the Divas Search and now Senior Vice President of Entertainment Relations, was interested. So the Bellas were flown out to Georgia, not part of the search, and tossed in the developmental ring. They both fell in love. Nikki and Brie uprooted their lives, their serious relationships, their family’s dreams, all for that feeling. Nikki gave up her lifelong dream of being a soccer player, the future she envisioned as she recovered, on a feeling. Threw her body into a new gamut of athleticism and a new level of danger, on a feeling.

Crazy, right? It’s almost like that feeling could be love.

The Bellas were used exclusively as set decoration, arm candy, until they were utilized as sickly sweet and smiling faces. Palatable. Replaceable. Then they were bad girls.

Twin magic wrapped up each cycle of acrobatics and hard hits. Brie got a title this way. It pissed people off, the purpose of a heel. But that would not compare to later vitriol. See, at this time, they weren’t fully realized characters yet. They weren’t humanized. The hatred wasn’t personal. When they returned after a growth in popularity from Total Divas, armed with familiarity and fan affection, largely from women, girls, and gays, Nikki in particular infiltrated an incredibly toxic company.

Every major storyline WWE handed to Nikki Bella seemed to reduce and embarrass her, but she committed to her character anyway. While Brie got stories that painted her as capable and relatable (albeit problematic: she was only given this level of humanity because she was married to the traditional wrestling demographic’s Mockingjay, Daniel Bryan), Nikki was repeatedly cast as “John Cena’s girlfriend.”

Apart from rare instances where heels like Carmella accused her of being nothing more than “John Cena’s girlfriend,” the taunt was almost exclusively said onscreen by babyfaces, demonizing Nikki not for her arrogance, the inherent overkill of her powerhouse moveset, or her betrayal of her sister, but for dating a popular male wrestler. Her long term monogamous relationship was commodified to slut shame Nikki and imply she was dirty and untalented. When Nikki won the Divas Championship off of AJ Lee at Survivor Series in 2014, the big punch from the now title chasing AJ was “talent is not sexually transmitted.”

From Carmella to Natalya to Ronda Rousey, the implications were that dating John Cena was the worst thing Nikki Bella has ever done and despite wrestlers very often dating wrestlers. AJ Lee was then dating and is now married to notable retired professional wrestler CM Punk. Yet, for some reason, it’s damaging and harmful to the division when Nikki does it. Every babyface who says this is brave, true and good. Despite it being the least brave thing you could possibly do because every person before you has already said it.

WWE Creative would not or could not do the work to make the women’s division something built on the archetypes and tropes that men have fought for or one that handled the unique challenges and pressures put upon women in addition to those things. WWE’s hyper avoidance of its own responsibility in holding back women is exactly why they relied on AJ Lee’s “pipe bomb,” an internalized misogyny manifesto, to structure the entire division.

"I have saved your Divas division. I have shattered glass ceilings. I have broken down doors. Why? So… So a bunch of ungrateful, stiff mannequins can waltz on through without even getting so much as a thank you?"

AJ Lee, Paige, and even our retrospective celebration of Lita, has as much to do with placating the male gaze and fitting male ideals as the booking of sex kittens of years past, like Sable or Stacy Kiebler, ever did. And with no power to directly call it out or to have a meaningful rebuttal, Nikki focused on being a professional wrestler. On the mic, in the ring, in promos, from move set to psychology, she did her job and then some. She did her job in spite of the words around her.

Unlike any other woman in the division, Nikki Bella reflected whatever you wanted back to you. Is she a pretty girl who doesn’t deserve this opportunity? Then she’s a boastful, over confident, and unskilled heel who is holding back the underdog.

Have you waited your entire life to see a woman show up, feel pretty, and not do it to assign herself as a sex toy or a Pick Me? Then she’s smirking at the criticism on both sides because she’s pretty for herself. Are you a minority who has felt starved for violent representation and saw a new possibility for your stories to be told when you caught an episode of Total Divas or Total Bellas? Then she’s a 21st Century Xena.

For me, a lifelong fan who is aware of the ins and outs, a girl who gasped when Sable hit men and cried when Lita did anything, she is the Trojan Horse that gave the state of women’s wrestling it’s first great blow. Pro wrestling is a microcosm of social aggression. The belief that a woman who chooses to be both powerful and sexy, who does not clearly define her role to the masses, who fights hard, has an athletic background and does not virtue signal her ranking as comparative to other women is the worst thing in the world because the world is trash.

The women of NXT are no better or worse than anyone before them. Hell, many weren’t even better in NXT than the women on the main roster were at the time. They were given opportunity. The glass ceiling they broke only got broken because they were ALLOWED to break it. Triple H made the call. A man gave them that power. There’s no special, magical girl that makes misogyny and systemic oppression null and void. To say that there is is to remove responsibility from yourself as a consumer. It is reckless.

You don’t say that because you love Sasha, Bayley, Becky, or Charlotte that much. You say that because it means you don’t have to do any work. It means that the horrifying past and lackluster present that denies women their power is the fault of the women who are getting screwed over. The Us vs Them shouldn’t be NXT women or alternative women against everyone else on the roster. It should be the fans and the women versus WWE’s horrific practices.

While people have mindlessly written the Bellas off for a variety of reasons they have been subversive on social media and on commentary, long before #GiveDivasAChance was trending. They’ve been the big names that the Four Horsewomen cut their teeth on after their call ups, a forgotten necessity as the social media storm around pro wrestling makes it easy to forget that a majority of viewers tune in twice a week through cable and don’t follow NXT (at least at that time, it’s more accessible now).

Building an empire on top of wrestling was, until the Bellas, a man’s game. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena are the only relevant names. Even with men, it’s a small and exclusive club. The Bellas have built an empire. Their very name is a brand. They’ve slowly taken more power over the Total brand of shows, making it more about the lives of women who wrestle than the scripted and often offensive drama that Kevin Dunn initially approved. Everything they do places an emphasis on women and girls. Their reach isn’t limited to getting the right role in the right action franchise. Their reach is limitless.

Nikki in particular will never escape the stain of her storylines in WWE. She was a hot girl, a mean girl, a girlfriend, a fiance. No matter how great she was, how varied her move set, how amazing her delivery, how effective her improv, the writer’s room was clear: You’re John Cena’s Whatever

Nikki never wavered. Through it all she found a way to be focused on body positivity, to be the antithesis of slut shaming. It’s why she has crossover appeal. Whether she’s doing push ups over a still unpinned but aching enemy in ring or telling Brie to wear what she wants and to let both old ladies in line at Starbucks and Daniel Bryan stay mad about it, Nikki Bella is here for womanhood. Whatever that means to you.

To quote the fantastic video package from Monday Night Raw on Sept. 14, 2015, hours before she became the longest reigning Divas Champion:

"You all begged for a Divas revolution. And I gave you one."

Next. WWE Royal Rumble 2020: Predicting all 30 women before Survivor Series 2019. dark

And if you refuse to reexamine her title reign or to consider what her run might have been if she had been allowed to enter into this new era you won’t just be failing yourself or failing professional wrestling. You will be failing women.