It’s been a busy week for the AEW women’s division: first, the signing of Kris Statlander and Big Swole, the latter of whom featured on a superb YouTube promo package this week. But this week also saw up and coming star Britt Baker address the perceived shortcomings of the division.
“We’re very much in the introductory phase. We only have two hours of TV a week.”
Baker is not the first AEW star to speak out about fan criticism.
“We haven’t been able to focus on women as much as I’d like. Some of it has been availability. We have girls signed and hopping on board. I hate to say, ‘Wait till 2020,’ but I can safely say in 2020, there are going to be interesting and exciting signings that will shake up the division.”
It’s important to note at this juncture that AEW’s women’s division is not bad.
Certainly, it is at the very least highly promising, with industry veterans like Emi Sakura, Allie and Awesome Kong standing toe-to-toe with rising Joshi stars such as Hikaru Shida and Riho, and a healthy dose of up-and-coming talent like Sadie Gibbs, Nyla Rose and Penelope Ford. Signing Statlander and Swole further reinforces the bright future the division undoubtedly has ahead.
So, you might reasonably ask, what’s the problem?
Back in May during a media scrum, Britt Baker painted a somewhat different picture of the AEW women’s division. Here’s the quote from 411Mania.com:
“They value women’s wrestling just as much as they do the men’s wrestling. The women superstars are featured and showcased just as much as the men superstars. And I think that, setting that stage for equality in wrestling, the fans have no choice, they’re going to remember and they’re going to get excited for it. I think we’re really lucky to be here in AEW.”
Britt’s backtracking is demonstrative of what is most frustrating about the women’s division right now. In the early days of AEW’s inception, the company were presented as a force for change. A promotion which would not simply toe the WWE line in a bid to siphon off disillusioned fans, but a company with vision, with ambition.
Two months of regular TV time later, and the women’s division is still as underbaked as it ever was. Credit where credit is due: Big Swole’s promo from the latest Dynamite and Dark episodes is the most exciting thing to come out of the division since Riho won the Women’s Championship. But while this speaks highly of Swole’s presence, it also highlights the chasm between what could be and what is.
The truth is that since AEW’s weekly shows began in October, only one episode of Dynamite has featured more than one women’s match – and of the two matches featured, one was Nyla Rose squashing Leva Bates in under two minutes.
Outside of Dynamite, Dark hasn’t fared much better; just two episodes featuring more than one women’s match, and again, one was Nyla Rose squashing Leva Bates – this time in less than a minute. That ‘equality in wrestling’ Britt Baker talked about is just not happening.
It’s deeply frustrating, then, to hear Baker and Omega speak of the women’s division as an ‘introductory phase’, not least given the hype with which the division was initially approached.
It is especially egregious to note that neither the men’s singles division nor the men’s tag division have found themselves in an ‘introductory phase’; those have been primed and ready to go since day 1.
AEW, like all other mixed-gender promotions, view their men’s division as the default; it would be unthinkable to commence their televised shows without a well put-together, well-conceived men’s division. They’d be laughed out of the metaphorical building, and rightly so.
AEW have had ample time to build foundations for everything that is presently unfolding, from Chris Jericho’s reign as le champion, to the simmering rivalry between Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley. Why, then, have they not given half as much thought to their women’s division?
You might reasonably argue that the division is underdeveloped; that it does not yet have the breadth or depth of the men’s division. That is a fair criticism.
I cannot speculate as to why AEW successfully signed a broad, deep men’s roster prior to commencing the weekly Dynamite shows, but were unable to do so for the women’s roster, though the difference is stark – signing Statlander and Swole is better late than never, but could certainly have happened sooner.
As to lack of development: precisely how AEW intend to develop their women’s division by airing a single match a week on their flagship show is not clear.
A dearth of meaningful storylines is particularly conspicuous; more than that, it’s actively damaging. Nyla Rose’s title loss to Riho should have set her up as a dangerous, vengeful heel; even if she were not to immediately challenge for the belt, writing this upset into her character is the kind of long-view storytelling and character building that adds needed depth to the division.
Instead, we get Rose trashing Leva Bates in meaningless squash matches.
Current champ Riho, meanwhile, hasn’t been on TV for almost a month. Even then, her last televised appearance for Al Elite Wrestling was on AEW Dark in a low-stakes tag match.
Riho’s absence is due to a Stardom tournament, but you can’t help but wonder whether this could have been written into the show – a contrived injury or similar, perhaps at the hands of Rose – as opposed to her disappearing from TV without rhyme or reason.
It’s ultimately harmful because the momentum Riho has built – the charming, scrappy underdog, winning the hearts of the crowd, getting unquestionably over in spite of the language barrier, in spite of her lack of promos, in spite of the crowd’s total unfamiliarity with her oeuvre – is slipping away while she’s inexplicably absent.
Any heat between her and Rose has long gone cold; even her compelling rivalry with Emi Sakura has fizzled out post-Full Gear. Meanwhile, Leva Bates, Bea Priestley, Sadie Gibbs, Hikaru Shida and Penelope Ford are all meandering in the background, aimless. The Nightmare Collective has promise, but that’s about it – and neither Kong nor Brandi are likely to wrestle anytime soon.
If AEW aren’t even utilising the stars they have built, then, what hope is there that they might build new stars? Swole’s promo is superb, but it’s tucked away on YouTube – at the time of writing, Dynamite has not yet aired, but if it doesn’t make the TV broadcast it feels like a bit of a waste.
This strange, surreptitious squirreling away of the development the division does get has precedent. The build-up between Bea Priestley and Britt Baker felt squandered when their match was relegated to the Full Gear pre-show; a bizarre decision which did nobody any favors and which recalls WWE’s treatment of their ‘less important’ talent.
Filming hype packages and promos only to shove them beneath six men’s matches does nothing to make Baker, Priestley or the division as a whole feel remotely important.
It’s not unfair to point out the relative greenness of at least a proportion of the roster, though to paint the division as a whole as inexperienced is incorrect; even aside from the veterans, Shanna has 13 years of experience, Hikaru Shida 11; occasional appearances from Jamie Hayter and Mercedes Martinez add maturity and depth.
But AEW does not deal in house shows, and therefore the only way for its roster to gain experience is to learn by doing.
If there is only one slot per week – two if you include AEW Dark – it’s going to take a long time for that experience to accrue. The more the women wrestle, the better they become; if AEW handle them properly, increased exposure to the crowd also equates to familiarity and a more solid connection, especially if there is accompanying narrative and character work.
Meanwhile, the men’s division averages five matches per week on Dynamite alone and that’s not counting promo time, which again, skews heavily towards the men’s division. AEW can do better. They should do better.
It’s also not entirely correct to state that the women’s division is not connecting with fans. This is self-evident; Emi Sakura and Jamie Hayter vs Riho and Shanna elicited a ‘this is awesome’ chant from the Charlotte crowd.
Riho, as previously mentioned, got over despite an enormous language barrier, with a crowd largely unaware of her history. This is happening organically for the most part, but where the men’s division has the likes of Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega for young upstarts to bounce off of, the women’s division has had to operate largely without these landmarks.
So when a women’s tag match gets a big reaction, or when a Joshi star unknown to American crowds is universally beloved, it’s proof positive that this connection can be forged and more than that, that it doesn’t need big established stars to signpost why we should care about them.
Develop a character and put together a storyline and if you do it right, fans will care all on their own.
Those stars could potentially be utilised nonetheless. Kenny Omega’s patronage undoubtedly contributed to Riho’s popularity. There need not be a gender divide, especially if AEW is claiming that its male and female stars are equal.
The glimpses we’ve seen of the Butcher, the Blade and the Bunny are full of possibility; there’s absolutely no reason why AEW’s women can’t benefit from the experience and star power contained within the men’s roster.
Many of AEW’s women lack character and lack clear motivation; this is absolutely AEW’s oversight.
But I digress.
If AEW is able to forge fan connections with relatively unknown (at least to the mainstream) talent like Jurassic Express, Santana and Ortiz, and Sammy Guevara, then it’s disingenuous to suggest that the same cannot be done for the women’s division. It just requires time, effort and a willingness to take a risk.
And if AEW aren’t willing to take that risk, they should not have hyped themselves as the alternative to WWE; to skimp on their women’s division while funnelling disproportionate time and effort into their men’s roster is just toeing the same old tired line WWE have been toeing for years.
When Kenny Omega states that “there’s only so much time in an episode. It’s almost amazing how fast it gets eaten up”, he is exposing the view that the lion’s share of the episode should naturally fall to the men’s division; that women are still viewed as something to make space for as opposed to a division which belongs is very telling.
When Britt Baker espouses the view that “We only have two hours of TV a week,” it reinforces this idea further.
Eventual parity would be a wonderful thing, and while I accept that is unrealistic in AEW’s present state, it’s galling to consider that neither Omega nor Baker seem to think that one less men’s match per week to make room for one extra women’s match is a reasonable trade; even if the trade were to happen, the ratio would still skew heavily towards the men’s division, approximately four matches to two.
“As soon as we have a women’s tag division, that will balance (things) more and give the women more of a stage. Once there’s that ‘thing’ for them to fight for, you’re going to see more time devoted per episode for the women.”
Again, it is quite glaring that while women have to have a ‘thing’ to fight for, the men’s division is able to comfortably expand across five episodes per show without having multiple ‘things’ to fight for; sometimes the ‘thing’ is pride, sometimes it’s revenge, sometimes it’s just a plain old grudge. That the women’s division is seemingly unable to operate without gold to aim towards speaks of lazy writing.
Bea Priestley’s grudge against Britt Baker would have been a superb example of how a women’s wrestling storyline can operate without a title at its centre, had AEW not relegated it to the preshow.
Talk of a women’s tag division is all well and good, but ‘wait till 2020’ feels like a sop; why wait till 2020 when you have the raw materials required to build your women’s division right now? Why is it never the men’s division we have to wait for? Appeals to patience and promises of exciting things ahead begin to feel like empty platitudes after a while. AEW have already backtracked on what was initially promised.
The women’s division is good; it is solid and it is promising, but it is always women’s wrestling we have to wait for. It is always women’s wrestling we have to be patient about. It is always women’s wrestling which has to give way.
I have high hopes for the future of AEW’s women’s division; I think there is a lot to be optimistic about, and I hope AEW will go on to invest even half of the time, effort and passion it invests into its men’s division; it certainly has enough star power to become something special.
But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what could have been had women’s wrestling genuinely been a priority for AEW from the very beginning.