WWE: The Bella Twins claimed a space for women in wrestling

Nikki Brie Bella Twins WWE (photo courtesy of WWE)
Nikki Brie Bella Twins WWE (photo courtesy of WWE) /

2020 WWE Hall of Fame class wrestlers the Bella Twins made room for the Women’s revolution before they built their brand empire.

I was ringside when I was still in the womb, baptized by pro wrestlers placing their hands on my mother’s stomach, feeling me kick, and telling her she shouldn’t sit so close to the ring (there were no barricades and security in those days). I don’t remember life without wrestling because I’ve never lived life without wrestling.

I sat in front of a television and watched WWE Monday Night Raw and WCW Monday Nitro like I was attending mass. I loved the ritual of it, the pageantry. When I went live, I loved the sounds of bodies dropping onto those wooden planks and the crowd cheering and jeering, the smell of sweat on canvas and of cheap stadium snacks.

The squared circle is sacred. The entrance ramp hallowed. Each stadium imbued with its own kind of holiness.

As a child is born into religion, I was born into wrestling. It wasn’t really mine until I found the Hardyz. And then Lita made me feel satiety. I looked at Lita and I recognized, in the sacred space of wrestling, someone like me: a woman. And I was thrilled at the thought that I could be her.

But I wasn’t her. I had chosen a Patron Saint who I would never live up to, I felt her energy, I worshipped. Every night a prayer that I could be so cool, so tough, so different, so wanted. I wanted to be so divine that all the men I had admired would consider me worthy.

There are rules in wrestling. Secret rules. Not kayfabe. Not the counts and the pins and the DQs. Not the commandment that strikes down usual theatre etiquette.

Rules ascribed by men long ago. We don’t know who started them or why or when, but there are rules for those in attendance. Rules like stand by your man, give the boys what they want, smile and give in when a commenter or manager or any ol’ character or man in the audience sexually harrasses you. Rules like prove to the men in the crowd that you belong by punishing any other girl or woman who breaks those rules.

So many characters touched my heart, told me, you are home, you belong here, even though I was simply born to it. Bret Hart, The Hardy Boyz, Lita, Booker T, Chris Jericho, The Shield. I am home, I thought.


Mod your t-shirt, razor cut your hair, create your arm bands. Do your makeup, but only in a way that says you don’t care about your makeup. Be pretty, but only pretty in the way men think is tough. Remember the rules, Follow the rules. Make sure everyone else is following the rules.

My love for wrestling didn’t wane, but I was weary. Stone Cold Steve Austin left, the Rock left, and wrestling was less cool in the mainstream.

Lita left, too, her retirement not treated with the reverence of men. All that work, all the right moves. Punk rock chic and sexpot, both the things required of women. I watched my patron saint be shamed, her underwear and sex toys pawned off to the crowd. Men who had once offered her protection were now shaking dollars and laughing cruelly as she left the ring forever.

By high school, I was the last of the girls in the neighborhood who cared about wrestling. I was more of a woman, by default less of a fan in the eyes of the boys. I was in spiritual turmoil. Vince McMahon, my unknowable god, forgot about me and gave me no guidance.

The last half of Ruthless Aggression saw the women less obviously sexualized than in the Attitude Era, but nothing meant anything anymore. I didn’t know if it ever would again. I loved CM Punk. I loved the Shield. But I knew that those stories of honor, of switching and grey morality, of brotherhood, of the underdogs, of taking a stand … those weren’t for me. They were for men.

I didn’t trust WWE with women but I was dangerously close to caring again when a new Diva, Brie Bella, caught win after win by sliding under the ring and letting her identical twin sister Nikki come out and catch the pin.

The Bella Twins caught my eye. Their impact on me was startling. I’d never gravitated towards women so immediately in pro wrestling. Before, it had always taken a woman being tossed into a storyline of the Men’s division that I really loved. Before my complete devotion to Lita, I’d loved to watch Sable and Chyna. It felt dangerous.

But I knew I liked them. I knew they made character choices and gave their all regardless of the segment. And hey, I was going to college for theatre. I was going to play any role handed to me, too. Even when the stories were bad or lackluster, even when they were given less ring time and more arm candy time, they committed.

Then they got the Total Divas gig. I was nervous, even scared, and initially a little resentful that this thing that I loved, that I’d been bullied for loving, to the point where I didn’t speak to anyone about it for the entirety of high school, was going to be on E! where anyone channel surfing could see it.

Sure, men were terrible about it. The show was clearly a Kevin Dunn product in the first few seasons. It didn’t win women any points with the kind of men determined to hold us back regardless. It was an easy target for the women still adhering to the Attitude Era doctrines that kept them safe.

But I saw an episode on in the breakroom at my retail job and heard two women talking about the wrestlers on screen, admiring them, discussing some of their wrestling storylines in the context of how it touched their personal lives.

I saw women normally bullied out of or intimidated by the wrestling space holding the same veneration in their heart for the artform as I did. And more and more, women took an interest in wrestling. Women and girls bought tickets because of the Bellas.

They wondered why the women didn’t have more time. They asked questions. They heard Nikki and Brie on their television screens, in interviews, on panels at conventions saying they wanted more for the women. They didn’t grow up knowing they were supposed to hate women and to accept any tiny crumb tossed their way with gratitude.

One storyline changed it all for me. It started the way so many stories do. Brie Bella was a wife. Daniel Bryan’s wife. She was put in danger and he had to save her.

But there was a twist. Stephanie McMahon was to blame. And the Bella Twins took on the Authority. Every legend had been a part of that storytelling tradition. Stone Cold Steve Austin did it. The Rock. The Shield did it and Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose were still doing it in the fall out. Daniel Bryan, the symbol of what will eventually be known as the Yes! Era was built on it.

And now women were doing it. These women.

In 2014, I watched Brie Bella slap Stephanie McMahon in the face and I loved it. The crowd loved it. I watched her quit and then watched Nikki Bella, with her powerhouse moveset and legendary strong style, fight with one hand literally tied behind her back. Not being squashed, but pushing a boulder up a hill. Room and time to tackle the psychology of it, the Jungian hunger of it. It built and built and built and at SummerSlam, Brie Bella faced Stephanie McMahon.

And the next great archetype of pro wrestling presented itself: Brother vs. Brother.

This time, Sister vs. Sister.

I couldn’t believe that it had happened. Amidst the naysayers and vitriol, WWE had given them the chance to do a real story. And they’d taken it. They’d given it their all. Nikki Bella’s heel turn and run as WWE Divas Champion made me feel alive.

This was more than holy communion. I was home again. I belonged here. This was mine.


From that moment on, I chased that feeling. I was living in an imperfect world that did not see me, but so were the Bellas. If they could do anything, I could. If they could exist in a world that hadn’t given women those opportunities and take them anyway, so could I.

I took up space.

At work. In the gym.

I took up space.

I started going to live shows again, as much as possible. I stopped men when they booed down children enjoying themselves. I called men out when they yelled slurs or sexually harassed the crowd or the women walking to the ring.

I took up space.

I held PPV watch parties in my apartment. I talked about how much I loved wrestling. I made believers out of people who thought it was the same cringey, cheesy mess of the 90s.

I took up space.

Whether it was on commentary or on panels at conventions, the Bellas were vulnerable and honest. New fans didn’t come to wrestling because they were vapid and somehow confused and seduced by a reality show. They came because Nikki and Brie were real.

Undoubtedly gorgeous, but flawed, funny, their bond apparent and concrete no matter how you edited it. And they never qualified or apologized for how much they loved wrestling. They just loved it aloud at the same time that they’d say, yes, we want more screen time, we need more screen time.

For a while, the men got worse. The “not like other girls” hoards got worse. The vitriol was constant. Men made assumptions about me because I wore head to toe Bellas gear to live shows. I’d wear my Fearless Nikki snapback to indie shows, to the gym, pretty much everywhere. I belonged here. I was born here.

And I was grateful for every little girl who fell in love with this crazy thing because of the Bellas.

Despite gross rumors, blatant lies in dirt sheets, and so called wrestling “journalists” qualifying every success of that heel run, Nikki showed up. Every week, she showed up. She took no s***.

When the dust settled, the Twins reunited and Brie was her constant companion, champion, and bad b**** in her own right. The Bellas were bigger than Face or Heel. They were whatever you decided they were. They transcended wrestling archetypes in a way few people have.

So every week in my life, I showed up. I went to therapy. I advocated for myself at work. I started weight lifting. I told myself I deserved to be in all those spaces.

I deserved to take ownership of my body, to chase my desires, to have ambition, to dress how I wanted, to eat, to flirt, to say no, to say yes, to be a human person. To be a woman who liked being pretty, who liked being tough, and who was unwilling to apologize for it.

Being born into wrestling, I was a girl in a tower built by men. I was in the wrestling world but only in that tower. Trapped. Limited. Confined. Monitored.

If you come from a broken home or experience trauma, as so many girls do, you believe what a story tells you. So until the Bellas, I believed women were worth what the business and the most vocal fans said we were worth (nothing). I felt like it was a problem within me.

Original Sin. Eve and the apple. Follow the rules, they’re for your protection. Don’t be too much. Stick to your assigned role. Remember what they did to Lita?

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The Bellas broke the spell cast over me. For the first time I connected to wrestlers immediately and so intensely that the prayers and psalms of internalized misogyny, of homophobia, of fake geek girl whatever fell away and I just felt it.

How connected I was to them, how connected I was to wrestling, and the potential wrestling had to connect to everyone. I felt it in my heart and in my bones.

And one by one we all, every man, woman, and non-binary legend in the Bella Army, pulled bricks out of that tower’s walls.

And we’ve damn near toppled it.

So thank you, Nikki. So thank you, Brie. There are bricks left in that tower. There is glass left in the ceiling. I will never let anyone forget that you got us this far. For over a decade you existed in duality.

No, not as twins, but between kayfabe and daytime talk shows, between Pretty Girl and Powerhouse, between Cut for Time and Headlining Wrestlemania. Without your passion for and dedication to this business there wasn’t an army strong enough to cry out “Give Divas A Chance.”

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We owe so much to you.