Professional wrestling achieved what some fans are calling a major milestone this weekend, as World Wrestling Entertainment featured women in the main event of its flagship WrestleMania show for the first time. Becky Lynch, an Irish wrestler who calls herself “the Man,” was Sunday night’s big winner, defeating pro wrestling scion Charlotte Flair and mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey to take home a pair of wall-size championship belts.
Lynch’s nickname points to the strange gender politics of the WWE. A few female wrestlers, like the groundbreaking superstar Chyna, have been pitted against men as equal competitors. More often, women have mostly functioned as sexy palate cleansers between the men’s fights. In pushup bras and fishnets, cheek-exposing underwear and long flowing hair, female wrestlers have been billed as “Divas” by the company. Male wrestlers are treated as sex objects too, with glistening curves and flowing hair of their own. And both genders are cast in stories that emphasize the kinds of personal grudges and revenge fantasies that parse as “catfighting” in women-only matches. But traditionally, the men have monopolized the narratives of domination and power—the kinds of plots male viewers want to identify with.
Lynch, aka the Man, has explicitly tried to insert herself into those masculinized narratives. At first glance, the moniker is a ham-fisted attempt at hot-wiring a sexist compliment (“she fights like a man”) to suit a female competitor. If male fans had a hard time imagining a woman as a ferocious, all-powerful headliner, Lynch and wrestling executives may have thought, placing her ascendance in the context of male achievement could help her along. But there’s a bit more going on here. Lynch has said she took the nickname from the catchphrase “to be the man, you gotta beat the man,” the signature line of legend Ric Flair, whose daughter Lynch bested on Sunday. Lynch wasn’t just claiming she’s as good as a man (and thus better than all the women). She was using Charlotte Flair’s dad’s slogan against her.
Per the WWE’s pre-fight storyline, Flair and Lynch were close friends until Lynch turned against her last summer. “The [WWE] expectation seemed to be that the crowd would embrace Flair and be disgusted by Lynch’s tactics,” wrote Mel columnist Dave Schilling last year. Instead, viewers got into Lynch’s newfound aggression. The formerly “bubbly” wrestler said in a recent interview that taking losses with a smile didn’t win her any fans or convince the WWE writers to give her top billing. “When I came back with a scowl on my face, it got me everywhere,” she said. “I’m sick of not being given opportunities to speak, to say what I feel and say what I think.” In the most common telling, the unexpected enthusiasm for Lynch forced the WWE to give her the slot at WrestleMania, and to give her the win.
That’s the weird thing about professional wrestling: As a culture product, it both tells its fans what they need and responds to what they want. Lynch’s quick evolution from bubbly loser to brutish champ is the culmination of years of effort to make the WWE seem less sexist than it is, or has been in the past. In 2015, some WWE viewers complained about the sidelining of women, using the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance after female wrestlers got just 30 seconds of fight time in a three-hour special. The company responded by launching a PR campaign that hyped a “Women’s Revolution,” staging its first all-women’s pay-per-view show last fall, and signing Rousey, an Olympic medalist who’s famous for her UFC domination. The women still wear fake eyelashes and cleavage-bearing clothes unsuited for sports, sure, but they’re getting a bit more institutional respect.
It’s hard to listen to Lynch’s storyline and track her rise in popularity without thinking about the political and cultural landscape outside the WWE. In a zeitgeist defined in large part by women’s rage, a woman who shed her likable image to angrily demand what she felt she was owed has become the breakout star of a male-dominated entertainment venue. Schilling chalks up Lynch’s success to the ways she’s made herself appealing to male viewers—not as a sex symbol, but as an aspirational figure. “Her feelings of resentment, frustration and determination resonated” with these men, he writes; when she struck a victorious pose with a face covered in blood after a match last fall, she “signaled to the primarily male audience that she could hang, that she was worthy.”
A cynical takeaway would be that male wrestling fans might only get behind a female champion if she remakes herself as “the Man.” An optimistic one would be that the WWE now has more incentive to stop having female wrestlers blow kisses in advertisements and to start giving them more starring roles. (The show Lynch, Flair, and Rousey headlined on Sunday was the second-highest-grossing event in WrestleMania’s 35-year history.)
Whichever way you see it, the WWE is pressing Lynch’s superstardom as a feminist victory—she’s “living proof that anything is possible,” according to the title of a post-match video published on Sunday, in which a skimpily dressed WWE employee tells Lynch that “there were a lot of girls [in the arena] that you impacted.” But it’s probably best understood as a smart marketing decision. As Yahoo’s WWE writer put it, Lynch’s rise is “wrestling’s hottest angle in years.”