WWE's royal stumble

Last week, World Wrestling Entertainment held a show in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Dubbed "Greatest Royal Rumble," it was a six-hour extravaganza which included title matches for all the major championships, appearances by legendary performers such as the Undertaker and Triple H, and a 50-man battle royal that ran for over an hour and was won by fan favorite Braun Strowman. The company reportedly made anywhere from $100-200 million on the show, funded entirely by the Saudi government, and it was just the first step in a ten-year agreement. But something was missing.


In fits and starts, the WWE's women's division has become every bit the equal to the men's, and in some cases has exceeded it. While there have always been talented female wrestlers, they've historically been hamstrung by an emphasis on T&A over actual grappling. Bra-and-panties matches, "divas" instead of "superstars," the entire Attitude era -- it was clear that female performers were there to titillate the mostly male audience.

In WWE, that started to change in a developmental brand called NXT. (If Monday Night Raw is the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees, then NXT's weekly show is the PawSox versus the Toledo Mud Hens.) NXT's women weren't "divas," and they didn't strut around in lingerie. They were there to wrestle, same as the men, and over time the NXT women's division became must-watch programming for anyone who cared about ring work.

Stars like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch became popular on the strength of their character work and in-ring ability. Women frequently main-evented television, and even topped the card at pay-per-views, scoring "match of the night" honors often. I still remember jumping out of my chair when ultra-babyface Bayley finally vaniquished the villanous Sasha Banks at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn to win the championship that had long eluded her.

It wasn't long before this women's "revolution," as the company called it, made its way to the main brand. They stumbled out of the gates, as what had made the revolution so successful in minor leagues -- organic storytelling and top-rate matches -- was hamstrung by management's characteristic insistence on inserting itself into the narrative, plus the hamhanded booking that marks most WWE TV these days. But the women were just too good. Eventually the "Divas Championship" was retired and replaced, the performers showed they could swim with the big fish, and they even main-evented a TV show or two. If not on equal footing with the men, the WWE women's division could at least be said to be within sight.

Which brings us to the Greatest Royal Rumble. Our geopolitical allies the Sauds aren't too fond of the ladies, as it turns out, and WWE's female performers were not allowed to participate in the show. Plenty of people have asked the company how they can reconcile performing under these conditions. The reply, not wholly unjustified, is that change happens from within, and that exposing everyday Saudis to this silly and wonderful Western product counts as progress.

To that I say, pip pip! I could not agree more. The only way to effect change in such a repressive place as Saudi Arabia is by taking their money and following their rules. Duh.

Let's be clear what happened here: WWE sold out their female stars in order to participate in a propaganda exercise for a foreign government. This is far beyond making reasonable accommodations for cultural differences (for example, asking the women to cover more of their bodies when performing). This is WWE absolutely capitulating. What does it say to the women of WWE that the "Greatest" Royal Rumble is one that doesn't include them anywhere on the card? The company should have said: "We'd love to run a show for you, but either you take all of us or you take none of us."

Reportedly, the female roster was paid as though they did perform, which I'm sure no one turned down, but strikes me as almost insulting, as though it underlines just how much money the company is making from this deal. That revenue also papered over the absence of mid-card favorite Sami Zayn, whose Syrian heritage precluded him from appearing (although it's disputed whether that was Zayn's call or the Sauds').

Presumably the money in play is also going to smooth over the major controversy that did arise. During the show, the WWE played a house ad for its upcoming pay-per-views, one which featured both male and female stars. The government apologized profusely for inflicting upon the audience images of women "behaving indecently," i.e. existing. Believe me, I've seen the ad. Debauched though my Western sensibilities may be, the only indecent thing about it is some of the performers' dancing ability.

Who knows if this means the end of that decade-long agreement between KSA and WWE? If there's one thing I know about the House of Saud, it's that, unlike the House of McMahon, they stick to their principles.