AJ Lee, the #PipeBombshell, and Business as Usual
It was impossible to ignore the #PipeBombshell (kudos to CM Punk for that) when it happened. The most interesting Diva of all time was verbally going after the most underwhelming Divas division since…well, damn, this might be the most underwhelming Divas division ever. And the aftermath was equally exciting. People were talking about the Divas. Women's wrestling mattered again, all thanks to AJ Lee and the #PipeBombshell.
Except I'm not as enthralled with this "turning point" in women's wrestling as the consensus seems to be.
We've discussed my issues with what we'll call "Bella Blaming" on this site before. To summarize, I'm uncomfortable with the way the two most recognizable Divas, to casual viewers, are demonized by wrestling fans as representing everything wrong with women's wrestling while similarly situated men (The Rock, for example) are given the pass of "if it gets people watching, it's good for wrestling." This is not to say that the Bellas aren't immensely frustrating as WWE performers; their stiffness in the ring is bizarre given how long they've been around, and they're virtually static as actresses. Still, the same community carrying pitchforks and torches over the Bellas was cheering for Zack Ryder's years of "woo woo woo" followed by the least exciting move set in history, so maybe we need to consider where, and more importantly why, we're drawing these battle lines.
Anyway, back on RAW, the "Total Divas Spectacular" match was admittedly weird. The nature of that reality show is such that it pulls the curtain back on the wrestling product even as it creates the same sort of faux "reality" that all reality television creates. This juxtaposition makes for strange matches designed to highlight the Total Divas show itself. The best word for the result would probably be "benign", which is positive in that the show presents the business well to people who aren't necessarily wrestling fans, but negative in that the most interesting Divas on WWE flagship television, and AJ Lee in particular, aren't present because they aren't as easily marketable on E!.
After the match, with the entire Total Divas cast in or around the ring, out came AJ Lee armed with the Divas Title and a microphone. What followed was three minutes of cold, piercing vitriol let loose on the Total Divas case. The Bellas and their hyper-dramatic daddy issues, the Funkadactyls and their fake fighting and even faker "friends-till-the-end" resolution, Natalya's relationship problems, and even the utter uselessness of Eva Marie and Jojo, all became targets for AJ Lee's rant. AJ's icy crescendo came when she called the Divas around the ring "a bunch of cheap, interchangeable, expendable, useless women." Fan response was immediate and overwhelming: AJ Lee was saying what needed to be said! It's a new manifesto of women's wrestling! It's the second coming of the Pipebomb!
No…it really isn't.
We're so desperate for another Pipe Bomb that we've forgotten the point of the original, but you can't just walk out onstage, let loose angrily on individuals and equate it to what CM Punk did over two years ago. What Punk said wasn't special because he went after John Cena; he as much as said that he didn't have a problem with Cena at all. Punk's Pipe Bomb went after the system. It decried the foundational framework of the WWE that allowed wrestlers like CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler, and Daniel Bryan to flounder as they clawed for their place in the company while "company men" built in the "company mold" like Cena were handed countless opportunities to thrive. The individuals weren't important; the systemic failure was what needed to be attacked, and only brutal, vitriolic honesty would make that point loudly enough for it to matter.
AJ Lee, by contrast, took strikingly personal shots at characters, if not actual performers (again, given the nature of "Total Divas", it's hard to separate the two), and while that feels like something new and exciting in the moment thanks to the state of the Divas division, really, what happened? The "big targets" of the Funkadactyls, Natalya, and a couple of rookies that haven't even started their careers got embarrassed on national television? Wow. Thank goodness they got taken down a peg; they've had it far too good for far too long.
As for the Bellas, wrestling fans are crucifying them for doing little more than being an access point for people with a casual interest in watching wrestling on television. As the argument goes, the Divas division should draw attention because of a wrestler like AJ Lee, not models/actresses like the Bellas. The problem is that, first, models/actresses like the Bellas are wrestlers, but we've gone over that before. Second, guess how much the Bellas have to do with the decision making that goes into booking matches, storytelling, marketing, or even creating a show like Total Divas. Here's a hint: Neither of them is sleeping with Vince McMahon or Paul Levesque, despite all the ugly slut-shaming jokes made about them that look pretty damn similar to the jokes we're all rightfully upset to see WWE writers make about AJ Lee's fictional dating habits.
In fact, for all the talk about how the entire Divas division was laid to waste by AJ Lee's "revolution", let's take a look at how the Bellas did respond (courtesy of Brandon Stroud at WithLeather):
Yes, it's muddled in its sense of kayfabe versus reality versus "reality television". No, it's not as smoothly put or concise as the #PipeBombshell. But…isn't it accurate? For all of the buzz about how AJ Lee brought the attention back to women's wrestling instead of personal or relationship drama on television, it seems awfully convenient to forget that AJ Lee has been the beneficiary of her own personal drama and the men to whom she has been connected on television. Whatever portion of the #PipeBombshell belonged to AJ Lee is at least somewhat hypocritical. AJ Lee, for all of her talent, benefited from being uniquely positioned by the WWE writers thanks to her own personal history, which she hasn't exactly attempted to keep off of television, and her storyline attachment to rising stars. Can you name ONE wrestler to whom the Bellas, or anyone on Total Divas, has been connected to with the star power of Cena, Bryan, or Ziggler, much less all three? Are we sure that, if the same storyline opportunities were given to anyone on Total Divas, they couldn't also succeed, even if not to the level of AJ Lee?
That's the problem with the #PipeBombshell; instead of taking on the creators of the flawed system, it went after the very women who continue to have their potential as performers held back by that system. Sure, maybe the Bellas aren't good enough to be performers of the caliber of AJ Lee; the bigger problem is that with the way the WWE currently handles the Divas, we wouldn't know even if they were. It's the old management tactic of pitting labor against each other so that everyone ignores the fact that management still has all of the real power while the employees fight over what management deigns to give them. The #PipeBombshell didn't actually go after anything or anyone that could really change women's wrestling; it just took a shot at individual Divas and a show that creates avenues for more than two women to have storylines on television at any given time. If the #PipeBombshell would be hypocritical for AJ Lee as performer to believe, it's even worse for WWE writers to say in an effort to placate critics of WWE's women's wrestling. The WWE can't criticize the avenues and opportunities that the Divas of Total Divas are using for themselves unless it addresses that, on its flagship programs, the WWE isn't creating avenues for them.
CM Punk's Pipe Bomb was a weapon of mass destruction against the status quo of WWE storytelling, a wakeup call as to how the system had been mismanaged, and a call for fans to demand something more from the people in charge. By contrast, AJ Lee gave fans what they wanted by knocking down some easy targets. That's not a Pipe Bomb, that's just a fireworks show to distract everyone from what's really going on.
When we really want to have a discussion about how women in the Divas division are underutilized, mismanaged, and often demeaned by the WWE system, that will be a turning point worth talking about. If all we want is to pretend that calling women "cheap, interchangeable, expendable, and useless" is anything other than typical of how the WWE has always portrayed women just because those words were spoken by a female performer, then we don't really care how women are portrayed on WWE television.