Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
In February 2015, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon assured fans on Twitter that he heard their demands for more coverage of women’s wrestling. This tweet came just days after the fan-led social-media movement to #GiveDivasAChance (Divas being WWE’s trademark for their female employees at the time), following a dismal 30-second women’s tag team match between the Bella Twins, Emma and Paige.
Since then it’s been one step forward, two steps back: At WrestleMania in April 2016, WWE began its “Women’s Evolution,” retiring the sparkly pink butterfly Divas Championship title for a red and white version more in line with the men’s titles. It also announced that it would start calling its women wrestlers Superstars, like its male wrestlers. But women still routinely receive around 5 percent of airtime — out of about eight-plus hours of weekly programming — when WWE’s female viewers make up nearly 40 percent of its audience, and WWE says its girl fanbase is “sizable.”
While initially praised for featuring women’s cuts at selected live events, it was disappointing to find that there were only two women’s wrestler’s shirts (Asuka and Alexa Bliss) for sale at WWE’s second biggest show of the year, SummerSlam, in August. Exact numbers for merchandise sales aren’t available, but WWE made their highest profit ever of $729.2 million last year, some of which presumably comes from the women consumers of whom they profess to be more inclusive. (WWE did not return a request for comment on this article.)
This is something the independent wrestling scene has been better at acknowledging, with women fans flocking to alternatives to the common, mass-produced black wrestling T-shirt — designed to mimic the ring gear of the tag team Young Bucks, consisting of brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, who wrestle on the indies.
“We’ve had all these women asking for leggings,” Dana Massie, proprietor of the website Young Bucks Merch and Matt’s wife, tells me over the phone. “The idea has always kind of been there for us, but we never knew exactly how to make it happen. Then when Matt and Nick started doing this crazy gear, like the pants with their faces printed all over [them], and the ones with ‘superkick’ printed all over them, Matt and I were joking and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I had a pair to match you? I would totally wear them to a show.’”
Massie, initially surprised by the popularity of the leggings, approached them with caution. “We ordered the minimum amount to be able to place the order and as soon as we put them up we sold out in less than 24 hours,” she says. “We had to turn around and put in another order because people were already asking for them.” (She declined to tell me how much revenue the leggings have garnered.)
There’s clearly a market calling out for more than just wrestling T-shirts, “so it’s kind of neat to give women a different option so they don’t have to wear a wrestling shirt,” Massie, who also runs her own LuLaRoe store, says.
“In the last couple of years I think [we] have really changed things with [our] merch game and are offering a little bit [of a] wider selection and variety of products,” Massie says. As a woman-owned business, a rarity in professional wrestling, Young Bucks Merch has become Massie’s baby. “I never thought when we started this out of our old apartment, when our daughter was a baby, that it would ever be what it is now… I’m able to be at home with our kids, I’m picking up the business side of things and I’m able to voice my opinions on how women should be represented as fans,” Massie says. “It’s something I’m very proud of. It’s amazing how far it’s come and I love sharing it with everybody.”
As wrestling is still arguably an unsafe environment for women and non-binary folks, other indie designers, such as Colette Arrand with her frequently sold out Gay Community shirt (a play on the popular Bullet Club tee) and The Lady J, are working to change this — and using T-shirts to help. In 2016, J started the PW (Pro Wrestling) Grrrl Gang, a buddy system for those who don’t identify as cisgender men but who still want to attend events that have notoriously catered to that demographic. “Originally, [PW Grrrl Gang] was a way for people to find one another at shows if they needed someone to sit with,” J says. “I was purchasing a shirt from What A Maneuver and saw that they had a template shirt that you could fill, in so I made a PW Grrrl Gang shirt just for myself. I wore it to shows and several people asked me where they could get one, so I started thinking about what I could do with the proceeds from the shirts if I sold them.”
While the prolificacy of WWE and Young Bucks merchandise shows how much money is to be made from non-male shoppers, PW Grrrl Gang exemplifies how wrestling fans are “showing themselves to be generous, welcoming, and kind,” J says. “Currently all of the proceeds go back into the initiative. Every dollar we make from the sale of the shirts goes toward purchasing tickets to independent wrestling events that we then give away to fans.”
And designers such as Kate Foray and Punk Rock Big Mouth are seeing success selling pins, tote bags, hoodies, and miscellaneous items, in turn tapping into a market that doesn’t just want corny catchphrases and predictable designs printed on mass-produced black T-shirts, baseball caps and fidget spinners, à la the offerings on WWEShop.com.
In the wake of indie wrestlers and designers seeing success with their women-friendly products, coupled with the success of other pop-culture products geared specifically toward this demographic, such as GLOW and Wonder Woman, WWE seems to be grasping the notion that women and girls will go out of their way to spend money on things that appeal to and reflect them.
No doubt this was behind the ComicCon reveal in July of the partnership between WWE and Mattel to release a line of WWE Barbies, available exclusively in Toys R Us stores this month. The Barbies come with interchangeable ring gear and street clothes in the likeness of WWE Superstars Sasha Banks and Charlotte and Becky Lynch, as well as Brie and Nikki Bella, Natalya, Alicia Fox, and Eva Marie, all of whom star or have starred on the E! Show Total Divas.
WWE’s partnership with Barbie might not necessarily seem in line with the progress being made on the indie scene. However, it does challenge the notion that girls who play with Barbies and are interested in shopping and fashion don’t like wrestling. Coupled with the 2016 introduction of more diverse body types to the Barbie line, WWE Barbies could be seen to be celebrating femininity and strength, as many other brands and sportswomen seem to be doing.
WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said as much at the launch of the Barbies: “We are honored to partner with Mattel to provide kids with another way to connect with our incredible female performers who inspire confidence and strength.”
WWE’s women Superstars aren’t just lending their highly stylized likenesses to the sale of Barbies and company-branded steampunk goggles and headbands, though; Nikki and Brie Bella are releasing a lingerie line called BirdieBee, while Eva Marie, who recently departed WWE, has a fashion brand called NEM and a range of hair extensions through Bellami Hair. Given the propensity for WWE’s female Superstars to sport brightly colored weaves and their continued reference to “snatching” them, WWE is sleeping on launching their own line of clip ins.
This is not the only thing WWE has stalled on: In April, during WrestleMania weekend, a 32-woman wrestling tournament, named “the Mae Young Classic” for the iconic women’s wrestler, was announced. Given the popularity and novelty of GLOW, not publicizing the tournament more widely or even doing a cross-promotion with Netflix was a missed opportunity. Returning to the success of the Young Bucks leggings, WWE fans have long been demanding leggings and sports bras in the likeness of their favorite Superstars’ gear. Meanwhile, Massie has “a few more [leggings designs] in the works that we’re hoping to put out later this year. We’ve also got joggers we’re going to put up on the site.”
Though WWE frequently makes missteps when it comes to its female audience, hopefully the response to independent women’s merchandise, WWE Barbies, and, more broadly, things like GLOW and Wonder Woman will show the company that we’re so thirsty for representations of ourselves that, when they acknowledge us, we will literally throw money at them.