Hell in a Cell and the Limits of WWE's Feminism

Sasha Banks and Charlotte made history by wrestling in Hell in a Cell on Sunday, but for all the progress women wrestlers have made at WWE, there are still some questions.

by Ian Williams
01 November 2016, 8:46pm


WWE's most notorious gimmick match is Hell in a Cell. The idea is as simple as it is compelling: take a normal wrestling cage, enclose it on top, and then let your wrestlers get after it.

The simple addition of the chain-link lid immediately ramps up the drama. Sometimes, the wrestlers can't escape. Other times, they climb to the top, 20 feet above the floor, dangling off the edge. Sometimes they fall. They get hurt.

The blood and broken bones of Hell in a Cell's glory years are incompatible with the mandates of the modern WWE, which amount to "no blood and limited broken bones." And so the Hell in a Cell match has become, with few exceptions, a tedious exercise of homage to an irretrievable past. The match is mostly confined to the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, where feuds are settled inside the confines of the cage—WWE likes to call it a "structure"—as an annual tradition. There's scant gravitas to the proceedings; where the Cell was once an ending scene for the hottest feuds, now the promotion will throw most anyone in, regardless of mutual animus. There's even less physical drama—with all of the big spots and blade jobs removed, audiences are usually left with the awkward spectacle of two wrestlers in a cage that by necessity dominates their match, but which they can't actually use.

Still, every now and then, a Hell in a Cell match comes along that captures the drama of 15 or 20 years ago. The Hell in a Cell event this past Sunday did just that when Sasha Banks and Charlotte became the first two women to compete in the match.

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For the better part of two years now, WWE has done an admirable job of pushing its women wrestlers as more than just eye candy. Gone are the days of lingerie matches and Vince McMahon stripping Trish Stratus before making her bark like a dog. No more mud wrestling, no more oil, no more stripteases. In the place of all that crap, we now have women wrestling real matches with (mostly) real story lines. And to go with this shift in emphasis, WWE has assembled an enviable roster featuring some of the best female wrestlers in the world.

So it only made sense that the champion, Sasha Banks, would take on Charlotte, the woman she won the title from, in a Hell in a Cell match. This was a big deal and even though the lead-up was a bit muted, it delivered.

For once, the feud met the match stipulations perfectly. In kayfabe terms, these two women hate each other. Not only that, they've come up together, through NXT as raw rookies and then into WWE, where they've been defining the women's division this year. Like most of the best pro wrestling, there's a history to draw from: friends to rivals to blood enemies, all progress chartable and recognizable at each station of the journey.

The match was oddly sloppy, though given that both women have their share of botches in them that didn't hurt its believability. It has also become apparent that Sasha Banks hates her back the way the gunman in The Jerk hates cans. Still, both wrestlers went so hard and worked the drama of the moment so well that the bits of sloppy work gave the match a manic, edgy quality that Hell in a Cell bouts have been lacking for years. It was spectacular, if not a flawless technical clinic; most people will take the former over the latter any day of th eweek.

Let's also not gloss over the historical moment, either. Women in major wrestling leagues don't get to do cage matches often, although it's not totally unheard of, and the Hell in a Cell, despite its diminished reputation, still has enough of a sense of danger left intact to have made a women's pairing unthinkable to old wrestling hands just a few years ago. Women aren't "allowed" to be too dangerous or to place themselves into too much of harm's way, so it's a big deal when they do it anyway. And, more to the point, Charlotte and Sasha proved not just that they could do a gimmick match like this but that they could main event and steal a show. They went last in the pay-per-view, another first for women, and the crowd stayed hot. More women will follow, and more doors in big promotions—a woman holding a man's title, blood—may open. Only an asshole would say this doesn't matter.

And yet...

On October 16th, the Washington Post reported that Linda McMahon gave $6 million to a super PAC supporting Donald Trump. The two-time failed Senate candidate has criticized the GOP nominee in public, but the donation makes her one of Trump's largest outside donors.

Here we have two sides of what has become a heated political debate this election season: What makes for feminism? If it's merely about representation, and we have women wrestlers making great strides in gaining respect and visibility, then in that sense WWE has established itself, thanks to its turnaround on women wrestling and the roles of Stephanie and Linda McMahon in its business, as a feminist corporation.

Linda McMahon at a Republican Leadership Summit in 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr

But if feminism is not just that—if it's about meeting the material needs of women across the country and providing health care that meets women's specific needs, if it's about childcare and a living wage and housing and education—then donating to Trump wipes out a significant portion of any progress the WWE can claim. What we're left with is just more of the same hocus pocus that has animated so much of the discourse around feminism this year, a facile pitch to the effect of look at this famous woman and her opportunities, you can get this, too, if you just lean in hard enough—and oh, please don't look at our company's political donation disclosures.

Again, this match was a big deal. But it was a big deal in service to a family that is donating millions to a lunatic who is running on a platform that makes women materially worse off. Even if we just distill this down to personal matters, it is the height of mixed messaging for WWE to claim a great victory for pop culture equality while its owners fund an alleged serial sex abuser.

Once again, pro wrestling finds itself working as a mirror to American politics. The broader debate is reenacted in microcosm in the ring, just as debates around race and class have long been pantomimed in rings around the country. There's a bit of nuance around this latest one, and it is no less meaningful than its predecessors for that. Wrestling is never as simple as it looks.

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