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Rethinking Ronda Rousey

When mixed martial arts legend Ronda Rousey made her World Wrestling Entertainment debut at last month’s Royal Rumble event in Philadelphia, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” blasted over the speakers and a shocked crowd cheered. Wearing the late wrestler Roddy Piper’s famous leather jacket and her signature smirk, she swaggered over to the ring—her surprise arrival marking her official signing with WWE and her foray into professional wrestling. Her live “contract signing” will be at the WWE Elimination Chamber match this Sunday.

But Rousey’s grand entrance was mired by the fact that she effectively crashed the celebration of WWE wrestler Asuka, who had just won the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match and was about to choose between champions Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair as to whose title she would challenge for at WrestleMania in April. Largely the fault of WWE for scripting Rousey’s inaugural appearance to occur during one of the biggest moments in women’s wrestling, it frames the decorated athlete as far more important than the 30 women who wrestled their asses off for the preceding hour—and the countless others who helped make women’s wrestling a viable next step for Rousey. {{noquote:0:Positioning Rousey to overshadow WWE’s roster of women is only empowering to Rousey. }}

It certainly doesn’t do her any favors among woke wrestling fans who don’t buy her “I’m not like other girls” schtick.

The biggest example of this is what many perceived to be a transphobic rant against transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox. “She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has. It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair,” Rousey told The New York Post in 2013. She also went on to say that Fox’s trans identity was a “decision” Fox made.

WWE is no stranger to accusations of insensitivity surrounding trans issues. Prior to wrestler James Ellsworth’s termination from WWE last year, rumors swirled that he was to become a women’s champion in a wrestling storyline that would involve his gender transition. (As far as we know, Ellsworth identifies as a cisgender man.) And it has long been rumored that the wrestler Goldust, a character originally conceived of as a response to gay- and trans-panic, would undergo breast augmentation in order to make the character seem more genuine. (The wrestler who portrays Goldust, Dustin Runnels, doesn’t openly identify as trans, either.)

Given WWE recently fired their Cruiserweight champion Enzo Amore amidst rape allegations, and have a well-documented (though shoddily enforced) zero tolerance policy for intimate partner violence, should they really be so publicly aligning themselves with a woman who wrote in her memoir that she slapped her boyfriend across the face “so hard my hand hurt,” “punched him in the face with a straight right, then a left hook,” and then “grabbed him by the neck of his hoodie, kneed him in the face” and “threw him onto the kitchen floor”? Time’s evidently not up for certain people.

In addition to not recognizing trans women as real women, Rousey has a problem with certain kinds of women. Specifically, “Do Nothing Bitches,” against whom she went on a tirade in a viral video.

“I have this term for the kind of woman my mother raised me to not be. And I call it a ‘Do Nothing Bitch’...The kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by somebody else…Just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires, doesn’t mean it’s masculine. I think it’s femininely badass as fuck because there’s not a single muscle in my body that isn’t for a purpose because I’m not a Do Nothing Bitch.”

This is a tired, anti-feminist stereotype that WWE similarly flirts with. Wrestler Nia Jax’s main character trait is that she’s “not like most girls,” while the beginnings of WWE’s current “Women’s Evolution” pitted “Divas” (what WWE used to call their women wrestlers) against real wrestlers such as Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Paige. Through this lens, Rousey’s hiring is emblematic of WWE’s utter lack of understanding of what a women’s wrestling evolution should actually be: Some women wrestlers may have famous fathers or romantic partners, they may have come to wrestling through other sports or modelling, they may not all be as athletically gifted as each other, but they all serve a purpose.

And that is the biggest problem with Ronda Rousey and her scripted wrestling character. Whether by WWE’s hand or Rousey’s opinion of herself, she’s being sold as better than everyone else in the women’s division. But wrestling isn’t about one single person. It’s about multiple people working together to create something beautiful.

WWE thinks Rousey’s hiring is empowering to all women, just like it thinks its “Women’s Evolution” means all women are equal now. But gender equality is about elevating all women, giving them equal pay and equal time to tell their stories. And positioning Rousey to overshadow WWE’s roster of women is only empowering to Rousey.