WWE’s gender-equality push is clashing with their business in Saudi Arabia.
On 28 October 2018, WWE presented their first all-women pay per view. With the title Evolution, it was the culmination of a wider effort on the company’s part to appeal to the female portion of their audience with a show that put them at the forefront.
With Little Mix’s feminist anthem ‘Salute’ as its theme song, and a card widely praised as the WWE’s best for 2018, Evolution delivered on its promise.
This was not the first time a wrestling company put on an all-women’s show. In the 1980s, an all-women’s league called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) set the scene for what would eventually inspire the current Netflix series. Japanese all women’s wrestling promotions have promoted shows since the 1990s. The likes of Impact and Shimmer have more recently held all-women shows stateside. What made Evolution different was that the biggest wrestling company in the world was marshalling its resources to get behind its female performers, presenting women as being equal to men on a show that would be seen by the WWE’s international audience.
Beyond the optics of an all-women show, Evolution promoted women’s equality symbolically and practically. WWE partnered with Girl Up a women’s charity that promotes gender equality by funding UN initiatives for women and girls. The broadcast showed a brief promotional video for the organisation.
Evolution was largely the culmination of a wider movement within women’s sports. At the top of the card, Ronda Rousey defended her Raw Women’s Title, having previously shattered records as the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. Her previous run in legitimate combat sport, combined with the likes of Serena Williams, pushed the concept that female athletes were breaking down barriers and finding success and fame in ways previously reserved for their male counterparts.
Throughout the show, female performers were asked to describe what Evolution meant to them. Former ring announcer Lilian Garcia came back from the event. She was perhaps the most effusive about the women’s (r)evolution, whereby women were standing up and being counted.
“It’s happening literally all around the world,” Garcia said.
Everywhere, that is, except Saudi Arabia.
Crown Jewel, WWE’s next card after Evolution featured no women, because Saudi Arabia, the host nation, bar women from public athletic competition. This directly conflicts with the Evolution’s presentation of gender equality, in ways that were felt on the night itself.
The graphics promoting Crown Jewel did not elict the kind of response that WWE desired. Evolution’s live crowd booed when images promoting the card appeared. Producers cut the crowd microphone.
I have video of it. No one was having it! This was one of the best and most supportive crowds I’ve EVER been a part of or witnessed. #WWEEvolution was epic and the fans were amazing. https://t.co/79cluPzOUj
— 🎃The SPOOKY Betch🎃 (@SmarkyBetch) October 29, 2018
Saudi Arabia applies one particular, deeply conservative version of Sharia law. Women until recently were barred from driving. Human rights organisations have long expressed concerns over the nation’s public executions. A ban on churches prevents the nation’s 1.4 million Christians from publicly worshiping. This measure may be coming to an end soon, as the Saudi crown prince has met with several Christian leaders and expressed a desire for interfaith dialogue. When French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran visited Saudi Arabia earlier in 2018, he reportedly told Saudi officials that Christians should not be treated like second-class citizens.
In light of such human rights concern, WWE’s business in Saudi Arabia has been controversial, particularly because the company is not merely promoting events, but is doing so in a deal directly negotiated with the Saudi royal family. In April, the company ran The Greatest Royal Rumble, a show that was interspersed with videos promoting Vision 2030, an agenda that purports to make the country more progressive and less reliant on oil as the cornerstone of the economy. This effort was criticised as pro-Saudi propaganda.
WWE’s promotion of Crown Jewel after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has led to a political storm. This included a bizarre situation where Linda McMahon, the wife of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and the head of the Small Business Administration, placed some rhetorical distance between herself and her husband’s company.
“If you wanna talk WWE, you’re talking to the wrong McMahon,” she told TMZ Sports.
The line of people trying to distance themselves from the event extended into the WWE locker room. Not all of the WWE’s biggest stars wrestled at Crown Jewel. John Cena pulled out after Khashoggi’s murder. So too did Daniel Bryan, forcing the creative team to push his WWE title match forward to their weekly Smackdown show.
Rumours swirl that, after Evolution, WWE are eyeing an all-women’s main event for their biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania, an unprecedented move that would once more garner the Stamford-based company mainstream attention and strike a blow for equality. This is seemingly at odds, however, with their relationship with the House of Saud.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor