The State of AEW’s Women’s Division
AEW have always asked for constructive criticism from their audience and that criticism hasn’t been more warranted in any area as much as it has been with the women’s division.
It is strange then that the question of AEW’s women’s division is so divisive online. If you defend AEW you will be branded a misogynist by one side and if you criticise you are branded a hater by the other.
For a conversation that desperately needs a nuanced examination there is an awful lot of reactionary takes out there. Whilst exploring this topic I’ve found it hard to find a middle ground. Lots of hot takes, lots of strong opinions but not much nuance.
So, let’s take a look at this issue and break it down objectively; identify the key issues and hurdles AEW have had and give critique and credit them where it’s due.
When asked about the criticism the AEW’s women’s division gets Britt Baker offered a refreshingly candid take from the talent’s perspective. She outlined the struggles the company has had (which we’ll get to) and she said there were plans to improve the division. But when addressing fans asking for more from the women’s division, Baker said, “please don’t turn the channel when the women are on TV then!”
Now that is absolutely a fair point of view for the talent to have however, what worries a large portion of fans is this is the attitude backstage is that it's one of very few glimpses into the ‘AEW perspective’ on this criticism. Cody and Tony Khan, for example, often brush this criticism off without much further explanation. Whilst yes, the company does need to think about ratings, you also have to give fans a reason not to switch over to NXT or whatever else is on.
When the audience are given 5 minute matches most weeks and little or no promo time for the talent, how are we supposed to invest?
When women are constantly put in the toilet break segment just before the main event whilst only offering what I described above, how are we meant to invest?
It’s somewhat ironic that Britt Baker was the one to say this because she’s the only woman in AEW it doesn’t apply to. Why is this?
In short, it’s because AEW gives you a reason to care about Britt Baker. She has a strong character, is usually involved in some story, whenever she appears there is a reason for this and her place as one of the stars of the division isn’t up for debate.
Character is severely lacking throughout the women’s division. We’re not talking about a gimmick here. Depth in a character is something different. Most women in AEW have a two-dimensional character whether that is someone who is just a wrestler like Big Swole or someone who has an abstract gimmick like Abadon.
But depth of these characters doesn’t exist like it does in the men’s division. Kenny Omega and Hangman Page are driven by their character's objectives. The conflict between the two stems from Omega's ambition and Page's insecurity. There simply isn't this depth in the women's division.
Characterisation defines the 'gimmick' side of a character and a lot of the women's roster have strong, or at least defined, gimmicks through fairly basic characterisation. But when it comes to what motivates these characters or differentiating these characters there isn’t much nuance. They are caricatures more than they are fully fledged characters and with the odd exception, Britt Baker, it is hard to invest in anything other than the wrestling. This is fine on the indies; it doesn’t work for a serialised TV show.
The reason for this is that character motivation and conflict are what create stories. So, without defined characters you can’t have stories. So, whether those stories are personal conflicts, competition-based, comedic, tragedies or something else they aren’t going to connect if you don't have defined characters.
Sure, you can create a short-term narrative for one match. You can throw Nyla Rose out there against Tay Conti and give me a great ‘overcome the beast’ story that ultimately ends in failure for Conti. That will entertain me for those six minutes and invest me in the women for a short period, but if you don’t build on that then it dies and gets forgotten.
AEW have made a habit of relying on these short-term stories without building genuine narratives with real characters and that means when you come to the big matches which are mandatory, I’m not invested.
Why? Because there’s no stakes. I didn’t see Nyla Rose overcome anything to get her title shot. I didn’t see Big Swole genuinely earn her title shot. Thunder Rosa came out of nowhere and walked into a title match.
In fact, the last time I remember being invested in a title challenger was Hikaru Shida because she’d been built into that position. So, whilst she did a lot of the work in the ring, AEW did give her a serious build and made me care about her. But that more or less disappeared for her title reign as none of her challengers were given the same attention.
Creating stakes for a match is vital because stakes are vital to a story. Without them, why would I care? If the audience don’t see if there’s anything to gain or lose, then why would we care? Using character, competition and storied build to create stakes for a big match is so important. A championship being on the line means very little if we don't know what it means to the characters. Never has this been more obvious than in the Moxley vs Eddie Kingston feud. Compare that, where the story was built around the gold, to Shida vs Nyla Rose which felt like a lower-card TV feud.
AEW have categorically failed to tell stories outside the odd occasion for the women’s division. Not even competitive stories as Cody claims.
Fans will accept a match for the sake of a match at times. Fans will accept a feud without much depth here or there. Hangman vs Frankie Kazarian and Best Friends vs Proud & Powerful are examples of these in the men’s singles and tag divisions. But if that is all you can deliver then you aren’t giving fans a reason to invest.
Now that is the main valid criticisms of AEW out of the way, let’s look at some of the hurdles they’ve had to overcome.
The obvious one being the global pandemic we’re currently living through. Before it hit AEW were building a few women who you presume would have gone on to be major players in the months that have now preceded us.
Instead, AEW’s women’s roster was eventually cut down to four established, active competitors with Britt Baker, injured, remaining a key part of programming. Those were Hikaru Shida, Nyla Rose, Penelope Ford and Big Swole. With less established or experienced names like Allie, Leva Bates, Brandi and Mel available for the odd moment.
In that time Nyla and Ford were well utilised in title feuds for Shida, Swole and Baker well utilised in their comedic feud and the others well utilised on Dark.
To combat this lack of talent AEW had to scout talent so those Dark matches became vital to the company, as did The Deadly Draw Tag Team Cup which allowed AEW to sign names such as Tay Conti, Anna Jay, Diamante and Ivelisse.
It is important to point out that there hasn’t been an abundance of elite talent available to AEW in their short time as a company. They have missed out on names but for the most part the best women are signed up to other promotions.
There isn’t as much elite female talent available to them as there is with men. That isn’t because women aren’t as good as men. It’s because there is a deep-rooted problem with misogyny in the wrestling industry and indeed society that makes opportunities to develop a lot easier for men.
There are names out there which I will get to in another article coming soon. But for the most part the talent available to AEW are promising but ultimately inexperienced.
Serena Deeb may prove to be the most important signing AEW have made in their women’s division due to her coaching background and experience. Deeb addressed this problem of inexperience in a recent media scrum by saying, “there’s quite a bit of inexperience and… the only remedy for that is time and energy.”
She also mentioned that inexperience when pushed too hard will lead to injuries and that has been seen with the likes of Kris Statlander and Abadon. Sure, injuries happen anyway but if we’re being fair to AEW this inexperience is something that even whilst being careful has hurt their division more than once.
It ultimately is a long game for AEW in the women’s division so we shouldn’t expect NXT or Impact levels yet. That said, as I explained before, even if the matches remain five to seven minutes, they could be doing so much more to develop story and a sense of real competition in the women's division.
Now we’ve criticised AEW, put their problems into context but it hasn’t all been negative. There have been some real positives ranging from some great matches, to standout performers, exciting signings or promising signs for the future.
Britt Baker has been a revelation outside the ring whilst improving immensely inside it over the past 18 months. She is by far the strongest character in the division and hopefully the next AEW Women's Champion.
Current champion, Hikaru Shida, has been the outstanding name in the division and it’s because of her matches. We’ve spoken about the importance of character and Shida is the perfect example of someone who could have used help on that front. But in the ring she’s let her actions do the talking. It seems like everyone has had their best match with her and hopefully in years to come we can see how important her winning the title was.
She’s had great matches with Riho, Nyla Rose, Penelope Ford, Thunder Rosa and Britt Baker. Not just at the top level, she’s had great matches with the likes of Anna Jay and Leyla Hirsch and will be a key player in the long-term future of the division in developing the younger talents. When Shida drops the title, it will be exciting to see her take on some more of the upcoming talents like Tay Conti and Red Velvet.
Speaking of upcoming talent, the likes of Anna Jay, Tay Conti and Red Velvet clearly have the hallmarks of future stars in the division. They’ve all shown glimpses of that and hopefully we see more and more over the coming months and years.
AEW could take more risks in the women’s division but the risks they have taken have usually paid off. Turning Britt Baker heel seems obvious now but was a huge risk at the time. Working with the NWA wasn’t a sure thing either, but it is certainly paying off. The Deadly Draw was a success, even if the matches weren’t the best it helped establish some of those future stars mentioned above and established Diamante and Ivelisse within the division also.
There are some failed experiments like the Nightmare Collective but it’s fine to take risks and miss. The important thing is AEW recognised it wasn’t working and acted appropriately.
In terms of booking there have been plenty of criticisms but we may be turning a page after the last few weeks of Dynamite. Particularly last night's November 18th episode where we saw a great match and various story threads being sewn. AEW have had false dawns with the women's division before, but as of writing this things feel like they are improving.
I spoke earlier about how Serena Deeb might be seen as a hugely important signing before but in a similar vein, the imminent arrival of Thunder Rosa on a more permanent basis should be equally huge. The signs we’ve seen from her so far is that she could be the star of the division.
Speaking of potential signings, in the coming days Pro Wrestling Musings will have an article about ten women AEW must sign ASAP and a continued exploration of how AEW can improve their women's division based on the criticisms labelled here. So, keep your eyes peeled for those in the coming days.
In short, AEW as a company is far from perfect and their women’s division is even further. There are plenty of valid criticisms, but we must be realistic in our critique. This isn’t Impact or WWE with years of building behind them. AEW has had to pluck talent from the bones of the wrestling industry and a lot of it is rough around the edges. If in five years AEW still is miles off Impact and NXT then there will be serious criticisms to be had.
For now, they aren’t at the level they should be and in part that is out of their hands. It isn’t good enough; however, we do have to give them time to get it right.