Every wrestling fan of my generation remembers the moment when he fell in love for the first time. It was July 30, 1985, the day that “Macho Man” Randy Savage spurned the overtures of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Mr. Fuji, “Classy” Freddy Blassie, “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, and some other guy in a hat1 — who were all volunteering their managerial services to the WWF’s newest rogue acquisition. Instead, he chose a new, never-before-seen manager: the lovely Miss Elizabeth.
As Vince McMahon reeled off a saccharine voice-over that sounded more or less like your grandfather talking about your girlfriend — Oh my goodness Is this a movie star? Who is this? My goodness That is a gorgeous, gorgeous lady — even the most hard-hearted WWF fan was awakened to a new standard of beauty.
But Miss Elizabeth would not simply be a car-show bikini model. She would be the wellspring of passion, of conflict, of resentment — the whole range of mythical emotion. As I once wrote, she was cast from her very first appearance as the WWF’s Helen of Troy — the face that launched a thousand dropkicks.
Liz was less a manager to Savage than a long-suffering, mentally battered cohabitant — a garnish to his glory-hound act. Not only did we hate Savage all the more for his abuse of her, but she gave us an excuse to watch even his most menial matches intently. No matter who he was mangling, his greatest conflict came from the insane jealousy he felt over the woman outside the ring.
When Savage started showing glimmers of heroism in feuding with The Honky Tonk Man, the crowd ate it up. We, too, were sufferers of the battered-person syndrome that had trapped Elizabeth. We, too, wanted so badly for Savage to return our affection. One night in October 1987, when Savage was being brutalized by Honky and the Hart Foundation, Elizabeth scrambled to the back and returned with Hulk Hogan to help, and when the two icons shook hands after they had dispatched the delinquents, the crowd went wild.
They repeated the act at WrestleMania IV, when Savage sent Elizabeth to fetch Hogan to even the odds against “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and his hired hand, Andre the Giant. Hogan again saved the day and helped Savage win. The Mega Powers, as they would be called, formally united to take on “The Mega Bucks” duo of DiBiase and Andre at SummerSlam ’88. To help them win, Liz flashed her skivvies to provide a distraction — probably the first and only power play of her career to that point. And the confidence that she showed in that match was probably what nudged Savage back into lunacy. Hogan’s increasing affection for Liz didn’t help — though it should be said that that affection was mostly of a Prince Valiant, asexual variety. It all came to a head when the Mega Powers were facing the Twin Towers (Big Boss Man and Akeem the African Dream) on
Saturday Night’s The Main Event, and Akeem bumped Savage onto Elizabeth, knocking her out. Hogan temporarily disregarded the match to ferry her to the locker room, and when he returned, a livid Macho Man abandoned Hogan in return. (No worries, though — Hogan beat both the baddies.) Hogan and Savage finally had it out afterward, and Savage smacked Hogan with the title belt atop Liz’s hospital gurney. It was a legitimately harrowing scene.
My, how times have changed. Through the ’90s and the 2000s, WWE served up a continuing stream of female characters whose function was mostly to cater to the lascivious eye of the male audience. It seemed that the lesson they took from Elizabeth’s popularity was that she was sexy, not that she was meaningful.
From the actual wrestlers who just so happened to be hot women (Beth Phoenix, Ivory, Trish Stratus) to the fitness model-types who paraded at ringside (Torrie Wilson, Kaitlyn, Stacy Keibler) to the “I don’t know what she’s doing here, but hey, at least she’s hot” faction (Sunny, Kelly Kelly, the Bella Twins), WWE’s modus operandi in recent years seems to be to serve up eye candy and figure out the wrestling part in postproduction. (The grotesque villainesses like Bull Nakano and Luna Vachon weren’t counterpoints to these hollow female automatons; they were more like exceptions that proved the Barbies-only rule. The same can be said for Chyna when she debuted, or the recurring comical presence of antique icons Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah.)
The most impactful women in WWE’s last couple decades have been those whose sexuality is their calling card, whether it be Sable’s various stages of undress, Lita’s on-screen eroticism with Kane and Edge,2 or even Stephanie McMahon’s crimped hair and embrace of Triple H’s deviant companionship. And although that sort of female archetype is sad in its compulsion, at least they received meaningful screen time. But even those characters were few and far between.
The empty history of female characters in WWE is probably why nobody cared too much last fall when Daniel Bryan hooked up with a diminutive Diva of little distinction. Bryan had already been through on-screen relationships3 that went nowhere, and the redundancy was starting to seem like an in-joke being played on the scrawny (by WWE standards) Bryan, who looks nothing like the prototypical WWE superstar. His success with women was ironic, as unlikely as his success in the ring. What’s more, his ongoing transition from heroic underdog to diabolical scoundrel was so much more compelling than anything that AJ, his new ladyfriend, could provide. For the most part, she seemed to be there to serve as a target for his egocentric outbursts. There was a certain Macho Man–Elizabeth vibe to their relationship, sure, but with none of the backstory and about half the pathos.
Bryan finally dumped AJ to solidify his ascendance to top-tier baddie, but her presence in his life wasn’t over. She started eagerly flirting with Bryan’s new rival, CM Punk, and even as Punk blew her off there was suddenly life behind her manga-size eyes. She had either been driven insane by rejection or she was trying to make us believe she had been. The story line still wasn’t particularly intriguing, but there was a spark there that made you look twice. Punk summed it up for much of the audience when he denied her, but left an inkling of hope: “I do dig crazy chicks.” It certainly wasn’t a feminist message, but somehow it felt like progress.
When Kane was added to the mix after Punk and Bryan’s stellar match at last month’s Over the Limit pay-per-view, fans groaned. Punk and Bryan had been about old-school wrestling purity, and Kane represented the exact opposite of that. AJ only underscored that — how would a love story do anything but dilute this feud?
Shockingly, though, AJ’s involvement made everything work. She extended her enigmatic flirtation to the grisly Kane while continuing to woefully dote on Bryan, and she has appeared in Punk gear, giddy, whenever he has allowed her to. But her machinations are so inexplicable that the only thing that’s clear is that AJ’s motivations feel deeper than just playing the three wrestlers off each other. And that’s more than can be said about nearly every woman in recent WWE memory (McMahon family members possibly excepted). If AJ isn’t quite a realistic character, at least she’s a multifaceted one.
In this oddball love quadrangle, WWE has somehow recaptured the melodramatic magic that fans haven’t seen since the Mega Powers. Sure, the alignment isn’t precise — Bryan was once the abusive boyfriend but now he’s largely indifferent to AJ; Punk is the hero but his chauvinism is no secret (nor is his Macho Man obsession); and Kane is simultaneously the monster and the mark, equal parts Andre and George “The Animal” Steele, the oafish brute who was once obsessed with Miss Elizabeth, and whom Elizabeth subtly led on despite Savage’s objections.4
When Punk and AJ were forced to team up against Bryan and Kane a few weeks ago, and circumstance left AJ alone with the Big Red Monster, she went from terrified to adorable to bizarre to seductive in a matter of moments, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, she created one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on Raw in months.
On Sunday night, the denouement of the Triple Threat WWE Championship match between CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Kane brought me right back to those innocent days of 1988. While Bryan was sidelined, AJ ran to the ring for reasons unknown. She jumped onto the ring apron just in time for Punk to accidentally push Kane into her, knocking her grotesquely onto the floor. Punk didn’t seem to care — while Kane was distracted, worried about AJ’s condition, Punk hit him with the Go To Sleep and won the match, retaining the title. Once recovered, instead of going after his adversary, Kane went to AJ and carried her seemingly lifeless body up the ramp in a mirror image of Hogan’s rescue of Elizabeth 24 years ago.
But then, as the camera watched Kane stalk away, AJ’s eyes lit up, looking back at Punk over Kane’s shoulder with devilish glee. Nobody knew what she was thinking, but at least we knew that she was thinking.
AJ returned Monday night when the three men were in the ring. She was dressed in red and black and a kids’ Kane mask. She skipped a circle around the ring and then left. She looked like no one so much as Harley Quinn, beloved villainess of Batman: The Animated Series, and one assumes that the suggestion was deliberate. AJ has expressed her real-life nerd-dom at several points, so it’s likely she meant to evoke the lunatic stunner who was known for her uncomfortably interdependent relationship with the baddest scoundrel in Gotham City — a character who went from oddball sidekick to one of the most popular figures in comic book lore by sheer force of personality.
Which isn’t so different from Miss Elizabeth back in the day. At a minimum, it’s clear that AJ has been studying the Elizabeth Hulette playbook: AJ’s forlorn compunction when Bryan bullied her; her helpless exasperation when Punk would get abused in the ring; her wilted agony as Kane carried her. She’s taken Liz’s choreography and added personality.
The “accidental” injury AJ suffered Sunday night was also reminiscent of the incident in which she was accidentally bulldozed by the Big Show during his feud with Bryan last year, so many have wondered whether she’s just doing Bryan’s bidding to subvert Punk and Kane. But there are other possibilities: Is she really smitten with Punk? Are they angling toward a reverse Mega Powers gimmick, with AJ turning Punk heel to join Bryan? Or, most intriguingly, is AJ in it solely for herself? Free will isn’t a characteristic that WWE has spent much time developing in women in the two decades since Elizabeth questioned her love for Savage.
When Miss Elizabeth debuted, it was obvious. Our love for her was a given: McMahon and the WWF engineered it. When AJ debuted on WWE’s tryout show, NXT, she wasn’t much to speak of; the other Divas towered over her (figuratively and literally). But as time went on, AJ proved that she was more enthralling than her more conventionally attractive competition.5 Unlike Elizabeth, who was forced upon us (not that we weren’t happy to have her), AJ grew on us. Elizabeth was a silent, despondent goddess, but AJ speaks, interacts, and matters as more than a symbol. She is an actor, not a prop.
This is the Reality Era, the pipe bomb generation, and we don’t want anything forced upon us. Elizabeth, if she were introduced as she was back in ’85, might not even work now. The wrestling audience is too mature — strange as that may sound to the casual reader — to have much interest in the gratuitous centerfold act that made Sable briefly famous in the Attitude Era. We like subtlety now. We like to make up our own minds. We like to be surprised.
In the ’80s, we were young, we were inexperienced, and despite our exposure to Wendy Richter and Cyndi Lauper6 and the Fabulous Moolah, frankly, we never saw them as real women. Elizabeth was the first real woman in wrestling. Despite her passivity, she had emotion and purpose. But times have changed. The wrestling world has given us a parade of women in the intervening years, women of various archetypes — well, archetypes in the “college Halloween costume” sense. There has been sexy secretary, sexy schoolgirl, sexy ninja, sexy punk rocker, sexy redneck, sexy feminist. And through that ungodly procession, I guess, our tastes have matured. Miss Elizabeth was our first love, our true love, but it was a naive love.
Now we dig crazy chicks.