Wrestling expert Scarlett Harris returns to Siren, focusing on the WWE’s lack of understanding of women’s friendships, and how that heavily impacts their wrestling storylines.
In August last year, the Australian tag team of Billie Kay and Peyton Royce—the IIconics—faced the Riott Squad, consisting of Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan, in a loser-breaks-up tag team match. The IIconics came out on the receiving end of that match, inexplicably resulting in the breakup of one of the truest women’s tag teams in World Wrestling Entertainment.
Kay (Jessica McKay) and Royce (Cassie Lee) had been best friends since their high school days in Sydney, and were determined to get to WWE together. They were the only two wrestlers signed to WWE’s developmental program, NXT, from an Australian tryout in 2015. Initially debuting on NXT as singles wrestlers, it was plain to see that the two were better together, so they became the Iconic Duo and, later, the IIconics when they were called up to WWE’s “main roster” in 2018. Their high-pitched, Kath & Kim schtick on the microphone made them instant heels to the predominantly U.S. audience who didn’t “get” it, but they quickly carved out a place in my heart. A highlight was when I got to see them win the women’s tag team championships at WrestleMania—wrestling’s grand final—in New York in 2019.
From there, the IIconics piddled around, eventually losing the titles later that year and pretty much disappearing from WWE TV for months on end. They reemerged in May last year, when they unsuccessfully challenged for the tag titles again, culminating in their breakup match. As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough.
It was rumoured that WWE head honcho, Vince McMahon, saw potential in Royce as a singles star, however that never came to fruition, with Royce pairing up with Lacey Evans shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Kay spun gold out of the little she was given to work with, becoming a highlight in promos—where she really excelled—and in the few matches she was permitted to wrestle.
I’m particularly thinking of the 2021 Royal Rumble match, which consists of 30 wrestlers entering the ring at ninety-second intervals and being eliminated by being thrown over the top rope and landing on both feet outside the ring in order to vie for a women’s championship shot at WrestleMania.
Kay entered at number four and quickly tried to befriend her competitors in order to form an alliance and increase her odds of winning, or at least clearing the playing field. Finding her place and purpose was very much Kay’s motivation as a character, with Kay passing her resume around backstage and trying to join the Riott Squad. If you remember, the Riott Squad were the victors in the loser-breaks-up match that caused Kay and Royce to go their separate ways. Fans online predicted that Kay was trying to infiltrate the Squad in order to break them up and make them feel hurt like she did but that’s giving the WWE writers room way too much credit and this storyline lived on only on the internet.
For a brief moment in the match Kay and Royce reunited and it felt so good, but it wasn’t for long enough and ultimately Kay was eliminated by the Riott Squad. I acknowledge that it’s very hard to manage all the moving parts of a match of that magnitude, however even a few more minutes of an IIconic reunion and a little more dedication to Kay’s character development would have sufficed to make Kay one of the protagonists of the match.
Despite Kay’s performance at WrestleMania in April 2021, where she tagged with Carmella—why did the IIconics break up again if they were just going to team with other people?—Kay and Royce were let go from their WWE contracts just days later as part of annual “budget cuts”.
WWE earned record profits during the pandemic.
Ruby Riott was part of another round of releases earlier this month, splitting up the Riott Squad and leaving just two true—as in, having an established relationship, either IRL or in-story—women’s tag teams in WWE.
They join no less than seven other alliances that have broken up in the last year, including the Golden Role Models, Fire and Desire, Bliss Cross Applesauce and the Kabuki Warriors. This is a symptom of a larger problem: WWE doesn’t know how to portray women’s friendships.
I wrote about this at length in my book, A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment, particularly as it pertains to the Four Horsewomen.
The Four Horsewomen are an unofficial group of wrestlers who excelled during the early days of NXT and the women’s wrestling evolution. Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, whose dad is legendary wrestler Ric Flair, part of the wrestling group the Four Horsemen from whom they glean their nickname, have carried over thirty championships between them. Lynch and Flair were part of the first women’s main event of WrestleMania in 2019, and Banks was part of the second this year. Lynch was the first wrestler of any gender to appear on the cover of ESPN magazine in 2019, and Banks was named Sports Illustrated’s wrestler of the year last year. Matches consisting of various configurations of these four sit atop best of all time lists.
Their cumulative accomplishments can be boiled down to the concept of shine theory, which was coined by the hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, and contends that rather than competing against other women for limited opportunities, our success is our friends’ success, and vice versa.Of course, professional wrestling is “the conflict business,” as Lynch calls it, however there are ways to portray female friendships within this. Firstly, by building a robust women’s tag team division. Secondly, by eliminating tired stereotypes of women as catty or crazy: there are other reasons why we have disagreements or break up with our friends.
But I think the most important thing is incorporating the relationships that these women have built outside of kayfabe (the scripted reality of wrestling). This is why the Four Horsewomen have their best matches together: Lynch and Flair and Bayley and Banks, respectively, are best friends outside of the ring so they know how to convey that passion inside of it. And although Banks and Bayley’s tag team, the Golden Role Models were a highlight of the pandemic, their breakup was done in the right way because it leant on their fabled history together which included one of the best matches and feuds of all time in 2015.
Contrast this with the Riott Squad, who were randomly lumped together in late 2018 but became fast friends as is evidenced by the full version of the above round table but never really got a chance to shine in WWE. (Sarah Logan, the third member, was let go in 2020, and we all know Ruby’s fate.) And, through no fault of WWE’s own, Fire and Desire’s Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville’s storyline fell flat as the two were victimised by a stalker just days before their hair vs. hair match (which is a thing!) last year and Deville took a leave of absence to deal with the trauma. Tellingly, it’s through social media, reality TV (Rose, Deville, Morgan, Royce and Kay have all appeared on the E! show Total Divas in some capacity) and web series such as Damandyz Doughnuts that we are privy to the closeness between these women, not through their portrayal on WWE TV.
The palpable closeless of the IIconics is why fans were so sad when they broke up, even though they were a heel tag team. It’s why we’re upset that legit teams like the Riott Squad and Fire and Desire never got a run with the titles while randomly thrown together pairs such as Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler and Flair and Asuka are rewarded with tag gold because they’re big names that WWE can figure out what else to do with.
Portraying women’s friendships doesn’t have to be antithetical to an industry that is predicated on fighting. Women wrestlers are multifaceted, capable of feeling love, respect, care, admiration, annoyance, betrayal and hatred—sometimes all within the one friendship. WWE would do well to let them mine these feelings in order to portray this on their shows.
Scarlett Harris is a Melbourne author and culture critic. You can find her work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris and read her book, A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment.