How One of Wrestling’s Biggest Stars is Reenacting a Sexist 19th-Century Plot Device

John Cena proposed to his girlfriend at WrestleMania, and she promptly dropped out of sight. Welcome to the “marriage plot.”

This time last year, at World Wrestling Entertainment’s biggest event, WrestleMania, John Cena — perhaps the company’s biggest-known star — pulled out a move rarely seen in the WWE. He proposed to Nikki Bella, his girlfriend of more than five years, in the ring.

It was a long time coming: Bella had been vocal on reality television about her desire to marry Cena. (The two co-star on the show Total Divas and its spin-off, Total Bellas.) Their pre-WrestleMania storyline had leaned hard on Cena’s reluctance to put a ring on it, but this only made the end game more obvious. After Cena and Bella emerged victorious from their match with fellow wrestling/reality TV power couple The Miz and Maryse, Cena explained that when Bella underwent career-threatening neck surgery, he’d had a change of heart. “Right when they were wheeling you into the ER,” he said, “you were glassy and in and out [of consciousness], at the very last second I… leaned in and whispered… ‘Do you know, one day I’m going to marry you?’ And you said yes.

I need you to say yes one more time,” he continued as he pulled an engagement ring out of the pocket of the jean shorts in which he wrestles and got down on one knee to propose.

Since then, Bella has almost disappeared from the ring, wrestling in only two matches in the last year. On Total Divas she ascribed her absence to her neck injury, but for most casual WWE viewers, it would be natural to conclude that Bella stopped wrestling every week because, having landed a husband-to-be, her story is effectively over. This hearkens back to a time when it was the norm for women to leave work upon getting engaged. Nikki Bella has effectively reached the marriage plot.

The marriage plot was a common literary convention amongst authors like Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, and George Eliot in the 18th and 19th centuries. What distinguishes a “marriage plot” from merely a plot containing a marriage is that it treats the quest for matrimony as the driving force of the story. Once betrothal is achieved, the narrative is over — and more specifically, for most works in this category, the woman’s story is done.

What distinguishes a “marriage plot” from merely a plot containing a marriage is that it treats the quest for matrimony as the driving force of the story.

Marriage plot-based works coincided with the rise of marriage as a declaration of love instead of a business transaction. They focused on middle class heterosexual couples and the hijinks that would ensue on their way to the altar, after which they would presumably live happily ever after. Today the trope can be found in pop culture far and wide, from Disney to perhaps the biggest and most (commercially, if not matrimonially) successful example in current culture, The Bachelor, to much-maligned romance novels and rom coms, to the dreaded amalgamation of the two genres: The Twilight Saga and the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which present marriage as the pinnacle of a woman’s life and the end of her story. We may be burdened with slightly more of Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele’s stories after they make it to the altar, but they are crafted as so utterly boring, protagonists so at the mercy of their husbands’ whims that they could turn even the keenest bride-to-be off of wedded bliss.

Anyone who’s watched even a minute of Nikki Bella on WWE or reality television can see that she’s not naturally inclined to limit her life this way. She’s vivacious, career-driven, and passionate. Though she’s never let the word pass her lips (she prefers “women’s empowerment”), it could be deduced that she’s a feminist, concerned about how her actions will further the plight of women in wrestling and the entertainment industry more broadly.

On Poverty, Sports, and Violent Men

But both Bella and Cena are deeply materialistic members of the self-made middle class for whom marriage — and perhaps more to the point, a lavish wedding — is still seen as the ultimate status symbol. Initially, the rise of the marriage plot coincided with the creation of the predominantly white middle class, and the majority of works grounded in this genre are about white people who are, if not wealthy in their own time, certainly wealthy by today’s standards. (Though families like Austen’s Bennetts considered themselves poor by comparison to their peers, they also own property and have servants.) Wrestling, too, was traditionally a pastime of the poor and working class of the South; it wasn’t until WWE came along on cable television, rendering many independent companies bankrupt, that wrestling became a money-making machine. In the ring, rich characters are often the bad guys whom the audience roots for the underdog to supersede, a fact that seems to escape Cena, who still carries on like the working class “thug” from West Newbury, Massachusetts, despite having a net worth of $55 million. Bella, for her part, wants to be “the female Rock” (Dwayne Johnson), setting up fashion, real estate and wine companies to secure her financial future away from wrestling. By choosing to center their engagement in storylines, WWE is incorporating the aspiration of marriage between two upwardly mobile stars into its brand.

While Bella spends time away from wrestling, Cena is still a common fixture. His current storyline sees him vying for a match at this year’s WrestleMania; it has only occurred to him earlier this week that he might not compete. If any member of this powerhouse couple should be inching towards the marriage plot, it’s Cena — after fifteen years at the top, it might be time to pass the torch onto someone else. But in wrestling, as in most other industries, women have a much shorter shelf life than male competitors. Female WWE employees who are over 35 are often embroiled in regressive storylines about their maturity while men are allowed to wrestle well into middle age. (Bella is 34; Cena will be 41 this month.) And besides, the dictates of the marriage plot say that a wedding is a woman’s only reasonable goal. Having achieved that, Bella does not, by the cultural standards WWE is trading in, need to chase anything more.

If any member of this powerhouse couple should be inching towards the marriage plot, it’s Cena. But in wrestling, as in most other industries, women have a much shorter shelf life than male competitors.

Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated that Bella is retiring to become a wife, implicitly her storyline buys into not only the idea that women wrestlers have a use by date and male wrestlers do not, but the outdated notion that women, especially women of a certain age, cannot be married and pursue work outside the home concurrently.

In a way, it’s Bella’s involvement in Total Divas, the majority of the cast of which are all married or in serious relationships, that subverts the marriage plot; the show banks on its viewers deeming all the participants interesting enough to keep watching them even after their televised weddings. In fact, the reality genre as a whole seems to flip the marriage plot script: how many reality show premises begin after the nuptials? Newlyweds, Basketball/Mob Wives, 19 Kids & Counting, Jon & Kate Plus 8, all of Tori Spelling’s recent ventures, the Kardashian konglomerate and The Real Housewives all contribute to shattering the marriage plot in some way, while simultaneously holding it up. Given the presumed gender breakdowns of reality TV and westling’s audiences, it’s not surprising that WWE would be less likely to balk at portraying marriage as a trophy to collect on the way to success. But women are 40 per cent of WWE’s audience, many of whom found the company through its women wrestlers’ involvement in reality TV. WWE positioning heterosexual relationships in stereotypical ways only does its increasingly diverse audience a disservice.

WWE positioning heterosexual relationships in stereotypical ways only does its increasingly diverse audience a disservice.

Roxane Gay writes in The New York Times about the marriage plot and The Bachelor: “Eventually, inevitably, there is a bold, desperately romantic declaration of love followed by a happily ever after.” Bella got her grand gesture and is well on the way to her happily ever after so, as far as the marriage plot is concerned, she doesn’t have to keep wrestling. If Bella’s neck is what’s preventing her from continuing her wrestling career, then her health and safety is more important than furthering any gender equality agendas. But if not her absence from the wrestling ring in favor of a wedding ring is disappointing and, unfortunately, to be expected.

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