Trish Stratus was a pioneer in an era that didn’t respect women’s wrestling
Trish Stratus returned to WWE Smackdown on Tuesday, accepting Charlotte Flair’s challenge to a match at SummerSlam
It is a tried-and-tested trope. A mostly-retired legend comes back to (probably) lose to a star on the rise, to give them the rub and put them over a force to be reckoned with. WWE do it all the time - but it has been a bit harder to do for the most recent generation of female wrestlers.
Not because there weren’t talented, great women wrestlers in the 1990s and 2000s, by any means. Because there definitely were. But for the longest time, WWE treated the women’s division as either a time filler, a toilet break, or most egregiously, just as titillation for teenage boys and their dads. Which means that very few of them are seen as true superstars the eyes of the WWE fans, who for the longest time were trained not to care about women on the card.
This is what makes Trish Stratus’ career so impressive. She was one of those young models, hired based on her looks and with essentially no wrestling experience, but she put in the effort to become a genuine star. If you need proof of the company’s original view of Stratus, you just need to look at how she first debuted in 2000: as a valet, not a wrestler, managing the team of Test and Albert, who went under the painfully obvious team name of ‘T&A’ (WWE has never been one for subtly).
The first hint that she might be something more than the standard blonde model came when she took a bump through a table at Backlash in April 2000, courtesy of Bubba Ray Dudley. And soon enough, she’d become an active full-time wrestler, and one of the most popular members of the roster, male or female. Trish Stratus was never an in-ring technician. You would never compare her to Bret Hart. But she actually put in the hours to train to be a wrestler, to learn the craft, and it really showed. It's hard not to blame the other women who just didn't - this was the era of women getting more than a three minutes match being a rarity. But Trish always made the best of what she was given. A wrestling fan since she was young, she wasn’t just there to pick up a paycheck.
And of course, being a great wrestler is about far more than just the wrestling. What mattered more Trish Stratus was a brilliant character, that had an instant connection to the crowd. In particular, it was her feud with Lita that stands out. The duo’s on-again-off-again rivalry spanned from 2003 and 2005, and they famously were the first women to headline an episode of Monday Night Raw in 2004.
They were the perfect opponents for each either. On one hand, you had Lita, the cool pop-punk girl with died hair and tattoos and hung out with the skater kids (well, the Hardy Boyz, at least). And then you had Trish, the perfect blonde popular girl bombshell. Wrestling’s greatest feuds are when archetypes are pitched against their natural opposites. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes was rich asshole versus down on his lucky working man. Stone Cold and Vince McMahon was the everyman getting revenge on his bastard boss. And Trish Stratus and Lita could have been from Mean Girls Or Clueless or any 2000s teen movie - it was the cheerleader vs the goth girl – Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On versus the cast of The Craft.
Like many things in wrestling, many of the storylines Trish was placed in have not aged well. Her well-remembered feud with Mickie James was based around the later becoming a lesbian stalker, of course played for male titillation. Her Wrestlemania 21 match came out because of her being jealous of Christy Hemme appearing in Playboy magazine. And worst of all, there was the infamous storyline with Vince McMahon, which ended with her real-life boss making her strip in the ring and bark like a dog.
Yet, despite this, Trish Stratus has remained a beloved figure in the eyes of fans. She won her ‘retirement’ match against Lita in 2006, but has made continued to make occasional appearances and inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014. As women’s wrestling has finally started to be given a platform in WWE in recent years, she has popped up at most of the important moments, including the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble, and the all-female Evolution PPV.
In truth, Charlotte Flair is a much better wrestler than Trish ever was. So are plenty of the current big names, like Becky Lynch, Bayley and Sasha Banks. But they’ve been given opportunities that would never have happened without Trish Stratus.