I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but this recent article on Ronda Rousey’s exceptionally crass criticisms and shit-talking of Cris “Cyborg” Justino paints a perfect picture for why shit-talking among female fighters has more pitfalls than for male fighters.
Rousey has openly criticized Cyborg for her failing a drug test and the subsequent one year suspension from competition. There has been mud slung in both directions, to be sure, but Rousey’s most recent attack is out of line and attacks Cyborg on the basis of “femininity,” or a perceived lack thereof:
“I’ve said before, I don’t care if she’s injecting horse semen into her eyeballs, I’ll fight her, but that’s just my personal decision. But I can’t make a decision for the whole division. I can’t say it’s the right thing. This girl has been on steroids for so long and [has been] injecting herself for so long that she’s not even a woman anymore. She’s an ‘it.’ It’s not good for the women’s division. It’s not good at all. If she comes in the UFC and I beat the [expletive] out of her and then I retire and become an action movie star, then the UFC is still going to be stuck with her. The division could die. She could ruin the whole sport. Even though it’s a fight a lot of people want to see, even if I beat the living crap out of her, it won’t be good for the sport because then she’d still be in the UFC.”
I’ve very recently written about the particular injustices of policing femininity in female athletes after watching “Pumping Iron 2: The Women,” a docu-drama from the 80’s set around a female bodybuilding competition in which Bev Francis from Australia challenged the limitations of female bodybuilders on the basis of “femininity.” Francis, like Cyborg, was heavily criticized for her “masculine” appearance as too far a departure from the feminine markers that judges (and audience) are comfortable with. Rousey’s attack on Cyborg here is not about her athletic ability and it is, in fact, not even fully a criticism of her suspected (and at one point confirmed) steroid use – it’s simply an attack on coloring outside the lines of gender norms. Usually I defend Rousey’s big mouth. For the most part it’s “fair game” within the lines of either her personal experience with a competitor or about the hierarchy of challengers within the very new division of female fighters for the UFC. And usually it’s balanced with respect for the women as athletes with a side of venom to sell the fights. It stands out in the otherwise “good woman” approach to female fighters being quiet and polite and evoking a “just happy to be here” attitude.
I’m a huge fan of Ronda Rousey, the person, the athlete and the persona. But here I think Rousey is 100% out of line, to the point that I’m disappointed at the harm she’s doing. And, as I said before, it’s an illustration of something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is how it’s much more dangerous for women fighters to talk shit than it is for men. The reason being that any insult a woman can lay out for another female fighter is pretty much the exact criticism that patriarchy can lay on female fighters in general. “Her striking sucks,” even if aimed particularly at one competitor from another is risky in that it is a criticism that all or any female fighters might get, simply for being female: women suck at striking. Calling a woman a “bitch” or saying she looks like a man are both attacks that could (and do) easily come from the keyboard warriors on forums and comment threads all over the internet. It’s absolutely not the same as a man calling another man a “bitch” or a “sissy” or that his striking sucks or that he has no ground game. None of those things are criticisms that exist of male fighters in general and all of them are attacks that any and all women face, categorically, as fighters.
Cris “Cyborg” Justino
I’m incredibly disappointed to see Rousey talk like this. Calling Cyborg an “it” does nothing for women, does nothing for the sport; it does nothing for anybody. It’s true that sex appeal and gender-normative “femininity” has played a large part in propelling women’s MMA. When Cyborg defeated Carano back in 2009 it was a slippery victory because despite my desire to celebrate the victor in an historic event for women’s MMA, I also knew full well that possibilities for popularity and growth for the sport behind Cyborg were minimal, whereas Carano’s victory could have, might have, catapulted a star and a fan-base. Just like Bev Francis in the bodybuilding competition, Cris “Cyborg” was not aesthetically what people wanted. And that’s what Rousey is saying now. She’s arguing that if Cyborg gets in the door, this monstrous not-woman as she’s being described, that even if Rousey beats her, even when Rousey retires and goes off to be a movie star, “we” will be stuck with this thing in the house. How fucked up is that? To have a woman – a very influential woman – who has certainly had to ride the line between status-quo femininity and athleticism (Rousey said it was hard for her being a muscular teenager) to pick up a stick against a kind of woman that, through her aesthetic difference (whether induced by performance enhancing drugs or not) will forever alter the landscape of women’s MMA… and that’s a bad thing. I’ve celebrated Rousey as being someone who opens doors, who calls “everybody in” with every boundary she pushes. But not here. For her to be shooing Cyborg off the porch on the basis of “femininity” is only sad and it only hurts women. If a man said it I’d call him an asshole. But a woman doing it, an intelligent woman who champions female athletes and is thoughtful with her words, feels like a sad and stupid betrayal.