I don’t have female role models. I don’t look at other female fighters and think, “I want to fight like her.” But I have strong examples of both that are men, and intellectually that makes me feel a little guilty. As a Feminist through and through, as someone who believes that women cannot afford to not support one another, that’s a shitty thing to admit: that I don’t look up to women as idols, people I want to be like. And if I’m being completely honest, I never have. I admire individual women and I’ve written at length about the political or social importance of some figure heads, like Ronda Rousey, Gina Carano, Phetjee Jaa, or the numerous Thai women fighters whose careers and public images I follow closely. I love women, I admire these women and categorically women motivate me to push harder and do something. The distinction is that the women of this art form do not inspire the art form, for me. Every example I have of the kind of Muay Thai I want to achieve, the aesthetics and values of fight persona – they’re all men.
just a note: in the top photo, I am inspired by Namphon, and not Samart
When I watch Karuhat Sor. Supawan, whether on Youtube as a young man in the ring or right in front of me as a middle-aged man, casually strutting around and laughing about how winded he is after 5 minutes, I am inspired. His energy, his persona, is like a cowboy icon that little boys idolize and try to emulate. You don’t want to be “a guy like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name,” you want to be Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. When I watch Karuhat move in the ring, young or old, there’s something being expressed in every single movement he makes – the way he looks into his opponent’s face when he blocks or elbows; the way he smiles when he lands something or cuts his opponent; the swagger with which he rights himself after an off-balance or struts around the ring. All of it is intensely masculine, but it’s expressing an energy and a value that hits a chord in me and I want to be that. My favorite fight of his is against Boonlai (below) and, indeed, it’s actually a fight that Karuhat lost. It doesn’t matter, he expresses these things that compel me all the time, it’s who he is and what he is. Other men are also masculine in their fights – Buakaw, to take a western favorite, for instance is pretty thoroughly masculine, but nothing about the way he moves or walks around or fights inspires me the way I am inspired by Karuhat, or Namkabuan or Yodkhunpon, two other men with unique energies. There are current fighters I love to watch, I’m a huge fan of them and I cheer like mad when they fight, but it doesn’t compel that thing inside of me to be that. The way my original teacher Master K, late in his 70s already, just stands around inspires me more than the way 90% of modern fighters move, literally the position of his posture compels me. It’s inexplicable, but it’s there. There are words for it, but those words aren’t it; but those words are generally in the category of describing masculine traits.
Above, the Karuhat vs. Boonlai fight that I love so damn much
When I was growing up I was always with boys. My family was me and three brothers (Gabe, John and Shane); both my best friends were girls, but we didn’t really hang out with other girls until Middle School. And even then, when we were a clique of mean girls, I didn’t understand 90% of what my friends cared about, talked about, or wanted to do. Maybe, when hanging around with girls I was like a foreign exchange student staying with a local family, observing all the customs and smiling along with conversation even when failing to comprehend most of it. Even now, I don’t know almost any other women in the world I live in now, here in Thailand. There aren’t other women at my gym most of the time and I don’t have friends outside of the gym except for Emma, who I see once every way-too-many-months. I chat with Thai female fighters online, most whom I have faced, and have spent a little time with some of them, but they’re not close relationships. And unlike when I was growing up now that I’m (still) never around other women, I really just want to be around other women. In large part my motivations, interests and concerns are about the experiences of and betterment for women. It’s a reversal from when I was a kid in my affinity for and understanding of other women, but the “observing an alien community” also remains, even though now I see so much more of myself in it and vice versa. I want to be around other women, hear the experiences, thoughts and lives of other women, and I love being part of the world community of women; but there is not one that inspires me the way this very small handful of men do. It’s considerable.
When I watch some female fighters, I get excited. When I see female fighters pushing to be better, I get excited. I just don’t become inspired in the sense of breathing in their energy or aesthetics or expression of person and wanting to be it in the way I do with the male fighters I idolize. What the hell is that? And perhaps more importantly, does that matter? Does the equality of opportunity and access for female fighters in the male world of sport require that we try to emulate other women? Can I admire and respect the achievements of top female athletes while not feeling anything within myself that wants to be like them? It seems reasonable enough to say that you can’t control what or who inspires you, but it’s also reasonable to consider that there are a million social constructs around why you are uninspired. Am I unconsciously dismissing women or do I just gravitate toward expressions of masculinity, and it’s mostly men who express that in the way I most want to be? And it’s not “most men,” as indeed it’s a select rarity of men who inspire me at all, but it is only men who I see it in. To be clear, I don’t want to be a man in exchange for me being a woman; but the values that I see expressed through the masculine performances of men in the ring are the values I see in myself, values that I want to flex and make dominant traits, as a woman.
Masculinity Does Not Just Belong to Men – Thinking Through Feminism
Perhaps that’s what makes it good Feminism. The idea that masculinity is not exclusive to men. Feminist author Sheryl Sandberg talks about how the contemporary focus for equality ought not only be about getting more women into boardrooms and CEO positions that are traditionally reserved for men – Feminism is not just making women more like men – but it’s about encouraging and valuing men taking on traditionally feminine roles as well, like care-giving and child-rearing. Sandberg is positing that equality is not a one-way street toward the already-valued masculine roles, but creating cultural and social value in mostly under-valued feminine roles. Expressions of femininity or the roles generally assigned to women need to be given more value so that anyone taking them on is valued, rather than it being an insult to masculinity. With this, it’s difficult for me to acknowledge the possibility that I’m not inspired by women because I don’t value what they’re expressing. That’s a tough idea for me to defend both to myself and openly. But she’s also saying that expressing what you value should not be stereotyped or reserved for those who fall neatly on either side of the gender binary that we love so much. I want to express masculinity because the values that inspire me are categorically under that umbrella of verbal, intellectual understanding. Meaning that Judith Butler’s argument that there is gender fluidity and we’re all playing at one gender or the other, “it’s all drag,” is something I can defend – that I gravitate toward particular aesthetics or expressions and it’s a false construct that assigns them to men exclusively. So I also argue that masculinity is not “just for men,” anymore than femininity is only for women. And truthfully what I’m compelled toward isn’t even basic masculinity, but hyper-masculinity. What I mean is, I should be able to admire and express masculinity without that being anti-female.
When I was very young, I’m not sure the age but probably 3 or 4, I told my mom that I wanted to grow up to be an old man. She told me I couldn’t and I cried, something she’s expressed regret over since. As a very young child, I must have identified qualities about old men that hit a cord with me. For sure it was the white bearded, weathered faced wizard-type that I wanted to become – something like Grandfather Twilight or Merlin. There’s no way I was assigning gender to these qualities in a kind of political or social way. I just dug the aesthetic of wizardly old men and thought that was something that I’d like to be. When my mom explained that I couldn’t because I was a girl and not a boy, I didn’t think, “oh, I should want to be an old lady then,” I just thought that it sucked that I couldn’t be what I wanted to be, maybe because I was looking forward to it.
“Grandfather Twilight” by Barbara Berger (1984)
I reckon that my tendencies and affinities toward these expressions of masculinity in the male fighters I idolize is something similar. It’s not political at its core, although I own that as an adult with an understanding of the world and a place within it, it isn’t separable from social politics either. But I do believe that part of the resolution to this whole issue of whether it’s good or bad Feminism is to look at whether it’s good or bad for women. I don’t think I’m harming the progress of women by failing to be ignited in this particular manner by female fighters. But I do think it’s a problem, or at least a deficiency. A solution, I believe, is to increase exposure of women athletes. Seeing someone “like you” is incredibly important for the advancement of under-represented groups and seeing more women fighters is absolutely part of that. Of the hundreds (maybe a thousand) male fighters I’ve seen, only a small handful inspire me to want to be like them. It’s male Muay Thai that I reach toward in how I want to fight, aesthetically. But I have far more exposure to male fighters; the sport is still largely a male realm. And while I haven’t seen any women who express these qualities, values and aesthetics that I’m drawn to, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of it. I see glimpses – tiny glimpses – of it emerging in my own posture and movements in the ring… and I’m a woman. By having more women visible, the chances of other women (and men) being inspired by them is greater. It’s much easier to want to be a cowboy with male traits when you’ve seen hundreds of these iconic cowboys; it’s hard when you’ve only ever seen maybe 2 or 3 cowgirls, and what a cowboy iconically expresses is masculinity. So, as I admire many women, and I find what we are doing and accomplishing and fighting for absolutely inspiring and I cheer for the women who are kicking against the pricks, so to speak, I just don’t feel that spark of wanting to be them, which is something somewhat inexplicable; and maybe it doesn’t need to be. As I grow older I find more and more that I am in awe of my own mother, how much shit she put up with, how strong she has always been in staying the course in following what she’s passionate about despite a heavy currant running in the opposite direction from her aims. I admire her, I am inspired by her – but I don’t try to be her. (I do cherish many traits she’s given me, though.) I’m amazed by mothers, but I don’t want to be one. The first women boxers to compete in the Olympics are nothing short of historical heroes, but I don’t want to be them. And I think that’s okay. In the same way that visibility of women increases the drive and possibilities for all the young girls and women who can see themselves in those accomplishments, I think one of the greatest deficits is that which women are visible is still largely limited and controlled by media and consumer markets with powerful male slants. The men I look to as role models are capable of being utterly and openly themselves… because they’re men. Women don’t have that same luxury. In a recent op-ed piece by Lindy West on what the loss of Clinton’s bid to be the first woman president of the United States (a piece that brought me to tears more than once), she articulates this important point about the relative privilege of men to be who they are, to be in exemplary positions and display freedom that feels more individual…politics aside, this is a social fact of our culture; for men who do not see or believe that they are privileged, this is what it looks like from us on the other side:
“…men in our culture get to be more than just bodies, do more than just nurture. Men get to act and excel and climb and aspire and thrive and win and rule and be the audacious, hungry fulcrum of public life. It is normal for men to have ambition. It is normal for women to stand aside…”
So, the second part of a greater visibility of women is the acceptance of femininity and masculinity within any and all women, so that we can more openly and casually express ourselves, to be ourselves. I do believe that when women can more casually and openly be who they are, rather than being formed or fitted to a mold that is “marketable,” it will be easier for more women to see ourselves in the greater variety of women who are in the limelight. Both those who express what is expected and those who don’t.
“We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.” – Sheryl Sandberg
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