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The Male Gaze in Women’s MMA - Part 1: Genesis, Gina, and getting past Dana

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The first in a five part series from Bloody Elbow about how the male gaze, gender norms and beauty standards impact the careers of women in MMA.
 

 

“Although girls and women are more accepted than ever in sports, participating in sports is still in many ways a violation of gender norms. Largely because the traits we most value in sports – physicality, aggression, strength, etc. – are traits also associated with masculinity. Because of this disconnect, we often see female athletes objectified as a way to make them appear more feminine. Doing so 'brings things back into balance,' by assuring viewers that the women we see are not violating gender norms, but still are ‘real women’ in that they are feminine and, in many cases, available for sexual consumption.”

 

 

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Lauren Murphy, “And when women fight, one of the things they talk about is the way that they look. And I guess, for me, it's been a rude awakening in the last couple of years. To realize that it's not just hard work that is going to make me successful. It's also going to be how many Instagram followers I have, how many Twitter followers I have, how many sexy pictures I have on the internet. How much of my body I'm willing to show to the public. That's really been a rude awakening to me.”

 

Pearl Gonzalez, “MMA is a mostly male dominated sport. There are far more divisions for men so there are more men by default,” she says. “Their opportunities, however, differ due to the fact that sex sells. Women have a greater possibility to earn outside media attention if they choose to allow that. Personally, I have been able to not only compete at the highest level, but I’ve also earned spots on TV shows, movies, and modeling. I’m not afraid of the attention it brings. After MMA, the possibilities are endless!”

 

 

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The Male Gaze in Women’s MMA pt. 4: This looks like an unfair fight

 

Many of the fighters whose voices are in this piece believe that the opportunities to fight in the biggest matches, earn the highest amounts, and receive the most recognition in the sport are closely tied to their appearances and not their actions or abilities. High level athletes living with that belief – that things they can’t control can prevent them getting what they deserve in the sport – find themselves with a fairly unified feeling: ‘It sucks.’

 

 

Prof. Whiteside of the University of Tennessee outlines another adverse effect female fighters live under due to the male gaze: the ‘delegitimization of their athletic prowess.’

 
“If we see a famous golfer depicted on the cover of a golfing magazine topless, for instance, (as was the case with Lexi Thompson on the cover of Golf Digest) we, the viewers, do not see her as an athlete, but as a sexualized object. These images deny the public the opportunity to imagine women as empowered, active subjects, but instead only as objects. Thus, it becomes easy to dismiss women as legitimate athletes, which happens quite frequently in sporting conversations.”

 

 

 

The focus on looks has also had an adverse affects on some female fighters in the form of abuse they have suffered online. Kedzie – who has received numerous rape threats – agrees the abuse is a symptom of the male entitlement that is rampant in society as a whole, not just limited to MMA fans.

 

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The Male Gaze and Women’s MMA pt. 5: Doing something about it

 

Individual interviewees in this article say that the male gaze affects the marketing, promotion, and match-making in MMA to a degree that the best fights aren’t being made and that athletes suffer missed opportunities. Some have emphasized the great deal of pressure for fighters to be someone they are not, as well as stress over the fear that their best efforts won’t be enough to help them achieve their goals (or decent earnings) in a sport they love.

 
They admit that the added stress might have affected performances or even their desire to remain in the sport.
 
This small sample group were asked whether big promotions like the UFC or Bellator had a responsibility to eliminate some of the issues discussed so far. And they were near unanimous in saying that promotions did not bear any responsibility to change what they are doing, as these organizations are independent companies who can act as they please. Though, many added that they would love to see promotions choose to act in a way that treats female fighters like male fighters, who succeed based on what they do and not who they are.

 

 

Shannon Knapp says her own promotion, Invicta FC, “absolutely” has a responsibility to give fighters the best opportunities based on their performances.

 
“As Invicita, and as females, we just have to continue to fight the good fight. Because, we can't tell people how they have to react or how they should run their businesses. They're not going to listen to us. We just have to keep standing strong and show that there's more to women’s MMA than pretty faces. There's depth, there's talent, and that deserves recognition.”
 
Regarding other promotions, Knapp says, “You can't tell them what they need to be doing or should be doing. But I think companies have a responsibility to put on great fights. That's the commitment they’ve made.”

 

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There are some major promotions that will turn down very skilled female fighters because they don't fit the mold of traditional beauty standards, and they'll tell the managers that this is exactly why they are declining to sign the athlete. Professional fighting in America is an odd blend of athletics and entertainment in many cases. It's martial arts entertainment.

 

While there are some promotions that encourage individual self-expression among athletes and don't penalize them for it (Invicta is one of these), the landscape for an athlete who chooses to use her sexuality versus one who chooses not to is quite different. This is something I noticed as a fighter, but seeing the extent of it from the other side now has lead to a bit of disillusionment on my part. 

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While there are some promotions that encourage individual self-expression among athletes and don't penalize them for it (Invicta is one of these), the landscape for an athlete who chooses to use her sexuality versus one who chooses not to is quite different. This is something I noticed as a fighter, but seeing the extent of it from the other side now has lead to a bit of disillusionment on my part. 

 

Perhaps the answer to this impassible union between marketing and sexuality is to embrace that there are so many sexualities that can be expressed by fighting women, that the "sexy" isn't just a glossy Swimsuit sexuality, but that there are gritty, or ardent, or geeky, or "x" sexualities, that can intensify marketability. Yeah, it would be awesome if it was just a question of "skills", but in the marketing of fighting there may always be a dimension of "sex" that is never left behind. You see this in men too, in a way. There was even a kind of Boss Hog aura of attractiveness being pushed in someone like Big Country. Perhaps this is the thin line which could create more inclusion.

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I like what you say, Kevin but I also totally identify with the bummed out feeling Kaitlin describes.  In my work career, I have been on both sides of this coin and I'll take people doubting my talent and thinking I got ahead on my looks any time over being ignored cause, fuck it.  That little "glam" career push is a very very tight window though (even tighter in fighting, witness the gorgeous Felice Herrig crying at a press conference last year over the reality that at 33 she is "too old" for the UFC to promote.  Such an ugly story and she is a champ for being open about it).  I take heart in Amanda Nunes' point of view.  She's just like "whatever, that's how it is"and goes about her business.  I LOVE HER FOR THAT.  Acceptance and refocus on what matters to her (to me too).

 

https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2017/11/26/16702114/amanda-nunes-ufc-wants-her-to-lose-bantamweight-title-mma-news

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I like what you say, Kevin but I also totally identify with the bummed out feeling Kaitlin describes.  In my work career, I have been on both sides of this coin and I'll take people doubting my talent and thinking I got ahead on my looks any time over being ignored cause, fuck it.  That little "glam" career push is a very very tight window though (even tighter in fighting, witness the gorgeous Felice Herrig crying at a press conference last year over the reality that at 33 she is "too old" for the UFC to promote.  Such an ugly story and she is a champ for being open about it).  I take heart in Amanda Nunes' point of view.  She's just like "whatever, that's how it is"and goes about her business.  I LOVE HER FOR THAT.  Acceptance and refocus on what matters to her (to me too).

 

https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2017/11/26/16702114/amanda-nunes-ufc-wants-her-to-lose-bantamweight-title-mma-news

 

I don't know if Natalie ever told you, but --- if I remember correctly --- when she lost a close decision she felt she had won to Julie Kitchen the ref (was it Big John McCarthy, or am I inventing that part of the memory) told her afterwards, something to the order: "Because of your look, you can't expect a win." Sorry for totally screwing up the memory of what she told us a long while ago, but it is was something along those lines. Incredible. The way Natalie told it it was almost as if the guy was telling her this as a consolation.

 

nataie-fuz-01.jpg

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I don't know if Natalie ever told you, but --- if I remember correctly --- when she lost a close decision she felt she had won to Julie Kitchen the ref (was it Big John McCarthy, or am I inventing that part of the memory) told her afterwards, something to the order: "Because of your look, you can't expect a win." Sorry for totally screwing up the memory of what she told us a long while ago, but it is was something along those lines. Incredible. The way Natalie told it it was almost as if the guy was telling her this as a consolation.

 

nataie-fuz-01.jpg

Jesus.  That pisses me off.  I was talking with a straight fighter about that thing where "you" (he) watch a female fight and "cannot help but root for the more attractive fighter".  What?  WHAT?!!  This is a person I adore and respect.  I was truly shocked.  You mean you really cannot see the fight?  At all?  wtf.  I mean he didn't say he could not see the fight; I believe he could score it correctly were he a judge but silly me, I had no idea men watched women fight in that way.  I'm so naive sometimes.  I knew about tv and UFC and all that shit but the day to day, person to person reality of it always shocks me.  I watched all Nat's fights with JK.  BTW Natalie is a gorgeous lesbian superstar in my opinion. Just a full on rock star in the NYC 90's gay world.  Its so weird that the "look" doesn't translate.  I am a little steaming mad at the moment.  Stupid.  Gonna rewatch the fights for fun now though :) .

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