The responses to my latest article The Fragility of Western Masculinity has been very interesting and somewhat unexpected. It has been, already, my most widely read article, and surprisingly has been embraced by a lot of men, a group that I’d anticipated would take offense. There have been the usual “shut up! you don’t know what your [sic] talking about!” comments with more or less expletives to add flavor, but they’ve been largely drowned out by sincere male fighters who recognize something in both kinds of masculinity examined in the post and who want to push themselves for more. (I see myself in both, also.)
Katy though brought up a really interesting point in comments, the question of whether (some) women simply don’t have the same problem of training very hard because they aren’t given anything, nothing is assumed. Below are her comment and my response (you can find the original context in the comments at the bottom of the linked article).
Katy Merrill: Really interesting post. I feel that I often toe the line between masculinity and femininity in a western sense. I really relate to the bit about “being” versus “doing”. While in my day to day I do not consciously tr to be one way or another, I certainly define myself by the actions I take. I also wonder if, as a female and maybe being aware of this constant struggle to begin with, fighting is easier for us. Perhaps I will be putting words in your mouth, but, we are already so used to struggle so, like the cat vomit example, we just *do*. We don’t see any way to a different or better state (Or maybe simply the truth of realizing who we each individually are) but through. And so we perform. We train hard. We clean up the vomit, we wrap our stitches in sweatbands, and we go back to doing whatever we can. We constantly strive to do what needs to be done because we have never been shown another acceptable way.
Me: This is a very interesting point about women’s innate struggle in this particular realm of sport. I think where it hits home for me is that because this is a performance of hyper-masculinity and we’re not men, we know that we have to work and DO in order to be accepted or to justify being in the ring (which is assumed to not be our space) whereas men, simply for the sake of being men, have a kind of all access pass to male spaces. This might be more pronounced for me here in this other culture than it is in the west, but I absolutely still see it as being true in the west. Here, I am literally barred from areas of the gym because I’m not a man and men who don’t try and don’t care have access, simply because they are men. I think the assumption of masculinity being inextricably coupled with being a man is a problem in this regard. Knowing we have to work, as women, or even simply as “not men” is a head-start, although definitely has enough obstacles involved that I’d not outright call it an advantage.
Let me say that I don’t really have much experience of training with women. The woman who preceded me at Lanna, Sylvie Charbonneau reportedly trained very hard, and her achievement of 50 fights was really the example that inspired me to believe that 50 fights was even possible for someone like me. Once I caught a glimpse of that number it just started driving me to a higher state, a path that is my own. Honestly, I’ve never trained with anyone, man or woman, Thai or non-Thai who trains like I do. I simply haven’t ever seen it. My fellow-fighter and friend Frankie Smith told me that in her experience only Iman Barlow does (someone who also fights a great deal). But this isn’t a who-trains-harder-than-me post. There are no doubt many who train like I do and indeed who surpass me, found in many gyms across the world; and damn, I wish I could train with others who do. I don’t want to always be the one stacking the height of the bar – which is what happens -, I’d love to see someone dust me and have to push harder to keep up. My training and fight rate has largely made me an outlier at my gyms, in addition to already being an outlier because of my size, age and gender. But my point about how I train isn’t a pissing contest but rather pointing out that why I train the way I do might have a lot to do with the fact that I’m a woman, so the assumptions are not in my favor. So I work. I’m writing about my experience, and about gender because gender is a point of interest for me. Some people asked in comments why I didn’t write about women, why I was focusing on men. Part of this is that I wasn’t really even writing about men, I was writing about masculinity, which is certainly strongly associated with men but isn’t exclusive to them; I was actually exploring masculinity in a sense that it is divorced from just being a man. Masculine does not “equal” male, as much as our cultures tend to operate through this assumption.
I was writing about how we try on and use gender identifications, as both men and women, and that in cases of hyper-masculinity it is clear that everyone is performing, just as it is with hyper-femininity – One can look to the contestants for the annual Miss Tiffany’s Universe contest (below) as an example of hyper-femininity performance. Or, in contrast, the oddly grimacing, quite un-Thai, Bruce Lee-like “action” face that the iconic Muay Thai fighter Buakaw has adopted now that he fights for Muay Thai Max and other western productions (below) — he seems to be reaching for some reference with this that I can’t identify for certain, but it’s not common for Thai men or fighters. It’s an interesting contrast, these gender coding devices, with the hyper-feminine performances of Miss Tiffany’s versus the screaming, teeth-bearing hyper-masculinity of Buakaw. They’re all “men,” by the way, at least in the cold biological sense of categorizing. But the kathoey of Miss Tiffany’s are out feminine-ing women who don’t have to try so hard, unless they are also in a beauty contest that asks for this kind of hyper-feminine ideal. I’m biologically, anatomically and identify as a woman, but if I were to take the stage with beauty contestants, trans or cis (“natural” women), I’d have to adopt some performances of femininity in order to keep up – I can’t walk down the runway the way I walk down the street and think that I’m just “feminine” enough by my nature to fit in. (I’ve written about how women in Muay Thai are “cross dressing” in a way; you can see that post here: “Act Like It – Confidence In a Performance Culture”)
My blog post was really about the particular kind of masculine performance that makes up what is taken to be “real” Muay Thai, that is the performance of so many thousands of anonymous Thai men (and some women) who have pursued the sport in rings across the nation, and a particular species of masculinity that often is exemplified by western, (largely middle class) male fighters who come to Thailand to attempt to perform the same. Some have said I was comparing apples and oranges here. But that is precisely the point. Apples are coming to Thailand and are trying to be oranges…but they aren’t trying very hard. They might feel like they are trying hard, but the amount of work it takes to turn an apple into anything that resembles an orange is incredible. It is literally in-credible. It is beyond your beliefs. An apple that idealizes an orange for its qualities can’t just come hang out in the orange grove and become an orange. The oranges are trying to be oranges, too – performing the best citrus smell and orange skin that it can muster.
Simpatico Struggle and the Code
So this goes back to Katy’s point. Serious women who come to Thailand to train and fight already know they don’t belong as fighters, to some degree. They’ve already had to fight for their place in the gym back home. They’ve already struggled against stereotypes that are rife in the culture they come from. They don’t even have to go abroad to an unfamiliar culture in order to feel like they’re outside of the men’s club. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just an unfortunate fact at this point in our evolution. But Katy’s point raises some brilliant questions because women who are drawn to Muay Thai are not going against our nature, we are going in accordance with our nature. The same things that draw men to masculine performance are what draw women to it; same with feminine performances. But we’re not all equally seeded at the starting line because masculine things are considered natural for men and feminine things are considered natural for women. So this “leg up” that men have might actually work as a disadvantage for men.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” he looks at how disadvantages can have hidden advantages. One of the more poignant examples for what we’re discussing here about gender is his exploration of dyslexia among highly successful businessmen. In this section of his book Gladwell looks at men who struggled in school due to dyslexia and identify as having, through embarrassment or determination, fought through it and because of that struggle and commitment have become very successful entrepreneurs, CEO’s, etc. The actual statistics behind the prevalence claimed by Gladwell is currently under fire, but we don’t need it for our point because it’s the process, not the frequency. In short, kids with dyslexia have to work much, much harder to read the same 20 pages of text as kids without dyslexia. I don’t have dyslexia and I can attest that I coasted through school – all of it, elementary, high school and college. And that actually sucks. Kids who had to sweat over the same chapters that I skimmed got a lot more out of them, if they worked and actually read the text. This process taught them how to work hard, how to pay attention, and they actually glean a lot more information that just swims by the rest of us who aren’t working so hard. And this assumed disadvantage can become an advantage for those kids who learn how to work really hard and just completely surpass those of us who are coasting. This example works for women in a men’s sport, too. We don’t assume we know how to do things and even if we do assume we can, probably the majority of the dudes we’re training with assume we can’t. So we have to prove ourselves and we have to justify ourselves where men, simply for the sake of being men, can coast. We learn to work and we keep working and this can be a huge gift that grew out of something kinda shitty.
It may be also that some western women are particularly drawn to the type of hyper-masculinity that Muay Thai traditionally offers. My husband and I noticed that a rather large percentage of western female Muay Thai fighters, or even aspiring fighters, tend to be attractive women by the general standard, quite apart from any media amplification to sell tickets or market a brand. Many are types one “would never guess” are fighters, which I guess also says a lot about standard assumptions about women who do combat sports and how masculine that might make them. It could be that Thai hyper-masculinity offers a kind of break, a trans-cultural space that involves performing masculinity, putting on the freedoms and restrictions of masculinity, that is not trapped by the western hyper-masculine male, the aggro face that ironically enough Buakaw lately is using (Buakaw, although an iconic Muay Thai fighter, it should be noted hasn’t fought a Thai in 8 years). The codes of traditional Muay Thai masculinity, could offer to western women possibilities to surpass the limits of western femininity and hyper-femininity, uniquely for them, without recourse to western masculinity stereotypes. And it could be that the most successful and committed of western male fighters also feel the same…an escape from whatever possibilities come about from performing the more common types of hyper-masculinity in the west.