Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fighting for the Right to Fight: Part III -- Blatant Sexism Tolerated


[Cross-posted on FightTicker.com]

With Christiane Santos and Gina Carano headlining a major mixed martial arts (MMA) card, this 3-part series examines the state of women in MMA. Part I of this series overviews the progress women have made in MMA, with Part II covering the normalized forms of sexism that frequently go unnoticed.

This piece presents the more overt forms of sexism that still transpire in MMA and contemporary sport. While many in the MMA community do not promote or approve of these sexist acts, the acts are ultimately tolerated by the industry since the perpetrators are rarely punished and gender equity is not seen as a priority by the public at large, especially when cast as a threat to the sporting status quo.

When Not Fighters, Women are Relegated to Sexualized Appendages of Male Fighters

Again, the proportion of female fighters relative to males is extremely small. Thus, when women are not included in competition during MMA fight cards, women's inclusion tends to come in the form of displaying their sexuality and nothing else. Obviously, this exemplifies how women are valued within sport -- as voiceless, commodified sexual appendages to the more central male athletes.

In this UFC 100 promotional video shown on YouTube (assist to Steve Ficca), it is glaringly evident how women are utilized in MMA when they are not athletes.

When EliteXC aired MMA's first fight card on primetime network television (May 31, 2008), Gina Carano and Kaitlin Young competed in a marquee match. However, women were also featured as dancers. This theatrical spectacle was not continued in subsequent EliteXC fight cards.

EliteXC did a great deal to promote women’s MMA, but its initial inclusion of female dancers did not reflect well on the organization's overall portrayal of women.

Still, this sexist practice continues across the MMA industry. For UFC 100, rather than have female athletes or commentators for the centennial event, the promotion increased its use of women by adding Holly Madison as a guest Octagon Girl. Occasionally, fighters will have women accompany them to the ring or cage in theatrical arena entrances. And for no apparent reason except to add to this hypermasculine culture, sexualized women are sometimes added for MMA fighter photo opportunities.

Similar practices of course happen in numerous sports -- in football with cheerleaders, in basketball with dancers, in boxing with ring girls. The predominantly male market calls for this portrayal of women, and sporting industries perpetuate the demand. Angela Harris, a University of California, Berkeley professor of law, theorizes that society's patriarchal culture confines men and women to rigid gender roles, which when challenged, result in public shaming (Harris quoting James Gilligan):

The male gender role generates violence by exposing men to shame if they are not violent, and rewarding them with honor when they are. The female gender role also stimulates male violence at the same time that it inhibits female violence. It does this by restricting women to the role of highly unfree sex objects, and honoring them to the degree that they submit to those roles or shaming them when they rebel. This encourages men to treat women as sex objects, and encourages women to conform to that sex role; but it also encourages women (and men) to treat men as violence objects. (p. 789, 790).

Additionally in MMA and sports at large, there are simply fewer financial opportunities for women outside of these limited occupational spaces. Thus, when women do capitalize from their sexuality in or out of MMA, they are turning to a viable avenue to earn income made possible by the industry and broader patriarchal demands.

Sexist Language

Sports have always been characterized by women's subordination. Too often, this occurs through language used by athletes, coaches and those who oversee sporting institutions (
e.g., promoters, commissioners). Use of clichés, such as "You throw/hit like a girl" or "Quit being a little bi*ch" relies on the collective understanding that femininity is subordinate to masculinity. Thus, when one uses those types of clichés in an insulting manner, even if conscious intent to denigrate women is not present, the process supports a broader sexist culture.

Examples of this type of language abound in MMA and undergo minimal scrutiny. In MTV’s MMA-based reality show, Bully Beatdown, characters in virtually every episode utilize language that subordinates femininity. The following are a small sample of such lines expressed in the reality show: "Adam and Josh went to Mayhem for help cause they couldn't do it themselves. They're too much of a little bi*ch to take care of business on their own" (episode two); "On your back like a little bi*ch!" (episode four); "Easy targets. They put themselves out there. They're little girls. They cry about everything. They just don't know how to take a joke. They're not men that's all" (episode three).

And while not the norm, it is not uncommon to hear male MMA fighters use similar language in pre-fight interviews. In the widely viewed special, UFC Primetime, which hyped the UFC 94 match between B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre, Penn said of GSP, "GSP, saying he's not a quitter, but I was right there watching him quit. You tap from strikes, you're a little bi*ch."

EMBED-Dana Whites Fight Night 18 video blog - Watch more free videos

In probably the most obvious example from April of this year, UFC President Dana White closed out an official UFC Fight Night promotional video log with the following statement: "You fu**in' dumb bi*ch. Fu** you Loretta Hunt." Additionally in the same piece, White used the words "retard" and "fa**ot" as a way to disparage various individuals. As noted previously in Part II, Hunt is one of the few female journalists in the MMA industry.

Following heavy criticism from numerous MMA media outlets, White quickly apologized for use of the homophobic language. No apology was made for language that belittles women or the mentally challenged. More importantly, it appears no structural changes in the industry have manifested that would aim to shift people's attitudes, raise consciousness, and prevent future discriminatory behaviors (see final section of this post on "equity policies").

In fact, across the MMA blogosphere, although criticism of White's words was quite heavy from online journalists, a large proportion of commenters/readers supported White (see commenters’ statements in response to Maggie Hendricks’s article). Presumably, a high majority of online MMA readers/commenters is heterosexually male, enabling them to interact with one another in anonymous virtual communities where written sexism/homophobia can go relatively unchecked, depending largely on the sites' designers and moderators.

This provides a textbook example of how sexism operates simultaneously on interpersonal and institutional levels. Following a blatant example of sexist language used in an official company promotional piece, support for the victim is minimized because of her minority status in the industry as a whole, where athletes, managers, coaches, fans, and fellow journalists are largely male, and are therefore unaffected (perhaps even privileged) by sexism. Thus de facto discrimination goes on, "business as usual."

Sexual Assault and Harassment

Given the lenient atmosphere that ensconces MMA and sport with regard to sexism, when sexual assault and/or harassment does occur, it is not terribly surprising that it goes on absent of serious scrutiny, even after sexual harassment is carried out publicly.

By now, many sports fans have been made privy to the sexual assault enacted upon ESPN reporter, Erin Andrews who was video taped unknowingly without wearing any clothes through a hotel peephole. The video was then posted over the internet before being removed. Unfortunately, examples of sexual assaults by athletes are bountiful (see for example, here). Nothing so harmful has occurred in MMA (at least not to the public’s knowledge). However, similar occurrences have taken place.

The sexual assault perpetrated against ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was deplorable. Unfortunately, it reflects a broader trend in the sporting industry.

While probably not defined as sexual harassment technically, Gina Carano being forced to undress at the EliteXC public weigh-ins prior to her October 2008 match against Kelly Kobald was completely inappropriate. Although men do this regularly when on the edge of making weight at public weigh-ins, the experience is different since the audience is predominantly male. How many pictures of male fighters weighing in behind towels were plastered across the MMA blogosphere versus those of Carano?

Having a small group of men hold towels around a woman's undressed body while she weighs in as groups of young male voyeurs in the audience take pictures hoping to sneak a peek illustrates a lack of gender awareness and infrastructure in an industry run by males. A simple solution would have been to take Carano backstage and weigh in with a female official and women from her and her opponent's camp. Instead, the public spectacle of having Carano strip down and weigh in behind towels prevailed over a rational and equitable solution.

An example of sexual harassment, this time against MMA reporter Heather Nichols, occurred July of this year when Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, one of the UFC's biggest stars, grabbed Nichols mid-interview and began emulating sexual intercourse with her (see below).

Sports Videos, News, Blogs

MMA reporter Heather Nichols was not appreciative of how "Rampage" Jackson conducted himself during their interview (assist to Mike Menninger).

Nobody intervened to stop Jackson's actions during the interview. According to a subsequent interview with Nichols, she did not approve of Jackson's actions and at the time of interview had not received an apology from him. That this example happened in the most public of spaces only makes one wonder what occurs throughout the MMA industry behind closed doors and how young males may model their behavior off these types of actions.

Sociological Terms and Models to End Sexism in Sport

What we see in MMA with regard to women's inclusion are the beginnings of "gender equality" with very small degrees of "gender equity." Sports sociologist Richard Giulianotti states, "Equality policies open doors to disadvantaged groups, including women. Equity policies restructure the sports system per se to ensure sport experiences are qualitatively similar for men and women" (p. 89). Though some important structural changes have been made in MMA that indicate equity policies (e.g., 5-minute rounds), what we see much more, are indicators of women slowly being included in a heterosexual men's world, where sexism persists in different forms and on different levels.

Further theorizing gender in sport, Giulianotti relies on work by Jennifer Hargreaves, who offers three political strategies for women in sport: (1) "Co-option" involves women showing greater numbers in sport as athletes, referees, journalists, promoters, etc. In short, co-option pushes for women to join sporting industries like MMA, but without shifting the deeper structural arrangements that privilege masculinity; (2) "separatism" calls for women (or other minority groups) to operate independently from men by creating their own sporting organizations; and (3) "co-operation" seeks for women and men to work collaboratively in creating new sporting paradigms that end gender differences.

A few examples of separatism exist (
e.g., women's only MMA promotions), but these organizations are generally not sustainable in a world that relies on capitalism and high ticket sales. Co-operation is a bit harder to identify. That is not to say co-operation does not occur in private settings or in less visible spaces. However anecdotally, it does not appear that co-operation is occurring on significant levels throughout the MMA industry. Of the three models, what we see most in MMA and other sports is co-option. As female mixed martial artists and women in other professions enter the predominantly male world of MMA, they certainly make laudable, courageous progress in fighting for the right to fight and work. But in the process, men are not working with them to create equity policies, at least not at levels that lead to extensive and sustained change. Thus far, women are slowly being included, but on men's terms.

This coming Saturday night, Christiane Santos and Gina Carano will compete in what will surely be the most celebrated women's MMA match to date. As the main event on a fight card full of men, their match marks a symbolic and tangible change in MMA. But simply having one marker of gender progress does not indicate industry-wide equity. We also just had America's first Latina elected to the U.S. Supreme Court, the second woman on the current "roster" and only the third woman ever. In terms of numbers, attitudes, behaviors, and structural arrangements, we've got a long way to go.

Suggested further reading:
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