*I’ve edited MMA to read UFC in several references. I think there is a culture among the formal sport that does not correlate exactly the same to private training and exercise.
I interrupt my regularly scheduled Post Trump series to offer some thoughts on a recent article at The Gospel Coalition against female mixed martial arts fighters. Though I’ve been thinking through my Trump thoughts for 6 weeks and these thoughts for less than 48 hours, I’ve been engaging on the topic via twitter and comments on the original post the last 2 days. As I did so, I realized that the issue of female UFC fighters raised around the recent Ronda Rousey fight played into things I have been thinking on for years, particularly since my days sitting under my UFC loving, violence promoting, former pastor Mark Driscoll. The TGC article used gender norms as the particular foundation for criticism of female MMA fighters, but I have a different concern with women in MMA, the overlooked concern (at least among Christian writers) of the interplay of sex and violence particularly evident in MMA, and long evident in the sport before women became fighters in the ring. This issue plays into my long concern over modern re-interpretations of Genesis 3:16 that frame the battle of the sexes as women wanting to dominate men. This can result in a lack of awareness of the long road of sexualization and abuse that sets up many women to step out of gender norms that were used against them without penalty by male powers, in this case men with physical power in a sport that glorifies violence.
Aimee Byrd pointed out in a tweet that, while the TGC article focused on sexualization through gender non-conformity, explicit sexualization has long occurred in the UFC through supposed gender conformity as well, for instance, the ring girls. I was also struck by a statement in the original TGC post –
“Including women has … allowed the UFC to develop progressive credentials, improving the reputation of a sport that has had an unwelcome association with domestic abuse and had an exceedingly male-dominated audience.”
This was key, and down the rabbit hole I fell.
HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did an expose in 2015 on the disturbingly high rates of domestic violence among MMA fighters as compared to both NFL players and the larger population as a whole.
Turns out that MMA has twice the rate of domestic violence of the larger population and three times the rate of the National Football League. So you have a culture that is sexualized around gender norms that is also excessively violent toward women. It only makes sense to me that the next iteration of fixation for male fans of the sport would be violence between women in the ring, which of course is still sexualized.
Time Magazine noted this back in 2013 when things first started taking off for Rousey.
One issue that has persisted is the sexualization of female fighters in conversations about the sport. About a month ago, UFC fighter Conor McGregor apologized for a tweet he sent about the sexual things Rousey and Tate might do; UFC president Dana White later said that it was “real dumb.” (The UFC is reportedly working on social-media guidelines for its fighters.) Even mere weeks before the Ultimate Fighter finale, a Fox Sports blog post about whether fans were beginning to root for Tate rather than Rousey was given the headline “Are Ronda’s fans no longer aroused?” That headline was later changed but the original can still be found in online archives, complete with the implication that the reason fans are tuning in may not be just an athletic interest in who wins and who loses.
Since the earliest days of creation after the Fall, women have worked the system they’ve been given, and rarely has the system been a righteous one. Some such as Esther have worked unjust systems righteously, while others like Rachel and Leah not so much. In Rousey’s case, if she wants to compete (as opposed to being either ignored or exploited) in a culture known for sexualization and violence toward women, it makes sense that it requires sexualization and violence.
Rousey says that “she’s aware that women are judged on looks in any industry so she may as well accept it.”
“… she’s just glad to be written about. ‘I want everyone to talk as much as possible about everything. As long as they’re talking, I’m happy. The bills get paid. I can feed my dog,’ she says.”
A lot of women watching Rousey fight simply admire her strength. I’ve been concerned at times over my physical dependence on men, some I could count on and some I could not. For women who’ve been verbally or physically bullied by men, Rousey’s strength is inspirational. For women who’ve been sexually assaulted, developing a version of her skills seems a basic survival skill, for the gender norms of physical strength have long set up women for abuse.
Men, in contrast, seem to enjoy Rousey for a different reason. She became the next iteration in the female wrestling contest.
“Females fighting seems to be more interesting to males than to other females, and the ten best female fights in movies certainly attract more than their fair share of male attention.” 1
I’m always curious when a woman steps out of conservative Biblical comfort zones for how women should behave. I’ve learned that there is almost always a larger story, a provocation that prompted her response. Sometimes, such a woman pushes us to consider whether our comfort zone is cultural or Scriptural. The TGC article makes the case that discomfort with female MMA fighting is Scriptural rather than cultural. I’m not going to challenge that per se, but having sat under a conservative reformed pastor who for years promoted MMA, I would like to encourage more Christian male leaders to step back and examine the culture that provokes or promotes it. I’m hoping for a little less criticism of feminism and a little more inspection of masculine oppression that sets it up as the safer, self-respecting option for a large number of women in modern society.