For at least the last two decades women have been fighting each other, professionally, under the umbrella terms of ‘vale tudo’ and ‘no-holds-barred combat.’ In barns and basement bars, against slack ropes and rusted chain-link, they were there as the ‘sport’ of fighting evolved into something that we now call mixed martial arts.
The Indiana-based HOOKnSHOOT was a leading promotion for female MMA fights in the early 2000s. In 2002 that organization put on an all women’s card labeled ‘Revolution’ – probably the first all-female fight card to take place in the US. It was headlined by Debi Purcell and Christine Van Fleet. In 2005 they held an all-women, one-night-only tournament featuring Julie Kedzie, Jan Finney, and Lisa Ellis. Over the years, HOOKnSHOOT also featured Tara LaRosa, Megumi Fujii, and Miesha Tate. Otherwise, International Fighting Championships and Japans’ G-Shooto and Smackgirl were at the forefront of promoting female fighting and athletes such as Roxanne Modafferi, Megumi Yabushita, and Marloes Coenen.
Women’s MMA hit the mainstream in the mid-2000s, when the Scott Coker-led Strikeforce and short-lived EliteXC began including women’s fights on their televised events under headline acts like Frank Shamrock and Kimbo Slice. After EliteXC folded in 2008, Strikeforce took the crown as the unofficial home of ‘big-time’ female MMA. And under this new banner, Gina Carano was to be their queen.
Carano began her fighting career in Muay Thai. In 2006, after a dozen kickboxing wins, she was invited to compete in the first ever sanctioned female MMA bout in Nevada, with the promotion World Extreme Fighting. She won that fight and kept on winning (beating Rosi Sexton, Julie Kedzie, and Tonya Evinger). The wins, and the fact some were seen by millions of viewers on CBS and Showtime, made her the biggest star in female combat sports.
In 2009 Carano made her Strikeforce debut, headlining an event live on Showtime. There she met current UFC featherweight champion Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino. In an especially brutal finish, Cyborg ended both the fight and Carano’s MMA career.
After Carano walked away from the sport – to find a home in Hollywood – an Olympic judoka turned submission ace took her throne. Ronda Rousey won gold in Strikeforce and her division was a major reason why the Showtime-based promotion was able to compete with the UFC to a degree rarely seen since. It was also around this time that the UFC infamously declared, through their president-cum-mouthpiece Dana White, that women’s MMA would “never” be a part of their show.
But that all changed in 2012 when Rousey (who White cites as the reason for changing his mind on WMMA) and Liz Carmouche became the first women to compete in the Octagon. The fight also made Carmouche the first openly gay fighter to feature in the promotion. Dozens of female fighters followed Rousey and Carmouche and today the promotion runs four(ish) divisions dedicated to women athletes. Accompanying these modern-day gladiatrices on this journey – sometimes in the backseat, but often times steering the wheel – has been the Male Gaze.
“The male gaze, as it was originally conceptualized, describes common film and editing techniques in which the subject on camera is transformed into an object for the viewer's consumption. This process is most notable in pornography, and it is in this genre where the idea first originated.” This is according to Dr. Erin Whiteside of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She’s an Assistant Professor who teaches classes on sports journalism and diversity in media.
“Those techniques (i.e. reducing a woman to a series of body parts, for instance) have become common in mainstream film and commercial communication, such as advertising, magazine covers, etc.,” continues Whiteside. “It is called the ‘male gaze’ because these common editing/filming techniques reflect what we call ‘normative gender roles’, or ones in which the man is the dominant – active – subject and the woman is the passive object.”
When talking about the male gaze and it’s relation to women’s MMA then, it becomes a discussion as to what extent female objectification – either subconsciously or consciously – on behalf of the media, fan base, and promoters affects how the sport operates and how fighters operate in that environment as a result.
To explore this issue Bloody Elbow spoke to a handful of women who – as a group – have seen and done everything there is to do in the sport. Here’s what they had to say.
“It is much more looks-based for females,” says former Strikeforce and UFC bantamweight champion Miesha Tate when asked to compare the promotion of women in MMA compared to the treatment of men.
“I think that once a fight gets going, if it’s a really good fight, there’s a lot of fans out there that can appreciate it regardless. But, when it comes to marketing and when it comes to selling a fight, I definitely think that looks are more a part of it. I feel like the general population is more drawn in and organizations are more likely to push heavy marketing behind females that are attractive. Whereas with the males, it’s really just based on how exciting they are. It doesn’t really have much to do with their look.”
Julie Kedzie, a veteran of the UFC and Strikeforce who once worked as matchmaker for Invicta Fighting Championships, offers a similar assessment; “I think big fights and opportunities like that, those generally go to the ‘pretty girls’. That has been my experience. That’s what I’ve seen in the past.”
“It’s always harder in sports for women than it is for men, because we have less opportunity” relays Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino, current UFC featherweight champion, when asked her take on the male gaze in women’s MMA. “Women athletes in MMA are struggling with the same difficulties men athletes are struggling with, except it’s taking us longer to get established in the sport because there are less opportunities.”
When asked specifically whether physical attractiveness (the kind most promoted in mainstream pop culture) helped woman gain more opportunities in MMA, Justino says, “I think that happens in life all the time.” A sentiment that both Miesha Tate and Julie Kedzie agree with.
However, Kedzie believes the juxtaposition of feminine individuals within masculine activities is part of why the male gaze has such an impact in women’s MMA versus other sports.
“The sale of sex is a really interesting area,” says Kedzie. “And it's really not something to be ashamed of; sex, sexuality, feeling sexy, feeling beautiful. But, it's not something that has anything to do with your ability to fight, so combining the two is an oddity. Maybe the promoters are consciously trying to draw the audience based on that oddity.”
Tate refers to that ‘oddity’ as a ‘transition’. It’s something she believes has always played a large role in the marketing of female MMA.
“When I was Strikeforce champion, I was dressed in nice dresses and heels and hair and make-up was done, and then I would change between that classical feminine aesthetic to the bad ass warrior female,” she says. “I have always felt that it was that transition that was so eye-catching to so many people, because I think people have a hard time believing that beautiful women can fight so ferociously. There’s just more of a shock value to that for some reason.”
She also believes that, because the contrast between a feminine looking fighter competing is more stark than that of a female fighter whose appearance is more masculine, those feminine fighters are more prized by promotions. Even if that side of the business isn't something she necessarily condones.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with women looking like tomboys, not at all, but people are going to expect those kinds of women to be more likely to do a more masculine sport, it makes more sense in peoples’ minds. I think for promoters, and maybe fans, the appeal is to have a marketing ploy where you have someone admiring a very feminine woman and then think, ‘Holy shit, she can kick my ass!’”
Sarah Kaufman, another veteran of Strikeforce and the UFC, echoes Tate. “I mean, how many times have we seen that? ‘She’s so beautiful and she can kick your butt’? We don’t see that on the men’s side. Males aren’t getting pushed like, ‘Oh this hot sexy handsome fighter is going to be fighting this other sexy handsome fighter.’”
Prof. Whiteside of the University of Tennessee identifies this oddity/transition as an important component of the male gaze within female sports. Though, unlike the fighters, she doesn’t see the use of feminine women fighting as tool for shock value. To her, it appears more like appeasement.
“Gender is a cultural norm through which we make meaning in everyday situations. For instance, we interact with someone we pass by on the street differently, depending on whether we perceive them as a man or woman,” says Whiteside.
“I give this example to underscore the point that gender is a primary way in which we make sense of our everyday lives. When people violate gender norms – by this I mean, they act in a way outside what we expect of a man or a woman – this can cause discomfort because it disrupts our taken-for-granted expectations.
“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.”
For Kedzie, what she calls the ‘oddity,’ of the beautiful woman engaging in a sometimes brutally violent sport, began with a woman she fought in EliteXC back in 2007: Gina Carano.
“Women's MMA really didn't get a huge following until Gina Carano burst onto the scene and people recognized that women have these kinds of abilities,” opines Kedzie. “But it always seemed like people couldn't get away from talking about her as the ‘beautiful fighter.’ And I guess because she was the first woman in MMA to be held up on such a high pedestal and be viewed by so many people, I think that set sort of a tone. And it’s in no way Gina’s fault or the fault of any beautiful female fighters.”
Kedzie adds that Carano’s charm and personality also added to the package that made her so marketable for both EliteXC and Strikeforce.
“Back then, I guess I'm struck by how much talk there was about a curve of a women's body as opposed to the curve of her knee when it’s slamming into somebody and how beautiful that is,” continues Kedzie. “I've always considered the fight to be the most beautiful when you see the techniques that are being delivered.”
In conjunction, Sarah Kaufman remembers that things were surprisingly different before the Carano-era in women’s MMA.
“When I started fighting – maybe because there wasn't much television exposure and we were fighting in such small promotions – they didn’t care about what you looked like, they just want to see a great fight,” explains Kaufman. “And as the TV deals, and the UFC and Strikeforce and EliteXC, came in there was a question of what's going to draw numbers.
“A female fight is going to draw numbers because it's different. But if they are attractive, the males who maybe don't want to watch two girls fight – because they've never seen it and they think it's barbaric and they have the old school views on it – maybe they'll watch it. So since then, I think the sport definitely went more towards entertainment than athleticism and skill.”
“I understand why promotions wanted to do that,” says Tate of those early days of women’s MMA. “They thought they would grab the most attention and put women’s MMA on the map, but we are here now. We’ve arrived, let’s branch out a little bit, let’s try something other than that cliché hot girl versus hot girl. Let’s see what else we can do with these women, because they do clearly have more value than just their looks.”
In the interim, between Carano’s departure from the sport and Ronda Rousey’s arrival (which ushered in the next major breakthrough in women’s MMA), Sarah Kaufman won the Strikeforce bantamweight title, beating Miesha Tate and Shayna Baszler along the way to the belt.
As a champion in the Scott Coker promotion, she remembers how it felt to see the male gaze come into effect right before her eyes.
“There were many incidents where I was told to my face, or in the media environment, that I didn’t ‘fit the mold’ for what was marketable at that time,” says Kaufman. One incident she remembers very well occurred during the build-up for her title defense against Marloes Coenen at Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Noons II in October, 2010.
“She got announced as, ‘We have this beautiful female, she could be a model, she's amazing, she's a great fighter, but she's also so beautiful. And then we have our champion Sarah Kaufman.’ It was one of the funniest moments. I honestly didn't take offense to it, because it was so blatant.”
Kaufman would go on to lose to Coenen, but worked herself back into title contention just two years later, with Miesha Tate reigning as champion. Media stories circulating in late 2012 and early 2013 debated whether it should be Kaufman (and her 14-1 record) to challenge Tate, or a new kid on the block; one who was 4-0, with all wins coming by armbar. In the end, Ronda Rousey got the shot, and Julie Kedzie thinks the male gaze is part of the reason why, as evidenced by Rousey’s own words.
“[Rousey] had a press conference when she was challenging Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce belt and she herself said, ‘Well, people want to see two pretty girls fighting, not you versus Kaufman,’” claims Kedzie. “Kaufman is a really good friend of mine. I didn't take that well because Kaufman is a beautiful person and a very good fighter. Ronda Rousey is and always will be a founding force for women being in the UFC, if not the direct cause, but that was said. And it made me so sad. First of all, it's sad that my other friend is not beautiful enough for a title shot, which is just f***ing weird. And it also implies that's what people are looking for; that's what entertainment is. Pretty people fighting, and that's just not the case.”
At the same time, Miesha Tate also found herself at odds with some of the things Rousey was saying. The pair often sparred verbally at shared media events, and the issue of the fighters’ looks being valued more than their talents was one of the topics.
“I don’t care why people are watching my fights, you know? I look at YouTube comments, some people only watch the fights because it’s the only time they can see women’s bare feet. I just care that there’s ratings,” said Rousey during one junket.
In response, Tate stated, “I think the initial draw, and the reason why we are getting so much attention, is because we do carry ourselves as feminine and womanly outside the cage. Yet when we get in there, my goal is to have us be respected more as athletes and fighters than [for] our looks.”
“Our job is to perform in the cage and show that it’s not about just the looks. And I hope that from now on, and once people see this fight – for whatever initial reason they were watching – that they would say, ‘You know what, I was entertained. Good looking or not good looking, these women are fantastic and I would watch any women’s fight in the future.”
Rousey would beat Tate for the title and soon afterward open the door for women to compete in the UFC. There Kedzie, Kaufman, and others believe they experienced a more even playing field than before, when it came to career opportunities being meted out based on athletic prowess. But, not by much.