This is the second part of a five part series on how the male gaze impacts the sport of women’s MMA. For a primer on the male gaze, as well as the perspective of fighters who competed in WMMA prior to UFC involvement, check out part one: Genesis, Gina and getting past Dana.
“I don’t think anyone in the UFC said, ‘You need to look better’,” says Sarah Kaufman when thinking of the changes she experienced going from EliteXC and Strikeforce to the UFC. She was among the first signings by ZUFFA when they opened their doors to female fighters in 2013; starting with Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche.
“So maybe there is a little bit more professionalism on that side of things in the UFC, but it's also very clear how a lot of the matchmaking and marketing favours girls who are known for doing themselves up a little more.”
“Before women fought in the UFC, the representation of women in the UFC was them wearing bikinis and holding numbers,” says Julie Kedzie. “So there’s already been this direction there towards women having to represent something sexualized. That's a long standing tradition in combat sports.”
Kedzie thinks the UFC may have evolved somewhat, in regards to promoting women less like sex objects. However, she is concerned by some things she finds online that focus so heavily on female fighters’ looks. And while she recognizes that a lot of this is coming from fans, it’s left her wondering whether or not this is the kind of interest the UFC and other promoters are hoping to garner.
“I was on a reddit forum one time, when Paige VanZant and Michelle Waterson were going to fight,” recalls Kedzie. “Both extremely beautiful women in their own way and tremendous athletes and fighters. And I saw people talking on there about how Michelle would never get the promotional push that Paige would get, because she's thirty now and she's has a kid and a husband. So she's not viable, she's not marketable. I was like, what the... what is that logic?!”
“It's putting horrible pressure on people like Paige and Michelle, who look the way they look. They have beautiful faces, but they have also chosen a career that is not based on those faces. It's based on their ability to absolutely kick ass.”
Even fighters who have comfortably promoted themselves along more traditionally feminine lines, have found themselves battling to fit marketing stereotypes. There's no better example of that pressure, than Felice Herrig's notable press conference after UFC Fight Night: Chiesa vs. Lee in June, where she spoke about her feelings of un-marketability as she's gotten older in the sport.
“Honestly, if you want to know the truth, sometimes I feel like I’m not young and beautiful enough for the UFC to want to promote me,” said the veteran of Invicta and The Ultimate Fighter as she held back tears.
Lauren Murphy came into the UFC in 2014, off the back of an undefeated streak in Invicta and the regional circuit. Having not experienced EliteXC or Strikeforce, Murphy has been taken aback by how much her looks were scrutinized once she made it to the biggest MMA promotion on the planet.
“Outside the UFC I won all my fights. I had some really good fights, I had fights I was really proud of. And to me, that was just a direct result of my hard work. My looks had nothing to do with it. And because it was on a smaller stage, the way that I looked was never brought up,” says Murphy.
“Once I started fighting on TV, people were talking about it more. And not that I'm uber-famous or anything, but anytime there are fights on TV, people on reddit or on The Underground, and all these forums, are going to be talking about the fights.
“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 reached the UFC in 2017. She recognizes that looks play a big role in women’s MMA, but she sees it as a positive - especially given the other disadvantages women may have in the sport.
“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!”
Angela Hill, who spent much of her fighting career in Muay Thai, made it to the UFC in 2014 through the The Ultimate Fighter. She noticed almost immediately how important looks might be to her success in the promotion.
“When they released the promo for TUF, they put us all in make-up, dressed us all up to the nines and stuff, but the whole thing was based around strength and beauty,” says Hill. “So every time they showed certain girls it would it say strength, and then they'd show other girls and it would say beauty. And so, I ended up in the strength category.”
Hill laughs about the idea, before drilling down into what she thinks is motivating the UFC’s interest in promoting the ‘beautiful’ looks of some of her cast-mates, alongside others who have found a lot of success in the UFC.
“I think it's not so much the male gaze as it is marketability,” reasons Hill. “But the male gaze is a huge part of what people think marketing is or what people think will market well. A huge part of this is also; who is not going to offend anyone, and who is going to be someone fans can relate to.”
“And there aren't that many risks being taken,” continues Hill. “So a lot of times you'll have someone getting pushed who fits a stereotype: ‘American Sweetheart’ or ‘The Girl Next Door.’ Whereas when you have someone who is more athletic or a little more masculine, they don't really push them as hard as someone who is pretty or someone who is easy on the eye.
“I also think a lot of what MMA is marketing to is pro wrestling fans; people who are used to seeing huge tits and long hair. These are the fans that MMA expects to crossover. So if you don't have that look about you, a lot of time it might be harder to get the same type of recognition than someone who does.”
Miesha Tate agrees, conventionally attractive people are going to be better able to sell products, including the UFC. And she admits that she was a part of this during her very successful run in the company between 2013 and 2016.
“I’m not saying that I’m anymore attractive than anyone else, so please don’t get that twisted,” she says. “But I do play more into my feminine side and I am comfortable doing that. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and there’s also nothing wrong with being the other way, being a tomboy.”
Tate says it felt natural for her to have her feminine side play a role in her marketing in the UFC. “It didn’t feel like I was doing something out of character for myself, it wasn’t like I was uncomfortable or it was my first time wearing heels.”
She also states that she thinks the UFC does a good job in marketing their female athletes in a way that doesn’t make them uncomfortable. “The girls who want to be more natural, they cater to that. And maybe they’ll just do a light chap-stick and then something to even out their skin tone in photo shoots, which I think all the girls are fine with.”
Though she believes individual fighters are marketed fairly, the former UFC champion also feels that it’s fairly obvious, as a whole, fighters who are more comfortable being marketed for their looks and femininity are likely to receive more and better opportunities.
“I admire Rose Namajunas for shaving her head,” says Tate when thinking of active fighters who possess interesting and potentially challenging attributes for a promoter. “I think it’s really cool, it’s bold, it’s something I wouldn’t dare to do. I’d be too insecure, but I think she’s a total bad-ass for doing that.”
“She doesn’t care what people think, I like that. I like the attitude that she brings, I like what she represents. But, do I think it’s going to affect her marketability? And her push that she gets in the media, that she gets with the organization? Yeah, I do. I mean, she’s an example of someone who fights great and she’s obviously a beautiful woman, but when you take something that’s considered a feminine attribute, and it’s gone? It’s like the marketability of this person changes.”
One UFC fighter whose marketability shows no signs of slowing down – according to many of the individuals interviewed – is Paige VanZant.
While Tate is confident that any female fighter can receive a big promotional push from the UFC if they win fights and win over the audience with their personality, she readily admits that things are going to be easier for a fighter like VanZant.
“If the pretty girl is doing well she’s going to get that push,” admits Tate. “I really still think that that’s true. And I think Paige VanZant is a great example of that. You know, she’s an absolutely gorgeous woman and she can fight too. She’s very tenacious, she’s got a big heart for the sport and she’s very fun to watch fight, but it’s clear she’s gotten great pushes from the UFC.”
“She got so many opportunities and so many pushes,” echoes Julie Kedzie regarding VanZant. “Her UFC debut was fantastic, she's a tough cookie and she fights really well, but she has that ‘it factor’... When people say ‘it factor’, they mean ‘beautiful women who can fight’, that's what the ‘it factor’ is, right? It's not like those girls are pushed as being incredibly tough and they happen to be beautiful. The beautiful part comes first, and then that they can fight. That's the mentality that sucks.”
Angela Hill believes VanZant received her big promotional push even before she began fighting in the UFC. “Then she started fighting and she was good sometimes, bad sometimes, but that didn't affect her push at all.”
After Hill was cut from the UFC in 2015, it was hard for her not to notice the stark contrast between her career trajectory and Paige VanZant’s, especially due to similarities in their young MMA records.
“For a while I think I was 2-2 and she was 3-2, and we had both lost to the same two people, Rose and Tecia [Torres]. But when I got cut I was like, ‘Wait a second; I didn't lose to horrible people. I lost to the same people that this girl lost to. But she's pretty comfortable, she's not worried about her job at all with the UFC.’ It just kind of made me upset, but it wasn't unexpected.”
Despite Hill’s feelings that VanZant may have an unfair advantage when it comes to securing her spot with the promotion, the former Invicta strawweight champion refuses to criticize VanZant for maximizing her opportunity. Most everyone interviewed shared a belief that if a fighter is comfortable with playing up their attractiveness or sexuality, they’re entitled to do so.
“I think it's a good way in!” enthuses Hill. “I've never been opposed to that idea. And I don't do it myself, just because I feel like I should focus more on things that I'm interested in and things that I feel like show my personality a little better.”
Lauren Murphy shares similar sentiments, to a degree. “I don't think it's a bad thing, I just don't think it's something that I'm into and I don't think that it's applicable to fighting.”
“I don't know why it's involved in MMA,” continues Murphy. “I got into MMA because I like to fight and that's what I'm here to do. I'm not here to impress you with how I look. That's not what I signed up for. I'm here to have a f***ing fight. So if you want to see fighters, then watch MMA. If you want to see models, then go get a Victoria Secret's catalogue.”
“I hesitate to criticize any female athlete for the way they market themselves, because if she's doing it on her own volition then great, good for her,” shares Kedzie, when asked about fighters choosing to use their looks to promote themselves. What Kedzie does have a problem with, though, are the expectations that this kind of promotion can create.
“If a fighter is comfortable in how she promotes herself – be it physically or sexually, based on her body – that’s not a bad thing. But other female fighters should not have to feel that they have to do that as well. There should not be any pressure for them to promote themselves sexually.”