This is part three in a special series of articles about how the Male Gaze has affected female MMA throughout the various ages of the sport. If you haven’t already, please check out part one (concerning pre-UFC female MMA) and part two (focusing on the experience of fighters within the UFC).
Christine Ferea, who fights in Invicta Fighting Championships, has no desire to market herself as a sex object, especially not for the male gaze. After a successful Muay Thai career, Ferea debuted in Invicta in 2017 with a TKO over Rachael Ostovich.
“Between men and women, I do believe on the women's side it's more about sex appeal,” says Ferea, when asked to consider the different challenges faced by men and women to get noticed in MMA.
“Now favoritism, I think goes with any promotion, whether we’re talking about males or females. If they have someone who brings in a lot of money, they are going to go with that guy or a girl. But for strictly women, if you're not a hot chick, if you're not a feminine girl – that a whole bunch of guys like – then you're not going to get much attention or love, even in gyms.”
Ferea is the only interviewee who says that the impact of the male gaze in women’s MMA stretches all the way into the gym. She claims she has experienced this up close, multiple times.
“Me being a gay tomboy looking girl, I've had a lot of problems trying to get attention and get in work from coaches,” says Ferea.
“They don't really want to work with me. I have to jump through four billion hoops to get there. I feel like these other girls will have different ways to get what they want. I can't go and flirt with some dude and get some love from a coach. So when it comes to not being treated equally, I've had it happen to me multiple times.”
“It's a touchy subject,” continues Ferea. “I don't want to say pretty girls are just where they're at because they're hot. A lot of these girls have a lot of skills, but when it comes to getting love and not being that pretty girl, you really see a different side to this whole fight game.”
Fortunately for Ferea, she feels she currently competes in an organization that does treat her as an equal, regardless of how a male audience may respond to her.
“I know that Shannon Knapp and the Invicta matchmakers aren't going to take away my opportunity because of how I look. It's going to be my fault. It's going to be because I lost, not because I'm not attractive.”
Ferea says that knowing this has allowed her to feel “extremely free” with how she presents herself, and “not scared to be a certain way, or pressured to put on make-up.” She doesn’t have to worry about saying or doing anything that does not come natural to her and, as a result, has found it hard to want to fight anywhere else.
After working as an executive for the UFC, Strikeforce, and Afflication Shannon Knapp founded Invicta FC in 2012. Since opening their doors, the promotion has put on 25 shows – the most recent of which stream exclusively on UFC Fight Pass.
Knapp says she didn’t start Invicta because she thought the MMA industry was necessarily unfair to women, but instead that there were just not enough opportunities for women to fight. Though, she does recognize there is a bias in the industry towards fighters who are more at home in glossy magazines.
“It's sad when promotions take part in it,” says Knapp about the practice of giving out opportunities based on looks. “I've heard some things from different athletes, it's not a great landscape out there at the moment with some of the organizations.”
“At Invicta we try to never do that,” continues Knapp. “If you happen to get someone who is incredibly talented and they look good to the public, it's an added bonus. But it's not what we go out there to sign. You won't catch our attention over here if you look pretty, that doesn't do it for us.”
Knapp also believes looking pretty, but not fighting well is something that won’t win over Invicta’s fans; who she considers ‘hardcore’ fans of the sport.
“The hardcore are always going to come back for great fights, that's what it's always going to be about for them,” she explains. “I think the eye candy thing, I think perverts would keep coming back, but not fight fans.”
When it comes to marketing fighters, Knapp calls her approach ‘organic’, though she admits it might require a little more effort than some promotions are willing to put in.
“I think there is something attractive about everyone,” says Knapp. “I think that maybe sometimes you have to look a little harder, but there is something attractive about everyone. And it's our job to find that one thing that will help the public connect with that athlete and to shine a light on it.
“You have to get a little creative, but there's always ways to do it. There’s always a story. You don't have to make it up and you don't have to push fighters into boxes so they sell. You just have to give them a platform and let their personalities come through.”
Christine Ferea doesn’t see a similar kind of approach coming out of big, co-ed promotions like the UFC or Bellator. “They wouldn’t know what to do with me,” she remarks.
When asked how she thinks she could be marketed, Ferea instantly knows the story that is most authentic to her.
“For me, my story is about my background; where I come from. It’s a tough background with a lot of struggle. For me to be where I'm at right now is crazy. For me to turn my life around, to become an athlete, to be 110% dedicated to what I do, it’s been really tough. I started from the bottom, literally, and I’ve worked my way up with some help, but not much. To market me just like, to say that anybody can make it if they try, no matter where you come from, what your sexual orientation is, or how poor you are, that’s how you can market me.”
Ferea is one of many gay athletes who are out in mixed martial arts. UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is part of a handful of top ranked women in the UFC who do not hide the fact they are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Ferea believes the UFC – and other large promotions – do a poor job of marketing women who do not look like a fitness model, but that they do an especially poor job of marketing gay fighters. Much to their own detriment.
“I see that old school mentality,” says Ferea, when discussing what she believes is the UFC’s attitude toward her community. “You need to get people in there who understands the world now. I feel like old dudes are in there running things, because I've seen a lot of change being gay in society. Everything's more open. I'm not getting judged as much, not as many people hate me as they did ten years ago. It's a lot different. I just think some of the guys who are running MMA are still thinking old school.”
Ferea believes that actively promoting gay fighters like Amanda Nunes and Jessica Andrade to the LGBTQ+ community would not only be a good PR move, but it could bring in tens of thousands of new fans to the sport. It could also, she says, help develop more athletes for the future.
Just as Ferea believes the male gaze discussion must include discussion of how LGBTQ+ women are represented in MMA, so does Angela Hill believe the discussion should include how women of color – specifically African-American women – are marketed within MMA, and the especially UFC.
“I think there's definitely a blind-spot with the black athletes,” says Hill. “Because the UFC have definitely reached out when it comes to marketing Hispanic and Mexican fighters. They had a bright idea there, but not when it comes to marketing the sport to African Americans, which I think is a huge demographic because black people love love watching fights and they love boxing.”
“My parents were watching Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, so I feel like it's a huge untapped market that the UFC and any other MMA organizations could exploit. People always say, ‘Well you have this person who is champ, you can't say that the UFC doesn't value its black fighters,’ and that's not really what I'm saying. It's really seeing that there's a demand for it in the black community, that they could reach out to and invest in and get their money back really easily.”
Hill – the first African American woman to compete in the UFC – thinks the promotional blind-spot is even larger when it comes to black women. She also believes problems encountered due to the male gaze are amplified around black female athletes.
“There are all these stereotypes,” offers Hill. “Like, ‘Oh, these black athletes are 'explosive' 'strong' and 'naturally athletic,’ ‘We don't know how it happened! It just magically happened!’ But then when they try and market females, you see a lot of times they try and say the opposite. ‘Oh I never would have expected that she was a fighter because she's so feminine,’ and these stereotypes clash.”
Hill believes the UFC might be adverse to promoting black women because of this clash of stereotypes; since the company is so used to marketing women as hyper-feminine and black athletes as hyper-masculine. And that this situation may even be why black ring card girls are so rare in the promotion.
“So I really wish that MMA would jump on [the African-American market] because I feel like my fan base could grow,” adds Hill, who believes MMA is behind the curve when it comes to promoting people of color compared to film and television. “I feel like it would inspire a lot more people to start training, especially black women. And I think it would be better for everyone to just feel included in this sport.”