This is the penultimate piece in a special five-part series on how the male gaze has affected women’s MMA. If you haven’t already, please check out parts one (on the early days of WMMA), two (regarding former and active UFC fighters), and three (practices at Invicta and issues regarding inclusion).
Marketing and promotion of women in organizations like the UFC is skewed towards highlighting the attractiveness of certain athletes. And it's the unanimous opinion of the women interviewed for this series, that looking a certain way can help affect a fighter’s popularity and opportunities they might receive outside of the cage. But does the male gaze impact matchmaking in as much as it does marketing?
Sarah Kaufman certainly thinks so, “In the UFC you see who gets the fights that are on the pay-per-view or on the main card, they are generally the ones who have the appearance side of things to push or who have done some modeling.”
Kaufman fought only four times for the UFC in three years, despite making it clear that she was available to fight more regularly, and offering to fill in late-notice on multiple occasions.
Alongside being more likely to be booked, Kaufman also suggests that fighters who fit the UFC’s desired look are less likely to get cut from the promotion after a narrow loss. “If you don't market that ‘sexy side’ of yourself and you fight hard and don't win, you might not get that same opportunity.”
Lauren Murphy agrees, “I think it's pretty clear, if you look at some of the superstars in the UFC – who have the face or the body type or whatever it is that the male audience want to see – they are clearly given more favorable match-ups in the hopes they will be successful.” Murphy also believes fighters with a certain look will get better placement on a fight card, noting the time Paige VanZant headlined over Urijah Faber at UFC on FOX 22 last December.
Despite this, Murphy says there are still ways for women to get big matches without the UFC’s patented ‘promotional push’.
“If you win all your fights you're going to be successful no matter what you look like. But I don't think it's a mystery, and I don't even think that it's something that they are trying very hard to cover up, that the more attractive fighters get an easier path to the top.”
Julie Kedzie also believes the male gaze influences matchmaking at the UFC. She reasons that men are usually matched together because of how they fight, with high profile fights being awarded based on exciting performances and stoppages or even entertaining performances on the microphone. These are all things the male fighter does. He has considerable control over these actions and is able to take full responsibility over his success and failure in those areas. Whereas, she thinks when it comes to women and whether they get a high-profile match-up; things that aren’t necessarily in the fighter’s control – such as how they look – plays a far more significant role. A great example of this, agrees Kedzie, can be found when analyzing the careers of Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg Justino.
Despite a potential match-up between Ronda and Cyborg being a compelling fight on paper, the bout was never booked by the UFC. During Rousey’s career apex, news stories including her and/or Dana White making negative comments about Justino were commonplace. Some of those comments were directed at Justino’s appearance and some approached transphobia (despite Justino being a cisgender woman).
Kedzie wonders what might have been different had Justino fit the mold of female fighters the UFC is thought to favor. It doesn’t take long to arrive at a conclusion.
“If Cyborg looked like Paige VanZant, and she had that kind of persona, then fights with Ronda Rousey would have absolutely happened.
“So there's times when the reins are pulled back according to a fighter's looks, but now we see Cyborg – someone who has had some horrible and unwarranted things said about her in the past – become a UFC champion and things are happening for her. So hopefully that speaks of the evolution of the mentality towards her and other fighters who don’t fit into those narrow boxes of what is so-called beautiful.”
Many of the fighters whose voices are in this piece believe that the opportunities to fight in the biggest matches, earn the highest amounts, and receive the most recognition in the sport are closely tied to their appearances and not their actions or abilities. High level athletes living with that belief – that things they can’t control can prevent them getting what they deserve in the sport – find themselves with a fairly unified feeling: ‘It sucks.’
“Operating under the assumption that promoters want hot chicks fighting, it puts tremendous pressure on the fighter to sexualize herself and if that's something that she's comfortable with – great,” says Julie Kedzie. “But if it's not, that kind of pressure is horrible. And really, in a sport where your face gets split open and your nose gets busted, to have an additional pressure to look pretty is... that just sucks.”
“Well, to be honest it sucks,” agrees Lauren Murphy when asked how she feels about the uneven playing field she had described in women’s MMA. “When I first started fighting I had a coach that basically told me that, if you work hard, you will be successful.”
“There's a couple of women who I work out with,” continues Murphy, “and we've all had different experiences on the scale of how well we are treated. And I think it's very obvious that the way that we look affects that. That's going to be true in any career for any woman anywhere. In an office with four women and fifteen men the prettiest woman is going to get the better treatment and that's the way it is everywhere. One of the things that I liked about MMA was that I thought that this would be a place where that wouldn't be as prevalent. But it is.”
Sarah Kaufman admits the situation of the industry is never far from her thoughts. “I don't think you can put it out of your mind, because it's frustrating to see other people getting opportunities that you maybe have earned, or that you feel that you've earned. You're fighting your butt off, you're doing everything you can, you're pushing to get as many fights as you can, and they're always picking someone else to take the opportunities.”
Kaufman says these feelings can affect her focus and even affect her game-plan going into a fight. Even going as far as suggesting that, if you’re someone a promotion has seemingly not favored, you have to take less risks in a fight, knowing a loss (even in an exciting fight) could spell the end of your run there.
“I am always going to be aware of the fact that I'm going to have to work harder to be seen in the same light as someone who is doing the exact same thing as me, but has that ‘marketable look.’” says Angela Hill on the subject. “It's never going to be fully fair, at least when it comes to someone who is getting the media push and someone who is not.”
Prof. Whiteside of the University of Tennessee outlines another adverse effect female fighters live under due to the male gaze: the ‘delegitimization of their athletic prowess.’
“If we see a famous golfer depicted on the cover of a golfing magazine topless, for instance, (as was the case with Lexi Thompson on the cover of Golf Digest) we, the viewers, do not see her as an athlete, but as a sexualized object. These images deny the public the opportunity to imagine women as empowered, active subjects, but instead only as objects. Thus, it becomes easy to dismiss women as legitimate athletes, which happens quite frequently in sporting conversations.”
The focus on looks has also had an adverse affects on some female fighters in the form of abuse they have suffered online. Kedzie – who has received numerous rape threats – agrees the abuse is a symptom of the male entitlement that is rampant in society as a whole, not just limited to MMA fans.
Murphy expects those kinds of comments, from men. “What was new to me is the number of women that comment on my appearance. Like Jessica Eye. We were kind of talking shit to each other and the first thing that came out of her mouth was about my look, not about my record, not about the way that I fight, not about the things that I have or hadn't accomplished. The first thing she brought was the way that I looked. It was the same with Angela Magana and with Katlyn Chookagian. The women in the UFC have learned very quickly that the way that they look is going to determine how many chances they are given.”