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The Male Gaze and Women’s MMA pt. 5: Doing something about it

The fifth and final in a series of articles where Bloody Elbow explores how the male gaze impacts the world of women’s MMA; featuring interviews with Miesha Tate, Cris Cyborg, Julie Kedzie, and more.

This is the final piece in Bloody Elbow’s special five-part series on the Male Gaze in Women’s MMA. If you haven’t already, check out parts one (on the early days of WMMA), two (regarding former and active UFC fighters), and three (practices at Invicta) and four (about matchmaking and the added pressure female fighters are under).

There's little doubt that the male gaze exists and that it has an impact on women's MMA. However, there is a diversity of opinions when it comes to whether or not this is information that the MMA audience – which is primarily male – will find valuable.

Some of the respondents here admit they feel pessimistic – given what they have seen in their careers – that fans don’t care about these issues and there isn’t meaningful change on the horizon.

“It doesn’t matter to the general consumer,” sighs Sarah Kaufman. “If they want to have a feminist view or if they want total equality, or they want to have fighters get paid more; awesome. But they're still going to watch the fights if fighters aren’t getting paid more or nothing else changes.”

Miesha Tate is also unsure if talking about the male gaze has value to MMA fans. “Some people are just naturally going to want to watch what they want to watch and who’s to say, ‘Oh you’re wrong for that?’ Some people, like myself, love watching grapplers and people do technical things on the ground. But another person is like, ‘I have no idea what is going on and I only like to watch people standing up.’ And we can sit there and argue and say that’s not what MMA is, but that’s what they like to watch. And I can’t argue that. It’s opinion. They have the right to want to watch what they want to watch.”

Tate adds that she thinks it would be “awesome” if fans did decide to look beyond fighter appearance and think more deeply about why certain fighters miss out on certain opportunities.

Though she’s unsure of how much impact this discussion can have, Lauren Murphy says she thinks it is, “really important to have an open conversation about this stuff and at least be honest about what's going on.”

Julie Kedzie believes this is something fans, should care about, especially if they want to get the most out of their sport. “You should care if you want fighters to fight and if you want this product to be viable in a changing world,” she says.

Chris Hyde / Getty Images

“And if you can pay tribute to combat sports through the eyes of actually watching fighters as fighters, you're going to make the sport better.

“When you see people as fighters first, and you put that emphasis on sexualization on the back-burner, then you're not going to be surprised to see good fights. You're actually going to enjoy the experience of the fight the way it's meant to be, with professional athletes – male or female – who just work their assess off to give you a piece of art on a canvas. Granted it's bloody art, but it's great.”

Angela Hill echoes a similar sentiment. “It's important information because when people say that women's MMA is s**t, they are probably looking at fights that are put together because the two girls were kind of cute.”

“It devalues the sport, especially the women's side of it,” continues Hill. “It makes us look bad, it takes eyes away from the sport. Everyone who came in for Paige VanZant's fight, from Dancing with the Stars, and then got upset because she got choked out is never going to watch MMA again.”

“It's kinda like one of those things where, if you care about MMA and you care about quality fights and you care about the longevity of the sport, you would at least accept that, yes, those people are going to get the edge over others. And they may not be the best athlete, but it's a reality that you have to understand. And you can move on after that. You don't have to dwell on it too long, just know that in your head.”

Invicta’s Christine Ferea thinks fans should care about how looks affect women’s MMA, simply because it is a phenomena that is robbing fighters of opportunities to test themselves at the highest level, as well as robbing fans of great fights. For her argument she uses both Cris Cyborg and Tonya Evinger, both of whom have come to the UFC in the later stages of their careers.

“Those women are beasts. They are tough fighters, and they lost a lot of years,” says Ferea. “They lost a lot of prime years because of bulls**t politics. And you can never get that back. Tonya can never get that time back, Cyborg can never get that back, when they were in their top mental and physical shape. It's messed up.”

Individual interviewees in this article say that the male gaze affects the marketing, promotion, and match-making in MMA to a degree that the best fights aren’t being made and that athletes suffer missed opportunities. Some have emphasized the great deal of pressure for fighters to be someone they are not, as well as stress over the fear that their best efforts won’t be enough to help them achieve their goals (or decent earnings) in a sport they love.

They admit that the added stress might have affected performances or even their desire to remain in the sport.

This small sample group were asked whether big promotions like the UFC or Bellator had a responsibility to eliminate some of the issues discussed so far. And they were near unanimous in saying that promotions did not bear any responsibility to change what they are doing, as these organizations are independent companies who can act as they please. Though, many added that they would love to see promotions choose to act in a way that treats female fighters like male fighters, who succeed based on what they do and not who they are.

Shannon Knapp says her own promotion, Invicta FC, “absolutely” has a responsibility to give fighters the best opportunities based on their performances.

“As Invicita, and as females, we just have to continue to fight the good fight. Because, we can't tell people how they have to react or how they should run their businesses. They're not going to listen to us. We just have to keep standing strong and show that there's more to women’s MMA than pretty faces. There's depth, there's talent, and that deserves recognition.”

Regarding other promotions, Knapp says, “You can't tell them what they need to be doing or should be doing. But I think companies have a responsibility to put on great fights. That's the commitment they’ve made.”

Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

“At the end of the day promotions are going to do whatever makes them money, right?” asks Julie Kedzie. “And if sexualizing female fighters is what's making them money, and the women are on board with it, who am I to say they can't do that? But, I do I feel like they have a responsibility to listen to their female fighters and see what their perspective is on how they're marketed.

“I consider myself to be a feminist, but I am a feminist in a sense that I think women get to decide what they want from themselves. So I think promoters have a huge responsibility in listening to their athletes and how they want to be portrayed, and not put undue pressure on female fighters to feel like they need to wear a bunch of make-up. If she doesn't want to be portrayed a certain way, they should listen to that, and they should definitely show the respect to that athlete. They have a responsibility to push athletes as athletes first.”

If promotions were to move away from promoting their most conventionally attractive female athletes over others – or at least reduce the amount of marketing effort put into highlighting that attractiveness – a number of the interviewees have suggestions for how they might go about it.

“They can make anyone look good if they concentrate on the way they are punching and kicking,” supposes Julie Kedzie. “But if they're concentrating on the way that person is wearing a dress, then they are missing the point of what fighting is supposed to be, they're missing the point of combat.”

Miesha Tate thinks the UFC has already shown an ability to market women based on the way they fight. She points to the inaugural UFC women’s featherweight fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie, at UFC 208 in February, as her example.

“I really admire the way the UFC promoted that fight in the lead-up,” she says. “I know the fight itself was pretty lackluster, but if you look at the marketing, they really marketed the girls as the two best pound-for-pound strikers who walk the face of the planet. That’s what I took away from that marketing. So obviously it can be done.

“I just think it takes more creativity and it takes a little more brainstorming, because you have to find – instead of going with the cliché – you have to really look more into it and find what is so interesting about these girls. And every female fighter has a great story, I really believe that.”

Sarah Kaufman thinks Tonya Evinger is a great candidate for a non-conventional UFC promotional push like Tate describes.

“She has never pushed her looks. She has a farmer's build, she doesn't go tanning, she doesn't care what her hair looks like. She’ll say whatever, but she means what she says. Hopefully she will start to get more attention, because she has personality and charisma – like a Diaz brother. And I'd like to see [UFC marketing] go more in that direction, where you don't have to be that blonde hair, big boobs, American sweetheart type who gets the fight.”

Asked how she would change things, Cris Justino called for independent rankings, saying that would be the, “only way the sport will remain legitimate.”

“Girls who are 0-3 fighting the number-ten ranked fighter for a belt in a weight class above their regular division is more spectacle than sport,” she adds. “Rankings need to matter. The sport won't survive on the cute girl gimmick but will thrive if the skill in the cage is what's promoted.”

Prof. Whiteside has some ideas on lessening the affect of the male gaze on women’s sports as a whole. “I think there are a couple actions we can take to help us see more diversity when it comes to portraying women in sports,” she says.

“First, more women in sports media would help raise these issues among editorial and creative teams. Of course, men who are conscious of these issues could also call for change, but it is often women who have historically raised issues like this in the media.

“More diversity in women's sports coverage may also help. In the Olympics, for instance, it is common to see figure skating and beach volleyball. While these are legitimate sports, they do reflect what we call 'normative femininity,' or the notion that the athletes are acting in accordance with their gender. Neither of those sports feature contact, for instance, and the uniforms do not cover much of the body. The bodies that excel in those sports are petite and lean, which is also a body type that is often reflected in typical male gaze depictions. Watching women in those sports does not generally create discomfort, because they are still operating within expected gender norms.

“Women's weightlifting, or rugby for instance, are two examples of sports that feature bodies that are often understood as more masculine. Weightlifters and rugby players are more bulky and muscular, for instance. Rugby is a contact sport, while weightlifting features sheer strength. In sum, those sports require displays of masculinity that can be understood by a viewing public as a violation of gender norms. If we saw more women engaged in sports that appear to violate gender norms, we may begin to draw new understandings of gender and sports that may ultimately be liberating for women.”

In short more people watching and appreciating sports like women’s MMA may help the advancement of women in sport and society as a whole.

Tate would love to see that happen and she thinks MMA is in a great position to represent what women can do to a public that is trending towards gender equality.

Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

“I think when you have a sport like fighting, I think that’s a great opportunity to be ahead of the curve,” she says.

“I would like to see the organizations try to embrace the strength of women, before beauty, because fighting is such a great representation of how strong women can be.

“Women are strong, and we see strong women in society. We just saw a woman run for president, but when you literally fight for a living, it’s a physical mental and emotional display of the most raw form of strength. I think women’s fighting has inspired women all around the world to be strong in their character and I would like to see the fighting organizations say, ‘Hey, a huge part of our success is how bad ass and strong these women are, let’s push that and help break down some barriers.’”

To read the rest of this series, check out ‘The Male Gaze and Women’s MMA’ story stream. You can subscribe to that stream’s RSS feed to be notified of updates - such as bonus content related to the series.

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