|Because fighting sure looks different than this|
Last night, one of my fighters asked me if I had ever considered teaching a women's self-defense course. This ignited a discussion about the obvious differences between fighting and self-defense, but also opened a dialogue about how female fighters are delineated by historical and social preoccupations with the female body.
I remembered a paper I wrote several years ago, while a mere undergraduate at F.S.U. about female fighters and and the prerogatives of some media outlets to represent women who train and compete in combat sports as doing so primarily to prevent themselves from being raped.
It should go without saying (but this is the internet and some subjects can be volatile) that I believe self-defense is important for many women. But training to fight is enormously different than training for self-defense.
Excerpt from a larger paper on the 3rd wave feminism and the subjectivity of the female body
As a practitioner of martial arts, an amateur grappler and MMA fighter, I have felt the repercussions of a gendered discourse of fighting. In an interview with the FSView, Florida State University’s student newspaper, I revealed that I was training submission wrestling and kickboxing for an upcoming competition. However, this was ignored by the paper and I was construed merely as a small girl who trained primarily with her fiancé in order to learn to protect herself. After the paper interviewed several of the men at my gym, I was interviewed solely so I could comment on the importance of women’s self-defense, which I did not and do not practice. For the FSView, a woman training martial arts in order to compete was incongruent with the idea that women should only be aggressive to protect themselves from rape. Thus, I decided to write this paper because I am slightly pissed about the way that I am defined by certain individuals/the FSView as both a woman and a fighter.
The women’s self-defense movement is concerned with protecting women’s bodies from physical harm and has become increasingly popular over the past twenty years or so. The connection between feminism and the self-defense movement stems from feminist goals of freedom for women from oppression and objectification of the body. In “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment," Martha McCaughey states, “In feminist discourse, the body is often construed as the object of patriarchal violence (actual or symbolic), and violence has been construed variously as oppressive, diminishing, inappropriate, and masculinist” (1998, 277). Many feminists find that self-defense is the physical practice of a philosophical and ethical prerogative to protect women from violence and harm. McCaughey states that self-defense is more than “a set of fighting tactics. Self-defense transforms what it means to have a female body” (1998, 279). She defines the female body as one that is considered passive and thus, under attack by men who are gendered aggressive.
McCaughey claims that gendered perceptions of men as aggressive make it seem inevitable for men to be violent and that their sexual assault of women is a biological consequence of aggressiveness. She believes that self-defense is important because it alters the ways that women are seen as victims and makes them active in defending themselves. The language that McCaughey and other self-defense advocates discuss the training of women in self-defense classes is based on the sex/gender system. Women are gendered to be passive; self-defense courses train them to be aggressive. McCaughey claims, “when women train to fight back, they defy gender norms. It’s manly, but not womanly, to protect and fight” (1997, 7). This assertion rests on the belief that women should train to fight back against male aggression, but makes no concessions for the profession fighter. .
While self-defense courses claim to disrupt rape culture; they are still predicated on the idea that women must fight to protect themselves from men. This supposes, however, that a woman who does train to fight must be training to prevent their own rape. By claiming that women should train to protect themselves, it makes it difficult for women (not necessarily professionals) to train martial arts and not be considered a ‘self-defenser’. When people discover that you train a martial art and/or fight competitively, many women, myself included, have been asked if we can beat up any guy who messes with us. This, however, has nothing to do with competing or even training for a fighter. What this question does is set up a situation where a woman should be able to fight any man with her knowledge…otherwise what is the point? Butler would claim that these questions are an attempt of an oppressive patriachical discourse to not allow for women to resignify what it means to have a woman’s body. By not allowing women to train a martial art without it being for self-defense purposes, there can be no changes in language, no resignification can occur.
While I certainly believe that self-defense is a great tool for everyday women and can thus, be a part of a resignify practice of culture meaning, any type of movement from women can also be used by patriarchy to control them. Fighters have been able to redefine the meaning of their feminine body’s through everyday negotiations. However, hegemony will not allow for all women in involve themselves in these resignifications. Judith Butler would also not allow for a large culture movement, but she does give women the ability to remain fluid within discourse through repetitions and reiterations. In her book, What is a Woman, Toril Moi argues that it is their body’s situation that allows for women to create new meanings and relationships with their material body. Moi claims, “Just as the world constantly makes me, I constantly make myself the woman I am” (74). Her view of change allows for a more transcendental subject who can achieve freedom from the idealized feminine body.
McCaughey, Martha. Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-
Defense. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
McCaughey, Martha. “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the
Discourse of Sexed Embodiment”. Gender and Society 12.3 (1998): 277-300.
JSTOR. 14 April 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0891-2432%28
Moi, Toril. What is a Woman? Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York, 1999.
Thanks to Slidey for reposting this article at Reddit, where an interesting dialogue has begun regarding the difference between training and self-defense.
I just want to reiterate that I am by no means opposed to anyone, male or female, learning and training techniques for self-protection. I've trained Kali for many years and think that is one of the best methodologies for learning both defensive and offensive strategies for self-preservation. My issue, as Slidey and several others pointed out, is the insistence on gendering fighting as male. A client at the gym told me last night (he's a police officer), that most reports on people who encountered and escaped an attack are described as men "fighting off" attackers while women "survive an attack." An interesting lexical distinction.