Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tate vs Rousey: Representation and Sexualization of WMMA

Carano vs. Santos - SherDog
When Gina Carano transitioned from the face of WMMA to the protagonist of B-action movies, she left a void that promotors need to fill in order to continue the growth of the sport.  Cris "Cyborg" Santos should be the frontrunner of that category as the most deadly woman in the cage, yet she is featured more as a goliath than as the sexpot fighter Carano represented.  Perhaps it is her size, her ferocity or her drama-free atitude that promotors see as lack in Santos.  Carano was beautiful, Santos is...well, she's the Cyborg.

Meisha Tate - Strikeforce
Yesterday's debate between Strikeforce champion Meisha Tate and newbie Ronda Rousey was a discussion of representation more than a negotiation between fighters.  Tate felt that she should fight Sarah Kaufman next rather than give the upstart Rousey a chance.  Rousey audaciously argued that she deserved the chance not simply because of her impressive 4-0 record but because a fight against her would be more marketable than if Tate fought Kaufman again.

Tate's argument was simple: there is a hierarchy amongst female fighters and Rousey must submit. Rousey has yet to fight at 135lbs so why should she get a title shot before the many other women currently operating within that bracket. Rousey's response was also simple: she is more marketable than Kaufman because of the growing hype surrounding Rousey's skill...and her looks. Rousey explained in the MMA Hour interview
"Sarah Kaufman kind of gives boring interviews, she's not a supermodel and the way she fights, she doesn't finish matches in extraordinary fashion," she said. "It's just kind of being realistic. I'm sorry that I have to say things bluntly and offend some people. I just want there to be a highly marketable, exciting women's title fight, and I want to be part of that because I feel like I could do a really good job, and you could, too. I think the two of us could do a better job of that than you and Sarah Kaufman."  

Ronda Rousey - Joe Pic Photography
Rousey's comments, which have enraged many, reflect the realistic view that women's sports receive more recognition when promoting the good looks of the athletes.  Gina Carano was the face of women's MMA but most people commented on her beauty before detailing her skill as a fighter.  And Gina was certainly a good fighter but Cris 'Cyborg,' a phenomenal fighter, has never received that same attention that was given to the woman she famously beat.  Rousey argues that the sport must embrace the sexualization of the athletes and use the attention to promote WMMA.  Tate argued against this, yet Tate herself is no stranger to cheesecake portraiture.

But perhaps the difference for Tate, and many other female athletes, is that while the individual may choose to participate in sexy photography or other personal promotions, the sport itself should not be eroticized.  We need to grow the sport, but doing so through sexualizing the fighters may reduce WMMA to little more than the Lingerie Football League.


Juliet said...

I'd be lying if I claimed to know anything about WMMA, but I can relate to the idea of sexifying a sport. That is precisely why I am so adamantly against *most* women's reasoning behind picking figure or bikini over bodybuilding back when I was competing. The glitz detracts from the competition.

The Pugilista said...

Good point, Juliet. I've had several clients ask me to compete in a figure show, but I just can't bring myself to do it. However, I feel it is so important that women who do compete in events like that or take part in sexy photo shoots or even stripping should not be denigrated or 'slut-shamed' for choosing to do so. As individuals, women should be able to do what they want to do, but the sport should not be marketed based on eroticizing what happens in the cage.

Ashley said...

I literally just published a post about Ronda, and soon I plan on writing about the idea of sexualization and will most definitely be mentioning lingerie football!

This is weird, but do you mind adding a date to when your posts are published? As well as a Blog Archive tree? I like to browse people's blogs if I haven't been able to keep up with the Blog Roll on my own blog. Maybe you already have them but I'm just not seeing them?

The Pugilista said...

Thanks for checking out my blog, Ashley. I did add the dates back in; I had accidentally made them transparent.

I thought your post was very interesting. Perhaps it is the third-wave feminist in me, but I think we have to be careful judging women who choose to participate in what many feminist scholars would consider patriarchical endeavors, like wearing make-up or being a 'housewife.' Women have been acculturated to pick on each other when what we need to do is support the choices of other women, even if they are not in line with our own. Of course this becomes problematic when we have debates like the one between Rousey and Tate, which could be instrumental in how WMMA will be marketed in the future. As you can see, I am still working out my own thoughts, but I hope all of this will help increase the visibility of the sport and the incredible athletes, like Rousey and Santos, who drive the future of WMMA.

slideyfoot said...

On the one hand, it's disappointing that Rousey is willing to go the "looks sell fights" route, and feels like something of a betrayal.

On the other hand, I guess it is hard to fault somebody for doing what they have to in order to make a living. Hopefully if she keeps on impressively submitting all her opponents, people will begin to focus more on her skill than her appearance.

Timely post either way, as I recently got round to watching Pumping Iron II, which I've been trying to get hold of for years. Just as good as I'd hoped, particularly as the core of that docudrama was the question of 'femininity' in bodybuilding, highlighted by the entrance of powerlifter Bev Francis.

I guess she would have been the Cyborg of the female bodybuilding circuit back then, except that her obvious superiority in terms of muscular definition and size wasn't appreciated, because she wasn't 'feminine' enough in the eyes of the judges.

Anahi said...

This is an excellent piece. I agree with slideyfoot. While it strikes me as sort of crass for Rousey to blatantly refer to Kaufman's looks, I guess that is where we are as a society, and it's not like she is a bad fighter who has only looks.

Where is this all headed, though? Women in MMA MUST be good looking in order to succeed? Is it any different with other women's sports?

Steve said...

I can't say I blame Rousey for doing what she can to promote herself in a sport where self-promotion is often the difference between making a living and not. Women's boxing has been around for years and has still not managed to find its way into mainstream consciousness. They're looking at making the female boxers wear skirts for the Olympics, for Pete's sake.

The harsh reality is that Rousey's candid, blunt observations about her sport, coupled with her marketability and her skill, will create opportunities for ALL women. Cyborg is awesome. She's a force. But MMA is entertainment first. It's a spectator sport, and while the line will be difficult to find and even more difficult to maintain, it is and will always be about giving fans what they want to see.

I don't support sexing up the actual competition portion of the sport, but I can completely understand that attractive athletes (whether male or female) are marketable.

Pris Tharpe said...

The problem with this is that sports that are totally objective (like track, tennis, etc) have a definite and obvious winner, determined by time, ball points and the like, whereas fighting is determined subjectively by a referee. Unfortunately, the result is that "winners and losers" are determined by the referee and that in turn opens up the possibility that the referee is making his/her "subjective" call on something other than the skill.

The Pugilista said...

Rousey is an incredible fighter; I don't think anyone would argue that she is only receiving attention because she is pretty. It is fascinating how this discussion has sparked the interest in WMMA and created headlines on websites that normally marginalize or ignore women in the sport. So maybe it WMMA does not need to rely on looks in order to become a dominant sport; it merely needs to have controversial athletes and fight promotions. Advertisements for UFC whatever-the-hell-number strikingly resemble promotions for the professional wrestling, so this Rousey-Tate debate may be just what Strikeforce needs to garner interest in the sport.

@Pris (who happens to be my fantastic mother) - Most of these fights, especially the one between the 'beauty' Gina Carano and the 'beast' Cris Santos, was an obvious win. I think it is interesting that you bring up tennis which has also promoted the attractiveness of the female athletes in lieu of superior skill. Anna Kournikova is remembered more for her good looks than her abilities as a decent, but not necessarily world class, tennis player.

The Pugilista said...

A caveat: Anna K could whip my ass in tennis any day of the week.

Also: How awesome is it that my mama reads the blog? Love you Mom!

Andrew said...

Rousey wouldn't be getting any attention if she was 0-4 either. It isn't all about looks, she is very dangerous in the cage.