On Women and Fighting

West Point Boxing Brigade. US, 2012.

Today my foot is mostly bruise-colored. I dislocated a toe last week training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I pointed out its new weird angle, and we all laughed. One of my training partners snapped it back so quickly that I barely had time to chomp the lapel of my gi.

My injury was sustained in an un-heroic fashion. I wish it was from sparring one of the Polish tyrannosaurs I train with, but I idiotically smashed my hoof into the mat, and that knowledge hurts as much as the lay-off I face. Now I am eyeballing the rolls of athletic tape on my shelf. How much will it take, and how should I apply it, to secure my wounded foot so I can practice?

Apart from training, my igniting passions are writing and leftism, and both of those make me depressed and drunk. Then I need to train all the more so I can recover my joy and diminish my paunch.

If I cannot train, I will still attend the session and sit and brood and take notes. I will be jealous of the others rolling around on the bright blue face of the mats where we twist each other into excruciating shapes. The mats are the only place I can glimpse nirvana. I can sometimes catch sight of it through the tangle of hips and grips and grinding, choking bones.

The mat is a place where all things are equal. It is a venue which has been sanitised of ego and politics and nobody ever, ever makes centuries-long political interventions while misquoting Antonio Gramsci or Georg Lukacs. My safe place is fighting off a cauliflower-eared monster hell-bent on pouncing upon and hyper-extending some flailed limb. To console myself I foolishly turn to the global inter-web.

Jits Magazine, a popular martial arts publication, has decided to run a poll  to rate women fighters according to their prettiness. I think on this. Sport is impacted by feminism, and this is no less the case for games where you fight. This sexualization of fighters diminishes the fighting way of life. It does not square with the so-called ‘warrior code’.

When it comes to fighting , I am a bore with the best of intentions. Everyone should to train martial arts of some kind, and I will sit you down and tell you at length that to do so is good for the spirit.

And here is a fact: not enough women train. For women (and for some men too,) I imagine, BJJ looks off-putting compared to kickboxing and boxing.  You’ll inevitably end up grasping between your thighs some steaming, unknown fellow . He is also likely to grimace somewhat.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition. Australia, 2011.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition. Australia, 2011.

This said, the power of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is found precisely in its discomfort and in its grinding closeness, and in its ability to show you space into which one might escape. For that reason this storied art – known as the Gentle Art – is ideal for women. Rape, for example, is generally speaking a ground-based type of violence. BJJ is perfectly made to hurt and/or remove bigger, heavier people who are on top of you should you find yourself pinned.

So can it benefit the art or the practitioners and, critically, can it increase inclusion to sexualise prominent women fighters? I am not a woman, and have only very rarely claimed to be one. However, it all seems rather toxic to me.

The sexualisation of women athletes happens regularly and in different forms across many sports. But here we are not talking about some standing-around non-sport like cricket or tiddlywinks. We are talking about my game, and I am protective of it.

Last year, I recall, an official went as far as to suggest that female boxers ought to fight in skirts when they competed at the 2012 London Olympics.

Similarly, weigh-ins for women fighters at high profile mixed martial arts events often seem to be as much about wolf-whistling and showcasing swimwear as having a pre-scrap stare-down. Some prominent women fighters also actively appear to play up their sexuality.

If you search the Internet for images of female martial artists, you’ll find tits, and teeth and ‘bootay’. You will find women pouting in boxing rings wearing stilettos, bikinis and 14oz boxing gloves and you will find scantily clad ring girls mixed in with images of female scrappers.

Now far be it from me to mansplain – and rest assured that I hate identity politics almost but not quite as much as debilitating training injuries – but surely female combat athletes train to fight and it is their fighting which deserves the most attention.

For me, when fighting women are measured by their duck-face than their war-face, and more by their hand-bra then their arm-bar , the fighting arts are diminished as a whole.


Photographs courtesy of  West Point  and  Benicio MurrayPublished under a Creative Commons license.

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