Sociology Focus
Author: David Mayeda

The Sociology of MMA: Hegemonic Masculinity Unleashed

Imagine if it was common place for prominent members of a billion dollar company to use glaringly sexist language in public. That would be crazy, right? Except over the last few months this is exactly what we’ve seen from the Mixed Martial Arts league called the UFC. In this post David Mayeda uses the sociological concept of hegemonic masculinity to help us understand what is going on with the men of the UFC.

In a sport so male driven, it is hardly surprising that some Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athletes publicly express opinions reflecting a violent male dominance. Recently, MMA fighter Miguel Torres tweeted: “If a rape van was called a surprise van more women wouldn’t mind going for rides in them. Everyone likes surprises” (December 7, 2011). Torres was subsequently fired by UFC President, Dana White.

Torres’s comment came off the heels of other controversial comments made at a UFC press conference, former light heavyweight UFC champ, Rashad Evans, taunted his future opponent, Phil Davis, by saying, “I’m going to put my hands on you worse than that dude on those kids at Penn State,” referencing former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, who faces 40 counts related to the sexual assault of children.

And back in November, UFC star, Forrest Griffin, tweeted, “Rape is the new missionary.” What on earth is going on here? The answer, for sociologists lies within an idea called “hegemonic masculinity.”

Hegemonic masculinity helps to outline the plurality of masculinities existing and shifting within a culture’s hierarchal structure. Which is a fancy way of saying that men within a given culture engage in a variety of practices which give them masculine currency and power over other men and women. These practices may include (among other behaviors) taking risks, dominating other men and/or women, flaunting wealth, or showcasing athleticism.

Additionally, hegemonic masculinity requires men to police one another, that is, punish and stigmatize men who engage in so-called feminine behaviors. And perhaps it also goes without saying that hegemonic masculinity acknowledges the general degradation women, girls, and so-called feminine behaviors (see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005 1 for a thorough discussion). We can find nearly countless examples of hegemonic masculinity in sports. The world of MMA is no exception.

As I discussed previously, MMA’s most prominent organization is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). One clear example of hegemonic masculinity in this particular organization (and to a lesser degree the entire MMA industry) is the absence of female fighters. Women in the UFC when spotlighted, instead serve as ring card “girls.” Or, as seen in the picture above of five prominent MMA athletes, women emphasizing their feminine features may serve as sexualized visuals alongside the male fighters for the predominantly male crowd.

Returning to the concept of hegemonic masculinity, what these comments illustrate are first, the degradation of women. Torres and Griffin both make light of sexual assault in a type of locker room-based dialogue now widely disseminated via the internet. Secondly, the comments by Evans demonstrate how sexual assault victims can be used symbolically to denigrate others. Specifically, Evans works to disparage his opponent (Davis) by feminizing him – by comparing him to boys who (allegedly) have been sexually molested.

This recent rash of comments is an indication that hegemonic masculinity still pervades our society and that male privilege is perpetuated in sporting institutions. Even though males are in conflict with one another, what we see is a culture that depreciates women and all considered feminine. Whether or not sanctions against these athletes will change MMA’s hegemonically masculine culture remains to be seen, but in an organization where men are paid to engage in violent conflict, such change is highly unlikely.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Thinking about the concept of hegemonic masculinity, identify other institutions in society where men (or boys) compete with and put down one another by feminizing each other.
  2. What behaviors do you notice males engage in to display their masculine superiority over each other and over females? Explain how these behaviors change in different situations.
  3. How can sporting institutions change so that they are more egalitarian along gender lines and alter their current hegemonically masculine culture?
  1. Reference: Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: rethinking the concept. Gender and Society, 19 (6), 829–859. DOI: 10.1177/0891243205278639.
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