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The Sociology of MMA: Breaking Arms & Making Patriarchal Bargains

How does a female athlete survive in the patriarchal and exploitive world of MMA? “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, the new bantamweight Strikeforce champion, speaks candidly about how she navigates a hyper-sexualized and hyper-violent profession. In this post David Mayeda explores the patriarchal bargains Rousey openly makes and their consequences.

If you’ve ever thought women can’t fight, think again. On Saturday March 3, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey faced off against Strikeforce’s then bantamweight champion, Miesha Tate. Both women are fantastic athletic talents. Before competing in MMA, Rousey wreaked havoc in judo, representing the United States in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, winning a bronze medal in ‘08. As foreshadowed, Rousey dethroned Tate, winning via brutal armbar submission in the fight card’s main event (see video highlights, below).

Tate’s arm was severely hyper-extended and injured as she refused to “tap out” (submit), rendering this an institutionally sanctioned example of sporting violence (see picture here – warning graphic photo).

Scholars have noted that as women navigate their options in patriarchal systems [1. Patriarchy refers to a system where males (fathers specifically) establish and perpetuate their power through formal ownership and control over women, children, and property – older male privilege is strategically built into societal institutions.], they frequently make strategic “bargains,” assessing gendered rules and scripts specific to the cultural contexts in which they live. Frequently, “patriarchal bargains” occur when women behave in ways that grant them power as individuals, but reproduce the dominant gender order, thereby perpetuating cultural systems that subordinate women collectively.

In certain sporting contexts, men and women emphasize traditional gender performances in order to increase their market value. In MMA, a disproportionate number of men embellish hyper-masculine personas by hiding certain emotions, while intimidating opponents through verbal and physical presentations. Some female mixed martial artists, like Rousey, also consciously work to intimidate opponents through verbal and physical posturing in pre-fight rituals.

However, as Kandiyoti (1988) argues, when women bargain for power within patriarchal territory, they “as a rule, bargain from a weaker position” (p. 286). Therefore, although female athletes can secure some power from the patriarchal system as individuals by, for example, accentuating sexuality, these attempts are often accompanied by costs that their male counterparts do not encounter (e.g., sexual harassment, stalking).

This bargaining, however, is not always done unconsciously. To the contrary, many women are keenly aware of the costs and benefits of patriarchal bargains. Prior to her fight, Rousey explained how she was constructed as expendable labour despite being a two-time Olympian and bronze medalist, and further, how her history as an underpaid elite female athlete impacts her current decisions to occasionally accentuate her sexuality and trash talk. Via BloodyElbow.com:

“Everyone talks about how awesome the Olympics are, but you know what? After the Olympics they give you ten grand a handshake. And you know what, it costs way more than ten grand to get there. The Olympics didn’t give a damn about me after I was done. And I gotta do what I gotta do to make a living. If I gotta pose for some magazines…I’m not gonna show my nipples or [buttocks] or anything like that but if I gotta walk around at the beach in a bikini, why not let someone take a picture of me and put it in a magazine?

“There’s nothing set in place to help the athletes after they’re done. What are you doing while you’re training your whole life? You’re not getting as much education as you could. You’re not getting as much work experience as you could. And so what happens after the Olympics is that you have all these athletes that have no work experience, no education, and they have no health. And it’s all [B.S.].

“And that’s why I’m like screw everyone’s idea of ‘oh what sports are supposed to be like’. I did what sports were supposed to be like, and I was living in my car. So you know what, fine. I’m gonna talk a bunch of [explitive]. I’m gonna pose in a couple of pictures. And I’m gonna break a couple of girl’s arms, and I’m not gonna feel the least bit sorry about it because you know what? At least I can feed my dog.”

Rousey is aware of the ways Olympic athletes are systematically exploited by athletic institutions. Moreover, Rousey challenges the idea that hard work in athletics will automatically render athletes benefits that help them survive throughout their life course. As Rousey explains, this ideology is put in place to maintain athletes’ false consciousness, supporting a system that they do not realize oppresses them.

As a young woman still holding elite athletic abilities and who is attentive to the unfair ways in which athletic industries operate, Rousey makes patriarchal bargains. She’ll “walk around at the beach in a bikini” specifically because she’s already been burnt by the sporting world and because the MMA industry is patriarchal. Exploiting women’s sexuality is what the male leadership in the MMA industry promotes for the predominantly male fan base. It perpetuates the gender order; Rousey knows this, but she’s getting hers, in a system where women have limited options.

Dig deeper:

  1. Considering Rousey’s history in athletics and the current MMA industry, do you feel the patriarchal bargains she makes are justified? Why or why not?
  2. In order for female athletes to thrive in the MMA industry without having to make patriarchal bargains, how would the industry have to change? Who would need to be responsible for making these changes – men or women?
  3. Watch and analyze this promotional video of another women’s MMA match: Carano vs. Santos. How do you see patriarchal bargains here?
  4. How do you see women making patriarchal bargains in everyday life? What are the individual gains you see women attain by making patriarchal bargains? What are the collective costs to women and girls?


Kandiyoti, D. (1988). Bargaining with patriarchy. Gender & Society, 2 (3), 274-290.