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The Sociology of MMA: Women’s Integration into the UFC

It took two decades for women to take center stage in the UFC – MMA’s most prominent organization – as athletes. The change happened on 23 February 2013 when Ronda Rousey (pictured left) defeated Liz Carmouche in UFC 157’s main event match. In this post, David Mayeda uses different feminist approaches to explore women’s future in the UFC.

During its first two decades of existence, the UFC was not only framed as a masculine institution; it was constructed that way almost in its entirety. Aside from ring card “girls” and the occasional female referee, women’s presence in the UFC was essentially non-existent. Women were not apparent in prominent managerial, coaching, or athletic roles. The latter changed this past February when Ronda Rousey defeated Liz Carmouche in round 1, via armbar submission, in the UFC’s first match involving female fighters:

Since the Rousey-Carmouche fight, the UFC has held a second match with women. The winner of that fight (Cat Zingano) will now challenge Rousey for her Bantamweight Title. But before that, the two will face off as coaches on the UFC’s reality television show, The Ultimate Fighter (now in its 18th season), which will include male and female contestants. TUF 18 tryouts just took place:

Looks like the UFC is aiming to build and promote its women’s division through TUF, just as the organization did through male contestants back in 2005. The veteran and upstart female contestants are impressive, and I definitely see this as progress for the UFC. The questions are, how much progress and what kind?

Liberal feminism arose in the early 1800s, calling to remove unequal opportunities that stymie women’s representation across society. Title IX, a form of U.S. legislation enacted in 1972, is an example of liberal feminism in that it seeks to attain educational parity for women and girls, and is now associated heavily with sport. The basic assumption is that equal representation demonstrates equity.

At least at the athlete level, we are now seeing a liberal feminist influence in the UFC. This reflects some broader cultural changes as well that should be acknowledged. As female athletes matriculate into MMA’s spotlight, we see society’s growing appreciation that women are physically strong and tough enough to compete effectively in mainstreamed combat sport. This is all the more significant for a sport like MMA, which appears viscerally violent, despite the incredible discipline, talent, and technique that is required to excel at the elite level.

Radical feminism is a product of the 1960s and argues among other things, that society’s institutions are reliant upon women’s ongoing subordination. Thus for radical feminists, gender equity cannot be achieved simply through the integration of women and girls into institutions. In addition, the cultural values and norms of those institutions must change such that femininity is not subordinated to masculinity. For radical feminists, sporting institutions must be completely revamped, eliminating the structural and cultural elements that privilege males.

As we analyze women’s progression into the UFC, there are a number of key issues to keep an eye on:

  • From a liberal feminist perspective, will women break through glass ceilings, becoming coaches and cornerpersons for male and female fighters? Will we see more female referees, journalists? Will women reach the upper echelons of UFC management?
  • Will female mixed martial artists be pressured to merge their athleticism with society’s traditional feminine ideals – being “beautiful, small, thin, and, perhaps most importantly, weak” (Roth & Basow, 2004, p. 249)? Can women succeed athletically and financially as MMA athletes only when they meet traditional beauty standards, when they still appear appealing to men, when they emphasize their femininity? Will they have to make incessant patriarchal bargains to succeed?
  • Will women be scrutinized and punished more heavily than men if they appear too physically strong? When male MMA athletes are questioned about use of performance enhancing drugs, the questions revolve around athlete safety, health, and cheating; their gender is never questioned. Will women with a particular athleticism or physique be questioned as so-called real women?
  • Will sports pundits further standardize MMA as a men’s sport, for instance, by referring to men’s competitions as “MMA,” but women’s as “WMMA,” covertly implying women’s inclusion in the sport is secondary and atypical?
  • Will fundamental values and norms in the UFC actually change such that success is not achieved through femininity’s subordination? In other words many, including myself, would argue that different types of success in the current UFC are defined through different dimensions of masculinity – who is most wealthy, athletic, witty, powerful … code words for most masculine? Will fighters (male and female) continue to disparage each other through feminized terms?

Perhaps some answers to these questions will be addressed when we see how the UFC presents TUF 18. Stay tuned…

Dig Deeper:

  1. Under what circumstances do you consider female athletes examples of gender equity, if at all?
  2. Given that “violence has been one of the major forces in oppressing women” (Roth & Basow, 2004, p. 257-258), can MMA truly become an institution of social change that contributes to gender equity? Why or why not?
  3. Explain the differences between liberal and radical feminism, using an example other than MMA.
  4. For all you UFC fans, what dynamics do you predict for TUF 18?

Reference: Roth, A., & Basow, S. A. (2004). Femininity, sports, and feminism: developing a theory of physical liberation. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 28 (3), 245-265.

Photo via Wikicommons.