By Laura Schmitt
After having a few beers and paying $59.99 to watch UFC 193, you’re waiting for the headliners to finish. It’s getting late and there’s only been one knock out so far. Mark Hunt had a Round 1 knockout against Antonio Silva but you want to see more. There’s one fight left and it’s supposed to be a good one. The only thing is it’s the Women’s Bantamweight Title Fight. Yes, I did say Women’s. So ultimately, it can only be so good, right? Wrong. Underdog fighter Holly Holm finished the night with an second round knockout of former champion Ronda Rousey. You watch in amazement as the previously undisputed greatest female fighter was now lying on the ground of the ring as challenger Holly Holm celebrates around her.
Rousey laid on the ground, facing her first loss, and I looked back on what got her there. In 2011, Rousey asked for a Women’s League and UFC President Dana White downright said “women would never fight in the UFC.” But tonight marked her 13th fight. She managed to turn White’s ultimate refusal into a 12 match win streak lead by endless dedication and self promotion. Up until now.
As the fight finishes, you wonder how exactly you got to the point that you were at. When did it become so socially acceptable for hundreds of thousands of people to sit around on Saturday night to watch women fight? Most American households know of Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson. Even if they don’t know the details of their careers, they know that they had the ability to get into the ring and win in an incomparable manner. The time has come to recognize that Ronda Rousey has been added to the list of great fighters that are household names, not because of her knockout but because of everything that lead up to that fight. As you think about it more, you realize there’s absolutely nothing wrong with how you spent your night. If men can be celebrated for their great right hooks and undercuts, then why can’t women too? Why, in 2015, is this idea of a female fighter being a household name such a weird thing? There’s one simple explanation to why this idea is so bizarre and that’s the hegemonic masculinity that surrounds society. Communication scholar Nick Trujillo defined hegemonic masculinity as
“the culturally idealized form of masculine character” which emphasizes “the connecting of masculinity to toughness and competiveness” as well as the “subordination of women” and “the marginalization of gay men.”
This theory identifies physical force and control, occupational achievement, familial patriarchy, fronteirsmanship, and heterosexuality as the five main features of hegemonic masculinity in American culture. What this means is that a certain view of masculinity has been created and accepted as “common sense” to explain “what it means to be a man.” Hegemonic masculinity has created a society that idolizes the achievements of male athletes and undermines those of women, but female fighters have taken leaps and strides to break down those barriers and receive the equal attention and support they deserve. As much as MMA has reinforced hegemonic masculinity, women’s fighting has taken a major initiative to break the “common sense” perception of masculinity. Occupational achievement and frontiersmanship in particular presented themselves as major obstacles to their success.
Hegemonic masculinity is defined through occupation achievement that creates a division of labor where tasks can either be defined as ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work.’ Having a professional career as an athlete is usually reserved as men’s work, especially when it comes to MMA fighting. Historically, MMA has supported hegemonic masculinity by being a sport dominated by men exerting physical force over each other. Rousey, along with all other female fighters, truly questioned what could be defined as ‘men’s work’ and why women were unable to partake.
A year after UFC President publically rejected Rousey’s suggestion for a Women’s League, the league was formed. If it hadn’t been for Rousey, the league would not exist and White gives her full credit for this.
“This whole women’s power movement that’s going on right now is crazy. Ronda has been the whole thing. Ronda is the one that launched this whole thing. I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Ronda. She’s the one that convinced me to do it, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Despite this incredible support from White, there are still critics who don’t believe women belong in the octagon. Former MMA fighter, Fedor Emelianeko outright stated “Women shouldn’t compete in UFC/MMA because this sport is for men… He’s telling that women shouldn’t fight. MMA is for men. It’s a man’s sport.”
His statement shows that despite the success of the league and the support of the UFC President, there are still people, even fellow fighters, who don’t support what these women are doing solely because they are women.
Fellow female fighter, Carla Esparza, responded to Emelianeko’s comments by saying “some people are always going to feel the way they feel. But I think day-by-day, fight-by-fight, I’m hearing those whispers a lot less than I used to.”
The line between men’s work and women’s work is no longer as bold or clear as it has been in the past. There are always going to be people telling these female fighters that they can’t do it because they’re women and fighting was meant for men. The occupational achievement gap created by hegemonic masculinity still exists, but the creation and success of the Women’s League is proof that the UFC is transitioning from reinforcing this to challenging it.
Hegemonic masculinity continues to unveil itself as we understand the equivalent representation between the frontiersman and idolized athlete. Often times the media compares exceptional athletes to the working class, self-made, romanticized cowboy or frontiersman. One example of this would be baseball legend Nolan Ryan. Ryan was viewed by the media as a rugged, family man, and cowboy. Just imagine him riding off into the sunset with you after he finishes pitching his seventh no-hitter.
First of all, this stigma excludes women in its entirety. The romanticized image of the cowboy isn’t one that many men have had about a particular female athlete. While the attraction to female athletes does exist, it’s based on sexualized physical appearance and not based on their strength and hard work. Outside of sports, women are portrayed to be the nurturing caretakers, not the daring women who will do whatever it takes to support and protect their family, especially through physical means.
It doesn’t stop there though, there’s an entire other level of problems with this cowboy view. This frontiersman idea is reserved for one person in the field. This person is seen to be above everyone else in terms of skill, attention, and strength. If hegemonic masculinity allowed for a female frontierswoman, it would be Ronda Rousey.
UFC President White’s comments show that she wouldn’t just be the fronteirsman of women’s fighting, but the pioneer leading the way for others to follow. She is the face of women’s MMA and has helped build the program into a mainstream attraction. Rousey has shown so much power and ambition which has helped manufacture her into the icon that she is.
Rousey maintained a romanticized image as the strong female fighter who had surpassed everyone’s expectations and had yet to be beaten. Nevertheless, there’s only room for ‘cowboy’ and it came as a shock to people when they discovered it is possible that their hero could be beaten. All of a sudden she wasn’t as high up as she had been before. While this was detrimental to Rousey, it was revolutionary for the sport. Holm’s underdog knockout was considered the biggest upset in the history of the sport. UFC President White was not surprised by the outcome of the fight, noting her background in boxing and kickboxing.
Rousey’s loss required society to accept that not only can a woman be a fighter, but it is not an anomaly. It is possible for multiple women to possess such exceptional skills. Female MMA fighting helped to reduce the cowboy stigma associated with hegemonic masculinity, but Holly Holm further leveled the playing field by diminishing the romanticism associated around a particular athlete. Holm was able to take the spotlight off of Rousey and instead focus it on the sport as a whole. The question now is how will Rousey return from this defeat. Will she regain her title on top and continue to be the frontierswoman and pioneer?
So on that night, November 14, 2015, when the fight was finished and you sat wondering how you got to the point you were at, you realized that you hadn’t done a single thing to get there. Instead, an incredible fighter, who represented a league of many more, had spent her blood, sweat, and tears to get your lazy ass on the couch to watch her. Years before, Rousey had decided she wanted to do something different despite what everyone said about her ambitions. She had heard countless times that fighting was for boys and there’s other sports she could do and outlets she could pursue that don’t include such a gruesome exertion of force. But that didn’t stop her from doing what she wanted despite what society wanted from her. This incredible fighter worked on her own behalf to make an avenue to follow her ambitions.
We are simply the bystanders watching as female fighters push the boundaries of society. It started in an unlikely arena, but there’s no better way to tackle an issue than head on which is exactly what Rousey decided to do. Our only role is to decide if we’re with them or against them. It’s up to us to keep watching and supporting. The November 14th fight set records as one of the most viewed fights in history. The American people just need to keep giving these great athletes an arena to perform in. In a world that’s been filled with repression and limited rights for people based on physical characteristics, it would be a grave step in the wrong direction to side with hegemonic masculinity and hold back female athletes. Norms are meant to pushed and progress can’t be made by standing still. Before we know it, hegemonic masculinity will be a thing of the past and we’ll be signing our young daughters up for mixed martial arts classes.