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Superheroines, sports and sexuality: or, why can’t we be both?

Gina Carano might have appeared on the show American Gladiator, where she wore a spandex costume and goes by a superhero nickname, “Crush,” but her real job is Muay Thai and mixed martial arts (MMA). There’s no padding or trick camera angles to what she does in the ring: that’s her putting her body on the line, and only her training and skills can protect her.

Carano just had her first MMA loss to another real-life superhero, Cris “Cyborg” Santos of Brazil. The matchup was the first time two women had headlined a major MMA card, and predictably, it drew obnoxiously sexist media coverage, including the typical division of the women into “pretty” and “not pretty.” Cyborg even faced an interviewer before the fight who asked her if she wanted to beat Carano up because she was famed for her looks.

Cyborg, all class, said that she wanted to fight Carano because she was the best, not because she was pretty—and then she choked the interviewer unconscious. No, really.

One writer said,

“Now the question is, can Strikeforce and women’s fighting build the sport around someone who isn’t a beauty queen? Whether that statement offends you or not, reality is there was a reason Carano was part of American Gladiators and did so many appearances on shows like Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel. That said, Carano is also far from finished. She proved even in a loss that she’s a legitimate fighter.”

Carano proved a long time ago that she was a legitimate fighter, with a 12-1-1 record in Muay Thai and now a 7-1 record in MMA. Male fighters with far worse records are never questioned on their “legitimacy,” but the idea that a pretty girl can in fact be capable of knocking someone out seems to shock the (largely male) fight press again and again. Then, of course, we get the assumption that Cyborg isn’t pretty—by whose standards are we judging pretty women, anyway?

The media tends to fit its story into a recognizable narrative: hence we get pretty Gina Carano, the “beauty” to Cyborg’s “beast.” The Brazilian woman is an easy villain since she’s from out of the country, has fought in a different circuit, and doesn’t speak English, so why not call her ugly too? (Complicating the stereotypes, Carano wore a stretch top with sleeves to fight, while Cyborg showed off her amazing muscles in a sports bra—now who’s sexualized?)

Dave Zirin at The Nation actually called a sociologist who’s done the research and found that using sex to sell women’s sports doesn’t work in any case. In other words, if guys are interested in Gina Carano’s looks, they can buy Maxim with her in it or watch the less-intimidating “American Gladiator.” They don’t need to watch her fight. Yet according to a promoter, CBS’s ratings spiked during Carano’s previous fights on the national network, and her EliteXC debut against Julie Kedzie was deemed the fight of the night by nearly all who watched.

The sportswriters seem to forget another constituency for watching fights: women. While the discussion tends to hinge on whether men will watch women fight if they aren’t pretty, almost no one talks about the appeal of Cyborg and Carano to women. Rather like the debate over comic books and movies, where over and over again men declare that women don’t want to see superheroines, the debate over fighting presumes that women don’t actually like the competition that goes on in the ring.

UFC promoter Dana White has said that he’s uninterested in promoting women’s MMA, but it’s not only men who think women shouldn’t be fighting. A recent post to the blog Feministe on the decision to allow women’s boxing in the Olympics drew decidedly mixed responses. This is not a strange thing in a feminist movement that is consistently torn between those on one side declaring that women must “repudiate” femininity and others who cling to a naturalistic view of womanhood that includes being softer, gentler, and more compassionate than men.

My question, though, is why can’t we be feminine and strong? Why must we yield to the age-old binary that says that fighting is for men, whether it’s in the ring, the movie theater, or illustrated page, and prettiness is for women? What’s wrong with liking the strength one gets from boxing or MMA as much as the toned body, with drawing confidence from knowing that you can take care of yourself as much as how you look in your jeans?

Jennifer de Guzman, a writer and comics editor, took on the question of whether women want superheroines and gave it a spin worth thinking about:

I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

Women’s sexuality has been cast for so long as dangerous, problematic, something that attracts male violence—essentially opposed to male violence. Yet superheroines and female athletes, particularly female fighters, blur the boundaries. They are sexy and tough, able to take you down, take you out, hold their own against the men. The word “empowering” has been used over and over again to the point where it’s essentially meaningless in feminist debate—or worse, sneeringly tossed around by some to imply that certain women are deluded into thinking that they can make up their own minds about what does it for them. Yet there’s no better word for the way I felt when I was taking regular Muay Thai classes—and yes, my boxing gloves were pink.

We’re not all going to be Gina Carano or Cris Cyborg, let alone Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any number of female comic-book superheroes, and it would be foolish to imply that the solution to male violence is for women to work out more. Yet it is also foolish to decry sports and self-defense’s place in women’s lives because they are violent; worse, it’s buying into the same old stereotypes about men and women. Instead of obsessing over whether a female fighter is sexy enough to appeal to men, why not figure out a way to reach out to her potential female audience? And what’s wrong with a little escapist entertainment, where we can at least fantasize about being on equal footing physically, as well as every other way?

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

3 thoughts on “Superheroines, sports and sexuality: or, why can’t we be both?

  1. “This is not a strange thing in a feminist movement that is consistently torn between those on one side declaring that women must “repudiate” femininity and others who cling to a naturalistic view of womanhood that includes being softer, gentler, and more compassionate than men.”

    I think your characterization of our conversation is wrong. It was more about feminists opposing violence in all forms versus allowing women to participate in any sport men get to participate in. It was clear from the comments that many were torn between violence and non-violence, but most agreed that anything a guy is allowed to do, a gal should be too. The conversation had little to do with femininity, IMO.

    But thanks for citing us! And for the excellent break down of the sexist media coverage of the fight.

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