Popular Feminism and Women’s Physical Empowerment in the UFC
Info: 8098 words (32 pages) Dissertation
Published: 2nd Mar 2022
This chapter examines the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) incorporation of women into their brand. Women’s inclusion has occurred amidst the rise of ‘popular feminism,’ which is invested in increasing the self-confidence of girls and women via consumerism and individualism. UFC media emphasises discourses supporting girls and women’s strength and martial talent and simultaneously position fighters as empowered heroines who challenge and contradict the disenfranchising effects of body discipline in the media. This brand ethos imagines itself as rebelling against protracted notions of white femininity as physically weak and fragile and instead celebrates self-discipline and individual empowerment through fitness. This chapter sheds light on the growing cultural discontent with representations of thin and underfed white feminine bodies even as cultural discourses maintain the pre-eminence of whiteness.
Jennifer McClearen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research interrogates the cultural production, representation, and reception of the active body in popular media. In particular, she leverages feminist media studies and physical cultural studies to critically analyze the intersecting discourses of gender, race, and/or sexuality surrounding the physicality of female athletes, fighters, action heroes, and the like. She has published in New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory, and Politics, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, and in the edited collection, Feminist Erasures: Challenging Backlash Culture. Her teaching broadens beyond the active body and examines various articulations of difference in popular television, film, and new media. She is currently a fellow at the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity as well as a fellow in the Certificate in Public Scholarship at the Simpson Center for the Humanities.
New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times
Kim Toffoletti, Holly Thorpe, and Jessica Francombe-Webb
A curious ripple pulsed through American popular culture when mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter Ronda Rousey declared, ‘I’m not a do-nothing-bitch’ (sic). The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) superstar was speaking candidly to a production crew filming an episode of the web series UFC Embedded. It was summer 2015 and the crew had been following Rousey the week leading up to her fight in Rio de Janeiro. Rousey slouched comfortably in sweats on her hotel room bed as she described the type of woman her mother ‘taught her to not be.’ A do-nothing-bitch, or DNB, was a woman whose sole purpose was to attract wealthy men who could provide for them. Rousey expressed her blunt disdain for women who craft their bodies simply to attract ‘millionaires’ and declared that her fighter’s body was ‘built for another purpose.’ Rousey’s DNB monologue spread across the internet almost immediately through UFC and other MMA media and reached popular culture more broadly. American signer Beyoncé sampled audio of portions of Rousey’s DNB speech before performing her song Diva at her Made in American concert. U.S. comedian and actress Tina Fey approached Rousey about starring in a film project called Do Nothing Bitches where Rousey would play a fitness camp instructor for women with wealthy husbands (Damon, 2016). Rousey’s fiery DNB rhetoric struck a chord in popular culture and the UFC promotional team developed a curiosity around the cultural resonance of her words.
The fact that the UFC is promoting women at all is somewhat curious considering the organisation’s history. The UFC is MMA’s largest and most prominent promoter, but only included women in 2013 after twenty years of exclusively featuring competitions between men. The sport of MMA began when the UFC featured its first event in 1993 as a contest to determine the most effective martial art and the most dominant martial arts fighter. Male fighters specializing in a range of martial arts, such as karate, sumo, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, and judo, competed style against style in a ‘no holds barred’ tournament. The early years of the sport established a reputation for brutality because the UFC had only a few rules, such as no eye gouging. The organisation has long battled a reputation of hypermasculine brutality even though the UFC has since revised the rules of engagement to attempt to legitimize itself as a tamer mainstream sport. Women were excluded from the organization until 2013 because the owners long assumed that women were ill equipped to perform at the professional level and that fans would be opposed to seeing women become bruised and battered during a fight (Fagan, 2015). Thus, the UFC’s recent interest in promoting ‘empowered’ female fighters such as Rousey is a revision to their brand.
In this chapter, I examine the ways the UFC has incorporated Rousey’s DNB rhetoric combined with discourses of girls and women’s ‘empowerment’ throughout their transmedia MMA brand. The UFC first described women’s inclusion in the organisation as a 6-month experiment. To the UFC’s surprise, the popularity of women’s divisions has exploded partially fuelled by Rousey’s mainstream star power (Fagan, 2015). Rousey’s unapologetically ‘not-a-DNB’ persona and winning record secured her access to nationally syndicated talk shows and movie deals at a level UFC fighters had never seen. As a result, the UFC has tried to capitalize on this moment of cultural resonance and promote the women’s division as a revolution for women and women’s sport. I argue they position their brand as revolutionary for women by troubling the valorisation of thin, white feminine bodies, such as the DNB, in postfeminist media culture. They promote a popular feminist discourse celebrating the muscularity and athleticism of white women such as Rousey as a form of women’s empowerment. The UFC’s brand ethos imagines itself as rebelling against protracted notions of white femininity as physically weak and fragile and instead celebrating self-discipline and individual empowerment through health and fitness. Nevertheless, these popular feminist revisions to the representation of white femininity as a physical tour-de-force fail to supplant the supremacy of white feminine bodies in marketing and advertising. The strong, white feminine body becomes just another vehicle for supporting neoliberalism and maintaining hegemonic femininity and whiteness.
It is important to recognize an ideologically uneven embrace of women’s empowerment within UFC media. I offer this analysis of UFC media as a means to understand how various feminist sensibilities grapple over the image of the physically strong and powerful woman and to what ends. As other feminist scholars have suggested, my analysis of popular feminism is less about proving that postfeminism has been displaced in generational waves and more about examining the ideological struggle around women’s bodies, empowerment, and equity as they operate in contemporary discourse (Gill, 2016; Toffoletti, 2016). Any given individual might utter anti-feminist discourse in one breath while claiming feminism in another. Likewise, any given media producer or media organisation might demonstrate similar ambivalence through their various texts. The analysis of the UFC’s representation of its female fighters is comparably dense. Discourses of postfeminism, popular feminism, anti-feminism, misogyny, and racism all circulate under the umbrella of UFC media. For example, the organisation still employs ‘Octagon Girls’ clad in bikinis to walk around the edges of the large metal cage where the fights take place to announce each round of a fight. The presence of the Octagon Girls does not refute the simultaneous presence of empowerment discourse; yet, it does expose the ambivalence of UFC media. Several authors have critiqued the sexualisation of the UFC’s female fighters and feminist sport scholars have long documented the sexualisation of women in sport (Jennings, 2016; Fink, Kane, LaVoi, 2014; Cooky, Messner, and Hextrum, 2013). This piece purposefully brackets these discussions to allow for other representational and discursive meanings to surface.
Popular Feminism and Postfeminist Media Culture
Postfeminist media culture is comprised of a set of sensibilities that are complex and often contradict one another (Gill, 2007b). For example, postfeminist rhetoric emphasizes choice and women selecting among a range of options for their lives, such as the decision to stay at home or to work outside the home. However, this sensibility rarely acknowledges the gendered inequality women face when juggling family and careers. Likewise, postfeminist media culture promotes the idea that women of all shapes and sizes may find contentment within themselves and their bodies; however, self-discipline through exercise and dieting is simultaneously valorised (McRobbie, 2008). These ambivalent and intersecting sensibilities ensure that postfeminism remains entrenched in media culture (Gill, 2016). I will address some key discursive tendencies that revolve around women’s bodies and women’s physical agency as they relate to postfeminist sensibilities even as I concede that these trends are ambivalent themselves.
While choice is touted rhetorically, postfeminist media culture often promotes exercise and dieting to produce an idealized white feminine body that may not necessarily lend itself to athletic prowess (Gill 2007b; Fox-Kales 2011; Bordo 2003). Cinematic and televisual images of a gendered ideal produce a disciplinary discourse that encourages men to ‘bulk up’ and women to ‘slim down.’ The contrast between the two becomes evident when considering action films. An actor in an action role attempts to add muscle to his frame through eating more protein and weightlifting while an actress tries to slenderize her body by eating less calories and doing cardio exercise. While both are forms of body discipline, the latter ensures a physically smaller human being. I have argued elsewhere that this particular brand of body discipline renders the physically powerful action heroine suspect because the actress’s slender body becomes unbelievable in the physical action she performs (McClearen, 2015b). Likewise, if female athletes observe self-discipline to remain thin, then their physical abilities may suffer. In order to be at the top of their game, female athletes may have to add more weight to their frames than images of the ideal body sanctions. Thus, any woman may choose the body she desires, but not all choices are equal or desirable in broader culture.
Numerous feminist media scholars have addressed body discipline within postfeminist media culture (McRobbie, 2008; Projansky, 2001; Tasker and Negra, 2007); however, another of Gill’s set of sensibilities goes somewhat understudied in subsequent literature on women’s bodies and postfeminism. Gill (2007a) asserts that postfeminist media culture often endorses notions of fixed sexual difference between male and female bodies. She says ‘a key feature of the postfeminist sensibility has been the resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference across all media from newspapers to advertising, talk shows and popular fiction’ (158). Gill identifies the tendency for popular culture to assert the gender binary in ways that second-wave feminism has rejected. In this logic, differences between girls and boys or men and women on the field of play are a result of the biological inferiority of the female body in athletic pursuits and not based on gendered inequality. I have argued that this particular postfeminist sensibility allows for girls and women’s empowerment in some arenas, such as at work and in school, but clearly positions equity in women’s sport or physical practices as unimaginable and impossible to achieve (McClearen, 2015a; McClearen, 2015b). Instead, ‘postfeminist sensibilities affirm a binary sex system and champion ‘natural’ differences between male and female bodies, perpetuating inequalities based on assumed limits of women’s physical capabilities’ (McClearen, 2015b, 158).
Representations of the feminine body in postfeminist media culture are also classed and racialized discourses. Middle and upper-classed white femininity has long been characterized as physically powerless and in need of patriarchal assistance and protection. The pressure for white women to be thin supports their representation as fainting or collapsing when faced with danger or the need to physically assert themselves, such as the classic trope of the white heroine requiring rescue by a knight in shining armour. Black women by contrast, are more often stereotyped as masculine or as having superhuman physical abilities that do not necessitate the same level of protection (Schultz, 2005). For example, consider how Sojourner Truth, an African-American advocate for women’s and civil rights, emphasized nearly 130 years ago in her ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech that white women needed help in and out of carriages because of their vulnerability whereas she managed the same task quite competently. Truth (2011) also notes that she can ‘eat like a man’ because she physically labours at the same level men do. Truth was not afforded the dainty appetite of privileged white women and highlights the construction of middle and upper class white femininity as weak and in need of physical assistance compared with black femininity’s subjugation as a working-class labourer (McClearen, 2015a). The trope of the frail white woman found currency until second wave feminism began revising the narrative of feminine physical inferiority. The emphasis on thinness in is a method of limiting white women’s physicality even as it simultaneously elevates them above women of colour.
Popular feminism’s contribution to postfeminist media culture is a recognition that gender inequality exists and that something should be done about it on an individual basis. Popular feminism’s stated chief concern is empowering women and girls believed to be experiencing a ‘crisis of confidence’ (Banet-Weiser, 2015). Sarah Banet-Weiser argues, ‘The current demand for visibility for girls and women is created in part because girls are seen as in crisis: this most recent ‘girl crisis’ finds purchase in education, self-esteem programs, confidence, and leadership’ (p. 56). Banet-Weiser illustrates a range of programs across media and popular culture promoting confidence and leadership for girls. Brands and products advertising empowerment become a primary solution to the crisis of confidence. As a result, a neoliberal feminist subject is desirable—one who is aware of gender inequality but finds individual solutions through participation in brand cultures. Popular feminism revises postfeminism by centring gender inequality as contributor to the crisis; nevertheless, the focus on individualized solutions fail to offer structural critiques, contest body discipline, challenge the hegemony of whiteness, or provide solutions outside the neoliberal marketplace.
The following discussion demonstrates how popular feminism alters the aims of body discipline and troubles the notion of fixed sexual difference circulating in postfeminist media. In doing so, popular feminism positions gender inequality as a crisis and offers alternative forms of body discipline for white femininity even as it maintains white privilege. The UFC’s engagement with notions of women’s empowerment illustrates that while popular feminism may fail to categorically reject the disciplining of women’s bodies or the neoliberal imperative to purchase empowerment, popular feminist sensibilities locate physical power and agency within white womanhood.
In this piece, I specifically focus on two key pieces of UFC media that demonstrate the organisation’s engagement with girls and women’s empowerment. I analyse the UFC Embedded episode featuring Rousey’s DNB monologue and then examine the promotional video created for Rousey’s fight against Holly Holm in November 2015. These particular media texts are significant because they both gained quite a bit of traction across a variety of social and web-based media as well as on television. To round out my textual analysis, I interviewed the producer of the UFC Embedded episode, the director and the writer of the Rousey vs. Holm promotional video, and three other marketing and public relations specialists at the UFC. Each interview was an hour in length and was conducted over the phone or via Skype between summer and autumn 2015. I combine textual analysis of media artefacts with insights from the interviewees to explain the popular feminist logics utilized in promoting women in the UFC.
I adopt a feminist cultural studies methodology to reading the texts and interviews in order to reveal how discourses of gender, race, class, and feminism circulate in the production of UFC media. As such, my own standpoint in reading these discourses is central to the interpretations I advance. I am a feminist and martial artist who has been consuming the UFC as a U.S.-based fan and scholar for the past four years. I watch UFC media curiously and ambivalently; I am excited by the level of exposure female fighters have received for their martial skill, but dubious of what their inclusion in the sport means for feminist values, such as intersectionality and anti-capitalism. My ambivalence surfaces throughout this chapter as I grapple with discourses emblematic of postfeminism and popular feminism.
Ronda Rousey: ‘Femininely Badass as F#ck’
UFC Embedded is a UFC produced web series that follows athletes in the week leading up to their fights as they train, interview with the press, discuss their strategies, and relax with friends, training teams, and family. The UFC labels the series a ‘vlog’— meant to give audiences insight into the fighters’ lives and personal reflections prior to a big event. However, athletes are neither filming themselves nor recounting unprompted reflections without producer intervention. The series is slightly miscategorised as a vlog. Embedded is generally shot with multiple cameras with largely a fly-on-the-wall documentary style. Each episode offers interviews with the athletes disclosing their thoughts leading up to the fight. UFC producers edit Embedded into five 5-10 minute segments uploaded to YouTube and circulate on other social media platforms. UFC 190 Embedded episode two (July 2015) follows five fighters, but it is Ronda Rousey’s scene in the episode that illustrates the ambivalent discourses at play in contemporary media.
Rousey’s scene in episode two opens with an establishing shot of the Sheraton Rio Hotel and Resort in Rio and quickly splices a montage of Rousey training in the hotel fitness centre with her coaches. Rousey wears grey sweats and headphones as she exercises on the elliptical, stretches, and works boxing combinations with her coach. As the scene plays out, Rousey’s voice launches into a poignant articulation of the star’s thoughts on femininity and toughness. She says,
I have this one term for the kind of woman my mother raised me to not be, and I call it a do-nothing-bitch. A DNB. The kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and to be taken care of by someone else. That’s why I think it’s hilarious if people say my body looks masculine or something like that. Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than f#cking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine. I think it’s femininely badass as f#ck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose because I’m not a do-nothing-bitch. It’s not very eloquently said, but it’s to the point. Maybe that’s just what I am. I’m not that eloquent, but I’m to the point.
As she suggests, Rousey is not eloquent. Her words are brash and even incendiary as she indicts women who exclusively condition their bodies to be attractive to men. She highlights the passivity traditionally associated with hegemonic femininity by saying that DNBs simply want to be ‘taken care of by somebody else.’ DNBs construct their bodies to be attractive, but attractiveness is without purpose according to Rousey. Instead she views her own athletic build as a result of training with a purpose in her sport and claims that muscularity is ‘femininely badass as f#ck.’ The UFC superstar questions the very definition of white femininity as passive and frail by asserting that a muscular body does not preclude femininity.
One of the UFC’s most popular Embedded episodes was almost left on the cutting room floor because of its potential for controversy, according to Chris Kartzmark, Senior Vice President of Production and Programming at the UFC. UFC 190 Embedded, episode two featured several fighters on the main card in Rio, but the reason Kartzmark notes that the 8-minute episode became popular was for Ronda Rousey’s minute and a half monologue at the end. Kartzmark, a producer of UFC Embedded, says that the DNB monologue was almost excluded from the final cut even though the production team thought the sentiment was powerful. He said, ‘I hadn’t really thought of [strong women’s bodies] that way. It’s not the opposite of feminine, it’s a feminine body that’s also badass and doesn’t need help taking care of herself.’ Even though Kartzmark and his team thought the message was potentially appealing for some viewers, Rousey’s tone and language were so unvarnished that they feared it might damage her image. They approached Dana White, the UFC’s president, about the footage and he and the team collectively decided to include it ‘because the presentation might not be to everyone’s tastes’ but ‘that’s Ronda.’
Rousey’s DNB rhetoric was not to ‘everyone’s tastes.’ Some feminist writers, such as the editor and chief of womensmma.com, Sydnie Jones (2015), found Rousey’s monologue to be anti-feminist because it posits individual behaviour as an answer to a systemic problem. Jones follows the natural conclusion of Rousey’s characterization of DNBs:
Why are [DNBs] so easy to hate? Because they don’t do enough. Because they’re parasitic and money-hungry and vain. Because they’re not enough. This is the typical refrain. But it’s a simplistic perception that overlooks the reality: the women Rousey has termed DNBs are still operating within the same system of oppression that has specified a woman’s value: beauty/sex appeal and reproductive abilities. Rousey is blaming the symptoms for the disease, just one more voice telling women they’re not good enough to be taken seriously unless they meet a given set of qualifiers.
Jones is identifying a distinction between feminism as a coalitional political project united against structural inequities and the individualism emblematic of popular feminism and postfeminism. A coalitional feminism views the pressures on women’s bodies to be desirable as part of a broader system of oppression against women. Jones marks discursive and structural inequality as the problem, whereas ‘not-a-DNB’ suggests individual responses as an answer to injustice. If women act differently and treat their bodies distinctly from the DNB, then those efforts produce gender equality.
Rousey’s DNB monologue specifically rejects disciplining discourses that pressure women to conform to the thin and idealized white body. ‘Not-A-DNB’ is a rallying cry against body discipline and firmly places agency and power within women’s bodies. McRobbie (2008) underscores the tendency to represent white women as slight and physically incompetent in order to be desirable in postfeminist media culture. She says women ‘must retain a visible fragility and the displaying of a kind of conventional feminine vulnerability will ensure she remains desirable to men’ (p. 79). On the contrary, Rousey defines her body as ‘built for another purpose’ than being pleasing to the male gaze. Her muscularity and athleticism is not solely designed to attract men but is meant to be ‘badass as f#ck.’ This sensibility shuns notions that women are naturally inferior as athletes to men à la postfeminism and instead posits the female body as capable of impressive feats of physicality. In popular feminism, physical fitness for athleticism’s sake becomes a viable choice and challenges the insistence that muscularity in white women is unfeminine. Body discipline, then, becomes a culprit in the crisis of confidence. Model thinness and photo-shopped magazines present one image of femininity—an idealized thin white body—while Rousey’s not-a-DNB message prescribes an individualized solution to this crisis of confidence through purchase into the UFC brand.[i]
‘Every Revolution Starts with a Fight’
The UFC observed the viral success of Rousey’s DNB message and began considering women’s physical empowerment as a potential marketing story for the organisation. Fabiola Rangel, a former member of the UFC marketing staff, noted in our interview that the organisation realized in late summer 2015 that Rousey was more popular with women than with men. The promotion subsequently began analysing why this might be occurring in order to leverage it in their messaging.[ii] Other UFC staffers, such Kartzmark and Doug Hartling, former Director of Marketing, concurred with Rangel and noted that young girls were flocking to Rousey’s U.S. and international public appearances in surprising numbers. Hartling, Kartzmark, and Rangel each confirmed in their interviews with me that the UFC was eager to capitalize on Rousey’s growing popularity as a role model for women and girls.
A few months after Rousey’s UFC Embedded episode, the UFC outsourced the promotional video for Rousey’s next fight against Holly Holm to a L.A.-based production company Digital Domain. Digital Domain producer, Neil Huxley, remembers a sense of excitement around creating that particular promo because the production company had the opportunity to tell a new story for MMA. He says, ‘You don’t normally see these stories about women. Look at the [UFC] promos we have seen over the years…it’s usually heavy metal music and two guys shouting at each other face to face…The fact that we got to tell a story about two fighters was great. The fact that it was women was even better because you are not used to seeing things like this.’ Huxley highlights that the production team purposefully sought to create a promotional spot that departed from MMA’s status quo.
The Rousey-Holm promo is a two minute and 44 second narrative and follows the two women from their first experience with martial arts to their meeting in the Octagon for the fight. The short video can be divided as a three-act structure: act one establishes the women’s childhood introductions to martial arts, act two introduces the barriers and challenges to being women in the sport, and act three shows the women excelling in their sport and preparing for the fight between them. Since the purpose of the narrative is to market the Rousey- Holm fight, the promo ends in a cliff-hanger that shows the two women standing across from each other in the Octagon waiting for the referee to begin the fight. True to the promotional genre, this last part of the story is unwritten at the end of the spot and meant to encourage audiences to buy the pay-per-view and witness the resolution of the narrative.
The promo begins by introducing an 11-year-old Rousey donning pigtails and peering through a window front as she watches students at Judo practice. Young Ronda’s eyes glisten wide as she peers at the judoka through the window. The narrative then flashes to establish a 16-year-old Holm’s first experience punching a heavy bag at a gym. In a show of contrast between the girls, Holly ensures the gym is empty before she begins clumsily hitting the bag and smiling sheepishly to herself. Ronda embraces martial arts with alacrity while Holly comes along a bit more timidly. At the same time, we witness a young Rousey’s first experiences playing Judo with her mother on the couch and practicing her arm bar technique with a teddy bear whose arm she rips off in the process.
The beginning of the promo establishes a degree of similarity between both young girls as well as some of their differences. Both girls are young, white, and blond and we see both stories beginning within the training gym. Rousey’s mother becomes central to the story since she is a Judo champion and Rousey’s key trainer in her younger years. Rousey begins the sport with excitement and lack of fear. Her gender bending is evident in the first act in which we see her sisters playing with dolls while she unabashedly tears the arm of her teddy bear. Holm, on the other hand, is more timid in her origin story. She does not want others to see her practicing on the heavy bags at first and begins more quietly than Rousey. However, the promo clearly evidences both girls defiance of hegemonic gender roles. Rousey does so unapologetically while Holm must ease herself into punching with confidence and without fear of ridicule. The first few scenes clearly establish the contrast between gendered norms and these two women’s ascent in combat sport. They also establish that this particular narrative concerns two blond, white women.
Gendered discrimination for white middle-class women becomes a key feature of how Holm and Rousey have faced obstacles in the sport. One early scene shows Holly’s trainer fitting her boxing gloves to her hands as two men stare and smirk to each other as they pass the only woman in the gym. She is not welcome in that space and the smirks the men give her suggest discrimination against women in the gym. Holly does not register the men’s reactions to her presence in the gym. Instead, she glances up towards the ceiling and breathes an anticipatory gulp of air. The scene shifts to establish a small church where we find Holly sitting in a pew with her head bowed and hands clasped reverently in front of her. Her lightly coloured clothing, skin, and face suggest the angelic purity often associated with white femininity. She lifts her head and the camera zooms in on her pale face framed by her light yellow hair and displays the shadows of a blackened eye. Even though Holly appears indifferent to her bruised face, a man and a woman in the congregation look disapprovingly at her while whispering to one another. The contrast between the reverent young girl and the defiant fighter becomes the emphasis within the scene. In a quick transition, a teenage Rousey appears on the playground kneeling over the top of a boy as she bends his arm into submission. We see a close up of her face as she screams at the boy through bloodied lips. A teenage boy and girl stand over Rousey and her playground opponent smiling and laughing at Rousey’s display of anger and the boy’s discomfort in her submission hold. Rousey then sits quietly in the principle’s office as her mother and the principle discuss the event on the playground. The camera switches to an extreme close up of her downtrodden face.
Rousey’s playground brawl and Holm’s experience with ridicule by men and churchgoers underscore the gender discrimination that have impacted both women as they have progressed in the sport—barriers particularly constructed for white femininity. Passivity and reverence in church form a sharp contrast to schoolyard fighting, black eyes, and bloodied lips since the former is expected of white femininity and the latter is reserved for masculine identities in hegemonic constructions of gender. By contrast, black femininity is more readily constructed as physically confrontational while black masculinity is often represented as excessively so (Mask, 2009). Latina bodies are often represented as hardened through life on the streets (Beltran, 2003). Thus, white femininity, in particular, is often represented as not naturally inclined to physical confrontation. Rousey’s scene might not read explicitly as gendered, since fighting is generally scorned at school settings for all children, but the producers emphasized that they took that scene from Rousey’s memoire. In Rousey’s book, she describes the way she was more harshly punished for fighting than her male peers because of her gender.
The promo never shows Holm registering gender barriers and instead we see her as introspective and preparing to train or to fight through contemplation. She seems nonplussed by the level of ridicule she receives from those around her. Teenage Rousey, on the other hand, confronts gender discrimination by standing up for herself when a playground bully threatens her. Her mother fiercely defends Ronda’s right to fight back even though the principal relies on gendered scripts of passivity to rule her behaviour as inappropriate. The camera zooms in on extreme close-ups of both girls to demonstrate their vulnerability in facing gender roles in martial arts. In fact, racialized gender dynamics in the gym, in church, and on the playground serve as the obstacles that propel the action. For a moment in the promo, it is unclear if our heroines will overcome the gendered challenges they face to succeeding in their sport.
The next few scenes shift in tone to demonstrate the women now succeeding at their sport and preparing for their fight against one another. There is a shot of Holm with her hand raised in the ring and a large championship belt attached to her waist and to Rousey standing on a podium raising her Olympic medal. These women have endured the challenges they faced early in their careers to excel in their sport. We next see Rousey jumping rope in the same darkened gym. A training montage ensues, as the music reaches is climax. Rousey demonstrates spectacular judo throws while Holm rapidly fires punches and kicks at her training partner. The camera zooms in for close ups of each woman’s determined faces as sweat pours from them in the preparation for their fight. The last scene of the promo shows both women standing opposite one another as they wait for the referee to signal the beginning of the fight. He then drops his hand to signal the beginning of the fight. At the same time, the words ‘Every revolution starts with a fight’ and the fight date and time flashes to remind the audience when the story of this impending fight will conclude.
The Rousey – Holm promo both resolves the narrative of these two women and baits the audience to witness how their story unfolds in the Octagon. Both women have faced discrimination in the gym and in society more broadly. In fact, discrimination is the inciting incident and the key battle both women must endure to reach the climax of the story where we find out which of our heroines will win, that is remain in the sport through adversity. Huxley notes that Digital Domain specifically wanted to tell a story of outcasts overcoming discrimination. He says, ‘That was an interesting angle for me….even though they were treated as outcasts, it never stopped them from doing what they wanted to do…what they loved doing.’ Huxley confirms that the intended emotional register of the promo establishes both women as heroines inspired to compete in a man’s space, and succeeding against adversity along the way.
The promo illustrates some key ideological tensions present among postfeminist and popular feminist sensibilities. Postfeminism asserts that the women’s rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s succeeded in eradicating discrimination, so feminism is no longer necessary (Gill, 2007a; Gill, 2007b; McRobbie, 2008). On the contrary, popular feminism sees feminism as something individuals can employ to combat disenfranchisement and places a particular emphasis on physicality as a means to boost confidence. The promo shows Holm and Rousey persevering and winning matches justifying their success through their fortitude. The popular feminist message of the promo then is that confidence, individual resilience, and determination wins in the end. No matter the injustice that women might endure in a combat sport dominated by men, they must remain steadfast and individually determined to overcome. Neither postfeminism nor popular feminism view coalitional politics as a solution to institutionalized sexism. Rather, they both position consumption and participation in particular brands as a means to physical empowerment.
There is a further tension evidenced by the way Holm and Rousey’s physical power is represented in the promo. Postfeminism tends to treat inequalities in the gym as a natural consequence of sexual difference and to view male and female bodies in biologically ridged terms while simultaneously promoting essentialized and disciplined femininity. Popular feminism, on the other hand, recognizes these inequalities of the body as unnatural, undesirable, and damaging for women. The promo importantly takes women out of the boardroom and the classroom where postfeminism has concentrated its empowerment rhetoric (McClearen, 2015b) and introduces the training gym as a location for women’s empowerment. The UFC offers its brand as a solution to the crisis of empowerment that postfeminism has created around the disenfranchised white feminine body. Rousey and Holm embody physical power and are positioned as role models for overcoming obstacles to equality on the playing field. Young girls can attach the Rousey brand to their bodies and dress like her for Halloween. Adult women can challenge the postfeminist assertion that women’s physicality is purely decorative by donning an ‘Don’t Be a DNB’ t-shirt and training kickboxing at their local UFC gym.[iii] Thus, a key site of popular feminist empowerment becomes the confidence that girls and women feel within their own bodies. Fitness and athleticism is not simply a means to define the body in hegemonically feminine terms; rather, they are a means of embodied empowerment that some women—but not all women— may access through sport and fitness brands.
Revising Yet Maintaining White Femininity
Discourses of women and girls’ physical empowerment in UFC media present a compelling challenge to the construction of white femininity. In doing so, they maintain whiteness as key beneficiary of this ideological labour. For example, consider the UFC’s social media hashtag campaign #rouseyrevolution that the organisation designed to accompany the Rousey vs. Holm promo release. The social marketing team encouraged fans to post videos that depicted the #rouseyrevolution and promised to post the best videos to their social media sites. Participants in the campaign posted videos of women and girls in sport and fitness activities and striking power poses to illustrate their participation in the #rouseyrevolution. A curious trend materialized when the UFC posted a series of fan videos featuring the hashtag on their social media sites. Each featured video portrayed a young girl excelling in a martial sport such as boxing, wrestling, karate or the like, and each of these girls were blond and white. In terms of representation, the physical revolution that Rousey and Holm suggest is decidedly a revolution for white women.
Muscular athletic builds may challenge notions of the feminine ideal and more firmly establish girls and women’s physicality as desirable; however, the revolution Rousey represents has yet to be extended to Black female athletes. Compare, for example, the embrace of Rousey’s body with Serena Williams’ stature. Williams’ tennis career has also been one of dominance; yet, racist and sexist discourses of Black female athletes as masculine and superhuman continue to plague her (Anyangwe, 2015; Schultz, 2005; also see Chapter # by Kristi Tredway in this book). Additionally, Williams’ confidence reads differently than Rousey’s in the court of popular opinion. While the Russian Tennis Federation president jokes about the ‘Williams’ brothers’ and public personalities suggest Serena can only build her frame through performance enhancing drugs (Zidan, 2015), Tina Fey (2016) declares Rousey a role model for mothers and daughters. She says, ‘Imagine if we could teach our daughters to value their bodies for what they can do, not for how others think they look.’ Why can’t Serena teach us that? Both Rousey and Williams have also been noted for their hubris; yet, Rousey becomes ‘confident’ and Williams becomes an angry Black woman. Perhaps Claudia Rankine (2015) characterizes Williams best: ‘she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory.’ In the end, Rousey becomes ‘revolutionary’ for women’s body confidence and Williams continues to earn less in sponsorships than tennis stars far less skilled than she (Rankine, 2015).
The Rousey Revolution and the anti-DNB discourses emanating from the UFC are discourses specifically aimed at contesting certain forms of body discipline while refining white femininity to include strength and power. The UFC and Rousey herself are branding themselves as the antidote to the construction of white womanhood as weak and frail because physical vulnerability has long been a hallmark of white femininity—and of middle and upper-classed white femininity in particular. Even amidst the rise of powerful women in media, the trope of the frail white woman, or what Rousey would call the DNB, has remained throughout postfeminist media culture. Popular feminism may revise what is possible for white women’s bodies, but discipline and self-surveillance remains. There may be cracks in the long standing assumption about women’s physicality and women’s combat sport, those cracks still exclude a vast array of women that comprise the constellation of women’s MMA. In the end, the strong white feminine body becomes a vehicle for supporting neoliberal brand culture and maintaining hegemonic femininity and whiteness.
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[i] Rousey capitalized on the DNB speech’s popularity, filed for a DNB trademark, and sold t-shirts for charity with the phrase ‘Don’t Be a DNB’ emblazed across the front. She donated 20% of the proceeds from sales of 57,000 shirts to the Didi Hirch charity, an organisation dedicated to supporting people with mental health issues including body image (‘Ronda Rousey’s ‘No DNBs’ apparel.’)
[ii] I asked Kartzmark why they thought this message of women’s empowerment and Ronda’s persona was so popular with women. He said they had not reached any conclusions but were interested in developing promotional media around the rise of women’s MMA and determining why it had become so popular so quickly.
[iii] UFC Gyms are franchised mixed-martial arts and fitness facilities located across the United States.
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