Sexing the Stop: Rousey vs McMann

Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann

Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann came out swinging, and for a little while it looked like we were going to have an excellent and entertaining fight. But soon Rousey had McMann against the fence – and while McMann defended herself well against a take-down, Rousey kneed McMann’s body – hard. On taking a shot to her liver, McMann dropped to her hands and knees. Before much else could happen, the referee stopped the fight. Did he stop the fight too soon? It certainly felt preliminary to the crowd and to a lot of fans who, of course, tweeted their frustration

Controversial decisions happen – the same referee had just stopped another fight late, allowing TJ Waldburger to take an astonishing beating from Mike Pyle: there was a moment when Waldburger appeared to flicker out of consciousness. And maybe that experience pushed Herb Dean to take a pre-emptive step which he might not otherwise have done.

Given the importance of the fight (it was long anticipated, it was a championship fight and the main event), and given the quality of that opening minute – it is natural for us to cry foul when the drama is cut short. Surely McMann should have been given more of a chance to stand up?

Given that it was a women’s fight, Dean’s decision brings out into the public something many women athletes and fans of women’s sports know well. Gender difference impacts how referees see women athletes. And gender difference also impacts how spectators see refereeing decisions. It can be hard to distinguish between these two things in reading a referee’s decision.

Did Dean allow himself to give in to the social conditioning which tells us that women are to be protected? On the football pitch, especially at the lower levels, referees will stop play over the smallest thing – assuming that any time a woman falls over she must be hurt; or, one encounters the opposite problem – referees will let women foul each other viciously on the assumption that anger between two teams over cynical play won’t erupt into dangerous play, or a fight. (My arm was broken in just such a match.) Of course, sometimes poor refereeing is just that – someone times one wants to see such things as about gender when, in fact, decisions will have been shaped by lots of other things. Gender might be the story, it might be a part of the story, it might also be how we see the story – sexism is not necessarily to blame for a crap decision made by a male referee working a women’s fight. The question is: how do we know where gender fits into our reading, our assessment of how women athletes are treated?

In general, we do not get to directly contrast refereeing in men’s and women’s sports. Until the UFC absorbed women into its professional world, we didn’t see – on the same night, on television and in the same hour - the same referee making decisions about men and women.

Immediately after the fight, McMann very graciously reminded people that the referee is there to protect the fighters; that this responsibility is paramount. Of course, this is why people – including the television announcers – were concerned about how long it took Dean to stop Pyle vs Waldburger. Why would Dean wait so long to stop one fight, and then stop the other so quickly, so reflexively? The contrast between the two refereeing decisions is stark.

The placement of women within a relatively desegregated context allows us to think the decisions together. And also to think about our investments in a fight, as a gendered story. For example: perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why, in general, we are more ready to accept the expression of brutality towards a man’s body than towards a woman’s? Or, why, as fans, we need McMann to have the chance to handle that brutality. I’m using the word brutality here (rather than violence) to mean that moment when a fighter is down – perhaps out – and when the opponent swarms, with the aim of “finishing” them. When the fighter losing the fight can barely buster any resistance – and begins to seem helpless. Dean kept the women’s fight – the main event, the last fight of the night – from going there.

And we are wondering: Was it just a conservative decision? If it were men fighting, would he have made that call? Would Dana White be championing it? Is it fair for us read the call as, perhaps, sexist? Or was it just a bad call, overcompensating for another bad call?

Michael Sam: Welcome to the Family

Joe Sola, Saint Henry Composition, 2001 (still)

It is a marvelous thing when an athlete tells the world that he is not going to bargain with his happiness.

It is marvelous thing that Michael Sam, a serious NFL prospect, has announced to the people who run the show that he’s gay – it’s just plain wonderful that he made this announcement as publicly as possible through mainstream and LGBT media. Michael Sam is daring the sports world to turn its back on him. Daring the suits to defy the (relatively) easy acceptance shown him by his teammates and coaching staff.

“And, by the way, I’m GAY” is something that gay men in the most macho of sports usually say on their way out the door. Retiring as a player is accompanied by a release – for many LGBT athletes, participation in a sport is synonymous with the suppression of one’s life as gay, lesbian or transgendered. A robust professional career becomes a straight-jacket. Hanging up the uniform is done with a certain joy, and a lot of bitterness.

In 2009, the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, a real star in an international game, asserted the possibility of a different story for men. Thomas came out to the media in 2009 (he retired in 2011). He was already out to his teammates and his coach: he was in his late 30s and in the rare position of being so loved, so admired that his coming out could not  have unsettled people’s understanding of his value as an athlete. Most queer folks walk away much sooner. As teenagers. They walk away from the track, they walk off the field. If they read as gay to the people around them – they get kicked off the team, they don’t get selected for national development programs, they are bullied and shamed and never get to a place where they might be offered a spot on a big college team. Most say something like, FUCK THIS BULLSHIT and do something else.

A few of these young people find it within themselves to fall on the sword and file lawsuits, and it is thanks to them that we have any legal tools for confronting the intense homophobia that shapes lesbian and gay athletes’ experiences of sports. Penn State basketball stand-out Jennifer Harris did so in 2007 when she was bullied by her coach – Rene Portland had a “no lesbians” policy which she advertised to the media for 20 years. Portland didn’t think there was anything wrong with her policy, it felt totally natural to her to ban lesbians from her team (lesbian, here, meant any woman who doesn’t appear feminine). Those people never get to take their sport up again – people who fight for social justice are not, according this side of the sports world, “team players.” That kind of attitude still prevails among the corporate drones of the sports world. The people writing endorsement contracts, making media deals – the people in the business of selling the game, the people who make selling out into a profession – they are the ones holding us all back. As Chris Kluwe told the New York Times:

The men in charge will pose problems, Kluwe said. “It’s the general managers and coaches who are going to say it’s a distraction.”

These are the people who force the lesbian, gay and trans athlete to choose. Sport or sex. And by “sex” here, I mean the whole things – everything that word means. The gender of one’s romantic partners, sexual acts and identities, one’s own relationship to gender and sexuality, one’s social relationships to gendered people, the gender-culture of one’s sport, the sexual culture of that sport. One is asked to suppress and participate; embrace and exile.

That suppression might require that one deep-six one’s happiness, all expression of gender rebellion, all expressions of same-sex love and attachment. It might require something lighter – but still quite heavy – an undercover cop’s level of discretion as one leads the classic double-life – and in which the more successful you are in your sport, the more vulnerable you are for having made even the smallest gesture towards that word ‘gay.’ Maybe, as is the case with a lot of women athletes, one “just” watches the team’s management, the Olympic committee’s administration, and corporate sponsors quash all things that signal “gay” – from the existence of a long-term, live-in girlfriend and the importance of a gay family as part of an athlete’s support team (athletes have gay parents!), to an athlete’s haircut, outfit choices, participation in Pride or mentorship of other LGBT athletes. All of that might be conducted “off-the-record” to make a bunch of out-of-touch assholes feel like they are stewarding the development of your sport. Which usually involves putting women athletes in bikinis, giving them make-overs, and finding stories about teammates who are getting married – to men. To reassure themselves that women are not lesbians, lesbians are not women. If Sam wants to talk to out pro athletes about negotiating all of that – new territory in men’s sports – he’d do well to seek out the women who’ve been out there in sports world’s genderwarzone for decades. Now that he’s out, he gets to navigate the problem of being visible.

It is interesting to watch the straight media struggle to describe the shape of Sam’s life. All media accounts describe him as open in a way that is perfectly commensurate with the lives of young gay men who are in college, who are finding their way through a homophobic world – telling friends, finding the right bars and making more friends. Right now, the media is making a lot out of his family’s homophobia, for example. The New York Times profile dedicates a fair amount to space to his father’s discomfort, and suggests that being closer to friends than family is some sort of tragedy – even given the hundred other things Sam had to overcome, the idea of a homophobic father – especially one who is a black man – will prove irresistible as headline fodder. For queer folks, a family’s homophobia is a misery, but it is often also part of a more complicated story. A family’s homophobia may be just one ingredient in a toxic cocktail, and homophobia has all sorts of shapes, textures and sounds. Sometimes a family just can’t support you for who you are and there might be a thousand reasons why that might be so. Discovering a whole world of people – friends – who are happy to mentor and guide you, who are dedicated to your happiness and to the realization of your potential – who will open up their homes, shelter you and more – that is a magic time in one’s life and queer folks turn away from all sorts of trouble in favor of this other family. The families we choose. Queer friendship, in fact, points out the poverty of the system that only validates relationships that fit a heternormative, reproductive paradigm. We should not look at biological families or friendships through the lens of that paradigm. Friends are not a poor substitute for a “real” family. It seems like Michael Sam is really good at making friends, finding family in the larger world. And that this is the place he’s coming from.

This is what I like about his timing. This is not just a coming out, this is an athlete who is already making a home for himself in the world as a gay man. His announcement to the media is a very public demonstration of the choice that LGBT athletes make every day, especially in their youth – a decision, often made by necessity – as a matter of survival – to live otherwise and to make the world into something different – something better. His message: “This game is asking something of me that I don’t want to give it. A denial of who I am. So I’m going to demand a different kind of game.” Few are in a position to force a game to change. Michael Sam is, and he’s going for it.

Goal Tending

For the past couple weeks I’ve been posting artwork centered on women’s football, partly in response to the exclusion of such work from curatorial projects on “the beautiful game.” I have a professional responsibility as a feminist art critic and as a feminist sports writer to point out when the marginalization of women’s sports is extended into the art world, to educate people as to how one might counter that tendency, but also to explain why it is important that we do so.

As I talk with people about this kind of artwork, and the condition of women’s football globally, I’m constantly reminded of cultural attitudes about the women’s game. For most people, women’s football is an obscure subject. It’s an obscure subject, in fact, for most women sports fans. People are committed to the idea that women’s football is slow and boring. They might enjoy the Olympics, or the Women’s World Cup – but what they seem to relish is the surprise that they liked the tournament. Sports media feeds the fan this narrative – that anytime a women’s game is exciting, it’s a “new” thing. It’s a surprise because mainstream fans of football are committed to the idea that women just don’t have the skill, strength, or speed to play an “entertaining” game. When not enthralled by an international tournament in which women are somehow possessed by demons and play well, those (sexist) fans entertain (comfort?) themselves with stories of women’s monstrosity and ineptitude. These people sit at home and make video montages, evidencing what they already know. Women can’t play.

This gross problem is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in popular ideas about women goalkeepers. The above youtube video has been, since 2007, the first video that appears in a google search for “women goalkeepers.” The first (at least from my computers and in my locations). Not season highlights of the first goalkeeper (male or female) to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year (Germany’s Nadine Angerer) but a weird compilation of low points in the early rounds of an old tournament. Ask the world what it wants to know about women goalkeepers, and you will learn that the world cares only about how awful they are. This is the story that world is determined to see. The question “Why is women’s goalkeeping so poor?” takes as a given the idea that women are inherently bad at goalkeeping; it assumes that the limits one might see in the early rounds of an international tournament reflect a biological limitation. A deficiency. In fact, any mistake a woman makes in goal at any level is likely to be read as the result of her having a vagina. 

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But ask the world what it wants to know about goalkeepers – who are assumed to be men – and you will see that the world wants a definition of the position and it wants to know which ones are the best. Given the ruthlessness of the sexism of the sports world, I think it’s important – necessary – that when we take up football as a subject in our research, writing and cultural programing we actively refuse the impulse to take the men’s game as a universal standard, and the women’s game as some form of deviation. We need to think them both together, and in relation to one another.

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Heavy Breathing: Pro Wrestlers with “Absolutely No Words”

Youtube is, frankly, the best place to for an artist and art critic to check herself. What you see in a museum was probably done by a fan and posted on Youtube – and discussed on Reddit – years ago.

Cris Bierrenbach: The Uniform Shot

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The artist Cris Bierrenbach dressed in diverse uniforms, photographed herself, and then fired shots at the self-portraits, defacing each. “Fired” (2013) uses the different meanings of that word to provide a disturbing comment on labor, gender and precarity. Wedged into this project is a photograph of the artist in the uniform of Brazil’s national team. A given: women footballers in Brazil are vulnerable in the same way that ordinary women are vulnerable. That is not something you would assume if a male artist made this gesture to the national team. This work has me thinking about the relationship between gender and violence in experiences of/stories about the men’s game, and the violence that women encounter in the world as the background (the given) against which they play.  The artist is from São Paulo.

Jaskirt Dhaliwal’s Anti-Spectacular Portraits

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Jaskirt Dhaliwal’s photographs are very similar to those I’ve posted earlier by Andrew Esiebo and by Moira Lovell. In researching contemporary art about this sport, I’ve found huge differences between work engaging the men’s game and the women’s. Work engaging the men’s game tends to address men’s football as spectacle – thus Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s cinematic project Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, Jürgen Teller’s film of himself watching Germany lose to Brazil (Germany 0: Brazil 2), Harun Faroki’s Deep Play. One can see Lyle Ashton Harris’s project as a meditation on the politics of the football spectacle (e.g. Blow Up, see earlier post). The televisual spectacle, the crowds, the iconic figure at the center of it all – this is the subject of art about the men’s game. Women footballers are overwhelmingly isolated by the artist’s camera – rarely pictured as a team – and they are frequently photographed in street clothes, off the pitch, in ordinary and fairly anonymous settings. As Dhaliwal writes on her website, “The idea that some of the nation’s best female footballers could pass you on the street and you would not know them is a telling fact in a world where male footballers are ranked as celebrities.” Artists make this statement over and over again about women footballers. Nobody knows who they are. The woman sitting next to you on the train could be an international player, and you’d never know it. You’d never know it because you have to work hard to learn who these women are – trekking out to minor pitches in the outskirts of the metropolis to sit with a few hundred folks watching an untelevised match played between largely amateur athletes. That’s where you’ll find the women Dhaliwal photographed; their images are not splashed across the tabloids, broadcast on your televisions, or peopling advertisements for everything under the sun.

Andrew Esiebo’s “Grannys”

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Nigerian artist Andrew Esiebo’s diptych series, Alter Gogo (2010) juxtaposes portraits of women standing on their home ground in their team uniform with portraits of the same women surrounded by their grandchildren.  The Los Angeles County Musem of Art just opened a show celebrating contemporary art about “the beautiful game” – but women’s football is intensely marginalized in the exhibition. I’ve been cruising the interwebs looking for work centered on women’s relationship to this sport, and was reminded of Esiebo’s work as I was looking up work from “Beyond Football – shifting interests and identity,” an exhibition that was on view in Berlin (at Savvy Contemporary) during the 2011 Women’s World Cup; the exhibition was also staged in Lagos through the Goethe Institute there.

From the artist’s website:

“Alter Gogo” is a diptych portrait series featuring a group of grandmothers who are members of the Gogo Getters Football Club in Orange Farm, South Africa. For them, playing football is more than a recreational activity; it’s also had a profound social and physical impact on their lives. In a community plagued with social and physiological problems like high unemployment, crime, alcoholism, diabetes and high-blood pressure, football serves as a salve. And all too often in collective imaginary, African women are located in the sphere of tradition and oppression, especially when they reach old age. With the grandmothers’ regalia and their proud postures both on the pitch and at home, “Alter Gogo” creates a powerful socio-cultural scenario in which soccer is the means and expression of a new gender and generation identity.”

Mamela Nyamza’s Interventionist Performances

Mamela Nyamza’s Shift thinks with, moves with the experiences of black women athletes in the public sphere, especially those athletes “accused” of having masculine appearance and comportment  - e.g. Caster Semenya, Eudy Simelane (the South African national team player raped and murdered in 2008), the Williams Sisters.

For more on Shift, see this review by Robyn Sassen.

In 2012, Nyamza (who is based in South Africa) and the multi-disciplinary writer/actor/performer Mojisola Adebayo (based in Lonson) collaborated on “I Stand Corrected” – check out this interview about the show.

Olympic Blatter: boycott on the brain

Sepp Blatter is going to Sochi. So the FIFA president declares in a recent issue of FIFA Weekly. The magazine includes a two-page selective history of boycott movements. In his “presidential notes” accompanying this weird article, Blatter characterizes the boycotter as “running away” from the problem rather than confronting it. He makes a vague gesture towards FIFA’s even more vague stand against the unpleasantness of “discrimination.”

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He can’t bring himself to write words like “homophobia,” or “gay.” It’s OK to acknowledge that racism is bad. But sexism and homophobia? Not fit for print. He says that he is an advocate for social inclusion and participation, but that commitment does not extend to the words one uses in such a “conversation” about said advocacy.

There is no reference in this FIFA Weekly article to Russia’s psychotic anti-gay laws, not one use of a word associated with homosexuality (e.g. “gay,” “anti-gay”) in the FIFA Weekly story on boycotts and the Olympics. Not one. Furthermore, in this piece of half-hearted propaganda, FIFA editors almost exclusively reference the US/Soviet Olympic boycotts as evidence of how boycotts don’t work. There is not one mention of the most famous boycott movement of the twentieth century, one which had a big impact on both the Olympics and the World Cup – and, indeed, the make-up of FIFA: the boycott and divestment movement against apartheid South Africa. Members of the Confederation of African Football and the Asian Football Federation boycotted the 1966 World Cup in response to FIFA’s aggressively colonialist policies limiting African and Asian participation in the tournament; CAF nations in particular also linked their boycott to FIFA’s apologist behavior toward South Africa and Rhodesia. (See, for example, Two Hundred Percent‘s overview of this period.)

That boycott moved African and Asian participation in the tournament forward, and it brought about the end of apartheid South Africa’s recognition by FIFA. This movement was led not by government leaders, but by the people – by students and activists all over the world. South Africa’s invitation to participate in the 1968 Olympics was one of the platforms for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (and that invitation was revoked, in response to political pressure). That movement led to one of the most enduring images in all of sports history (the raised fists and bowed heads of Tommie Smith, John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics). Black athletes in 1968 were fighting for human rights – boycotting events in South Africa, and divesting from South African institutions and companies was a major part of that.

How anyone could have a conversation about boycotts and not mention South Africa is beyond me. That Blatter would describe boycott movements as cowardly (as “running away from the problem”) is despicable. Read that “presidential note” if you want a refresher course on why, whenever Blatter appears in a tournament stadium, crowds unite in a chorus of jeers.

They Should At Least Be Topless

“If I’m going to pay $60 for a pay-per-view to watch women fight, they should at least be topless.”

UFC fighter Matt Brown made this remark on the inaugural episode of what was meant to be a regular podcast (Legit Man Shit, which is back on-line but is, I think, edited). That one sentence – as banal as it is – captures a lot. The sexualization of the woman athlete; the straightening out of women’s athleticism into an acceptable, non-threatening product; a resistance to the idea that women athletes be paid; the positioning of women’s athleticism in direct conflict with their sex appeal – it’s all there.

UFC issued a boilerplate apology on behalf of Brown - something about UFC’s conduct policy, the practice of inclusion and a non-discriminatory workplace. The hullabaloo has provoked a familiar conversation. The remarks are disavowed, there’s discussion of a fine etc, but, as Aurora Ford reminds us in her opinion piece for Fightland, this attitude is absolutely common – it has more stamina than it should. Brown is not an outlier.

Women athletes are routinely told to be feminine, pretty – to “sell” the game. The language that manages their appearance is only slightly more refined than Brown’s comment. It is packaged as some sort of service to the marketing and development of the women’s game. If women athletes are told to grow their hair long, to wear dresses to awards ceremonies, if they are given makeovers as publicity stunts or asked to pose nude to advertise an international tournament, it’s because sports officials and corporate executives still believe that people want to see in women a sexual spectacle – and that any other narrative frame for the female body is a turn-off.

It’s important to signal that the sexual spectacle invoked in remarks like Brown’s tends to be very specific: it conjures the “hot girl” imagined by a very vanilla straight guy. A “pretty” girl with long hair, curves. Feminine, straight. White. Fit, athletic – but not muscular. More graceful than strong. People like Sepp Blatter think like this. Ronda Rousey was marketed this way – think of that ESPN Body Issue which pictured her as a sex-kitten in pastels. Which is a riot when one thinks about what Rousey’s personality is actually like. (I’m trying to picture Johny Hendricks in his gloves, naked and with this come-hither sex face.)

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The uptightness of attitudes about women athletes, about women’s athleticism should be read as not only sexist but as homophobic – it supports gender policing as women are “dolled up” to reassure the spectator that they are “really” women. And it is a displacement of the panic the homophobic spectator feels when asked to consider the amount of attention and energy he spends thinking about, talking about, and playing with other guys.

Ideologies of sex, sexuality and gender shape our ideas about what a sport spectacle is; they shape how we experience those spectacles. They in fact shape how we experience the sports we practice.

Embedded in Brown’s remark is the resistance to the professionalization of women’s sports (“If I’m going to pay…”). The sports world is one arena in which men do not have to compete directly against women and much of the rhetorical shit that gets thrown around on the boringness of women’s sports reinforces this segregation as somehow “right” and “natural.”

Brown’s remark may in fact express professional worry about having to compete against women – for audience, for prize money and sponsorship dollars. Most pro male athletes do not have to live in the same economy  as women athletes – UFC is the one popular professional sport where women participate in the main event. Where a fight between women might be named the fight of the night (e.g. UFC 168, Rousey v. Tate), where men can lose a huge financial bonus ($75,000 for each fighter) to women because the women put on a better show. This is one thing that keeps me glued to UFC: I’m curious to see how all this plays out – because there is no ignoring the fact that the fights between women have the capacity to upstage fights between men.

Matt Brown’s remark was dumb, but like a lot of sports fans I don’t like singling him out – or even censoring him. Because as long as the only issue of Sports Illustrated dominated by women is the issue in which they wear bathing suits and do nothing (for example), the true sports fan knows that the opinion expressed by Matt Brown is, in fact, an opinion endorsed at every turn by sports media and its attendant commercial monsters.

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