“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.)
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.