12 January 2017

Pugilistic women


Winter scene on one of Moscow's suburban rail lines. (Photo by Judy.) Posted in response to the flood of snowy
photos on social networks from our friends in western Oregon. We will not be out-snowed!
I don't plan to post regularly on the subject of women competing in mixed martial arts, but I was fascinated by last week's "Quick to Listen" podcast from Christianity Today, "Do Women Fighters Undermine the Bible's Understanding of Gender?" Co-hosts Robin Lee and Mark Galli spoke with Alastair J. Roberts, who recently wrote a guest post on this subject, on the Gospel Coalition's blog. If you read his article there, read the comments as well.

Alastair Roberts said that his Gospel Coalition post was descriptive rather than prescriptive, but it's interesting to read the title embedded in the permalink for the post (as opposed to the titles used in the actual page): "Why Christians should refuse to celebrate women fighting." Sounds prescriptive to me! -- and it triggers the usual response I have when men tell women what they should or shouldn't do.

On the podcast, Roberts explains some of his misgivings, starting with the recent phenomenon of pornography that emphasizes strong and aggressive women engaging in
... violent and rough activities, and they can engage in it just like men. And there's something about that that I do not believe is healthy, and I think there is a relationship between that sort of phenomenon and what we see in UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship], where women being beaten up is a spectacle for a primarily male audience. What do men see in this? I think one of the things that's interesting is seeing the sort of continuity between the phenomenon of the ringside girls and women in the ring. This is something that may be more obvious in something like WWE but also within UFC there is that continuity between the two phenomena that women who formerly would just be by the ringside, there for visual appearance, when women fight in the ring there's still that sexual element to it, where they're there -- they're watched for their appearance, whatever they may be thinking of. I think they're in the ring because of their skill, they're in the ring because of their ability to practice this particular sport. But for the male audience, and it is an overwhelmingly male audience in UFC, there is a very different thing going on, I believe. And I think that is the concern.
Lead host Robin Lee responds:
Towards the latter part of the conversation, when you were talking about how these female athletes may perceive themselves, I actually think that's kind of like where the crux of the conversation gets a little bit hard because who gets to own the image, so to speak. Is the image owned by the athletes themselves, who are going in there and have trained really hard for what they have done, or -- and do they get to kind of pick the terms on which their sport is appreciated and how they as athletes are appreciated? Or is it something where the audience gets to, you know, foist whatever they want and see what they want to see on there? If these women are trying to be taken seriously as athletes -- like, that's their intent -- perhaps it matters less, maybe what you would say, the impact, which is that they end up being consumed in a crass way, ultimately, a way that dehumanizes them.
Roberts says that he doesn't want to prohibit anyone from doing things that are usually associated with the traditionally-defined opposite sex, but he worries that if society promotes the exceptions as superior to the more natural correlation of values and gifts ...
... In particular, the celebration of gender-atypical and gender-nonconforming women and women who are very much not just extremes of women's tendencies but very much exceptions to the norm; when they're held forth as the great example of female strength, what does that mean for women more generally?
-- and here he goes beyond the martial arts to refer to the relatively new phenomenon of "kick-*ss" female movie heroes, who are generally gorgeous in a stereotypical way. And co-host Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, reinforces Roberts's audience-shaped worries:
... Most women completely underestimate the power of the sexual drive in males, and I think just the notion that men find watching women fight not only athletically pleasing (that is to say, like anyone we would enjoy watching someone excel at a sport), there is that sexual dimension always.
Both men acknowledge Lee's point that women should define the "image" and exercise the power that was objectively denied them throughout history -- and in the absence of that power, Lee noted, women were not in fact protected and cherished in the stereotypical way that men, the natural pugilists, were supposed to act so that women could fulfill their own special virtues. But Roberts persists in claiming that society has gone way beyond promoting equivalence in power, instead exalting the nonconformists and eclipsing those whose choices line up with biblical patterns, which he traces back to the Creation account in Genesis 1.

I just don't see evidence for any kind of massive overcompensation. At the gym where I work out, the video screens above the treadmills deliver a steady diet of Hollywood action films (with no sound, so I only get to see the visual messages) -- and, for what it's worth, the violent heroines are still way outnumbered by their male counterparts. Most people seem to make choices not all that different from what might predict from traditional patterns, but the crucial difference that represents progress is that, at least sometimes, atypical and nonconformist choices are less likely to be blocked. I honestly don't see any danger that women are only defining strength by drawing on male "virtues" or traditional gender roles, but thank God, women and men together are breaking old bondages.

A few other observations:

First, women in mixed martial arts don't seem to be decorative in the ways implied by Roberts's article. First of all, they are few, and they had a hard time getting into the ring in the first place, if histories like this one are to be believed. Also, I watched some MMA videos earlier this evening, and although I can't claim to be a typical viewer (and my viewing has probably now ended!), there seemed to be a lot more genuine athleticism and less emphasis on physical hotness than I was led to expect by Galli and Roberts.

And, secondly, I was puzzled by the implication that, if women are to fight in the ring at all, they should be sort of monastic about their participation. Is it possible that some women have found a healthy and balanced way to be sexual beings as well as athletes in public, and that this sort of confidence can even be a Christian virtue? And is men's sexuality and the "sexual dimension" of their (our) interaction with women or with sporting events to be treated as a total time bomb? Yes, male sexuality combined with unaddressed addictions and monopolies of power are too often a deadly mixture, but we will not come to grips with that reality without learning and teaching what it means to enjoy life as responsible sexual creatures, created in the incredibly fertile image and likeness of God.

Thirdly, it's interesting that some gender roles (such as the "manly" role of protector, by violence if necessary) seem to me to apply to pre-Christian peoples and societies. Quakers have traditionally taught that when we put our lives into Christ's hands, we are going back through the flaming sword into the paradise of God, that place where man and woman were companions and helpmeets to each other. Whatever compromises we make or don't make in life as we know it, let's not pretend that the roles we find ourselves adopting to get from one day to the next are necessarily permanent and Godly.

Finally, on a related note, I was intrigued by the patterns of gender virtue and giftedness that Roberts found in Genesis. (Go to 27:25 in the podcast.) These sorts of interpretations can be incredibly illuminating, but they are NOT to be used to impose bondages on believers! Some Christian leaders still believe that they can exercise coercive power by sternly calling this thing biblical and this other thing unbiblical. "Biblical" leadership is exercised only within contexts of humility and mutual accountability.



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