Kyra Gracie
Kyra Gracie

It is an exciting time for women in BJJ in the United Kingdom. In recent years a critical mass of players has developed, and seminars and women’s open mat events in 2009 included white to purple belts and women and girls of a wide age range. Though still very much a minority presence, the increased visibility of women in clubs and at competitions has attracted the interest of the wider (male-dominated) grappling community with blog and forum threads responding to the emergence of a larger female presence. These discussions are interesting and, to my mind, highlight the broad base of support for women by their BJJ brothers, yet a discussion around Slideyfoot’s article, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ, demonstrates continued gender tension in the BJJ/MMA/grapple-verse.

‘Juan (Pancho) Valquez’, a respondent to Slideyfoot’s analysis of women in BJJ, which highlights the emphasis that is placed on female athletes’ appearance at the expense of interest in their skills, makes a number of claims in an effort to demonstrate a hypocrisy of gender equality in BJJ/MMA/grappling.  Valquez’s expressions of malcontent regarding female grapplers’ retelling of experiences of sexism in their sporting community is incited by Emily Kwok’s suggestion that female grapplers struggle to be taken seriously as athletes and receive less media attention than male counterparts.[1]  There is little doubt that the main hurdle women in sport face is ‘to be taken seriously’, or that the greatest attention of sports media is on men’s sporting achievements,[2] and Kwok’s claims are certainly supported by studies of gender and sport.  Valquez’s argument seems to centre on two themes: 1) women objectify men, so discussion of female athletes’ appearance is not a sign of sexism; 2) women are physically inferior to men and therefore aren’t men’s equals.

I certainly find male athletes sexually attractive, and find athletes’ bodies inspirational.  However, I think it is naive to suggest that because men and women can find each other attractive, there is no difference in how this notion influences popular perceptions of male and female athletes.  The salient question here is not, ‘do women objectify men’, or even, ‘do men objectify women’, it is, ‘does the objectification of women often obscure other qualities of a woman in a way that is both different than for men and more distracting from women’s athletic achievements’.  I believe that it is.  While the double standard surrounding the influence of appearance on popular perceptions of male versus female abilities is a wider societal phenomenon, let’s focus on its manifestation in sport (in Anglo-North American culture).[3]  Chris Isidore has discussed how marketing drives to increase female athletes’ sex appeal has, ultimately, detrimental effects on popular perceptions of female athletes’ abilities.[4]  Similarly, Laura Robinson notes, ‘The media is not interested in covering strong women, it is interested in covering naked women’.[5]  What is significant is not that male bodies are never objectified, but rather that portrayals of female athletes tend to emphasise passivity rather than the performance of sport (as is more common in representations of male players), and work to highlight the pleasingness of women’s bodies to men within a hetero-normative context while obscuring a woman’s athletic achievements.[6]

Valquez argues that female grapplers can never be regarded as equals because they can’t  ‘win’ against men. It is difficult to unpick exactly what Valquez’s argument is here.  He oscillates between suggesting that women can never beat men, ‘They’d [female athletes] be unable to compete against the men and so, as kids, would steer away from sports that they knew to be a dead end for them’ and that women can beat some men, ‘Most professional level female bjjers/mma competitors could probably make a hobbyist like me look like a fool’.[7]  In the end, the core of his position seems to be an affirmation of sexual segregation in sport (which in some subtle unarticulated way seems to demonstrate, for Valquez, female inferiority) and the assertion that if women are equal to men, they should be able to best male competitors, as unlikely as he believes this to be, ‘Generally speaking male athletes usually win against female athletes if they are at the same skill level. That’s why we segregate sports by gender in the first place.'[8]  I believe this assertion is untested, at least in Britain, as the opportunity to compete against men is rarely available to female grapplers in the UK.  As Camilla Hansen’s excellent posting on EFN demonstrates, women are barred from competing against men at most UK tournaments.  While Hansen notes that the Nordic Open allows mixed competition with a 5 kilo advantage, it remains aberrant in Anglo-North American grappling tournaments to offer mixed competition.[9]

I believe that the subtext to Valquez’s comments is offence at women entering what is perceived as a masculine arena.  While women’s agency in the public sphere has increased since the Victorian and Edwardian women’s movement,[10] the public sphere is still in many ways elided with maleness and performances of masculinity.  Female grapplers ‘intrusion’ into the male-dominated grappling space can therefore be viewed, by some men, as a threat to and a disruption of their masculine identity.  In other words, the ability to undertake these masculine performances can, for some men, be ‘cheapened’ by the inclusion of women’s grappling performances.  The insecurity which can arise from this perceived attack on masculinity can give rise to belittling attitudes towards women and women’s sporting achievements.  I, like Kwok, have been accused of practicing an inferior form of ‘girl jiu jitsu’ and of having been promoted to a ‘girl blue belt’.  Yes, as a lighter practitioner, my path is different from many of the men that I train with.  There are no easy wins, ‘muscling it’ is never an option, and in common with other lighter grapplers I have to make the technique work to make progress.  My approach may be different to larger grapplers, but ultimately everyone’s BJJ is unique and male or female we all have our own games, strengths and weaknesses.

In the final analysis, some peoples’ views are so entrenched that no amount of persuasion can bring them round to accept me or other female grapplers as valuable training partners or equally important athletes.  I can only seek to ‘be the change I want to see’.  I organise women’s open mats to provide a place for women to come together and train with one another, and I train hard with an incredible group of (mostly) men at Dartford BJJ, secure in the knowledge that I have their love and respect, just as they have mine.

[1] Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ (2010).
[2] See Laura Robinson interview by Ellie Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality (2009).  Author’s note, I heartily disagree with Robinson’s moralistic and pejorative description of women’s fighting, however, I find much of her argument persuasive and cogent as one would expect from a veteran analyst of women in sport.
[3] For example, Kate Fox, in her summary of SIRC findings, has argued that ‘women are judged on their appearance more than men, and standards of female beauty are considerably higher and more inflexible’. See Kate Fox, Mirror, mirror – a summary of research findings on body image (1997).
[4] See Chris Isidore, Sex in play in women’s sports (2002).
[5] Robinson and Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality.
[6] Robinson and Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality.
[7] Juan (Pancho) Valquez response to Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ.
[8] Valquez response to Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ.
[9] See Camilla Hansen, Should women be allowed to compete in men’s divisions (2009).
[10] See Megan Smitley, The feminine public sphere: middle-class women and civic life in Scotland, c1870-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).