The representation of women in BJJ, grappling and sport more generally is a heated topic that can reveal gendered divisions within, for the purposes of this post, the BJJ community. I have taken part in discussions around the representation of women in BJJ in the past and most recently, kicked off the fracas related to Manto’s public posting of a sexualised portrayal of female grapplers on its company Facebook Page that emphasised women’s attractiveness to men over the skill and ability of female athletes. This story was picked up by blogs inside and outside the BJJ-sphere including, but not limited to, Tangled Triangle, Georgette’s Jiu Jitsu World and Jezebel, as well as print publications, such as Martial Arts Illustrated, which will publish my thoughts on Manto’s brand-building in its December 11 issue, Vol 24, No. 07.

Men's mag photoshoot with gear and space provided by Manto
'Men's mag' photoshoot with gear and space provided by Manto

Those women and men who fedback to Manto to assert that this was not a brand-identity that they could support were met with hostile accusations. These accusations covered a range of suggestions, but a couple strong themes emerged:

  • ‘sex sells’ and any critique of sexualised marketing is born of a ‘deluded’ and ‘unrealistic’ mind
  • (heterosexual) women find men attractive and the representation of women disseminated by Manto is equivalent to a topless photograph of a male athlete; the suggestion being calling foul on the image in question belies a double standard
  • ‘feminists’ are man-hating lesbians
  • (ironically in light of the charge of homosexuality) ‘feminists’ dislike looking at women’s bodies and are threatened by beautiful women

Clearly there are a number of unqualified assertions embedded in these accusations as well as unquestioned biases around what a ‘feminist’ is or what ‘feminism’ stands for and a treatise on the nuances of feminism, the myth of a monolithic ‘feminism’, the many feminisms, the success of anti-feminist forces in discrediting the gender-equality aims of feminism and issues around ‘crises in masculinity’ will not be undertaken here.(1) I will attempt to address some of the accusations listed above with special reference to my own brand-building activity and my relationship with Predator BJJ, which is one of the fightwear brands I have the pleasure to collaborate with on a volunteer basis.

‘Sex Sells’

The oft-quoted cliché of ‘sex sells’ is used in many industries to justify objectified portrayals of women’s and men’s bodies. This unqualified assertion is a blunt instrument and the Tangled Triangle references one marketing study that has sought to quantify and qualify the received knowledge that sex does indeed sell. Let’s accept the notion that ‘sex sells’; we’re human beings after all and sexual creatures so there is a seductive, intuitive quality to this idea that we’ll take at face value for the moment. Does ‘sex’ then equate to misogynist representations of women which objectify women’s bodies and emphasise their attractiveness over all other qualities and present women’s sexuality as something to be consumed by men rather than owned by and enjoyed by themselves? I disagree. Take, for example, the well known ‘totally organic experience’ campaign by Herbal Essences. In the ‘organic experience’ campaign, women were depicted ecstatically

enjoying the Herbal Essences shower products in a female-friendly fashion that reinforced women’s ownership of their bodies and sexuality. While all feminists may not agree with this assessment and suggest that aspects of this campaign continued to objectify or dehumanise women, for me, and I do self-consciously identify as a ‘feminist’, this is an example of using sex to sell without using mysogynist representations of women.

(Heterosexual) Women and Men Consume Images of Attractive Bodies

Georges St Pierre
GSP and male MMA fighters often pose topless

The charge that women are as likely as men to gawp at pictures of attractive bodies is a reasonable one, so far as it goes. In context, it was suggested that the image shared by Manto was equivalent to an image of a ‘hot’ male body. I cannot accept this. On the one hand, while a woman may feel aroused by looking at a picture like that of GSP, above, the image itself is not overtly eroticised, unless of course one equates flesh with eroticism. I do not. For me, the mere portrayal of a body, and athletes maintain aspirational bodies, does not equate to a sexualised or objectified portrayal. For instance, in this photo of Georges St Pierre, his pose is confident and one is invited to admire his athletic physique; respect for the work that went into creating and maintaining that body is implied. Similarly, GSP is pictured with his MMA gloves and shorts, a clear reference to his sporting career and again we are invited to admire his abilities. Importantly, his attractiveness is not elevated above all other attributes, his pose is not eroticised and while his flesh is on display he is not dehumanised.

Nike’s investment in a brand identity that reinforces positive representations of the skills and abilities of female athletes is an example of portrayals of women’s bodies that are not objectified, though flesh is visible in the sports clothing modelled by the athletes featured in Nike’s campaign. For instance, in promotional material featuring Sofia Boutella, there is naked flesh apparent and while we are certainly invited to admire the strength of Sofia’s stomach and her astonishing abilities as a dancer, the portrayal of Sofia and her discipline is not eroticised, nor is she presented as an object for men’s pleasure and consumption, but rather as an accomplished and capable practitioner. In other words, it seems to me that Boutella’s portrayal in this video is much more equivalent to the GSP portrayal than to the image that was disseminated by Manto.

Meg is ‘Sexist’

Around the same time that Manto shared the image in question on its Facebook Page, Predator BJJ launched its new women’s gi line. Predator BJJ sponsors male and female athletes and chose to use ‘real’ BJJers in its advertising, including Leoni Munslow (BJJ School) and Yasmine Wilson (RGA Bucks). As a brand, Predator BJJ has consistently endeavoured not only to financially support female grapplers, but also to solicit women’s feedback on the direction of their women’s line. As a brand, Predator BJJ is all about talking with women, not at them. Women are not cast as an aberrant ‘other’ in their brand communications and in their first ad for their women’s line they crafted a beautiful image of two female grapplers that positively reinforces the skills of these athletes over their attractiveness.

Predator BJJ Predadora Ad
Predator BJJ Predadora ad emphasises female grapplers' skills

My review of the Predadora, which was undertaken in collaboration with fellow purple belt, Lisa James, included a video which aimed to reference ‘Manto-gate’ while demonstrating that it is possible to represent female grapplers without objectification and thereby highlight some of the fallacies in the accusations directed at those who have now chosen to boycott Manto.

A contributor to MegJitsu on Facebook has accused me of ‘sexism’ and ‘double standards’ through a portrayal of ‘cat-fighting’ and ‘girls slapping asses’. Indeed, clearly the respondent ‘gets’ that Lisa and I were referencing the Manto controversy with our video, but I disagree that the content is ‘sexist’ and asked for clarification on how the content is ‘sexist’, i.e. how it objectifies women:

meg: really, 2 girls running around in their sports bras slapping each other asses. sexism. case closed.

While I appreciate the feedback, I stand by our video as a non-sexist, though flirty and ‘sexy’, portrayal of female grapplers. As outlined above I do not accept that an image of a body is equivalent to a sexualised image of a body. Indeed, those photos with us in our sports tops were in no way gratuitous renderings of our torsos, but central to one of the points of the video and the review, i.e. that the cut of the trousers was more than ample in the seat, hence the shots from the rear and the side. In terms of ‘slapping asses’, when showing the rear of the trousers I hover my ‘predator claw hand’ behind Lisa’s bum which, simultaneously, makes sardonic reference to the ‘boob control photo’ while echoing our ‘animal characters’ that we took on for the video. I take my reviews very seriously and want very much to provide rich and accurate information for consumers and seek, with each review, to raise the bar. Collaborating with Lisa has been a great way to do this and we set out to create media that would provide a rich view of the product, entertain and demonstrate that ‘sex sells’ and ‘feminism’ are not mutually exclusive. I believe that we achieved that through copious high quality product shots, an innovative ‘flip book’ look, humorous ‘animal fighting’ and creeping round my garden and clear communication of the pros and cons of the gi (as we saw it). Of course, this is art and art is filtered through each individual’s subjectivities, but I dispute the notion that we in any way dehumanised ourselves or women, erm well we were being ‘predatory animals’ so perhaps ‘dehumanised’, but not objectified!

(1) Readers may wish to check out Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Anchor, 1992), which still remains salient and an excellent popular discussion of these issues decades after publication.