Ben Fowlkes, writing for MMA Junkie, thinks the UFC is doing a disservice to the talented women on this season of the Ultimate Fighter.
Not only is it the first time the show has featured all female fighters, but it will also be the first time the reality show season ends with the guaranteed crowning of a new champion in a new division. That feels important. That feels like it’s worth watching. So why is the UFC just trying to tell me how pretty these women are? Why is that, in fact, the very first thing these ads stress?
“Heartbreaker,” says the ad, showing a glammed-up and glowering Bec Rawlings. “Bonebreaker,” it adds, showing her looking more like a professional athlete… “Jaw-dropping,” says another ad, right before contrasting it with “jaw-breaking.” It stresses that these women are “easy on the eyes, and hard on the face.”
I get what Fowlkes is saying here. The UFC is treating its female athletes different than the males in emphasizing their looks as well as their skill as fighters. I think though that the situation requires a wider perspective before passing judgement. Some background:
The UFC was founded in 1993 and did not introduce a women’s division until 2012. The reason for this is a bit complicated but it boils down to the level of competition not really being on par with the men until the sport was nearly 20 years old. At that time one woman emerged, Ronda Rousey, a former Olympic bronze medalist in judo, who was undefeated and remains so after nearly two years as the champion in her weight class. Rousey’s performances have been so dominant that it changed the mind of UFC president Dana White who had previously said women would never fight in the UFC. What made the decision much easier no doubt is the fact that Rousey is an attractive and easily marketable woman (see Exhibit A below).
Rousey has become not just the biggest name in women’s MMA but arguably the biggest name in the sport. She is also extremely savvy about marketing herself. While her performances inside the cage need no explanation (Rousey has finished every opponent she has fought and broken three arms in the process), she has also been comfortable with presenting herself as an attractive woman who can kick the crap out of most men. She has posed for Maxim and the ESPN Magazine Body Issue and most recently appeared in the latest Expendables movie. Rousey has stated repeatedly that she has no problem being attractive and a world-class martial artist if it brings more attention to women’s MMA.
The inaugural bantamweight women’s division has become so popular, not just with Rousey at the top but also with a growing list of other talented fighters, that the UFC decided to add a second division, hence the latest season of the Ultimate Fighter. Sixteen women were chosen for the season and even my wife who only watches the sport when forced to, commented last night during the first episode that the cast was exceptionally attractive. So the UFC is banking on this. More from Fowlkes:
The hell of it is, the UFC and FOX don’t need to do that here. This is maybe the first “TUF” season in half a decade that sells itself, just on athletic importance alone. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with pointing out that those athletes are also conventionally attractive women who break molds and defy stereotypes, but when you employ nothing but stereotypes and gender cliches to make that point, it suggests to me that you don’t understand why fans are excited about this season in the first place.
I think Fowlkes might be overstepping just a bit here. The truth is that MMA is still a sport in its infancy. I have very few friends who follow it with any regularity. The UFC has come a long way since the early days where it more closely resembled a street fight, but they only put on a few events per year on the main Fox network and the viewership for those is spotty at best. Yes, the hardcore fans like myself are excited about watching one of the most talented casts they have ever had on the show, but there aren’t enough people like me to keep their ratings up. If they use a little sex appeal to sell the season, it’s hard to argue with the logic.
The primary question is how the women themselves feel about it. At all of the press events leading up to this season the women have been beautifully dressed and are wearing plenty of make-up. Is the UFC responsible for that? Absolutely. But contrary to Fowlkes statement about the men in the company, whenever they do PR they are just as styled. Three-piece suits and slick haircuts are the norm. Some of the active UFC fighters also do commentary for Fox and believe me, they are all handsome dudes. The less-attractive guys? You don’t see them on TV much when they aren’t fighting. The key difference seems to be that the UFC is actually stating that the women’s looks are part of the equation.
At the end of the day athletes today have an ever-increasing responsibility of marketing themselves, especially in a sport that is not team-oriented. Each fighter is essentially their own brand. It’s up to them as to how they present themselves. When this season of the Ultimate Fighter is over, these women will have much more latitude in how they appear in public. Likewise, no amount of makeup will cover up poor performances so ultimately their athleticism will determine their success, not the length of their skirts. Until then, I’ll ignore the sexism and enjoy the fights.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.