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‘Easy on the Eyes, Hard on the Face’

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).

UFC-170-1

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.

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37 thoughts on “‘Easy on the Eyes, Hard on the Face’

  1. Are sports like this about the competitors or the audience? I’d say the audience, else the best athletes would be included, not just the most attractive athletes.

    So it’s all about the gaze.

    And this is classic male gaze with a good dose of female gaze that cannot be articulated, because it’s difficult for most men to grasp that women look with lust, too; that men are likely to be objectified for their eye-candy qualities as if that’s all there is to them, with a veneer of competence at sport.

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    • Zic,

      To be honest, many of the female fighters aren’t that attractive. Yes, their bodies are incredible, but in a sport where you get down to 8% bodyfat for a fight and take repeated punches to the face on a regular basis… it takes a toll. And many of them are not as popular with the fans. On the flip side the few really attractive ones (Meisha Tate, Michelle Watterson) have much larger fanbases among the largely male MMA audience.

      The Ultimate Fighter cast this year is really exceptional in that sense of their appearance. What is a bit concerning is that only six of the 16 competitors are ranked among the top 25 fighters in the world. Of course, some of it is contract stuff and a deal that was made to bring in 8 fighters from the Invicta organization, but you can’t help but wonder if they went for looks over other things. I hope not, but if the more attractive women end up at the bottom of the final standings, that may be troubling.

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      • Just for fun, after you posted this, I googled ‘ugly athletes.’

        Very few women.

        A few rather stunned by noting that the ‘ugly’ was okay because the dude dated a supermodel/victoria’s secret model/movie star.

        What really got me, however, was that a lot of the male ‘ugly’ wasn’t; at least to my female gaze. Which brings up an interesting question of how much of the male gaze is focused on other males?

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      • Another variable may be personality and rivalries, given that a big chunk of what the producers of reality shows are looking for is interesting dramatic conflict. If you grab a top ten fighter and you know she has a rival that could cause a great public blowup and get some publicity, you just about have to bring her in as well.

        Given that, my wife and I were actually surprised at the high skill level of the group as a whole. Part of it may be expectations–the shows with the men have had a lot of inexperienced hopefuls and this season seems to be largely seasoned professionals.

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  2. Notwithstanding that the ecosystem of female professional (and/or elite amateur i.e. olympics) athletics is dwarfed by the male one, I can’t think of a female athlete that has been marketable and not been conventionally attractive (maybe Navrativola? But how maybe endorsement deals did she really get back in her playing prime? And of course, contrast her public image with Chris Everett’s.)

    On the flip side, though, there’s no way Michael Jordan would have been as bankable as he was, were he to look like Gheorghe Muresan

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  3. There are plenty of women who find the attractiveness of male athletes including UFC fighters to be an extra bonus and there is nothing wrong with this.

    I can’t think of a time when a major sports franchise decided to capitalize on this feature because sports are still primarily marketed to men even though there are plenty of sincere female fans who like sports. Usually the discussion on attractiveness of male athletes is done in a social media kind of way by women themselves. Not a sports team trying to increase revenue by telling women to “check out the hotties.”

    Yet the UFC people felt the need to advertise attractiveness here. I find that telling.

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  4. Well, here’s a thought experiment. Just imagine reversing the messaging. What if they led with an action shot and “Jawbreaking” and then the glam shot with “Heartbreaking”? How would that land on us?

    In some sense, the overlapped messaging expresses the conflict a hetero man like me can experience when he first encounters women in martial arts. But for me it has been in the opposite direction, the direction of “Jawbreaker” then “Heartbreaker”.

    When I first meet women in my sport (jujitsu, which is closely related to UFC and Rousey’s sport of judo) they are dressed in a gi (martial arts uniform) have no makeup, no jewelry, hair pulled back. They are ready for action, they bow in, and we go at it. The identity most salient is “jujitsuka” or “person doing jujitsu”.

    Later than, after getting to know them this way, there is some banquet or something where they get all prettied up. This is jarring (though not in a bad way). I’ve heard women say of men, “He cleans up good”, and the same thing is in play here, but it’s a much bigger friction because it’s not an experience that our culture has prepared us to have.

    It’s quite welcome, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s new.

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    • Doctor Jay,

      How long have you been training in BJJ? I absolutely adore the sport but for financial reasons I have never been able to train at an actual academy. I participated in a BJJ club for a couple of years and did a little bit of catch wrestling in college. It’s a beautiful sport.

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      • I hope I didn’t represent myself as training in BJJ. What I do is, of course, related, but I would call it BJJ at all. We use the same body of technique, but train in an older, much more traditional way. Also, our focus is on personal growth rather than on sport and competition, though there are plenty in the ryu who have done judo as a sport as well.

        I’ve been training in Danzanryu Jujitsu for about 14 years. It was founded in Hawaii by Seishiro “Henry” Okazaki, a very interesting man. While interned during World War II, for instance, he taught hand to hand rifle combat to GIs using the wooden katanas known as bokken.

        I also did catch wrestling in high school. And I agree, it is a beautiful, if apparently dying, sport.

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    • I’m thinking of all the women I know who do ‘dirty’ jobs — from chefs to hotel housekeeping to farming, even nursing. For the most part, they clean up well, too. Some, surprisingly so.

      But I think I stumble on this when the notion is that they’re the most beautiful when they’re ‘cleaned up,’ because I think these women are often uncomfortable in formal dress and makeup, etc.; they frequently look as awkward as a men in a suit and tie who’s used to Carharts for work.

      But I love people who wear their lives on their faces; the wrinkles, stretch marks, and gray hairs are badges of life lived, and I work hard to capture an essence of the real person when I photograph people. Interestingly every portrait I’ve taken that I’ve posted to fb has been turned into the person’s avatar, so my seeking to capture something essential (as opposed to glamour) resonates deeply .

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      • IMO, most women “clean up good.” Most women significantly underestimate how attractive men think they really are. Models and actresses and other professionally-attractive women will often say “I was really ugly in high school!” and you look at them and think “How is that even possible?” and of course it wasn’t, they were quite pretty in high school but they didn’t think of themselves that way.

        Men are vulnerable to this sort of thing, too, of course. But my experience is that, on average, women seem more vulnerable to it than men. This is likely a product of women attaining status based on looks to a larger degree than men do.

        As to the rest of your observations, , I think that you’re precisely right as a portrait photographer to find a way to capture the person’s depth and soul precisely in the things that an airbrush artist on Madison Avenue would consider an “imperfection.” Those aren’t imperfections at all — they’re an essential part of who we are.

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      • Yes to this. This is far more about the impoverishment of words rather than any disagreement we have.

        In some sense, I use “clean up” to stand in for a concept of “I’m now going to make the piece of my identity that is known as ‘female’ the most salient” and also “I’m going to put my best foot forward”. Everyone does something like this at times. It may involve a three-piece suit, foundation and blush, or clean Levis. It all depends.

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  5. Mike,

    I believe you have teenage or college-aged daughters. If so, how would you feel about them watching the show during their formative years? Would you use it as a “teachable moment”? Could they ignore the sexism? And what about young men? They aren’t as bright or self-aware as thou… What messages do they take away?

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      • Maybe I’m misreading you Jaybird. But are implying that asking Mike how he’d discuss a show with his daughter = recommending adult men tell adolescent women what to watch so they think the right things?

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      • I’m a big fan of the attitude that says “I’m either going to be part of the firehose of pop culture spraying into the face of these youngun’s or I’m not going to be part of it” before buying a Talking Heads album for one of the nieces/nephews.

        That said, I know that they’ll be doing stuff that I seriously disapprove of and, most likely, will be analogous to exactly what I did at their age.

        The thought that adolescent kids that aren’t as bright or self-aware as adults could be safely walked through the minefield of pop culture is a thought that is downright funny to me.

        I’m trying to imagine my mom watching The A-Team with me and explaining how, in real life, relationships between men and women don’t work like that, gender dynamics aren’t so trite, and how I shouldn’t build makeshift artillery. I’m trying to imagine Mike Dwyer’s conversation being much more fruitful than that one.

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      • For what it’s worth, it is not that I think young people aren’t as bright or self-aware as adults. It’s that I think most young people aren’t as bright or self-aware as Mike.

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      • Jaybird – So your recommendation to fathers is to not try and communicate values, or discuss things, with your children. As a father, I don’t buy that. Your argument would apply to any given conversation an adult has with their children, or every action performed as an example for their children, in a similar fashion. Like Jason K would say about a single vote, any single conversation/action is basically useless. Yet, we vote. And we parent.

        I’m all ears if you have another approach though?

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      • I suppose that age is the #1 factor. It makes perfect sense to tell a little kid “nope, you’re not going to watch that” (let’s define a little kid as a child that is still liftable and carriable).

        Once the child is old enough to program the VCR/DVR, I am less confident in the ability of parents to properly gatekeep.

        I was raised, as TVD once put it, “a cradle fundie”. I was only allowed to watch Christian Television, listen to Christian Music (exceptions were made for oldies), and that sort of thing. I did what I could to sneak out worldly books from the library (King, Heinlein, Sagan), watch worldly television shows taped from the VCR (thank you, USA network!), and sneak into seeing worldly movies (my first ‘R’? Robocop… WHAT A FIRST RATED R MOVIE!!!)

        Anyway, Mike’s kids are old enough to be driven to college. At this point, the only hope he has is to say “I think you should watch (or listen) to this *TOO*” and that he’s established himself as hip enough for the kids to say “maybe I’ll give it a shot”. The other option is to hope that he’s hip enough for his kids to say “I’m willing to watch this thing that I enjoy in front of my parents” and then listen to the parent say something like “I like character, she’s cool, I hate other character, she’s a jerk” rather than “the assumption of gender fundamentalism is pernicious in society and it’s most egregiously manifested in the segment where they all went to Las Vegas and characters discussed how they wanted to get mani/pedis.”

        As romantic as I find the idea of the children listening intently to the lessons given by the parents, I know for a fact that preachy grownups sound like preachy grownups even when the sermons are accurate.

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      • There’s a million things in the world that influence children. Parents are one of them. I agree that sometimes, perhaps often, the lesson intended is not the lesson received. Sometimes its the exact opposite. Or if the lesson is received, often its the culmination of attempting to teach that particular lesson a bunch of different ways a bunch of different times over the course of a childs life vice the result of a particular conversation.

        All that said, I think Kazzy asked a reasonable question. If your response to that question was intended to communicate that teaching children through talking to them about their life is hard, and sometimes ineffective, and sometimes maybe even counter-productive, then i agree. That’s just not what I got from your response. I sensed anger, or at least annoyance.

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      • By the way, my first R movie was Sharkey’s Machine, when i was 7. My older brother convinced my Dad to take him, and because Pops obviously had no idea what he had agreed to, the invitation was extended to me. After he took us to see Conan the next year, he was barred by my mother from attending movies with the children. He was…. brilliant

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      • Oh, I was tweaking Kazzy’s nose with the particular phrasing of my question, sure. If anything, it reminded me of all of the stuff that I was raised with that would have been considered appropriately Christian enough and how it was very important that I go away with the right messages.

        http://comicsalliance.com/archie-christian-comics/

        Remember Archie’s Christian comic books? Soooo many memories.

        So when you say that you sense annoyance, I suppose that that’s there… because I imagine someone asking my mom that question about me.

        But then, I’m not a parent.

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    • Kazzy,

      My youngest daughter actually is watching the show with us because she likes MMA. It is a teachable moment in the sense that I love my girls seeing women that are strong and confident and bad ass. As for the PR thing, I suspect that it is mostly just pre-show hype and will drop off significantly as the season progresses. I am not going to point it out to them because I don’t see it as very problematic.

      My oldest daughter likes the idea of being girly and also being secretly tough. After she started learning to kickbox a bit she proudly wore a shirt which was pink and read, “Damn right I hit like a girl.” I think for a lot of these pro fighters they feel the same way and actually like that dichotomy which is why the ad campaign bothers me much less.

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      • Part of my issue with this whole topic is that there’s nothing wrong with being girly. Or badass. Or both.

        The only thing wrong is the expectation that one should be a certain way because of girl parts or another should be a certain because of boy parts. And, perhaps, the near-total appreciation of the female gaze; men are also objectified becauseall humans are sexual beings to some degree. Men, I think, want to strut their stuff and be looked at and longed for every bit as much as women; and women ought to be empowered to look and let others know, ‘hell yeah, that’s nice,’ if they’re so inclined.

        This is a large part of what consent is all about, the ability to clearly say what one likes, wants, needs, expects, as well as what one abhors. We pretty much fail at developing good sexual communication; and way too many kids, both boys and girls, grow up not knowing how to discuss things sexual in a health way; and this contributes to all sorts of problems, including (I’d guess) sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, and STDs.

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  6. Mike,

    I think this example is a particularly interesting one, as it re-enforces stereotypical and traditional messages about appearance being what determines a woman’s worth, while simultaneously turning that notion on it’s head with the intense violence.

    Still, I confess I’m not that comfortable with the marketing. This has less to do with Ultimate Fighting itself than it does everything else in society around it.

    In the business world for, for example, I have noticed that men and women might each actually dress in a variety of styles on a variety of spectrums: corporate to casual, loose to form fitting, colorful to colorless, prim to sexy. But there’s a key difference in how the way men or women dress is perceived by others. Men, I have noticed, can dress anywhere on any of these spectrums, and it’s often seen as either a non-issue or a sign of a bankable strength — even by other men. Women, on the other hand, are often viewed as lacking in some way regardless of which way they dress *because* of the way that they dress — even by other women.

    So to my mind, it isn’t just a case of “hey, men and women both look,” so much as it is that for women, I think, appearance is weighted in a way that dwarfs everything else they bring to the table.

    I don’t know that anyone has mentioned this yet, but on the topic of sports on TV, when a male sportscaster is handsome, he’s I think he’s often assumed to by “successful” by men and women alike, based on his looks alone. But those women on the sidelines are often assumed to be “a little slutty,” “getting by on looks alone,” “sleeping their way to that job,” or some other less than positive assumption that gets rolled into the “total babe” comments I hear at every sports bar I ever go to.

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