UFC 157 will be the first time women will be competing in the Octagon, and as I am writing a romance based on this exact idea (tentatively titled What Defines Her, not yet scheduled for Harlequin Superromance), I thought it warranted some discussion.
Women's MMA is nothing new. Women have been competing in MMA events for years through other fight promoters, many of which have sadly folded or been bought up by the UFC. The significance of women fighting in the UFC, however, is in the scale. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the world's largest promoter of mixed martial arts bouts, and tens of thousands (if not a million or more) viewers will be tuning in to this fight between Ronda Rousey and Liz Caramouche. Considering that UFC president Dana White once infamously said he would never allow women to fight in the league, this about-face is significant.
Mixed martial arts isn't without its critics, of course. It has been likened to human dog-fighting, a brutal blood sport pitching two testosterone-fueled muscle heads in what some people believe is a glorified bar brawl. It's nothing like that. MMA requires years of training and discipline, and the men and women who do it are some of the best athletes in the world. I touched on this in Her Son's Hero.
Despite the hard climb MMA has had to make to legitimize itself, some people still think that because of the violent nature of the sport, women shouldn't fight. Dozens of reporters and critics have had their say and will say it more eloquently than I can. (I recommend this article by Tamos Rios) My beef lies in a few simple facts. (WARNING: rant ahead.)
The media has traditionally treated female competitors in male-dominated sports as novelties, and fans often criticize them much more harshly than they would men. Twice the amount of pressure and expectation is placed on them to be both good at their sport and conform to society's standards of femininity. If they are too beautiful, they are dismissed as being nothing more than eye candy; not beautiful enough and they are mocked mercilessly. There is no pleasing the armchair misogynist whose most hateful words often only emerge anonymously on the internet. And there's no telling the make-me-a-sandwich-rape-joke-making asshats that they are wrong because the armchair misogynist will support their backwards beliefs...just as long as they don't have to leave their keyboards to do so.
Now, I'm not the biggest fan of MMA in the world. I enjoy the occasional match, but I don't watch every single fight. I couldn't tell you the difference between all the submission holds, and I don't practice martial arts. Some would say that I am not worth listening to since I obviously don't understand the subtle complexities of the sport. (I call this the Sarkeesian effect, but that's a rant for another day.) But does a lack of nitty-gritty knowledge automatically disqualify a person from having a vested interest?
I started writing What Defines Her late last year knowing that the heroine would be confronting exactly these issues and a lot more besides. Professional athletes face a lot of challenges as public figures. And I'll admit that I can only scratch the surface of what Rousey and Caramouche have faced in the lead up to this match. (I highly recommend watching the three-part UFC 157 Primetime series on my Pinterest board.)
Rousey vs. Caramouche shouldn't have to be a big deal, but it is. As long as we cling to predefined gender roles, women doing extraordinary things will continue to surprise and fascinate and threaten and terrify those who cannot accept change, versatility or plurality.
Good luck to Ronda and Liz tonight. I'll be watching and rooting you both on!