Break barriers? Unpacking Women’s Empowerment in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts – Gender and Society

Break barriers?  Unpacking Women's Empowerment in Women's Mixed Martial Arts - Gender and Society
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By Justen Hamilton

Women’s Mixed Martial Arts (WMMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Long on the fringes of combat sports, women are now regularly punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing and choking their opponents in front of sell-out crowds in the US and around the world, as women’s cage fighting has suddenly taken off. become a very profitable business for combat sports promoters. The rise of WMMA superstar Ronda Rousey, WMMA has quickly become a major professional sport in just a few years. From 2018 MMA is now more popular among both eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old men and women than major US sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, and globally, WMMA has a larger fan base than almost any other professional sport. women’s sports. While women have participated to varying degrees in other combat sports throughout history, no other women’s combat sport has been met with as much curiosity and attention as women’s mixed martial arts.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows athletes to use a variety of fighting techniques to achieve victory by knockout, submission, referee intervention or decision while competing within the confines of the ring or beyond. usually, a cage. Its athletes use techniques from many martial arts disciplines, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling, karate and boxing, and wear minimal protective equipment to create the most “realistic” form of combat sports. MMA is most commonly associated with its parent organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and is colloquially referred to as “cage fighting” or “the ultimate fight” by outside observers. Although until 2013 women were banned from competing in the UFC, women now make up over 15% of their roster and compete in many MMA events in North America and around the world.

While media coverage of the WMMA has ranged from moral panic to approval, in recent years the WMMA has increasingly been framed as a place of female empowerment. Drawing on popular feminist language, the media has consistently portrayed WMMA athletes as revolutionaries, “breaking barriers” for liberated female subjectivity while participating in the violent and hypermasculine world of mixed martial arts. The UFC has also capitalized on this discourse of empowerment, co-opting advertising phrases such as “breaking barriers” and “empowering women.” [with] brand new look” (, and other MMA promotions have even started hosting women-only events, such as ONE Championship’s 2021 September. the “Enable” event. This framing of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment raises interesting questions for the sociology of gender: Who are these new women? In what ways do they challenge and reconstruct gender? And how “empowering” should we describe their participation in this new sport?

These are some of the questions I explore in my latest article Gender and society. Based on interviews with 40 professional WMMA athletes and over four years of ethnographic fieldwork in WMMA sports, I take seriously the notion of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment and try to uncover what this means, not just for the athletes themselves, but for women in general.

I believe that while women’s participation in MMA offers an opportunity to challenge patriarchal constructions of femininity and influence feminist social change, this potential is currently unrealized. WMMA athletes’ experiences in MMA seem to only reinforce their belief in “natural” sexual difference and male superiority, and instill in them an ideology of individualism that blinds them to inequality and allows them to believe in a world of social change. is unnecessary and even undesirable. Therefore, I conclude that, paradoxically, these athletes are actually rather than empowering themselves disempowering ignoring the existence of gender inequality and undermining their potential to be agents of feminist social change.

My findings imply that we must resist the tendency to see women’s participation in any traditionally “male” arena as inherently empowering. Rather, we should embrace more radical and collective visions of women’s empowerment that incorporate intersecting issues of class, sexuality, and racism. While the symbolism of female activists may encourage observers of feminism who seek a more just society, such symbolism changes little in women’s lives when the social and structural forces that limit women’s lives remain intact. Only by first removing these barriers can we begin to break them down. Only then can martial arts and combat sports fulfill their potential as spaces for women’s empowerment and fight athletes as allies for women’s liberation.

Justen Hamilton is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His research is at the intersection of gender, sport and ideology.

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