Posted September 2, 2014 by Sydnie Jones in Editorials

The Rising Cost of Indifference: Sexism, Misogyny, and Domestic Violence in MMA, Part 1

Misogyny and sexism have found strongholds in professional sports. They’re similar to athlete’s foot; they have an environment in which to thrive, often go unchecked at the source, and are treated as minor, fleeting inconveniences remedied with some type of topical salve. This is demonstrated constantly, from Ray Rice’s two-game suspension for punching his fiancee into unconsciousness, to the Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh calling it “not a big deal,” to multiple-time domestic assaulter Abel Trujillo inexplicably remaining in the UFC’s employ, while new hires are immediately released when their records come to light.

Domestic violence and abuse are complex issues that are almost universally condemned. However, efforts to curtail domestic violence, abuse, and sexual assault with simple condemnation are insufficient. And they will continue to be insufficient when so many other aspects of both sports and Western culture trivialize violence against women. The boys’ club mentality is the locker room floor swarming with athlete’s foot, and eradicating the neglect that fosters this indifference is key to limiting its grip within professional sports.

I can already imagine the wounded outcry from men who scoff at the idea that violence against women isn’t taken seriously, and that they don’t take it seriously. They think they care, but can’t actually be bothered with the nuances of the issue. If they wanted to help change the status quo, they would recognize the insidious, metastatic quality of permissiveness toward sexist language. They’d question the narrative of those accused of violence against women, instead of the reverse. They’d vocally denounce the subtler transgressions that contribute to indifference. And given the gender imbalance in professional sports – one person out of the 1000+ employed as coaches in the four major pro sports is a woman, for instance – men are the ones in a position to directly effect change.

This isn’t a diatribe against men. This is an indictment of cultures that tolerate this societal dread disease and dismiss any responsibility to end it under the insistence of a toothless hard-line stance.

“I’m Going to Make Him My Wife.”

bones-jonesViolence against women is as much of a problem in MMA as anywhere else. By now, most MMA fans know that Josh Grispi was charged with assaulting his wife and that War Machine was charged with attempted murder, battery, and strangulation following a brutal attack on Christy Mack. These are just the most recent incidents – the arrest of Grispi and the attack on Mack even happened in the same week.

In the same week, everyone’s favorite moral derelict and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones acted like an idiot in public. He does this a lot, but here he said, in reference to his upcoming fight against Daniel Cormier, “It’s going to be intimate. I’m going to make him my wife. You’re going to be Mrs. Jones for the night.”

Careless bullshit like this turns violence against women into an issue treated with a minimum of concern. When you joke about abuse/rape, the literal message you are sending is that the concept is something to laugh at, something not worth taking seriously. This subtext contributes to negative, uninformed ideas about women and abuse/rape.

But go ahead and ask Jonny Bones Jones if he’s an advocate of rape or violence against women. He’ll likely say no, and I’m sure it’s true. So then what does he mean by saying he was going to make DC his “wife” during their fight? Here are some possibilities.

-JBJ (figuratively) intends to give DC a night of consensual passion, leaving him satisfied and feeling treasured and loved.
-JBJ (figuratively) intends to physically dominate DC in the same way he (figuratively?) does his wife at night.
-JBJ (figuratively) intends to use his physical dominance to force DC into submitting to him sexually in the same way he (figuratively?) does his wife at night.

Whatever the allusion bouncing around JBJ’s jellied brain was, the subtext is clear: a man physically dominating a woman is something to brag about, something to laugh about, and if he can do the same to his opponent? Beastmode. Obviously, turning your opponent into a metaphorical wife proxy in physical combat is a clear indication of superiority.

While this was reported on MMA news websites, commentary on the nature of JBJ’s shit-talking was minimal. The use of sexist/misogynist language in shit-talking is shrugged off and attributed to the nature of shit-talking.  This is the flimsiest, weakest of excuses. It’s not “just shit-talking” if someone uses racist, homophobic, or transphobic slurs. Bisping seems to be able to spout archaic, ignorant insults under the guise of shit-talking without repercussion. Maybe it’s because Tim Kennedy is neither a woman nor queer, and the intended target must be part of an oppressed population before the UFC can be motivated to action? Who can say? In any case, it’s also not “just shit-talking” to employ sexist language and allusions to dominance over/violence against women. It’s a tacit endorsement of gender-based oppression.

It’s hard to determine whether there’s any degree of deliberation in the UFC’s disciplinary processes. They have a Code of Conduct, but standards for discipline are not discernible from how they choose to penalize their fighters. Here’s a tip: when your light heavyweight champ, one of the most recognizable faces you have currently fighting makes an allusion to rape (at worst), and physically dominating a woman (at best), penalize him. By neither acknowledging nor addressing it, the message the UFC sends is that if its fighters want to liken beating their opponents to cowing women into submission, they don’t care.

For further reading, I recommend Rachel Piazza‘s piece MMA Culture Can Be Deadly for Women — And I’m a Woman in MMA Culture, published August 23d on XO Jane. Piazza has a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, and I reached the same conclusions she did. She also has a Part 2 on the way.

 “It’s horrible. Horrible … and every time I’ve got to see, ‘Ex-UFC fighter’ when the stories are written.”

MMA faces hurdles in being perceived as a legitimate sport. It has a reputation for uncontrolled brutality absent of skill, technique, or athleticism. Of course, that’s not true at all. But the fact is, MMA’s image is one of lunk-headed barbarism, helmed by a man with a storied history of saying sexist things to and about women. There are the undeniable – like White calling Loretta Hunt a “fucking dumb bitch” – and there are the subtler instances – like White imitating Cyborg walking in heels and saying she looks like Wanderlei Silva.

White’s principled stance against a fighter who tested positive for banned substances once, years ago, is almost laughable, especially considering that Wanderlei Silva was still fighting for the UFC at the time – just a month before he fled at the prospect of a drug test. But on top of that, to compare her to a man, make fun of how she looks, and mimic her walk? Class act. White is free to sign or not sign whomever he pleases, but bringing elements into consideration such as how she looks, even in the context of possible steroid usage, is ridiculous. Not only is it irrelevant, it also suggests there’s a certain way women should look, and Cyborg doesn’t cut it. Given that the extent of Cyborg’s steroid usage is unknown, citing her physicality is pointless and only serves to reinforce the idea that being a woman occurs within a constricted boundary; one that remains unarticulated, but nevertheless readily, subjectively identifiable.

Disappointingly, the UFC’s Women’s Bantamweight Champ Ronda Rousey echoed this sentiment by referring to Cyborg multiple times as an ‘it,’ even making a joke that Cyborg has a jockstrap (2:30) in a Here Comes Honey Boo Boo parody.

For two of the biggest names in MMA to make fun of a woman’s appearance and utterly fail to see the issue in doing so illustrates the lax attitude the UFC holds regarding gender equality. The party line is one of equality, but in practice, sexist speech, including rampant use of gender-based insults such as ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy,’ goes largely unchecked. While the use of those words as insults has entered the public lexicon, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Oppressive language reinforces the ideas behind the words, regardless of actual intent. So when people use derogatory words for ‘female’ to insult an opponent, allowing it to pass without comment is a tacit approval of the sentiment. Furthermore, suggesting being likened to a woman is a bad thing for a man again speaks obliquely to rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity.

The face MMA presents to the world is that of a reptilian-brained, hyper-defensive boys’ club that balks at any criticism. White is notorious for banning members of the media who have the gall to criticize the UFC, and will take to Twitter to personally call people idiots and make fun of them. This does nothing to counter MMA’s perception as a regressive, lawless frontier of brutality and violence.

You can see how this ripples throughout mainstream media. There’s this Salon piece, which parrots primarily the biggest stories in MMA: the stories that reach the mainstream. Those, of course, are either the horrific – like Anderson Silva’s leg break – or the criminal, like Grispi and War Machine. This is what people outside of MMA see. This is, for people  not very into sports and not trawling sports sites every day, possibly their first exposure in mainstream media to MMA. And that’s bad.

Due to the niche nature of MMA, the more public faces and voices – the ones representing the sport – are the ones heard by their potential audience. And because it’s so insular, the upper echelons of MMA assume nobody gives any more of a fuck than they do; this disconnect from the outside world, advocacy, and social issues keeps them firmly planted in the fading domain of the past. Take, for instance, White’s comments when asked about War Machine:

“It’s horrible. Horrible … and every time I’ve got to see, ‘Ex-UFC fighter’ when the stories are written. He fought twice! Six years ago! He was a current Bellator, Viacom fighter. I had my staff calling these reporters. ‘We don’t know what Bellator is’ and I said, ‘Ever heard of Viacom? That’s who he fights for. He fights for Viacom. Not the UFC.’

“They want clicks. They want clicks. They want readers. Come on. How unfair is it?”

He throws out a token denouncement of the attack and immediately launches into how the situation affects his business, blaming the media for being unfair in their coverage. White has nobody more to blame for the negative perception than himself. If the UFC had taken a truly hard-line approach to domestic violence, sexism, and misogyny, he could fall back on that. Instead, he has nothing except his own history of sexism and permissiveness toward same. As the head of the biggest MMA promotion in the world, White and the UFC are, to those unfamiliar with it, MMA itself. So much so that most reporters are unfamiliar with the next biggest promotion.

There seems to be a disconnect between the image MMA thinks it’s projecting and the image it’s actually projecting. And just as Dana has no one more to blame than himself, there’s also no one in a better position to change this.

Be on the lookout for Part 2, which explores the surprisingly impassioned, feminist substratum of MMA journalism.

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Sydnie Jones