By Felix Rodriguez, Staff Writer
May 28, 2013 – TXMMA wanted to explore the differences between what it’s like being a male and female mixed martial artist. We interviewed several female professional fighters about their own experiences in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts and found out that although fighting is fighting, when it comes to gender and the treatment of females in MMA, a fighter is not always just a fighter.
Through our discourse with these women it became apparent that it is significantly harder to be a professional female fighter than it is to be a male MMA fighter. Women not only have to face the same obstacles as the men do to succeed, but they must also deal with additional challenges that the men don’t. Some were predictable, others came as a total surprise, but all of them have one thing in common: they are distractions taking attention away from these ladies’ fighting skills and their ability to hone said skills in order to succeed as professional mixed martial artists –which is all that should really matter anyway.
These are some of the hurdles female fighters are encountering in their paths as professional mixed martial artists:
The Objectification of Women in MMA: Making the Distinction between Ring Card Girls and Female Fighters
Many of the women we spoke with expressed frustration with how their skills can often be overlooked because of how the media focuses on their physical appearance. Lauren Taylor (6-0) is a professional mixed martial artist fighting for Invicta FC. Taylor believes that judging women fighters by their looks is unfair because they often have little to no control over this matter. She wants the media to focus more on her efforts and less on if she’s hot or not. “Please, recognize my hard work! Recognize the [time] I spent training for this. All the blood, sweat, tears, and stress, the time away from my family and friends, the money I’ve spent in training camps to come here and fight well for the fans,” said Taylor.
Karen Lingle Kovach (1-0) expressed similar frustrations when describing how physical appearance dominates the way she is perceived. Kovach, who wore a shirt that read ‘Flat is Beautiful’ as a teenager, explained “yeah boobs would be nice but I’ve been blessed with athleticism; I’m secure with who I am (…) Sure, I realize [that] being a female fighter, beauty sells, but I’m hoping to win fans by my performance. I’m looking forward to showcasing athleticism and skill. As far as the rest goes it is just water off a duck’s back.”
Fighters like Lauren Taylor and Karen Lingle Kovach feel that their outward appearance should hold no merit on how their fight skills are perceived by the media and fans alike. When it comes to judging a fighter’s appearance it seems women are held to an unfair standard when compared to men. Fighters like Fedor Emelianenko and Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson have captivated the attention of fans despite of their soft bellies or perhaps they have resonated with fans more because they can identify with them. The women, on the other hand, seem to be held to an unjustifiable beauty ideal, which is encouraged by some members of the media and has little or nothing to do with fighting. When discussing the effects of irresponsible WMMA media coverage Taylor had the following to say “Imagine what it feels like to have all [your effort and fight skills] overlooked (…) everything I’ve poured into coming here and entertaining the fans, to dismiss it with a callous comment like, ‘She’s hot’ Or even worse, ‘She’s ugly.’ They’ve completely disregarded the hard work I’ve put in and instead focused on something I have no control over, and in some cases degraded me in the process.”
Amber Stautzenberger (3-1) is a Texas-based professional fighter who competes as a strawweight. Stautzenberger agrees with Taylor and Kovach in that although looking a certain way can help boost ticket sales and to grow a fan base, focusing on beauty instead of ability can lead to a female fighter’s skills being “forgotten completely.” Athletes like Stautzenberger, Taylor and Kovach are justifiably frustrated because they are not ring card girls yet they are being judged through similar standards that are wholly unrelated to their abilities inside the cage. All three of these women agreed that these unjust gender roles are not helped by the way some media members choose to cover them.
Irresponsible Media Coverage and its Effect on Female Fighter Perception
It is obvious that sex sells in all forms of entertainment, but in the case of these women the focus on beauty and sex appeal feels like a hindrance to them personally and for WMMA in general. Kovach made a good point when discussing the unfairness of judging a fighter by her beauty or lack there of, “My first match was against another girl that looked very masculine. Eventually I will go against a beauty and automatically people will pick their favorite fighter based on appearance.” According to Taylor, some of these unfair perceptions are brought on female fighters by the enabling behaviors of some women in the sport; “some females embrace the idea of sexiness in the ring, and flaunt their looks. Fine, that’s their right. I think they are asking for people not to take them seriously, and I want to be the kind of fighter that people respect. If fans are tuning in because I chose to wear a schoolgirl skirt, that’s not the same as tuning in to see me fight.” Stautzenberger also added, “Every woman deserves respect, but to be honest, there are females fighters who represent themselves ‘sleazily’ and wonder why they get talked to the way they do. It takes self-respect to get respect, especially when little girls look up to you.”
Professional fighters like Stautzenberger and Taylor expressed particular aggravation with how MMA reporters, like Eric Holden, tend to objectify women in their work. Their concern being that this type of coverage hurts the sport by preventing women from being taken seriously as professional athletes. Holden has come under fire for his reliance on top ten lists that focus on female fighter’s sexual attractiveness and for inappropriate communications with women fighters. Taylor believes that “guys like Eric Holden are a problem, because they perpetuate the kind of behavior that keeps females from getting taken seriously.” Taylor went as far as to request that Eric Holden no longer be granted privileges for Invicta FC events. She wrote the following message on her employer’s Facebook page, “Invicta, please don’t give Eric Holden a press pass to the next fights. He objectifies women, demeans the female fighters and the entire sport they fight for. In his quest for a few dollars, he writes complete garbage that attempts to either humiliate, or sexualize women, or both. He often gets fighter’s names wrong and usually doesn’t have a clue about their fighting style, record, ranking, or history. His articles embrace everything the WMMA has fought against. His latest article perpetuates Rape Culture at it’s finest. PLEASE don’t give this guy a press pass. He makes the fighters uncomfortable, and most of us hate him.”
Paulina Granados (1-0) is a professional fighter who believes that “not many people have played up her sexy angle before,” and although she “wouldn’t want something perverted written about her everyone likes a little bit of tasteful flattery.” On the other hand, Granados also believes that top ten lists focusing on the sexiness of female fighters are “complete bull crap written by non-legit people.” Holden has written about Granados in two different occasions. Granados’ experiences with Holden seem to corroborate some of the claims made by Taylor in her public statement against him to Invicta FC. For example, in one story Holden focused on her choice of attire for the weigh-ins and referred to her as an “MMA Babe” in the article’s title. According to Granados Holden asked her “a couple of questions that had nothing to do with fighting” like what celebrity I want to punch in the face” for his first article, but for the second “MMA Babe” piece she denies being interviewed by him. “The next article he wrote about me he claimed that he interviewed me, which never happened, and I just thought it was weird. I don’t like for people to say or assume things about me that never happened,” said Granados.
Eric Holden addresses this issue and many other allegations regarding his style of writing in an upcoming TXMMA article. Whether readers accept his explanations as valid or not is up to them to decide; but Taylor, Stautzenberger and Granados all seem to agree that Holden’s style of reporting encourages fans to judge the fighter’s appearance over their skill in the cage. Unfortunately, when it comes to additional challenges for women in MMA this is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the biggest hurdles they face come from those most closely involved in their professional careers and in their development as fighters.
Please check back tomorrow for the second part of our feature where we discuss how a woman’s career is also affected by trust issues in their relationships with coaches, and the threat of sexual harassment they can be vulnerable to when dealing with managers, training partners and others.