Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beauty in MMA

I almost wrote a post about how unfair it was that female MMA fighters are judged on their looks, unlike male ones. But then I realized that's not true. If anything, the men are judged far more directly and frankly according to their appearance than the women. The commentators go on at great length about how good certain fighters -- like Alistair Overeem -- look. I kid you not, the term "rippling muscles" has been used to describe the glorious physique of more than one powerfully built MMA fighter. Comparisons to male bodybuilders and Greek gods abound. Mind you, many of the best MMA fighters don't look that great. Sure, some of them look like this:

That's Alistair Overeem. But others look like this:

The second guy is the better fighter (or was, as he might have finally had his lust for blood and souls sated) -- indeed, the second guy is the divinely gifted Fedor Emelianenko. MMA skill does not particularly respect our idea of beautiful bodies. All manner of basically lumpy guys kick ass. So for every Georges St-Pierre:

There's a BJ Penn:

(Or, to contextualize their relationship:


MMA announcers are swift to point out when a guy looks good. (And it's not to say that the other guys look bad, either. It's just to say that fighting prowess does not respect our notions of beauty.)

I don't think it's particularly sexism to point out that the women also look good. Frankly, as a group, they look better than the men (tho' there might be a bias there . . . and admitting that many MMA fighters do look really, really good). All of them I've seen are very lean without the belly roll many male fighters can get away with.

However, the description of the women is curiously non-specific or centered above the neckline. At first, I thought it's just prudishness. You see the same thing in fantasy novels all the time, though if you want a particular bad example of it just peruse the first hundred or so pages of the first Wheel of Time novel. The author, Robert Jordan, very specifically talks about the physiques of the men, but the women all have beautiful hair and eyes without the least reference to their bodies at all. In Jordan's world, men primarily exist as muscular bodies and women as pretty faces.

With MMA commentators have a better reason -- the MMA commentators are hopefully refraining from crude sexualization of the women as a slight to their abilities. For the uniformly male MMA commentators to notice with too much emphasis physiques of the women fighters would be an unseemly sexualization of the contest, diminishing the skills of the female fighters from athleticism to mere spectacle for the sexual titillation of men -- a kind of bloody mud wrestling.

I am also refraining from reading homoerotic subtext into the (uniformly male) MMA announcers' appreciation of the male physique. Even as women can appreciate the style and beauty of other women without it being gay, men can appreciate the physical beauty of a strong man without it being gay. Just as a man looking at a stylish and beautiful woman sees her as sexual in a way a straight woman, looking at the same woman, will not, women can look at the physical beauty of athletes and feel a sexual tension absent when straight men admire the physique of the same athletes. It's kind of an Internet thing to misread the sexual context of all manner of situations. For the purposes of fiction, this isn't a big deal. I honestly don't care about slash fiction and I say that as a genre writer. When I publish Revolutionary Boy Martin, I really won't care how much Martin/David slash shippers there are out there because none of that touches the intent of my work and, of course, you can't (and shouldn't really try) to control how people interpret literature. But it's simply untrue that appreciation of the male physique by straight men has any homoerotic context. When Frank Shamrock comments on another man's physique, he does it as a man who has worked incredibly hard on his own body, for the purposes of winning MMA contests, for health and to appear attractive. His work has made him sensitive to fitness issues. It would be an insult to the commentator's sexuality to project values into their appreciation of masculine beauty.

So, right now, at least, I'm having trouble complaining about MMA's "fixation" on feminine beauty. Not only do they also do it to the men, so if it's unfair at least it's not sexist, let's be honest. MMA fighters have the physiques, as a rule, we should all aspire towards. They're actually a really good standard for a beauty standard -- strong, enduring, limber, they've got it all.

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