Zoe John Abstract, July 2017 Conference

Tampons and Toughness: Body Politics in Mixed Martial Arts

This presentation engages with several months of ethnographic data to explore the gendered dynamics of becoming a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter. Drawing from a critical feminist and interactionist framework I analyse participants’ (and my own) interactions and experiences between the spaces of ‘the dojo’ and ‘the cage’. These spaces include the initial learning stages of MMA, the higher-skilled sparring classes, as well as the fighting events. Significantly, though they are different interactive spaces in MMA with equally different expectations of skill and sporting performance, each of them still produce (and are interpreted by participants as having) some form of political narrative and/or rules around gendered bodies. These narratives and rules include anxieties around touching and hurting women’s bodies by newer members of MMA clubs, active engagement with heterosexist banter as a bonding experience (with particular mention to periods and vaginas), and the view that same-sex fighting categories (and normative gendered bodies) should remain as an organising aspect for fighting events. These findings are interpreted as some of the key gendered dynamics which shape the concepts of skill, ‘toughness’, and MMA identities, whilst also highlighting the complexities of how ‘gender’ itself is understood by participants – as discursive, social, and biological. The presentation concludes that (hetero-normative) gender is a powerful tool in the sport’s organisation, but also in the bodily politics and opportunities of performing the identity of ‘MMA fighter’.

Zoe is a first year PhD candidate at Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences and is funded by the ESRC. Her work explores the production and negotiation of violent situations and violent identities, drawing from MMA’s spaces and places to explore and discuss such themes. Zoe is also developing findings from her Masters research which explores the gendered dynamics of being an MMA fighter (from which her presentation reflects upon). Though she is not a martial artist or an MMA practitioner herself, Zoe uses a flexible researcher role to participate in MMA classes for research purposes.