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Insurrectionary Womanliness: Gender and the (Boxing) Ring

Insurrectionary Womanliness: Gender and the (Boxing) Ring

Melanie J. McNaughton
Bridgewater State University, mmcnaughton@bridgew.ed

Insurrectionary Womanliness: Gender and the (Boxing) Ring


Integrating sociological theory on sport with Judith Butler’s concept of insurrectionary speech, the author explores why and how womanliness is produced and problematized. In particular, this article investigates how participating in combat sport violates conventional womanliness by foregrounding physical capability and aggression. Using her identity as a female fighter as a starting point to engage the cultural construction of womanliness, the author connects a critical/cultural look at gender and sport with autoethnography. Key Words: Sport, Gender, Identity, Femininity, Autoethnography.


“That’s not for ladies.” This is what my mother said when I told her I was taking a Muay Thai fight, and it remains the one and only time my mother told me an ambition was out of reach because of my gender. My mother approved of my martial arts training as long as it focused on self-defense and remaining fit. Engaging in physical combat was a different matter entirely.

A woman who encouraged me to go to graduate school, cheered when I completed a marathon, and who has consistently rolled her eyes at my grandmother’s (her mother’s) emphasis on marriage as the ultimate social achievement for a woman, my mother is not a loud proponent of traditional female roles. Thus, for me, my mother’s concern over, disapproval of, and high degree of discomfort with fighting signified a clear boundary.

Women aren’t supposed to want to hit somebody until they bleed, they aren’t supposed to draw a sense of satisfaction from the way an opponent’s body crumples when you land a solid hit, and they certainly aren’t supposed to feel unapologetic about
knocking out an opponent in 19 seconds. In the rare case when women want to do these things, it is assumed they will not want to take part in traditional feminine activities like baking, home decorating, and pedicures.

Though I never expected to be a fighter, and will only have a small amateur career, what I expected even less was that being a woman and being a fighter would prove to be a near-oxymoronic conundrum.

My identity as a female fighter, and my surprise at how very much and how very consistently this identity problematizes social standards of femininity is my starting point from which to engage womanliness, a way to explore the promise and problems of insurrectionary speech.

Insurrectionary speech is a concept developed by Butler (1997) in Excitable Speech which she defines as expressing “conventional formulae in non-conventional ways” (p. 147). In so doing, insurrectionary speech destabilizes a standard way of being or relating to one’s environment, thus “stripping” traditional or standardized frameworks of their position as a norm (Baez, 2001, p. 146).

Insurrectionary speech is typically discussed as a positive opportunity for empowerment, a way to rewrite a disempowering stereotype—and there is no doubt that insurrectionary speech can do this—but what happens when one wants to lay claim to the traditional as well? What happens when one wants more than what is left behind after the conventional has been stripped away, or when one wants to fuse the conventional with the unconventional? How does one negotiate a post-insurrectionary identity?

I set the stage for my exploration of insurrectionary womanliness by exploring gender and sport with particular attention to the way combat sport is constructed as a male preserve.

As I discuss below, physical activity remains more generally connected to masculinity than femininity (though this varies to greater or lesser degrees depending on the sport in question), but intense physical challenge coupled with minimal protective gear render combat sport close to something of a conservatory (if not an asylum or wellspring) for hegemonic masculinity.

Moving forward, I explore how my identity as a female fighter violates conventional womanliness by foregrounding physical capability and aggression.

This autoethnographic exploration of how womanliness is culturally produced and negotiated connects a critical/cultural look at gender and sport with the liminal space between “selfhood and social life”, what Reed-Danahey (1997) describes as the space of autoethnography (p. 4).


Methodological Groundwork

Autoethnography is deeply connected to postmodernist perspectives on knowledge “in which no one right form of knowledge exists, and multiple viewpoints are acknowledged and valued” (Duncan, 2004, p. 3). In this context knowledge is understood as both subjective and (culturally) constructed, not as immutable, fixed, or objective.

For this reason, Goodall (2004) characterizes autoethnography as a form of applied communication research that overlaps strongly with the principles underwriting feminist standpoint theories (p.187).

Hayano’s (1979) classic essay outlines the foundations of this
methodology: autoethnography is a way of making known the experiences of one’s “own people” (Hayano, 1979, p. 99), a way of exposing or revealing the interior of an experience or subject position, making it available as a point of understanding for those unfamiliar with a particular identity or subject position.

Such translation requires a tacking “back and forth” between personal knowledge and critical evaluation (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 739), a negotiation between close examination of what we know because of who we are and framing that experience within broader social and cultural contexts.

Autoethnography thus lies at the nexus created by overlapping insider and outsider perspectives. As such, this methodology encourages scholars “to explore more fully the implications and, perhaps, misguided uses of this dualism” (Reed-Danahay, 2009, p. 43), a way of contextualizing or complicating knowledge so that it cannot be neatly tidied away into categories like insider or outsider, objective or subjective.

Autoethnography’s rejection of distance as a model for scholarly engagement combined with a corresponding investment in reflexive writing practices means that autoethnography is often disparaged because it refuses claims to universality or objectivity —the typical foundation for what we consider knowledge.

Instead of a detached observer, in this framework the researcher’s role is best described as “writer-as interpreter” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 23).

Within this critical paradigm there “is no such thing as ‘getting it right,’ only ‘getting it’ differently contoured and nuanced” (Richardson, 2000, p. 10). The epistemological payoff in autoethnography is that it makes it possible for researchers to discover “that which was unknowable and unimaginable using conventional analytical procedures” (Richardson, 2000, p. 10). s Goodall (2004) Melanie Joy McNaughton 3 explains, “for those of us who practice it, [autoethnography] is all about using the material of our personal backgrounds and lived experiences to explain why and how we see and interpret the meanings of persons and things the way we do” (p. 187).

Following the autoethnographic approach described above, in this essay I use my insider position as a female fighter to explore how and why we construct gender and sport in a manner that renders female fighters as trespassers in combat sport communities.


Femininity, Feminism, and Fighting

Describing his late 1950s childhood, sport theorist Messner (2007) writes that “the few girls who were athletically inclined were often stigmatized for their interest in sport: maybe, it was whispered, they weren’t real girls?” (p. 1).

The belief that women cannot successfully and competitively engage in high-level sport is so strong that it is not uncommon for female athletes to need to prove their identity as such: between 1966 and 1996 the International Olympic Committee required all women competing in the games to subject themselves to scientifically suspect and often humiliating medical procedures to prove their womanhood (the recent scrutiny endured by Caster Semenya brings this legacy to mind).

The strong tie between manhood and elite athleticism has meant that female participation in competitive sport has been slow to grow, in large part because of the corresponding lack of opportunities and funding for women’s sport.

American women’s involvement in institutionalized sport did not reach significant levels until the 1970s—a boost very much tied to Title IX. In 1972, American colleges had an average of two women’s sports teams; by 2004, American colleges averaged eight (Acosta & Carpenter, 2004).


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