Two women prepare to fight one another in a mixed-martial arts competition.
Cris Cyborg (left) fights Leslie Smith at an Ultimate Fighting Championship event. (photo via Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)

In recent years, the sport of women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) has gained substantial popularity in North America. Many have viewed this increase in popularity as indicative of progress toward gender equality, as women have traditionally been discouraged from participating in sports that place a heavy emphasis on so-called “masculine” traits, such as physical strength, aggression, and dominance. Scholars, as well, have viewed the increased participation of women in combat sports optimistically, with some even discussing WMMA as a new “feminist frontier.”

The potentially transgressive nature of WMMA led me to wonder how women’s participation in combat sports impacted their daily lives outside of the gym. If women’s combat sports are indeed a feminist project, one would expect to see feminist ideals manifest in other aspects of women combat sports athletes’ lives, such as in their political views, parenting choices, and gender ideologies. For a study recently published in Sociology of Sport Journal, I interviewed 40 professional WMMA athletes to better understand the impact of the sport on their intimate relationships—an aspect of social life that has preserved many traditional features of patriarchy that privilege men over women. Would these athletes similarly “undo” gender norms in their intimate relationships as they do in their sport, or would such norms go unchallenged?

To help interpret interview participants’ responses, I used the “doing gender” framework of sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman, which argues that gender is not an inherent part of our personalities but rather something we “accomplish” through our actions and behaviors in social interaction with others. Specifically, I was interested in understanding how WMMA athletes accomplished femininity in their intimate relationships (or if they aspired to do so at all). My findings revealed that because these women possess traits that are traditionally interpreted as masculine, many of the heterosexual women in my sample actually oversubscribe to gender norms in their intimate relationships to combat feelings of feminine insecurity. I arranged these findings into three distinct themes: doing gender through the body, doing gender through relationship roles, and doing gender through patriarchy.

The first theme—doing gender through the body—revealed the ways in which the participants in my sample specifically sought out taller, heavier men as intimate partners in order to make themselves look and feel smaller and, thus, more feminine. As succinctly summarized by one participant, “When I’m with a guy who’s smaller, it makes me feel bigger.” In fact, 93.5% of the participants in my sample who identified as heterosexual stated that they preferred to be shorter than their partners, and 83.9% of them stated that they preferred to be lighter than their partners. This finding was a clear example of “doing gender,” with West and Zimmerman even explaining in their original article that “even though size, strength, and age tend to be normally distributed among females and males (with considerable overlap between them), selective pairing ensures couples in which boys and men are visibly bigger, stronger, and older…so, should situations emerge in which greater size, strength, or experience is called for, boys and men will be ever ready to display it and girls and women, to appreciate its display.” Importantly, this was not the case for most of the women in my sample who did not identify as heterosexual, with only 22% of these women stating a relative height and weight preference.

The second theme—doing gender through relationship roles—revealed the ways in which participants adhered to fairly strict gender roles in their relationships, such as the woman partner acting as nurturer and care giver, and the man partner as protector and provider. I was particularly struck by the fact that the heterosexual participants in my sample placed such a heavy emphasis on the protector role for their men partners, as it seemed strange to me that such formidable women would feel they needed protection. My participants revealed, however, that protecting themselves instead of having their partner do so would be a violation of gender roles, with one participant explaining, “I don’t wanna’ be the one that’s protecting ‘cause then I’d be the one who was the masculine one.” Again, however, this feeling was not shared by the women in my sample who did not identify as heterosexual.

The third theme—doing gender through patriarchy—revealed the ways in which participants accomplished femininity through deference to men. This was revealed through the finding that 82.5% of my participants were currently, or formerly had been, in relationships with other combat sports athletes or coaches, as it became difficult for these women to see non-combat sports men as sufficiently masculine. As one participant explained, “I like to be able to give my partner a good run for their money, physically, but I don’t really like to win. Because…biologically…I think I’m just attracted to masculine men. They have to be more masculine than me because I am a woman and there is supposed to be a difference.” While, in their MMA careers, all of the women worked tirelessly to ensure that they were bigger, stronger, and more physically capable than their opponents, in their intimate relationships, most of the heterosexual women sought to be smaller, weaker, and less physically capable than their partners to accomplish femininity and combat feelings of feminine insecurity. This stood out as, perhaps, the most explicit example of how these women not only “did” but overdid gender in their intimate relationships.

The findings from this study suggest that WMMA may not in fact be the feminist frontier that some have imagined it to be. Rather, it serves as a cautionary tale that, while the symbolism of women fighters may be encouraging to observers who strive for a more inclusive society, such symbolism does little to alter the lives of women when structural inequalities remain unchallenged.

Justen Hamilton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His research areas include gender, sport, and violence. The complete version of the study discussed in this article can be found in the Sociology of Sport Journal.