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Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Women and the Martial Arts

Liminality, Embodied Identity and the Paradox of the Invisible Female Martial Artists

Triva Pino (Left).  The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion.  Source: Wikimedia.

Triva Pino (Left). The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion. Source: Wikimedia.


Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men….The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. Had she an ideology, she is likely to be a feminist.

                                                                                                                        Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing, 1987





Recently the NY Times posted a video segment reporting on an amateur Sumo Wrestling tournament that was held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The clip is short but well worth watching.  This report raises two issues.

The first of these has to do with the very nature of the project that the various competitors are engaged with. It is hard to think of any martial tradition that is more tied to Japanese culture than Sumo. On the surface it would seem to be a very unlikely candidate for inclusion in the Olympics. Of course the effort to make it a respectable “international” sport by modernizing its practice through the adoption of weight classes and other innovations might make a great case study for anyone interested in the process by which the traditional Asian modes of physical culture have been progressively reimagined as competitive sports fit for an international audience.

The other aspect of the video that deserves careful consideration is the focus on the female wrestlers. Women were more than a third of the competitors at the tournament, and their motivations and feelings about the sport dominated the reporting on the event. All of this fits into the general trend seen in recent discussions of women’s participation in combat sports including boxing, MMA, wrestling and kickboxing. Still, the unique nature of Sumo Wrestling and the mental associations that it invokes in the minds of viewers throws many of these theoretical issues into sharp relief.

In practical terms Sumo is probably a much safer sport than something like western boxing or kickboxing. While we often think of female competition as something novel and thoroughly modern, Jennifer Hargreaves, in a chapter titled “Women’s Boxing and Related Activities: Introducing Images and Meanings” (Published in Green and Svinth, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003), 209-228) reminds us that professional contests between female fighters have been a fairly constant fixture in the underground and seedier side of social life since at least the 1700s. More rarely a handful of female fighters have managed to gain some general recognition.

Still, the traditional association of boxing competitions with working class athletics, and the intersection of class and gender, assured that most of the women who fought in the matches were motivated by economic factors and therefore seen as less than “true women” by bourgeois spectators at the time. Their participation in competitive fighting paradoxically reinforced the social script that “good” women of social standing did not, and could not, fight. As Joyce Carol Oates implies, these exhibitions were by definition an excursion into the monstrous. While such activities existed, and even enjoyed a certain degree of popularity, they were socially invisible precisely because they did not fit within the dominant patriarchal, and resolutely heterosexual, scripts of the day.

Recent decades have seen a notable shift in the way that female participation in these practices is perceived. Again, the intersection of economic class and gender as they relate to the combat sports is critical. The advent of practices like “executive boxing” and “cardio-kickboxing” helped to move the combat sports out of working class neighborhoods and into the myriad interchangeable cul-de-sacs of the suburbs. The widespread popularity of the Asian martial arts, with their own ideal of personal empowerment and different gender ideology greatly affected this trend. While a full exploration of this interaction would be fruitful, it is beyond the scope of what can be accomplished in a single blog post. For our purpose it is sufficient to note that by the 1980s there was a noticeable increase in educated and well-off women donning boxing gloves and entering training gyms not because they were fighting for a purse, but a greater sense of empowerment and self-understanding.

This has led to a profound shift in the social landscape of the martial arts in the western world. Yet for all of the seeming increase in acceptance of female competitors and training partners, we are still having trouble coming to terms with the magnitude and implications of this shift. Women entering martial arts schools, kickboxing gyms and western boxing rings have helped to lessen the economic blow that the rise of MMA has dealt these sports (and of course we are seeing an increase of very talented female athletes in that area as well). Ironically most of these female martial artists remain invisible in our discussions of their practices.

How can this be? In the following essay I would like to advance a few loosely connected thoughts of the topic. In addition to gaining traction on this specific question I also hope to suggest that a more detailed investigation of the movement of women into the martial arts in the current era might help to throw light on critical issues in the engagement between anthropology, history and feminist theory.

Specifically, martial arts studies might be able to add greater nuance to the debate between Victor Turner’s theory of the role of ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ in individuals rites of social transformation and the objections of Caroline Walker Bynum who notes that, on both historical and empirical grounds, these approaches do not fit the life narratives that actual women have left behind. In her opinion Turner has imposed his theories onto the embodied experiences of these women thereby mistaking what they perceive as fundamental continuity within their own life stories, for his own paradigm of liminality and social transformation. He is vulnerable to this critique because his academic gaze encourages him to “look at” women rather than to “stand with them.”

This is an important conversation precisely because of the increasing popularity of studies of embodiment as well as the growing stature of “performance ethnography” as a research methodology. Victor Turner played an important part in the development of both of these movements through his work on symbolism, ritual and theater. While the following blog post will only be able to engage a few core ideas and cannot attempt to advance a fully informed theory, I hope to suggest that this is one area where martial studies might be able to contribute to discussions between ethnographers, feminists and historians.


A pretty typical looking kickboxing class.  Source: Wikimedia.

A pretty typical looking kickboxing class. Source: Wikimedia.


The Invisible Martial Artists


Most of my own work falls into the social scientific and historical traditions. Recently I have been exploring some new research questions and methodologies in an attempt to broaden my understanding of the place of the martial arts in modern society. One aspect of this includes an ethnographic examination of a local kickboxing community. This practice, both as an amateur competitive sport and as a fitness regime, is fairly popular in my geographic area, so a wide variety of individuals participate in these clubs.

Women are well represented in both formal classes and other training sessions. They also reflect a good cross section of the racial, socio-economic and age diversity that characterizes the wider community. In addition to participant-observation I have also been conducting both formal and informal interviews with the students, competitors, trainers and spectators that collectively define this community.

My initial interviews are “semi-structured” meaning that that there are a number of set open ended questions that I ask individuals before pursuing more specialized topics. One of these questions in particular (“At what point did you come to consider yourself a martial artist?”) has proved to be quite fruitful.

All of the individuals who compete in formal matches have been able to give very specific and self-conscious answers to this question. Nor is it hard to find male students who take classes mainly for fitness reasons who also consider themselves to be “martial artists.” Yet female students (with the exception of those who regularly compete in the ring) often find this question to be somewhat puzzling. It seems that it has never occurred to some of them this is an identity category that is available to them. A common answer is some variant of “I am not really a kickboxer, I just take the class a few times a week.”

In any individual instance this can seem like a perfectly reasonable (or somewhat self-effacing) response. For instance, I have never had a new student (without prior experience in another style) self-identify as a martial artist within their first multi-week course. As one would expect this identity takes some time to build and be internalized.

Still, I began to notice that some of these students (mostly female) had been involved with kickboxing for a few years. They came to classes twice a week or more. They bought their own training equipment and had progressed to the point that their basic skills were sound. They reported a genuine sense of pleasure in throwing a powerful kick or executing a well-timed slip and counter-punch. Yet when asked, a number of them simply identified as “students in a kick-boxing class.”

The internal culture of this specific kickboxing community may contribute to this. While everyone seems to attend general classes and training sessions (which focus on basic skills, bag work and rounds), there is a visible distinction between those who are actively training for fights and those who are not. Individuals preparing to go into the ring almost always adopt a much more rigorous training schedule including 1-2 hours of cardio work a day and another 6 hours of additional kickboxing training a week. Competitive sparring of varying levels of intensity is emphasized in these additional sessions. This more intense training schedule might be maintained for 3-5 months prior to a fight.

Whereas female students might comprise more than half (sometimes up to 80%) of the more basic or fitness oriented classes, by my own rough estimate they constitute between 20-30% of the competitive fighters actively training for a bout at any point in time. As such, one wonders if some individuals are deterred from thinking of themselves as “martial artists” precisely because they are not training 15-20 hours a week with a set fight date. In that sense their efforts might be said to lack “reality” as it has been informally defined by this group.

Yet if one takes a step back from the norms of this specific community and looks at the situation from a slightly different perspective, things do not appear to be so simple. The most popular traditional martial art in my geographic area is Tae Kwon Do. There are a number of large schools in the region. They have classes for both adults and children and their own tournaments. Interestingly a number of adult Tae Kwon Do students will sometimes compete in the local kickboxing events.

Obviously there are a handful of Tae Kwon Do students who take their training extremely seriously. Still, the average student of this style seems to put in about as many hours in the training hall as do the women who are taking kickboxing from a fitness perspective. While the atmosphere of the two classes is markedly different many of the actual physical training activities and drills are very similar. Nor is it the case that most of the Tae Kwon Do students are involved in realistic, high intensity, sparring (this is something that often seems to work against them when they enter the kickboxing tournaments). Yet pretty much everyone I have ever talked to who has progressed in this art (and is still practicing) will self-identify as a martial artist.

This distinction becomes important when one starts to think of the larger commercial and social landscapes of the modern martial arts. While traditional Chinese and Japanese styles are struggling, the more westernized combat sports (MMA and Kickboxing) are doing well. Some of these gyms augment their income by offering classes that are specifically aimed at individuals who (for a variety of reasons) want to train, but have no intention of actually competing in sanctioned fights. Cardio-boxing, kickboxing and other fitness classes that allow people to develop skills with some (usually minimal) level of controlled contact are an important source of income for many schools and are often very popular with female students. These individuals can explain at length why they love the atmosphere of expressing aggressive physicality in a safe space (often with other women). They can even talk about how this training has changed this perception of themselves and their relationship with their environment.

For many of these women it is genuinely empowering to discover that their bodies, which are so often the site of anxiety and social discipline, can be a source of athletic enjoyment and talent. The sensation of striking targets and moving in a more powerful way is sometimes described as addictive. Yet frequently these same women do not feel comfortable identifying as “martial artists” or even “kickboxers.”

It should be remembered that the vast majority of traditional martial arts students have no plans to step into the ring and test their skills against a highly dedicated, athletic and skilled opponent. Nor do most of them spend more than 2-3 hours a week in a classroom. Yet that does not stop them from self-identifying as martial artists.

When one considers the actual hours that these women are dedicating to their practice, or the fact that their narratives of transformation are not entirely different from what is seen in other areas, I find it very interesting that they often refuse to identify as either martial artists or kickboxers. They seem to be wedded to a social script in which they remain forever “a student who is taking a class” despite the fact that they may well have been in that class for longer than their current instructor.

Nor are the martial arts the only area of popular culture that seems to be discovering the existence of high levels of “invisible” female participation. I have a 93 year old grandmother who is an absolutely obsessive basketball fan. She seems to prefer the college game, but that does not stop her from closely following her NBA’s teams as well.

Nor would it seem that she is alone. While the stereotypical basketball fan is a young male, the NBA has recently discovered that it has a very large, and commercially under-served, female fan base.  It seems almost inconceivable that in the current day and age a highly sophisticated profit driven corporation could simply “overlook” a sizable percentage of its consumers. Yet that seems to have been the case here.

A similar trend exists in the video game industry.  The social image of the average gamer is of an adolescent or young adult male. This coveted demographic is the target audience of most of the firms that comprise the industry.

Yet when one looks at who logs the most hours of actual play, it quickly becomes apparent that female consumers are an important, if still somewhat invisible, sector of this market. Many casual games, puzzle games and RPGS have female fan bases that are just as dedicated as their male counterparts in the FPS world, yet these women rarely self-identify themselves as “hard-core gamers” despite the fact that the number of hours that they are dedicating would certainly qualify them as such. In many respects the video game industry has been even less successful in finding ways to approach its female consumers than the martial arts or the NBA. Still, it is important to note that this pattern of non-identification and social invisibility is by no means confined to the worlds of boxing and kickboxing.


Womens Muay Thai Kickboxing match.  Source: Wikimedia.

Women’s Muay Thai Kickboxing match. Source: Wikimedia.



Continuity or Change? Embodied Identity in the Martial Arts


How does an individual come to internalize the fact that their stage of life, social status or identity within the community has changed? This is one of the fundamental puzzles that anthropologists, sociologists and students of various other disciplines have wrestled with for decades. Given that anthropologists were some of the first researchers to look at these questions in the field of martial arts studies, and the fact that many forms of hand combat training take on obvious ritual trappings (including special creation narratives, symbolic clothing or vestments, a language understood only by initiates, stylized forms of address, the reversal of normal social hierarchies and progressive grades of initiation into a central mystery) it is not surprising that the literature on both performance and ritual have been important to this discussion.

Victor Turner (1920-1983), a symbolic anthropologist who conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork among the Ndembu, made important contributions to both of these discussions. Perhaps most central to the current question are his theories (building on the work of van Gennep) of the role of liminality (threshold) and communitas (community) in ritualized rites of passage. Drawing on his own fieldwork and a wide range of other practices, Turner argued that rites of passage tend to follow a predictable structure. First the community symbolically (and sometimes literally) separates the individual from the broader group, a rite is performed that confers a change of social status and lastly the individual is reintegrated into society where their new identity and function is now enacted.

Turner’s innovation was to focus on what happened in the transitional moments which he interpreted as “betwixt and between.” For Turner individuals undergoing ritual initiation were seen as having essentially ceased to be a member of society as it was normally understood. Almost all social structures focused on hierarchy and differentiation are dissolved in the liminal state. Yet upon entering the liminal phase the initiate enters a new type of community, a more primal and egalitarian one, termed the “communitas.”

Within this state of primal (yet still social) play individuals could experiment with new values and construct different ways of imagining their identity and relationships with larger structures. While the communitas is radically egalitarian, the ritual process itself is usually overseen by an elder or specialist who holds absolute power over the initiates over the course of the transformation. Members of the communitas must submit to his instructions, demands and arbitrary punishments without protest. Upon reintegration into the larger group individuals are acknowledged to be fundamentally changed and expected to play different roles.

It is not hard to think of a number of institutions in the modern world that seem to conform to this same logic of liminality. Induction into the armed forces and basic training in boot camp is the boundary that separates “civilians” from “soldiers.” Society purposely creates these groups to act in different ways.  While not explicitly ritual in nature, many of the basic structural institutions that Turner predicted are clearly present in this modern transformative process. For that matter, the basic structure outlined above bears more than a passing resemblance to the process of attending graduate school and defending a doctoral dissertation.

Still, Turner would likely warn us against being too quick to apply these patterns in the modern western world. He noted that these structures could only fully function in simpler societies that were not so totally dependent on the rationalization and hierarchy that modernity demands. While we might see types and shadows of these processes, our ability to fully enter a liminal state or to be subject to true communitas is limited by our social-historical experience (Process, Performance and Pilgrimage 23).

Even as a metaphor, Turner’s understanding of the power of ritual to bring about a change in embodied identity has interesting implications for students of martial arts studies. From fitness to empowerment to self-discipline, in the current era many students explicitly seek out these practices because they feel a profound need to change something about themselves. Berg and Prohl have cogently argued, this transformative ethos (while not inevitable) has become the dominant discourse surrounding the martial arts in the modern era. From the creation of a separate and liminal “sacred” space within schools, to the exhilarating camaraderie of a martial arts class (which multiple researchers have explicitly identified as a form of communitas), to the transgression of normal social, economic and racial boundaries, it does not take much imagination to see the workings of Turner’s basic outline of rites of passage within many modern martial arts schools.

Turner’s work is not without its critics. After all, while his model seems to provide an explanation of the transformation in the embodied identity of the “serious” kickboxer’s training for a fight, it has a harder time explaining the relative lack of identification among the more casual, predominately female, students. The most obvious explanation within his paradigm might be to say that they were subject to a “failed” transformation.

While some elements of the ritual passage were in place, perhaps others were missing. Maybe there was not enough of a sense of mental separation from mundane life in the training classes to fully initiate the process. Or to put it in slightly different terms, perhaps American consumer society has succeeded in making these classes so convenient and accessible that they have ceased to be means by which individuals can separate themselves from everyone else, also engaged with a voluntary activity, on any given Thursday night. This would be in keeping with Turner’s own warnings about attempting to apply his theories too directly to a modern industrialized society.

Alternatively we may wish to consider some theoretical criticisms of how his treatment of ritual approaches the question of gender. Many of the Turner’s most detailed discussions focused on women’s rituals. Still, Caroline Walker Bynum in an article titled “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, edited by Robert L. Moore and Frank E. Reynolds, Chicago: Center for the Study of Religion, 1984, 105-125) notes that in attempting to apply Turner’s theories to concrete historical cases they tend to fail in rather predictable ways.

Bynum is a historian of religion who begins by noting that she is interested in the intersection of her field with anthropology. Nor does she appear to be all that concerned that Turner’s very general theories of ritual might fail to explain individual historical observations. After all, theories are by their very nature abstractions away from reality. They are simplifying structures that we adopt because they are useful. It is precisely that quality that makes them usable to scholars which also ensures that (like all abstractions) they will fail in a number of their predictions or explanations.

Still, Bynum notes a pattern in the way in which Turner’s predictions fail that troubles her. In fact, what she observed is somewhat similar to the situation with female kickboxers that I noted above. When looking at the lives of male medieval saints and other spiritual individuals Bynum concluded that Turner’s theories actually matched the reported lived experience of these individuals to a surprising degree. In accounts of the discovery of their religious vocation these individuals used a vocabulary and referenced experiences and feelings that were not all that different from what van Gennep or Turner might have expected.

Yet such patterns were strikingly absent from the accounts of female figures. They did not see their lives, or understand their religious vocation, in terms of a separation from the basic pattern of their life, or as a transformation into something radically different. Instead what they described was a pattern of continuity. The embodied identity and feelings they experienced as adults were the same as they had held as children. Even their expectations were marked with greater continuity than change. Service and piety remained central throughout. Whereas other girls expected to the bride of a husband, they expected to be the “bride” of Christ.

Bynum concluded that while Turner had conducted extensive research of women’s rituals he had failed to understand the actual lived experience of women. In her words his theory “looked at” women rather than “standing with” them. Falling back on his own ethnocentric views he had in fact concocted a passable theory of how certain high status males experienced the transformation of identity through ritual, and he had then imposed it on all other groups effectively erasing their actual experiences. When examined through this lens anthropology students would fail to see the reality of women’s experiences even when they took them as their object of study. Women were once again made invisible.

Bynum advances a powerful critique of Turner’s theory which is made stronger by her frank acknowledgement of the various ways in which his approach has made a contribution to our understanding of religion. Also impressive is her marshaling of specific historical sources and argument. The micro-foundations of her critique are sound.

Still, her argument is not without its own problems. The most obvious of these is that the only body of evidence she drew from was the life experience of medieval female religious figures. While Turner did write an essay on St. Francis, he was clear that his theory might not work in this period. As a result I am less sure how significant this apparent failure actually is.

Nor am I certain that one can take Turner’s difficulties in explaining the accounts of women’s religious experience in this one very specific period and apply the critique to all of his work, including his lifelong research among the Ndembu. Bynum seems to be on less firm ground here. I am not an anthropologist and have no specialization in this field. But from my own reading it seems that if Turner is applying a culturally specific understanding of ritual too broadly, it is probably the Ndembu pattern that he projects outward, rather than his own Catholic background.

The other issue has to do with more fundamental questions of identity as it relates to the relationship between the individual and society. Bynum can marshal the historical texts that she presents precisely because most contemporary individuals did not see the lives of these holy women as marked by continuity. Indeed, at very specific times the communities that they lived in granted them certain offices and identities that led to their stories being preserved while so many others were lost.  Turners field work on ritual among the Ndembu always seems to have focused on how society transformed the status of these individuals in an attempt to maintain its essential continuity rather than individual self-understanding.

The body may be the site at which identity is experienced as an enculturated force, yet that does not mean that an individual is free to adopt or change it at will. The societies that we live in impose identity upon us, just as the status of “holy woman” and later “saint” was imposed on a number of individuals throughout European history. Understanding the boundaries by which society recognizes this change in status is very much part of Turner’s project.

Lastly there is the question of social scripts. If women in a highly patriarchal society are brought up to believe that they have certain sets of responsibilities, norms and identities, will they seek to recreate that identity in their testimony of events even if they do undergo a radical transformation? This seems to hint at a more basic question in anthropological research. To the extent that the researcher is interested in exploring basic questions of culture or social structure, she will by definition be looking at issues that transcend the life experience of any one informant. This begins to move us into the grey areas that touch on the limits of perspective, human cognition and even false consciousness.

Yet I suspect that it is significant that in my own brief observation of a local kickboxing community many of the men relate stories that conform to the expectations of Turner’s theories, while a number of women (who put in as many hours as most other students in more traditional hand combat settings) refuse to accept the title of “martial artist” even as they describe with enthusiasm many of the benefits that we commonly associate with that practice. Rather than seeing themselves as fundamentally transformed they describe a situation in which their life is characterized by basic continuity with the addition of a kickboxing class in which they are perpetually “a student.” Bynum certainly gives us some very useful tools to begin to think about this.


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the King Club in Beijing.  Source:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the King Club in Beijing. Source: China Daily.


Conclusion: The Impossibility of the “Female Boxer”


How else might it be possible to understand this apparent continuity in the embodied identity of a large segment of “casual” female martial artists while at the same time still accounting for the subjective changes in their own feelings and experiences that they report? And how does society as a whole view these women? Is there any evidence that they are perceived as fundamentally different people even if they (for a variety of complex reasons that we do not have time to explore in this post) fail to embrace this identity? In a real sense Turner’s theory always spoke more directly to how society maintained the image of social continuity in the face of crisis rather than just individual level identity acquisition. Perhaps this is one area where martial arts studies can make a contribution to a classic discussion that has involved a number of different disciplines.

In 1998 Martha McCaughey published an article titled “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment” in Gender and Society (Vol. 12, No. 3 1998: 277-300). While one can find more recent treatments of the issues covered in this article, it remains interesting for a number of reasons. The author began by immersing herself in over 100 hours of various women’s self-defense seminars and short classes in an attempt to provide one of the earlier examples of performance ethnography explicitly addressing questions central to the field of martial arts studies.

This article is also important as it was written at a period when (in the opinion of the author) much of the feminist academic community was indifferent or hostile towards efforts to train women in self-defense. Then as now one can point out that (questions of tactics aside) the moral responsibility to not rape or assault a person lies very firmly with the attacker and not the victim.  Dollars spent on self-defense programs cannot be directed into efforts to change the fundamental social structures that are the root cause of the problem. A number of feminists have seen violence as a byproduct of patriarchal and hierarchic social structures. By rejecting non-violence and implicitly accepting the logic of this system women may in fact reinforce it. Other critics simply doubted the practical effectiveness of these programs (277).

By the end of her research program McCaughey had no such doubts. While she had a background in sexual assault education and prevention the author states that at the start of her research she actually shared many of these same misgivings. Yet through her participation in various classes focusing on verbal confrontations, hand combat and firearms training, she underwent a fundamental transformation in both her understanding of what it meant to be a feminist activist and the nature of her own body and its relationship with society. She characterizes this process as the development of a “Fighting Spirit.” Setting aside the theoretical relevance of this article for a moment, it is well worth reading as the raw transformative energy that so often accompanies martial arts training practically pulses through the text.

There is a lot that one could say about this article, but this post has already continued for too long to admit a full review of its contents. Still, the paper is highly relevant in that contains a description of the personal transformation that both the author and a number of her informants experienced. How then does McCaughey understand this process and what can she add to the conversation between Turner and Bynum?

One of the themes in this article, referenced in the title, is the method by which “self-defensers” (McCaughey’s term) acquire the “fighting spirit.” The author locates this new set of norms and identities very strongly within the embodied experience of combat training. She, like Jennifer Hargreaves, notes that the process by which technical bodily memories are instilled in martial arts or shooting students often becomes of source of sensuous pleasure. The combination of adrenaline, camaraderie and the discovery of previously unsuspected abilities is not only mentally empowering but physically thrilling. All of this is reinforced with the stories of other women’s successes in facing down threats (of many varieties) in their own lives.

This is critical as the initial “feminine identity” that McCaughey identified in her research, characterized (in her own terms) by a halting and hesitant attitude towards violence and an outright rejection of one’s own strength, is also a socially reinforced embodied experience. In the author’s conceptions these two identities, the feminine and the martial, simply cannot coexist.

In this sense McCaughey’s theoretically driven understanding of the process of creating a “warrior spirit” substantially departs from the descriptions of many of the students and instructors whom she interviewed. Almost inevitably they emphasized elements of continuity in their understanding of their own identity and femininity. They described a process by which martial arts training allowed them to discover “hidden strengths” which had been repressed.

McCaughey rejects this more popular understanding of identity and gender. Instead she sees all identities as performative and socially constructed.

“To get the fighting spirit, self-defensers learn a new set of reflexes that encompass attitude, will, spirit, body, and technique. The Change is quite literally metamorphic. What was once ingrained and felt so natural, femininity, is displaced by a new learned-and-ingrained bodily disposition…Self-defensers internalize a new set of bodily dispositions, but not from a natural state of passivity or helplessness. For the “nice girl” is itself a bodily disposition previously internalized and, until self-defense, mostly taken for granted as natural.

Thus, it is not that self-defense inscribed a set of unnatural rules onto the naturally docile bodies of women. Nor is it that patriarchal culture enforces a set of rules onto the bodies of women and self-defensers finally free themselves of any rules, disciplines, or ideologies. Nor is it that women in self-defense unleash a naturally aggressive instinct. Self-defensers replace an embodied code with a new one—a more pleasurable one and a differently consequential one.” (292, emphasis added).

While it seems unlikely that McCaughey would accept Oates statement that a “female boxer” cannot be taken seriously, one suspects that she would agree that a “feminine self-defenser” is equally impossible. This is not because women are incapable of building a warrior’s spirit. Instead the issue is that ‘femininity’ as conventionally understood is an embodied social script. Far from being natural it is enforced by social discipline and acted out on a daily basis. To adopt the embodied self-image of a warrior is to reject this role. Continuity then is something of an intentional fiction. In social terms the woman who existed prior to self-defense training and the one that exists afterward are two different individuals.

Not all theorists are likely to be equally comfortable with this characterization of the process. As anyone who trains in mixed-sex environments can testify the construction of gender among martial artists is a complex subject and not everyone seems to follow the same path. It is common to encounter dedicated female martial artists who continue to favor traditionally feminine coded behaviors and actually import these into their martial arts practice. Pink boxing gloves and training gear have become a common sight in all sorts of training environments.

One suspects that McCaughey (at least as her theory is laid out in this 1998 article) might see this continued embrace of conventionally feminine symbols as evidence of a failed or only partial transition. In a recent conference presentation Alex Channon has argued that this is not necessarily the case.  Specifically, some symbols may be adopted and displayed in an intentionally subversive way in an attempt to signify “women” but not “lesser” or “passive.” This additional layer of nuance is critical to understanding the reported narratives of women’s involvement in the martial arts.

Still, from a practical perspective one of the important qualities of McCaughey’s article is that she states her point clearly, simply and forcefully. An emphasis on continuity may miss the more obvious point that new and unexpected identities are being created seemingly from nothing. Nor are these transformations without social or personal consequence.

McCaughey pointed to then current research to argue that women who had become “self-defensers” were far less likely to be accosted or sexually assaulted than were members of the general population. These women also suffer from few instances of “micro-aggression” in the home and workplace. Again, this fits with her general understanding of violence against women being an essentially socially scripted behavior.

More recent research seems to confirm these findings. In a forthcoming paper to be published in Violence Against Women Jocelyn Hollander reports that women who have received a multi-month (hand combat) self-defense training course are substantially less likely to be assaulted or raped than their peers. For both authors the question of identity is the central issue. Leaving aside the technical skills that these women may have acquired, they seem to be less likely to be identified as “potential victims” and those incidents that do occur may not escalate as severely. Whether these women choose to characterize their own stories in terms of continuity or change, from a social standpoint they now appear to be different actors. This has a wide range of important implications.

It is not difficult to look at the intense classroom experiences that McCaughey describes and to see within them the total dissolution of the old social self that Victor Turner theorized in his work on liminality and communitas. The breaking of all social bonds and the dissolution of all scripts would seem to fit well with her understanding of the nature of embodied identity and its potential to be radically reinvented through physical experience.

In fact, when reading McCaughey one wonders if perhaps the transformation that Turner proposed was not radical enough. The frequent ritualized attacks upon the bodies of self-defense students, the mental rehearsal of death and injury, remind me very much of Eliade’s discussion of the call and training of shamans. Again, one’s identity was destroyed so that a new one could be created, and the symbols by which this process was expressed were unrelentingly physical. They clearly attempted to place the locus of the initiate’s transformation within the body.  In rites of passage society imposes a change of state upon the individual.  Yet this is not the only model that we need to consider.  Ritual can also be used to create a variety of other embodied identities, such as membership in “communities of common affliction.”  Perhaps this would be a better model for thinking about the nature of martial arts training and its function in society.

The social “invisibility” of female martial artists is a complex subject that will require more thought. This essay has introduced a number of classic readings that may be helpful in considering the issue. I have not attempted to provide any definitive answers to the questions that I raised, nor have I elaborated a complete theory of the way in which gender intersects with the creation of embodied identities through physical culture.

Hopefully this essay suggests two things. The first is that an individual involved with hand combat training may undergo a substantially transformative experience even if they do not self-identify as a “martial artist.” Secondly, by delving deeper into the issue of why some women do or do not adopt this label students of martial arts studies may be able to make a valuable contribution to the discussion of ritual, performance and embodied identities in a number of fields.


The same type of pink boxing gloves favored by my wife.  Source: www.everlast.com

The boxing gloves favored by my wife. Source: http://www.everlast.com



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.



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