Sunday 7 February 2016

Martial Arts Studies and Gender (University of Brighton, 5th Feb 2016)

On Friday, I had the fortune to attend the UK Martial Arts Studies Network's first event, down on the Eastbourne campus of the University of Brighton, ably organised by Alex Channon and Chris Matthews, so though this edges off at a slight tangent from most of the posts on this blog, I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts that have occurred to me after the day.

During a fascinating event, which brought together academics and martial arts teachers/practitioners, we heard papers on and discussed a range of issues around inclusion and exclusion of groups in participation in martial arts and combat sports, and also examined the possibilities – and limits – of their use in reducing crime. Chris Matthews examined the ways that the design of spaces and the cultures they foster might include or exclude different groups, discussing their historical creation of a distinct masculine (macho) culture in boxing, and we were presented projects by the Eastbourne Boxing Club to open up a more inclusive environment.

Anna Kavoura and Catherine Phipps explored the ways that exclusion works in particular with regards to the different needs of LGBT+ participants.

Deborah Jump offered a provocative paper, from a criminological perspective, suggesting that the kinds of culture of toughness and strength fostered by boxing gyms often only reinforces the self-narratives of young men tied up with violent crime, rather than challenging this, and can simply reinforce the cycles of violence fostered by a culture of masculinity centred around notions of 'respect' and 'shame' rather than (as many boxing outreach projects hope) ending them. The hard, muscular body of boxing functions as a kind of armour through which vulnerability is denied and violence is normalised as a way of solving problems.

The highlight for me, though, was a fascinating paper by Kath Woodward which looked at the changes hopefully sown by the high-profile media coverage of women's boxing in the 2012 Olympics. Woodward's argument was subtle in binding together media representations and everyday embodied physical practice – something that the interdisciplinarity of 'Martial Arts Studies', I feel, is at its best suited to do. Woodward argued that it is precisely the repetitive, everyday nature of martial arts practice that makes it such a potentially socially transformative activity. But the logic of her paper perhaps also implied that it was the way that such everyday practice was tied into the more spectacular and cultural aspects of cultural representation that contributes to its potency. What was interesting form me about her discussion of everyday, embodied practice was that it also encompassed practices of viewing (rather than just participating in) martial arts/boxing. What she thought was particularly important in the 2012 Olympic coverage – especially that of the Nicola Adams fights – was that though the discourse around the women's boxing events initially placed gender central (with a media panic around such questions as: should women box? is it bad for their health? does it open up unsavoury voyeuristic pleasures?), once the competition began commentary increasingly 'forgot' about Adams's gender, presenting her fights in the same way as it would men's boxing – i.e. as a spectacle in which her gender was largely irrelevant.

Woodward offered up an interesting conceptualisation of this, looking at the ways that spectators – like athletes – often seem to enter the ecstatic, timeless time of the "zone" in their spectation. She discovers in this a reason for the depth and power of the effect of such specatorship. This seemed provocative in its implicit contrast to cinematic representation. Is there a difference between watching sport and watching a movie? The difference was not fully explored, but opened up much potential for further thinking. In an exchange afterwards about this issue after her paper, Woodward seemed to suggest that movies don't draw us into the "zone" in the same way as sport, since narrative holds open a different experience of time. However, I wonder about whether some of her ideas in fact make sense the particular experience of spectatorship of martial arts cinema, which, counting as a 'body genre' (like the hollywood musical) often explodes the time of narrative to throw us into the "now" of performance. Some Hong Kong films of the late seventies (I'm thinking of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, the "Venoms Mob", etc.) in their temporally extended and impossibly physical finales offer something more like the sporting event than what is presented by the usual requirements of Hollywood narrative. And interestingly enough, kung fu cinema (with its own frequent narratives of personal and occasionally collective transformation) seems to have a particularly strong effect in sending people to gyms or dojos, suggesting something special in the relation it forges between on-screen and off-screen bodies.

Woodward's paper was also enthralling in presenting a model of how change in such things as gender norms may actually may happen – incrementally and through moments of reiterated, humdrum behaviour. But the question I found myself asking at the end was the old one about revolution or reform. Is what we see in the changes in gender norms really just a matter of chipping at the edges of a patriarchal order, whilst leaving its essential structures in place? Although women's increased participation in things like martial arts or boxing seems an incredibly positive development, signalling some very big changes in the way women are seen and the behaviours that are open to them, are martial arts (and society as a whole) still primarily dominated by a patriarchal/phallogocentric order of gender that remains in its essentials untouched? At what point might all the little changes actually amount to a core transformation, and how might the two (quantitative and qualitative change) be articulated?

I did find myself, at the end of the day,  also asking a wider question of the event, that I think emerges from this same concern. During the day, we spoke repeatedly about the gender and sexual identities of marginalised groups – women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ constituents, and lower class / criminal young men – but the missing issue was that of the more 'mainstream', ordinary, middle class – and ultimately privileged – forms of masculinity which are invested in the martial arts, too. I think this is not a poor reflection on Channon's and Matthews's curation of the event, but rather on the kinds of things that Martial Arts Studies itself currently seems to encompass.

I found myself increasingly wondering about the men in that very room where the seminar took place (including myself), and the kinds of ideas or experiences of masculinity that drew us into the martial arts. How might these ideas, fantasies and so on – perhaps, although seemingly far less "problematic" than the young offenders discussed in Jump's paper – in fact lie at the core of what's wrong in terms of gender construction around the martial arts? Travelling home, I found myself thinking about Benedict Anderson's notion of "banal nationalism," which allowed him to think of nationalism not in terms of its extreme, pathological and spectacular varieties (when countries declare war on neighbours, or skinheads attack immigrants), but rather in the tiny, everyday ways that people are encouraged to take the nation as a reference point for their identities (from, for example, the clockface on the news that promulgates a shared experience of time to the logo-isation of national maps in the depiction of transport networks or the assertion of a standardised national language over and against local dialects). I wonder if Martial Arts Studies needs to turn to similarly "banal" aspects of gender. And I wonder if, in order to address the core from which forms of exclusion emerge, it needs to study not marginal "others" but those at the symbolic centre of the social order.

I also then found myself wondering about Martial Arts Studies itself as a gendered space. As part of our explorations in the day, we thought in some detail about the ways that women, or those from the LGBT+ community, are often excluded by aspects of the environment and ritualised behaviour of gyms and dojos. But what about our academic Martial Arts Studies events? How welcome do they feel there, and how deeply has that been considered by us? Though the event at Eastbourne – with a fantastic mix of people attending – felt very inclusive, my feelings about the conference in Cardiff last Summer were rather different. I spoke to a number of women attendees afterwards who pretty much all told me that they had found it a rather uncomfortably "male" space. And indeed, it struck me strongly that there was a certain machismo that surrounded a lot of the socialisation that took place around the conference. Often the first question asked was not (unlike most academic conferences!) what your paper is about or some such thing, but about whether you practiced a martial art, and if so what style. The effect of such a question can, perhaps, be a little like the aggressive questioning that Bruce Lee is subjected to by a white martial artist on the boat on the way to a martial arts contest: "What's your style?" In the film, it wasn't just a polite inquiry, it was also a challenge. In the conference, the question was clearly less intrusive, but I wondered how non-practitioners may have experienced this kind of question. Did it imply less of a right to be there? Some of the papers, too, seemed to include hints about "martial credentials" that came close at points to masculine "posturing". One speaker (I shan't name him), after an explicit a denial of homophobia, followed this up, as evidence, with what was meant to be a joke but ultimately amounted to a homophobic comment. Were some of the gendered cultures of the training hall entering into the spaces of academic debate, too? It's often small, banal, everyday, overlooked performances that inscribe gender on a space – often much more subtle than directly homophobic or sexist comments, often far more everyday than the spectacular examples of subproletarian boxing gyms discussed at Friday's event, and often far more inscribed into the "normal" behaviour of "upright" citizens – and it seems to me that in order to safeguard not only the spaces in which we do martial arts, but also the academic spaces where we discuss them in this fledgeling discipline, we need a vigilance not so much on the "other" but on ourselves.


  1. I remember kicking and screaming when my parents sent me to karate class. It still is however the greatest thing to happen to me. It taught me about patience and more importantly confidence. I never got in one fight in school because I knew I could take care of myself and I guess that spilled over to those who wanted to start fights.

    Matthew Lawrence @ Kung Fu Philly

    1. Thanks for the comment Matt, it sounds like you had a great experience at the class there – and that the martial arts have brought something really valuable in your life. I guess that the conference I was writing about here was very much about making sure that as many different people get to gain that kind of confidence and safety, and that things like gender, sexuality and race aren't barriers to accessing that. I think I probably also felt a little like you did as a kid at that class when I attended my first academic conference – but just like martial arts, conferences have been a great place to learn, so just like with our martial arts classes, it's also really important that us academics make sure that everyone feels welcome at these too!

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