When Miesha “Cupcake” Tate walks into the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on the night of December 28, she is wearing a pink skort and singing along to Katy Perry’s “Roar.” She’s about to enter the arena to fight her rival, Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey, in the 168th Ultimate Fighting Championship event. Then, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” starts to blare over the speakers, and the camera switches focus to Rousey. She’s wearing all black and she looks like she wants to knock somebody out. Which is, you know, the plan.
Seeing female fighters walk into an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event is a new phenomenon. Since its inception, UFC has been intensely male-dominated. Their viewership and referees are majority male; their president, Dana White, is male; and most importantly, until late 2012, all of their fighters were male, and the most visible women in the UFC were the bikini-clad ring girls.
But now the UFC has a women’s division, in which Rousey and Tate are the superstars. And the introduction of female fighters raised a critical question: In a franchise built on testosterone and machismo, how do you market women?
Before every event, the UFC creates lengthy promo videos in which they interview fighters, highlight rivalries, and build hype for the fight. The pre-fight video for the Rousey/Tate fight is seventeen minutes of Rousey and Tate talking shit about each other. That’s pretty standard, and the rivalry between Rousey and Tate is intense and well-known. But what made this advertising stand out was the gendered nature of much of the women’s commentary. It seems the UFC found an answer to their question: to sell a Pay-Per-View with female fighters, you combine bravado with petty jealousy and slut-shaming.
Though much of the video discusses the women’s plans for the fight, the abuses they hurl at each other aren’t all skill-based. Rousey insults Tate by saying “she’s got a picture of herself in booty shorts” and mentions a time on The Ultimate Fighter – the UFC reality TV show in which they were both coaches – when “Miesha was looking at her reflection in the glass in the sauna, trying to fix her hair and makeup.”
Dressed in grey, hair down, Rousey is portrayed as the less feminine of the two – despite being more conventionally beautiful. (A nearly nude Rousey has graced the covers of ESPN Magazine and Maxim.) Maybe that’s because she’s not nice. “Fuck you, bitch,” she spits after Tate congratulates her on a good fight. Her brusque, unblinking meanness in the video is so over-the-top it’s almost impressive. Ronda Rousey represents the bad girl fantasy: the sexy bro-woman, the girl who goes shot-for-shot with the guys and calls other women bitches, but who will also take her top off for your entertainment.
“Cupcake Tate,” in return, describes her “ecstatic” reaction to the news that she had beaten Ronda in a fan voting contest that decided who would be on the cover of the UFC video game. “For so long, Ronda’s been the popular one, the queen of MMA, All-American perfect, champion, and now people are getting to see the real Ronda. And it’s been nice, I feel like she’s been kind of exposed,” Tate says. And earlier: “Every time I would see her face on a magazine cover I was filled with jealousy and resentment.” Tate represents the good girl stereotype: the sweet one, eager to please, unfairly bullied and hurt by the popular bitch.
This piece of advertising reduces the rivalry between the two women to middle-school gossip and petty silliness. Their rivalry is real and will result in a real fight, but here, it is minimized, laughable.
Using gendered stereotypes to market fighters is nothing new for the UFC. The pre-fight promotions for male fighters are chock-full of pride, aggression, and all the other trappings of conventional hyper-masculinity. They make it very clear that these guys are defending their honor like men, and damn anybody who gets in their way. As we know, though, patriarchy has reinforced the idea that masculine is powerful and feminine is weak. Masculinity can be over-the-top, because there’s no such thing as too strong.
That hyper-masculinity is not absent from the Rousey/Tate video. They match the guys punch-for-punch, so to speak, in swagger and unsmiling threats. The women’s promotional video also includes an equal amount of skill-based discussion: there’s plenty of serious talk about each other’s training regimens, armbars, and ground games. But those comments about makeup and magazine covers are impossible to ignore.
When the UFC works these feminine stereotypes into the fabric of their promotion, it serves to make Rousey and Tate less intimidating. They must be scary enough to be taken seriously as athletes, so the sexists in the audience don’t dismiss them. But they must also be weak enough for the same audience to remember that they are, ultimately, women, entangled in trifling feminine spectacle. They have to fit enough stereotypes for that sexist viewer to be able to see them as lesser. After all, the UFC never wants to be a place where a man feels his masculinity is threatened.
Must every encounter between two female fighters look like name-calling and hair-pulling? Or is it possible to create a new path, something that does not rely on gendered stereotypes, before they touch gloves and start to fight? As more and more female fighters enter the arena, the UFC can market these women as strong, multi-faceted role models or foolish, overdramatic girls. Let’s hope they make the right choice.
Sarah Van Name lives in Durham, North Carolina and spends her time writing, baking bread, and getting too invested in television.