I don't often read The Gospel Coalition for a lot of reasons, not least because they saw fit to delete comments I made that were pointed but not rude and blocked me from commenting on their webpage or Facebook. I am hardly along in having this experience, it seems to be their standard operating procedure to keep dissenting thought out of sight and therefore out of mind. However a recent article is getting a lot of attention because it dares to criticize women's involvement in so-called Mixed Martial Arts. Published under Justin Taylor's blog space, the piece titled How Should We Think About Watching Women Fight Women is written by Alastair Roberts and takes a decidedly counter-cultural approach to the question posed in the title.
Roberts does a pretty good job of explaining why women in MMA is unhealthy for Christians to support but as some others have pointed out I think he doesn't go quite far enough in condemning the general love for stylized violence in bloodsports that is so common in America and especially so in the church.
There is something disturbing that reflects the darker impulses of human nature that we enjoy the spectacle of bloodsports. As a culture we love football and we especially love football when it is at the highest level of raw violence. If a running back makes a nice cut and gains 7 yards on a carry instead of 2, no one is going to replay that over and over. But if a safety crushes a wide receiver making a catch in mid-field you can bet someone is going to turn that into a GIF in no time. Boxing and wrestling and other violent sports have as part of their essence physically overpowering your opponent and if that means hurting them (while perhaps not injuring them), all the better. Boxing can be a very artistic sport, deeply skilled and demanding physical and mental toughness but at the end of the day it is still two guys (or sadly two women) trying to hurt one another and bonus points if you hurt someone badly enough that they are unable to even stand up.
More generally speaking we as Christians in America love sports more than we love just about anything else and that often includes our families and our church. Women's sports are vastly less popular in general than men's sports but there are ways to draw in a male audience anyway. You probably would have a tough time getting men to pay to watch women's softball unless you had a school tie or family affinity for one of the players but get a couple of young women to pummel each other and the men can't get enough. Women's biathlon probably requires at least the same level of coordination, athleticism and stamina that MMA requires but how many people watch that outside of Nordic countries? Not very many is my guess. Why is that? Could it be that a woman decked out in cold weather gear, wearing a hat and goggles and gloves is just not all that erotic and therefore not that interesting to a male audience? Nah, that can't possibly be it.
The violence of MMA in general and especially when featuring women is bad enough but when you note that the women involved are wearing sports bras and skin tight shorts, it sexualizes the event and makes it a little higher class version of strippers engaged in wrestling in mud or Jell-O at a strip club. This is not confined to women's MMA, in fact it infects a ton of women's sports and sex appeal of women athletes is a major marketing tool. Does anyone think that girls at the high school and college level have to wear skin tight shorts to play volleyball or that female Olympic beach volleyball players and runners need to dress in what is often less clothing than they would have on if they were in the underwear to compete? Or is it that audiences are more likely to tune in when a women's sporting event includes women dressed provocatively to appeal to lust of another kind? In the martial arts men and women alike wear full length pants and long sleeve jackets and somehow still manage to perform.
Some dismiss this sort of talk as a ghastly return to Puritanism or one step removed from demanding that women wear a burqa but issues of modesty are both incredibly important and simultaneously often dismissed out of hand because talking about modesty and immodesty sounds so old-fashioned and we desperately desire to not seem less than hip to our unbelieving friends. When we allow the unbelieving culture to dictate to the church which topics are off-limits we can never draw the line. If modesty if off-limits then you might as well add in every other moral admonition made to the church because the unbelieving world has no use for any of it.
Women in MMA is not just yet another tactic of the same sort of cultural revolution we see all around us to diminish, deny and eventually destroy the very concept of the binary gender model that God created. It is also a crass appeal to two of our most base impulses as men, first violence as entertainment and second the sexual exploitation of women.
Would you as a Christian father want to see your daughter fighting, barely clothed, another woman, also barely clothed, seeking to hurt one another badly enough to knock them out or make them submit from pain, while men in the audience scream and cheer the spectacle of women fighting for their entertainment? What about your wife? I expect most Christian men would be appalled to see anyone hitting their wife or their daughter but when it is somebody else's wife or daughter, we feel OK paying to watch them get hurt because it is a "sport". Come on.
I don't expect pagan unbelieving men, especially in our culture, to have an issue with women in MMA/ Quite the opposite. It appeals to them sexually, it appeals to their love of violence and it has a deeper appeal to men who have suffered through decades of being degraded and blamed for every societal ill to see women hurting other women, giving them a vicarious thrill to see something done for spectacle that would get them arrested if they carried it out themselves. I am certainly not ascribing to every or even most men a deeply embedded desire to see women get hurt to soothe their male ego but you would have to be foolish and completely ignorant of the human condition to think that doesn't play a part. My point is that I don't expect anything different from unregenerate men than to act like unregenerate men.
But my brothers in the church? That is a different question entirely. We are supposed to have different passions, to desire different things than we did before. The Bible gives us a lot of attributes that the Christian is supposed to find praiseworthy in a woman, things like reverence, being loving, self-control, purity, kindness, submissiveness to husbands (Titus 2:3-5), they are to be modest and quiet and not drawing attention to themselves but rather adorning themselves with good works (1 Timothy 2:9-11). Physical prowess at sports, six pack abs, a killer right hook, an unbreakable headlock, a willingness to prance around immodestly dressed for the amusement of men? You will search in vain for those attributes to be seen as praiseworthy for a woman of God. Why are we entertained by something that runs contrary to what we are told is worthy of our praise?
I have never watched an MMA match before, male or female. I don't watch boxing and rarely did even years ago. I avoid sports today as much as possible, especially because I used to love them so much. I do understand why it can be thrilling to watch people fight one another, especially for men who get to watch scantily clad women beating each other up. Even still we are not called in the church to seek out that which is entertaining or that which is thrilling but rather to seek out what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). It is a tough case to make to suggest that women engaged in acts of violence against other women for the primal entertainment of men qualifies in even the most generous definition of any of those things.