Women writers on boxing, gender and culture

This week I’ve been devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts:

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Long before there was such a thing as women’s boxing in the Olympics, the sport most commonly associated with raw violence and archaic masculinity drew the scrutiny of a sharp female mind.

On Boxing JCOBut in her acclaimed 1987 book, “On Boxing,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates didn’t dress men down, as feminist explorations of sports and culture often do. Nor did she glorify in the physicality of or comment on what she witnessed in the ring in almost detached, race-horse style, as the sports pages often did.

Oates, who went to Golden Glove bouts with her father as a girl in upstate New York in the 1950s, claims at the very beginning she doesn’t consider boxing a sport. Nor does she think of it as invariably brutal. In the preface to the 1994 version of the book, she says that no other subject for a writer is “as intensely personal” as boxing, which puts her in the company of many esteemed male writers, among them Norman Mailer. But he wouldn’t have written this:

“Without doubt, it is our most dramatically ‘masculine’ sport, and our most dramatically ’self-destructive’ sport. In this, for some of us, its abiding interest lies.”

For more than 270 pages, she tautly weaves cultural commentary while contemplating the history of boxing, referring to it as “tragic theater.” The fascination with sports in the United States, she argues:

” . . . has not only to do with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or render obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, muted, eclipsed and wholly unarticulated underside of America’s religion of success.”

But it’s early on in her critical essay that she touches on gender in the most binary fashion:

“Boxing is for men, and it is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”

“Machismo as sheer poetry” indeed.

My first reaction upon reading all this was: “A woman writing this?” Free of invective and scolding, informed by a keen literary sensibility and a fierce desire to portray boxers, and what they do, in fully human terms.

For someone who never stepped inside the ring, Oates offered a worthy example of how women might fare if they truly dared to operate audaciously in the male-dominated arena of sports. (And she has continued as a frequent commentator and reviewer.)

Instead of judgments based on a gender prism, Oates plumbs deeply into a world to understand it, and to accept it on its own terms. Her strongest observations aren’t directed at boxing’s macho-ness, but on American society’s revulsion of its essence:

“As boxing is ‘reformed,’ it becomes less satisfying on a deep, unconscious level, more nearly resembling amateur boxing; yet, as boxing remains primitive, brutal, bloody, and dangerous, it seems ever more anachronistic, if not in fact obscene, in a society with pretensions of humanitarianism.”

Oates’ conclusions are not the words, or sentiments, that carry sway today. We’re witnessing renewed efforts to “reform” gridiron football in the wake of concussions and brain trauma that may have prompted the tragic suicides of former NFL players. The sport is under some serious existential pressure, to be sure.

But will these concerns, including those expressed by a president who has only daughters, really keep young men from getting in the game?

Likewise, there are growing calls to ban headers in youth soccer, which affects boys and girls alike. In a society that fetishizes safety and relishes litigation, it demands almost incessant regulation. In our desire to “protect,” we are gradually losing a sense of what true risk is all about.

When I read “On Boxing” a couple of years ago, this was just after I had finished writing “Beyond Title IX,” my e-book on the cultural laments of women’s sports. After drowning in dreary feminist dogma for months, I found “On Boxing” a refreshing, authentic delight, transporting me into a bizarre world that I could never know, or ever hope to understand. Boxing a Cultural History

And this was just the point. It dawned on me that I find things I can never fully comprehend the most compelling. I never played American football, but I am lured to it in part because I never put on shoulder pads and a helmet, never took a hit, never absorbed one and never experienced the pain and the pleasure of the game.

While I covered soccer for a number of years, the cultural underpinnings of a truly macho, global sport will endlessly exist beyond my grasp. Aside from the present excitement of the gilded World Cup is a dark, sometimes deadly connection between the game and the societies where it resonates the most. This will always be a mystery, more because I’m a woman than an American.

If you want to understand true gender-and-sports grievance, it can be found with a small few who rail about women and soccer with unblinkered ferocity and sometimes expand this narrative into other sports.

But there has got to be a cultural rethinking away from the victim-centered feminism I’ve been writing about this week, and have addressed in my e-book and previous posts here. If women are to make true lasting progress in sports, their leaders have to stop marginalizing them.

You can’t whine about sexism and equality if you’re shuddering from stepping in the arena. If you want your ideas and advocacy to be taken seriously, you’ve got to stand in the ring and do more than deliver one-way punches. You’ve got to take them, too, and learn how to fight back in a way that honors the code you demand women be allowed to enter.

A good way to start would be to look at sports culture and history as Oates has done with boxing, instead of cherry-picking and exaggerating male discrimination against women. Don’t leave the sexism out, but don’t caricature men and presume male athletic experience keeps women down.

In her 2008 book “Boxing: A Cultural History,” British academic Kasia Boddy serves up a comprehensive, glorious saga of the sport as seen mainly through art, literature and popular culture. Boddy, who teaches at University College London, has crammed together a collection of artwork, posters and other representations of boxing — Oates thinks it’s far too much — that includes women in and around the ring, from decades and even a century or so ago.

In a chapter subtitle called “The Prize Fighter and the Lady,” Boddy writes about journalist Nellie Bly’s interview with champion John L. Sullivan, and includes photos and drawings of females fighting. A sketch published in the British Police Gazette magazine in 1890 carries the caption “The Girls Who Biffed Each Other.” The Sweetest Thing

Boddy reveals examples of an early feminist strain in some of these works, as well as “a return to scantily clad heroines” designed for the prurient interest of males. In other words, a variety of expressions of the full range of human experiences, even in the Victorian age.

What about modern-day women who dare to fight, and who take issue with Oates’ declaration? Australian boxing champion Mischa Merz offered a counter in her 2011 book, “The Sweetest Thing: A Boxer’s Memoir.” I met her during a reading at the Decatur Book Festival that fall, and was impressed when she said that “Boxing is my man. Even my husband will tell you so.”

Merz began competing in the late 1990s, mostly as a personal challenge, a reason that appears to draw quite a few women into the ring. She’s middle class with a family, and wasn’t trying to fight her way out of poverty or a violent upbringing.

Yet her memoir recounts a familiar path to competitive success, even in the master’s division. She portrays some of the main advocates for women’s boxing, including Dutch professional Lucia Rijker. These are women fighting for opportunities to fight, gradually punching their way through the resistance of a fiercely male-dominated sport, yet they respect its more honorable traditions.

A year before the debut of women’s boxing in the London Olympics, Merz wrote that this inclusion “requires that women’s bodies be reimagined” far beyond Victorian myths of frailty. And yet:

“We also can’t keep imbuing them and their owners with moral purity. The increased acceptance of female athletes in many different sports has given women the freedom to be tough and mean and ruthless. And it is in the arena of women’s boxing where this narrative is playing out most eloquently.”

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