Yesterday, one of my favorite boxing blogs, The Sweet Science, published what was, for the most part, a well-written and interesting account of two female pro boxers sparring at an L.A. gym. Former junior featherweight title holder Ana Julaton is preparing to fight for the WBO title in Canada on June 30, while Kaliesha West has a match scheduled against a Brazilian boxer in Peru. The author of the post, David Avila, points out that both women are at the top of their game and that their matchup was something “you may have to pay several hundred dollars in the future to see.” The fact that their fights won’t be viewable in the US, he says, is a tragedy. “HBO or Showtime should get a load of this. America is missing something,” he says.
First off, yay. I’m absolutely on this guy’s side, and I’m happy to see The Sweet Science continuing to cover and advocate for women’s boxing. (As with most blogs about everything everywhere, there’s occasional idiocy in the comments, but their writers have their hearts in the right place.) To grow, the sport’s going to need more media coverage than it currently gets, and whoever wants to call more attention to that is okay in my book.
However, my yay is not without qualifications. The main thing that stuck in my craw about Avila’s post was his assertion that West and Julaton are “not only great prizefighters but two of the most photogenic boxers too.”
So wait, the fact that they’re attractive is a good reason to put them on television? And conversely, does that mean that if they weren’t attractive, there’d be fewer reasons to show them?
It’s not that I don’t get what he’s saying – he’s trying to make the case however he can that women’s boxing, and these two boxers in particular, would make for good television. But in making the observation that the women are attractive, Avila has just managed to stumble on and expose one of the biggest and most idiotic factors holding women’s boxing – and indeed, all women’s sports – back from being as popular as the male version: female athletes are not just required to be great athletes, they also have to pass muster as objects for the male gaze.
Turn off your safe-search and do a Google image search for “women’s boxing.” Was the first result for you a topless woman? Who may or may not have ever actually thrown a punch? Wearing a full face of makeup and perfectly styled hair? Holding gloved hands over her giant breasts? (To be fair, all of the other photos on the first page appear to be actual boxers actually boxing. And of course a product photo of a pair of pink boxing gloves, but as I own a pair of those myself, I have to refrain from judgment.) Better yet, just google “female athletes.” A good 75% of the hits on the first page are commentaries on the suitability of various athletes as sexual objects.
If these two boxers happened to be male, would there be any perceived need to lament their lack of media coverage by pointing out how good-looking they were? I submit that there would not be. If you’re a great boxer and you’re a man, your appearance is immaterial. You can be very ugly and still be on television if you are a man, as long as you are a good boxer. (I don’t want to pick on anybody here, but I definitely can think of a few male boxers with faces made for radio. Many-times-broken noses are only attractive on a certain subset of the population.) It’s true that overly good-looking male fighters won’t necessarily escape commentary on their looks (Muhammad Ali and Oscar de la Hoya being good examples off the top of my head), but female fighters can’t ever seem to avoid it.
From a purely participatory standpoint, women of my generation have benefited greatly from Title IX. Women’s sports at large have gotten more competitive and more exciting as women have had more opportunities to advance and hone their practices. When I was a kid, there was basically no such thing as women’s boxing and now it’s a frickin’ Olympic event – that’s exciting stuff. But unfortunately, Title IX can’t fix the pervasive societal notion that all women should be evaluated on the basis of how they look to men; thus, when it comes to public opinion, women are still objects first, athletes second most of the time. If a woman like, say, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn makes the cover of Sports Illustrated, lip service must be paid to her conventional attractiveness by posing her provocatively. And it’s not just sports. To be a public figure and be a woman is to receive commentary on one’s looks. When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, even the most staid law blogs and media outlets couldn’t resist talking up her perceived lack of femininity or her ability to conform to the parameters that constitute an “attractive” body.
What Ana Julaton and Kaleisha West do – what I do, for that matter – is not foxy boxing. It’s boxing boxing. For the most part, and maybe moreso than in any other sport, female boxers throw the same punches, abide by the same rules, and use the same strategies as their male counterparts. I share David Avila’s hope that they’ll someday get the same media coverage. But that media coverage should be about their ability in the ring, not their ability to titillate any men who might be consuming their fight. Looks shouldn’t even enter into the equation.