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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

09 January 2010

Article - Kyra Gracie and the Treatment of Women in BJJ

Article #8, by Can Sönmez [FAQ Entry]

One of the threads you're almost guaranteed to see on a BJJ forum, along with "what gi should I buy" and "when should I compete", is a series of photographs like the one on the left, featuring Kyra Gracie. That will be accompanied by a succession of posts along the lines of "man, I'd like to be in her triangle!" Essentially, it's akin to a bunch of drooling frat boys in a locker room, crowded around a dirty magazine, giving each other macho slaps on the back after every lewd comment. Kyra's looks are discussed far more often than her technique.

It is a sad reflection on our society that female athletes are often objectified, their abilities ignored in favour of their appearance (women's tennis is a well-known example). Women who do not pander to that trend may find their achievements fail to get the recognition they rightly deserve. For example, I think everyone can agree that winning two gold medals at the Mundials is an incredible accomplishment, especially if you do so with humility and skill. Yet I rarely hear people talk about Lana Stefanac, the first American woman to win both her weight category and the absolute at the highest levels of BJJ, while still a brown belt. I suspect it is because she is large and powerful, a very different body type to the petite Kyra Gracie.

Emily Kwok did a great interview on Kombat Clinic back in December last year, which fits with this topic. I felt the following quote stood out:

[...] some men still believe that this is a man’s sport and a man’s world. And those types of men could care less about the fact that I managed to achieve anything at all, because they feel that there really is no room for women to be taken seriously. At most, they will say that you are good at what you do ‘for a girl’. They believe that your Jiu Jitsu is not the same as a man’s Jiu Jitsu, they feel that your technique and understanding of the sport is inferior [...]

I think we struggle greatly to be appreciated on the same level as our male counterparts. Women have been doing a phenomenal job representing the sport, providing some of the most exciting matches at elite level tournaments. But we still don’t get much press coverage; we are never talked about as much as the men, and I feel that we still have a long way to go. I think we are still sometimes seen as a novelty, and not seen as serious athletes.

Stefanac herself related a particularly relevant experience in regards to MMA, a sport in which she both competes and trains others. She spoke to Psychology Today about managing female fighters:

You've got this whole Barbie-doll thing, where a promoter will call me and be like, "Do you have a girl at 125 pounds I can use?" Yeah, I sure do. Then they say, "But what does she look like?" How does her appearance affect her fighting?

There are some good signs, however. Shawn Williams made a point of emphasising the excellence of female BJJ during his commentary for the 2009 Mundials. In the US, several senior female belts run a Women's Grappling Camp, an idea which is set to come to the UK soon. Open Mats for women are also available on both sides of the Atlantic. Meg Smitley organises regular events at Dartford MMA, while in the US, there are frequent opportunities in Richmond, VA.

Hopefully with the continuing growth of female BJJ, a woman's ability on the mat will become a more prevalent point of discussion than the way she looks.

[Update: See Meg's excellent follow-up piece here.]

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  1. In Texas, we also have a great group of gals who run a "nondenominational" open mat for women... see for more information.

    The prejudice that I have seen most personally as a woman is kind of weird and perhaps I'm just imagining it... but I feel like I was promoted too soon, when my skill set did not merit it. Many people have told me "but you're grappling guys! you're not expected to have the same sort of success against them!" This bothers me-- the technique should work against someone bigger/stronger, within reason. Eh, maybe I'm mistaken, but it's what came to mind.

    Great post, Can.

  2. Thanks Georgette: more than usual, this is definitely a post where I'm keen to get the perspective of women.

    I feel I should jazz up your link, to emphasise people should be clicking through. ;p

  3. Enjoyed your post, Can. I've experienced the 'girl jits' stigma before, but I try to ignore the 'haters' and let my abilities speak for themselves. To me, the issues you describe are symptoms of wider social inequalities and the '-isms' that still pervade. I try to 'be the change' I'd like to see and try not to get too annoyed when I come up against folk whose hateful attitudes I can't persuade.

    Thanks very much for the link to the Open Mat, can I note that there is a 3rd Open Mat scheduled for Sunday 7 Feb,

    Keep rolling, brother!

  4. Awesome post. I'm still new to the BJJ scene--less thank 6 months training. But I have not yet had to deal with that sort of thing. In fact, at my school, our instructors are constantly telling everyone that girls tend to pick up BJJ faster--especially in the beginning--because we don't come in trying to muscle things, because we're small and we know we can't depend on our strength.

    I agree with what Meg said. When dealing with people who want to belittle female grapplers, there's no need to get angry. Let your skill set speak for itself.

  5. Great article as always Slidey. I'd like to add that although one can point fingers all day at promoters, society, Brazilian machismo, etc etc, there are also women in our sport who are not helping.

    For example:
    Need I say more on that one? Sure, use what you got and become a successful entrepreneur, but have a little dignity while you're doing it.

  6. Haha that tennis link made me laugh. I wouldn't trust anything the Daily Mail report on and especially an 'unnamed source'. Typical tittle tattle to try and lever an angle during Wimbledon week. I used to play a lot of club league tennis and I have to say, among the tennis social circles, female athletes are very much admired for their technical and physical skills on the court as much as men. so it's not really an equivalent analogy in my view when comparing the situation to women BJJ.

    I would say female boxing, or even women's football would be closer to BJJ/MMA in terms of the male bias inherent in the sport.

    I think I might explore this subject further in an article. For example, why is something like women fighting in TKD so much more 'accepted' than women fighting in BJJ? Could copious body armour in TKD be a factor? BJJ fighters look too close to real street scrapping maybe? TKD fighters can beat the crap out of each other but the body armour makes one think it is all safe and ok for women to do? Hmm, some food for thought here.

  7. Heh - well, I certainly agree that The Daily Mail is very far from a reliable source (not to mention a deeply unpleasant newspaper, given their frequent bouts of racism), which the F-Word article I linked to fully acknowledges and criticises.

    However, wouldn't you agree that there is entirely too much "ooo, isn't Kournikova hot?" as opposed to "ooo, isn't Serena Williams a talented tennis player?" That's why I was making the connection.

    To provide another, broader example, take a look at this F-Word piece on sexism in sport coverage.

    Definitely agree on the bodily contact aspect of BJJ bringing up numerous further gender issues in comparison to a non-contact sport like tennis. I'm planning to do a longer piece in the future (which I'll probably try submitting to an external website), as there is MUCH more I'd like to say on the topic of women and BJJ: in terms of my blog, I'm still attempting to keep to that word limit for these articles. ;)

  8. Man, either I have been really sheltered at my school, or women are more accepted in my area. At NAGA, there was a huge crowd of guys watching the girl's fights. In between my fights, I overheard some of the guys down the way talking about how they like watching white belt girls better than white belt guys because they rely more on technique and less on strength--at the white belt level--than the boys do.

    The body contact thing doesn't make as much sense to me. I mean, yes it's a full contact, but there's no striking. I think BJJ is one of the safest martial arts for women to do. I mean, in every sport there is a chance for injury. But BJJ is a self defense art designed for people who want to be able to defend against a bigger, stronger opponent without having to rely on strength. That seems perfect for women. But I am obviously biased. ;)

    The only bias I have seen in my training is that the guys try not to crush me. For example, when they do knee on belly, they don't crush me. But they (and when I say they I mean the more advanced people that I train with) also don't submit me as many times as they possible could. So I think the weight thing is also a "beginner courtesy" as much as a "woman courtesy". I don't know. What do you guys think?

  9. When I say 'bodily contact', I'm not talking about the chance of injury. However, that is also a topic worthy of discussion, and I assume is what Seymour was getting at, upon reflection. For example, the struggles of women's combat sports in general to gain recognition, as certain people still hold to the attitude that fighting and women don't mix.

    What I had in mind was the sexual connotation some people put on grappling, which can lead to them feeling uncomfortable. The guard, mount, north-south etc all lend themselves to causing those kind of people problems.

    Obviously experienced grapplers know that sex is the last thing on your mind when you're desperately trying to avoid getting armbarred, but for the ignorant or less experienced, it can be an issue. E.g., "oh shit, this person has breasts! Where do I put my hands if I want to posture up? What if I accidentally touch them?" I see presumably teenage boys posting that kind of thing up on BJJ forums fairly often.

    On top of that, you get men who refuse to roll with women citing religious reasons, or even jealous girlfriends/wives. This is not an issue that ever comes up when it is two guys (although I guess it could if one guy was openly gay: homophobia in grappling is a whole other topic, which I'd also definitely like to cover in the future).

    Definitely agree with you on women frequently being better to watch in competition than men. I enjoyed the technical display of female grapplers at the recent No Gi Worlds and earlier Mundials far more than the men. Again, kinda like tennis, where women appear to be more technical rather than relying so much on pure power.

  10. Exhibit A:

    Read the comments on that site. The sexism is sickening, but at least some of them were being honest about their views on women in bjj.

    I believe a lot of it displays what Slidey is talking about.

  11. @ Slidey: Oh! I see what you mean. And yes, that is definitely an issue. Or rather, it's an issue if people make it an issue. When I first started, my husband wasn't particularly happy about the idea of me climbing all over another guy or vice versa. It was also complicated because I'm a youth pastor and several of the boys from my group are the ones who invited me to start BJJ. Try explaining grappling to a bunch of Baptists, stay at home moms!! lol

    But then husband came to one of my classes and saw what a grapple is really like and he realized that I was too busy trying not to get choked out for things to be romantic! ;)

    As long as the team a woman trains with is respectful and not full of a bunch of pervs, then you get over the close contact pretty quickly. But I can see how it would be an issue for some people.

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  13. This is one of better blog posts I've read in a while. It really touches on a important issue; I like how summarize and provide quotes from some credible sources.

    I've noticed this kind of objectification in the MMA world, too. Gina Carano comes to mind. I remember reading and talking to people before her fight with Cris Cyborg and being annoyed with how everyone was eager to compare the looks of each fighter rather than their skill.

  14. Thanks, and yeah, Gina Carano is an apt MMA counterpart to Kyra Gracie. They are both talented competitors, but a very significant chunk of coverage, both professionally in the media and informally on message boards and the like, focuses on their appearance.

    That's been happening for a long time in women's MMA: Erin Toughill similarly got treated as the 'MMA pin-up' back in the day.

    After becoming a bigger name due to her victory over Carano, you might hope that Cris Cyborg would be approached by serious sports magazines for interviews. But no, instead she gets an offer from Playboy to pose nude, which naturally becomes a major topic for discussion (some predictably boorish, others a little more thoughtful).

  15. I have two girls, ages 3 and 6. I plan on them taking BJJ much like my mother planned on me taking violin lessons. I hope they take to it better then I did the violin.

  16. I like your blog and I usually don't comment but this article struck a nerve. Obviously Kyra Gracie doesn't mind men ogling her. Otherwise she wouldn't take and distribute pictures like the one you posted. You also fail to mention all of the comments by females about how 'hot' athletic male fighters are, which I also hear on a regular basis. Apparently objectification is only a problem when it's men doing the objectifying. Emily Kwok's comments sound like sour grapes. If she really wants to prove herself then she should get in the cage with some well known male 145 lb fighters. All Joe fight fan cares about are who the best fighters in the world are. Generally speaking male athletes usually win against female athletes if they are at the same skill level. That's why we segregate sports by gender in the first place. If a female athlete thinks that she is the exception to this rule, then; she needs to get in the ring or on the mat and prove it, instead of complaining about how no one appreciates her.

    Years ago, when Martina Navritolova was No.1 in women's tennis, a reporter asked her who she thought she compared equally with on the men's tour. Somewhat to the reporter's surprise, she replied (paraphrasing) "I know exactly who I'm equal to," and named a man who was ranked somewhere around 180th in the world. When asked how she could be so sure, she reminded the reporter that all the players play the same tournaments and practice together. So she'd practiced against a lot of male players and had a very precise notion of who was her equal. A few years ago, when Anika Sorenstam was the best women's golfer, she was allowed to compete in a men's tournament. She didn't make the cut.

    That's why there are male and female sports. If the sexes weren't segregated, women athletes would pretty much cease to exist. They'd be unable to compete against the men and so, as kids, would steer away from sports that they knew to be a dead end for them. With segregation, there are exciting, well played women's sporting events at which the players can make a good living if they're good enough.

    Now if Lana Stefanac starting winning prestigious grappling tournament's that didn't segregate competitors' by gender, or; if she entered and won the men's division for her weight class, or won the men's absolute division, then I guarantee that people would be talking about her. And they wouldn't be discussing the way she looks. If women competitors want to be considered equal to their male counterparts, then they need to enter mixed gender or male tournaments and compete with their male couterparts. Isn’t equal treatment and equal standards regardless of sex suppose to be what gender equality is all about?

  17. Thanks for the comment, Juan. Hopefully a woman will respond to your comment soon, but for the moment, these would be my thoughts.

    Clearly our experiences differ: I have never heard a female BJJer talk about how 'hot' Roger Gracie is, as they are much more interested in his application of the choke from mount. However, I've heard plenty of male BJJers focus on Kyra's physical appearance, without any interest in her ability as a competitor. Worse still is when I see the same attitude in the media: for example, take politics. Consider how often a female politician will be discussed in terms of her dress or lipstick rather than her policies. It's a regular occurrence, but I've never seen a male politician trivialised in the same way.

    I don't want to put words into Emily Kwok's mouth, but from my reading, she is complaining about that backward opinion being applied to women's BJJ: female competitors as a novelty sideshow, rather than a serious display of athletic ability. Unless I missed something (certainly possible), Kwok didn't say anything about competing against men, and that wasn't the point I was making. My point (and like I said, this is nothing new) is that women are all too often valued only for their appearance, as if their sole purpose for existence is to provide the opposite sex with something pretty to look at. Are you seriously arguing that is also the case in men's BJJ?

    Though if you're looking for women who have beaten men in competition, I could cite Penny Thomas and Hillary Williams. ;)

  18. I train at an mma gym and I have heard plenty of women talk about how attractive male fighters are. Although I will concede the women making these comments usually aren't combat athletes' themselves. Which doesn't say much considering only two women train at our gym.

    I can't recall hearing the media ever harp on a female politicians appearance. Although I do remember the media harp on presidential candidate John Edwards $400 dollar haircut until they were blue in the face. Of course we don't live in the same country so experiences may differ.

    Generally people are only fans of the worlds top athletic competitors. If you ask any casual fight fan about B.J. Penn, GSP, or Anderson Silva they will instantly recognize the name. If you ask them about champions in 2nd tier fight organizations they will usually only give you a blank stare. That doesn't mean that these other fighters aren't great athletes, but; since they aren't the best in the world they won't get the same amount of fame and money. Most of them continue in the sport because they actually enjoy it. What a crazy concept.

    Emily Kwok comments seem to indicate that she think's that she should be entitled to the same amount of prestige and money as other world champions without having to prove that she's one of the worlds greatest fighters irrespective of gender. That's not justified anger, it's blatant sexism.

    Assuming that your premise is correct who's worse off a 2nd tier female athlete who's only valued for her appearance, or; a 2nd tier male athlete that has the exact same level of capability who isn't valued at all? If women are sex objects then surely that must make men success objects.

    Sure there are women who have beaten men in competition, and they have certainly earned my admiration. Most professional level female bjjers/mma competitors could probably make a hobbyist like me look like a fool. But that's not the point.

    Female athletes certainly deserve the chance to go up against male athletes to prove that they are among the best in the world. But you can't have it both ways. It's hypocritical to expect the privilege of being shielded from potentially physically superior opponents just because of your gender, while; at the same time demanding the rewards of a system based on equality. Women are either men's equals or they are the weaker sex who must be coddled and protected. But they can't be both of those things at the same time.

  19. Juan, while I appreciate your point that women will sometimes talk about how good looking male fighters are, I will say that, as Can pointed out, their looks are not the main focus but kind of an added bonus.

    Because of precisely the type of comments that I saw in your post-- i.e. that men are better than women at sports--women come into BJJ with more to prove.

    Generally speaking, I will agree that men typically are stronger and faster than most females. But I will also argue that Jiu-jitsu is one of the few sports where size and strength isn't as important. At my school, I train almost entirely with men and they don't go easy on me. I'm expected to do everything the men are. I grapple guys and girls alike that are at my same skill level and I can tell you gender makes no difference to me when I'm on the mat. I'm not trying to brag, but I can tap out guys who are bigger and stronger than me who have been training for a shorter amount of time and some for the same amount of time. And there are some guys who are my size or smaller who can tap me out with ease because their training is superior.

    That's what is so great about BJJ. If your technique is good, it doesn't matter how big or strong you are. I do think women can compete with men in this sport and many do.

  20. Really interesting thread and I found I had enough to say that I blogged my response. Go here if you're interested,

  21. Meg's blog has since moved, so you may find the above link doesn't work anymore: go here instead.

  22. In response to Juan, who wanted to see females beating males in international sport, see this photo:

    That photo was taken at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. It is of Lanny Bassham (gold) and Margaret Murdock (silver). They tied for gold, and were split by the last score put on the board, a rule known as "countback". They are both stood on the top step of the podium because Lanny Bassham felt they should have shared the gold on account of having shared the gold-winning score, and he invited Margaret up there. Shortly after this photo was taken, males and females were segregated in international shooting. The cynic in me suggests that this was because the men of the world couldn't stand the idea that a woman could outshoot them. Perhaps that is unfair of me. But it is interesting to note that there are no longer rifle events in the Olympics in which men's and women's scores are directly comparable.

    As a side note, the "countback" rule no longer exists.

  23. Wow. This was the first entry I read on your site. My succession of thoughts:

    1) Dammit my blog sucks.
    2) Ah, f it. It's just to humor me, who cares.
    3) Eee, thank goodness I don't have to deal w/this kinda sh!t at my academy! But this chick brings up some excellent thoughts!
    4) Damn, Juan does too!
    --- clicked on your profile ---
    5) Wtf a guy wrote that entry.

    Haha thanks for bringing so much insight and being so in tune w/the people you train with. It boggles my mind that a guy could evaluate from a woman's perspective as well as you did.

  24. Thanks for the kind words, Formiga! Although my post pales in comparison to Meg's awesome article. :D

    I like what I've seen of your blog so far: engaging writing style, so hopefully you'll keep it up. :D