I know this may be hard for some people to believe, but I am, at heart, a well-read, liberal, bleeding-heart, tree-hugging intellectual. If I could, I would study anything and everything forever; I am passionate about politics, about math, about books, and above all, maybe, about law. I’ve loved law forever because no matter how hard I try to become cynical about the world, no matter how much I see of the injustice of it, no matter how many times I am hurt, I remain unfailingly optimistic about the prospect of fairness and justice. Even though I know differently, through years of hands-on experience, I genuinely try to believe the best of people as a whole until they prove me wrong.
I consider this to be one of my biggest personality flaws.
I’ve seen the world, and I know it’s unfair. I’ve seen how women are treated on the grander scale of things, and it’s not a pretty picture. I’ve personally been assaulted and harassed. The world isn’t a nice place. But my world, in my gym, with my friends– this is supposed to be insular. I have earned my goddamn stripes on the mat. I’ve bled on those mats; sweat on them, cried on them. I’ve proven, time and again, that my gender is an aside to who I am when I step onto the mat. I am not defined by it, any more than my teammates are defined by their masculinity when they step on the mat. BJJ is the great equalizer, right? We’ll sweat and bleed and suffer together, gender be damned. If you can’t keep up, male or female, get out of the way, or I’m going to smash your face.
Last night, we had a wrestling coach come in to teach us. Without a doubt, his wrestling is stellar, and he has incredible amounts of knowledge. But he said something that has been rattling around my head all night:
And then if you really want to make him feel like a girl, you do this.
Excuse me? “Girl” isn’t a feeling. “Girl” is my goddamned gender. I don’t “feel” like a girl, I am one. Call me crazy, but if we were to substitute a racial term in for “girl” in that sentence, people would be totally up in arms about it. As it was, no one except my closest friends batted an eye. That, my friends, is disgusting.
I am not the kind of woman who likes to say, “yeah, I’m a girl, but I’m not like those other girls, I don’t like drama/I don’t have female friends/I don’t get along with women/etc.” I don’t have many female friends, but that’s because I spend all day with dudes, not because I don’t get along with women. I don’t feel the need to make myself separate from other women by calling them weak and myself strong. I am a woman, and what I do is BJJ. I like to play rough-and-tumble; some women don’t, and that’s okay with me. I also like knitting, baking, playing rugby, dancing and playing the violin. None of these things make me less of a BJJ player or less of a woman. I don’t want to ingratiate myself to the men around me by insulting my gender. I am strong, and I am female. These are not any more mutually exclusive than being weak and male are mutually exclusive. You know what makes you (physically) strong? Doing things. Physical things. And “doing physical things” is not a gender-specific activity (as for what makes one mentally or emotionally strong, I’m not sure– that’s a philosophical question best left for another time).
Lighten up, you might say. It was just a joke in class, a one-off line to make the guys feel at home and make them comfortable. Don’t be so sensitive! It’s just like a woman to be so sensitive. Besides, Leaahh, I know for a fact you allow your friends to make jokes about your gender at your expense.
Well, let me ask you this: at what cost do we make jokes like this? At what cost do we allow them? If you want to make your gym female-friendly (and I know my gym wants to attract more women), then a good way to start is to not insult their gender by saying that when something bad happens, that’s what it feels like to be a girl. If I take someone’s back, are they supposed to feel emasculated? Is that really an environment we want to encourage at the gym? I don’t want to train with people who view my hard-earned, hard-fought skill as a threat to their masculinity. That’s not something I need in my life.
As for the allowances I make for my friends– yes, sometimes we joke about my gender. You know what they wouldn’t do, though? Make me feel like less of an athlete because of my gender. They wouldn’t make me feel marginalized to build themselves up by insulting my gender. My friends know me. I see the guys at the gym more often than I see my family. If there were no banter, it would be a sad place indeed. They make jokes to me, about me. They don’t call out my entire gender in class, essentially calling me weak and erasing all the work I do every day to play with the big dogs.
What does it say about this man as a coach? Well, it tells me that he doesn’t see female athletes as worth his time or his effort. It tells me that he is all about creating a good-ol’-boy atmosphere in his classes. This shouldn’t surprise me– I know that NCAA Division 1 sports are still like this. I’m going to propose something ground-breaking here, so bear with me. How about instead of using gendered insults to build up the guys in your class while simultaneously tearing down the women, you find more constructive ways to build team morale and camaraderie? It’s unfortunate, really. This man has an incredible amount of skill and technique when it comes to wrestling, but I don’t give a single shit about what he says anymore, because with one comment, he made it clear what he thinks of my gender as a whole.
It’s hard enough to walk into a gym every day and be the “other.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: being a BJJ girl is hard. Every day, you walk a line: too emotional, too robotic. Too sensitive, too cold. Too weak, too strong. Too manly, too feminine. To many of my teammates, I exist only in the superlative; that’s fine. I don’t need everyone to understand the complexities of what happens to me at the gym. I can handle myself and the intricacies of my personal situation. But I want to see women’s BJJ grow. I want to see more women on the mat kicking ass. This “LOL STOP BEING SUCH A GIRL” attitude– and your inability to see why it’s problematic– is why we can’t have that yet, boys.
What I expect from everyone is respect. Not for me, personally; that’s earned. But when a woman walks onto the mat, she should feel the need to prove herself, not her entire gender. When I screw up in class, I shouldn’t be devaluing the achievements of my entire gender. That’s too much pressure to put on one person.
To all the guys out there who build relationships with men by insulting women: stop the gendered insults, your privilege is showing, and it’s really unattractive. If you can’t substitute a racial term into a sentence without making the statement insulting, chances are you’re insulting women. Cut that crap out. The world will be a better place.