I had a meeting with one of my professors yesterday where we got talking about martial arts–she studies something called tae do (which isn’t the same thing as tae kwan do and I’m not sure I’m spelling it right) while I, as you may know, recently started studying jiu jitsu again. I got talking about why I wanted to start taking a type of movement class again but didn’t want to go back to belly dance–basically, it’s like working in the ice cream store. I spend all day thinking about belly dance, by the end my brain wants to do something else. Christine interjected that constructions of femininity are also very different in martial arts than they are in dance.
This is something I had been thinking about but hadn’t yet had a chance to articulate. Basically I spend all day thinking about this (it’s related to the subject of my PhD) so I’m going to write about it a little now–but I promise there will be a funny story at the end.
Gender is a learned behavior–set of behaviors, really. Mainly they are subconscious, though of course enacting gender does involve some conscious choices (high heels today?) But we all grow up learning to fit ourselves into the boxes of what it means to be feminine or what it means to be masculine, whether we think about those things or not (or we rebel against those categories, which I imagine would invovle quite a bit more conscious thought about what those things mean.)
Starting jiu jitsu has reminded me how hard I work in my everyday life to give off the impression of femininity. I grew quite tall at a very young age, and thus spent most of my younger life trying to make myself look as small as possible until it just started to feel natural to do so, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. A friend said to me recently while we were joking around, in a slightly suspicious tone of voice, “For someone who’s almost six feet tall you do small and cute surprisingly well.”
In situations where I’m nervous or feel like I’ve done something wrong I get more feminine–my voice goes higher, my eyes open wider, I do funny little things with my hands, my posture gets more rounded, I play with my hair. Despite all these things, you’d be surprised at how often I get called “sir” even when I’m wearing a dress–which just makes me work harder at being girly. In jiu jitsu class when I’m learning a new technique and I’m having a hard time grasping it, I’m more likely to start giggling and flapping my hands nervously than behave like my male counterparts by starting to frown in concentration and try harder. (I’m not saying that my jiu jitsu friends do this more than other men–I’m saying that the masculine thing to do in those situations is not to try laughing it off, so that’s what they do.)
I don’t do any of these things deliberately; most of the time I don’t even notice, though sometimes I do catch myself at it. (This usually makes me more nervous, and then I just compound whatever it is that I’m doing until I’m totally wound up.) But either way, deliberately or not, the object of all these little signals adds up to the same thing: I’m no threat. I’m just a girl. Too small to hurt. Or, it doesn’t matter that I can’t do this right because look how cute I am!
In belly dance this works in your favor: if you can’t do a particular move, you can always do something cute and laugh it off, and it could still be considered a successful performance because the possibility of winning the audience over through sheer force of personality remains. Not that my belly dance friends are a bunch of silly flibbertigibbets: I admire their confidence, grace, and stregnth. Their confidence derives from a different source than the one we look for in jiu jitsu class. Remember I was reading The Name of the Rose recently? In it, the narrator describes a woman he meets as “terrible as an army with banners”. The young monk is overwhelmed by her, to the point where he needs a military analogy to explain just how subjugated he feels in her presence. That’s exactly how a really good belly dance performance should be: every eye in the room should be so captivated by the dancer that the audience is powerless to look away. This comes from a combination of technicall skill, charisma, and an aptitude for holding an audience I can’t quite explain, but we all know it when we see it.
My female jiu jitsu friends are confident differently. First of all, it’s not a performance, so nobody is out to impress anyone in that way. The jiu jitsu ladies are all at least six inches shorter than me, but every time I get paired with one of them, I know I’m going to be the one on the floor wishing I were spending the night quietly at home with my crochet patterns. They’re like valkyries. Really tiny valkyries. (They’re also quite good fun, as I imagine any valkyrie would be. They don’t sing, though.) In class, it’s not that being female doesn’t matter, if only for those times that we try to match each other for size and weight. It’s that femininity doesn’t matter. Not in the ways I’ve described it above, anyway. And yet, it’s not that I feel like I’m somehow becoming more masculine by training in jiu jitsu. It’s more like I’ve found a space where femininity and physical assertiveness are not mutually incompatible, as they are in my everyday life. This is new, and it is an exciting–and a little frightening–place to explore.
Okay, now for the funny story: one of the guys accidentally walked into the ladies’ changing room after class on Monday. He was, appropriately, very embarrassed. We all laughed. At the pub afterwards, to commiserate with our abashed colleague, another one of the guys told us about the time he’d split his chin open during class and in his confusion rushed into the ladies’ changing room to wash the cut out. There was nobody in there and he immediately realized his mistake and left.
The small storyteller that lives in my brain immediately decided that this wasn’t nearly interesting enough and he needed to embellish the tale a bit. He should have said that he rushed in looking like a crazed jail escapee with the blood on his chin, and legions of half-dressed women ran screaming out into the hall, causing a rumpus and palaver. Alternatively, you could approach it like a comic book–frame one: our hero rushes in, bleeding profusely from the chin, looking wild-eyed at all the women in various stages of undress. Frame two (five minutes later): he’s hanging in the air hooked on one of the lockers having been all tied up in ladies’ undergarments (and his chin is bandaged, because the women don’t want their fancy bras to get blood on them), saying, “Okay, you can let me down now…really, girls…um…ladies? I think you can let me down now!!”