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Boxer Girl, Give Us A Twirl

2011 November 1

In the last few years, I’ve found myself in a bit of a love affair with boxing. When I started, every lesson was a metamorphosis. Social awkwardness, inhibitions, and body image angst would slink away and cower behind the punchbags, or hide in the changing room lockers until I was done. Boxing makes me feel aware of how I’m put together, and of my own physical power. I feel unafraid to take up space.

New to the hobby in 2008, I assumed women could box in the Olympics, and was surprised to find this wasn’t reliably the case and thrilled when things changed. Having failed to secure tickets, I nearly nosebled with excitement when a friend offered to sell me hers. Katie Taylor‘s competing! Hero worship explosion!

So. That’s the background to this post. But what I want to talk about today is the Amateur International Boxing Association’s latest statement about women and boxing, which the Beeb reports thusly:

The latest talking point is not whether women’s boxing should become the newest Olympic discipline at London 2012, but what the boxers will actually wear when they compete.

During last year’s World Championships, the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) presented competitors with skirts, rather than the usual shorts, which it wanted to “phase in for international competitions”.

AIBA asked boxers to trial the skirts, which they said would allow spectators to distinguish them from men.

There’s this, too:

“By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression,” Poland coach Leszek Piotrowski told BBC Sport. “Wearing shorts is not a good way for women boxers to dress.”

My initial reaction? More flail than the semaphore alphabet. I’ve now slept on it and had a bucket of calming tea. There’s a lot of justified rage already out there. This is a shitty patronising move by AIBA, and one I find quite insulting, but no doubt this surprises nobody. So rather than just spitting WHAT THE BILLIONTH FUCK? about the place forever, here’s a bit of history and a bit of telly, via which we can consider for a moment what all this says about the neurosis we have about women who punch things.

I’m gonna start with Popeye. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

She’s A Knockout

Never Kick A Woman, a six-minute short in which Olive, with the aid of Popeye’s spinach, goes toe-to-toe for his affections with a Mae West-a-like female boxer who throws punches in a skirt and heeled boots, came out in August 1936.

Contemporary with the Berlin Olympics, this springs from a place where women didn’t commonly box at high profile, and the interaction between Olive, who transforms into a cat for her fighting sequence, and the boxer bombshell, is all a bit ooh-matron (“Not bad for the weaker sex!” remarks Popeye, before declaring a desire to sample “her equipment”). However, women were competing with pretty solid regularity, as they had been throughout the nineteenth century, in underground/amateur events, with varying levels of safety and credence afforded them, although they were often fetishised by the small press coverage they received. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the overall feel of women’s events was that of a circus prizefight. There’re many surviving photographs of women boxing from this period, some in skirts, some in bloomers. But things develop, and from about 1920 onwards, if you look at the images on this webpage, they’re also commonly wearing shorts, revealing that Poland coach Leszek “not a way for women boxers to dress” Piotrowski doesn’t really go in for research. Or even Google Images.

Prize-Fighting Amazons

That article also nails the early social response to women’s boxing in the 20th century:

While the battered body of the male boxer was a symbol of the defeat of heroic masculinity, the battered body of the female boxer was the very denial of the supposed essence of femininity and a symbol of brutalization and dehumanization, at the same time creating an image of exciting and animalistic sensuality. For that reason, women’s boxing always attracted male voyeurs – not only working men, but also local dignitaries and businessmen.

Newspaper clipping showing a fierce looking white woman in 1927 posing with fist raised. She wears shorts. This attitude prevails – YouTube’s comments are often a bear garden, but comments left on the Popeye cartoon include quite seriously invested gems like “I love that sexy blonde beating Olive senseless”. Amazon’s fancy dress catalogue also includes some heavily eroticised “boxer babe” outfits, almost all of which are pink and satin, and some of which have skirts.

All of which is to say: skirts in boxing generally collide in two contexts: erotic fancy dress, or “vintage” prizefights as we might popularly imagine them – even if in reality they might’ve looked like this, this or this – it seems to have been a matter of personal preference and the general variation across continents and regional scenes. Reintroducing skirts at this stage in the development of women’s boxing is a bit like citing Edwardian paintings of ‘women wrestling nude in ancient Sparta’ where they’re all looking conveniently sexy and liberated as definite historical fact for what that shit was really like – it’s easy to throw up your hands and say “this is the traditional feminine way for women to box” when the historical truth, or the reality of who this is all for, may contain extra layers of complexity. Exoticising women who box professionally does them no favours, and because it carries with it the aesthetic of prizefighting, insisting they skirt up will do just that. There’s no easy way to divorce the garment from this sort of context, and especially not the way the AIBA are handling it. It reeks of “Cor blimey these girls can punch!” and when tabloid joshing and Popeye-style “wanna check out that goyl’s equipment!” are being encouraged by the governing body… that’s a very sexist problem there.

Rather than promoting the boxers themselves, who work unbelievably hard to get where they are with sweet FA big press recognition, AIBA, whether it intends to or not, is pandering to prizefight imagery with this decision. This, in turn, selects the kind of schoolboy-tabloid-YouTube-comment response to women in boxing as the primary favoured response. Women shouldn’t have to feel that they’re perfecting their footwork for a panel whose engagement with basic principles of equality barely extends beyond the level of a Popeye cartoon. What else are we supposed to feel?

A skirt is not, of course, disempowering in and of itself. Roller derby, for example, makes frequent use of skirts, booty shorts, and so on. The difference is one of context. Derby’s given rise to the whole idea of the ‘rollergirl’, who is free to mix feminine costume elements – thigh-socks, pleats, and so on – with imagery that subversively references horror, punk and violence. It has a consolidated identity as a predominantly female sport. Derby aesthetic pitches at an audience with heavy female participation, and has a significant queer following – so there’s a sense that the skirts aren’t really “for” a dominant privileged gender group, or being imposed from on high on the players. (I do wonder, if male Derby players wanted to wear skirts, whether they’d necessarily be stopped.)1


Boxing, on the other hand, has deep roots in understandings of masculinity and male violence. “White collar boxing” and “chess boxing” (a round of violence, a round of chess, a round of violence) are popular phenomena within the boxing scene, and usually aimed near-exclusively at male participants. It crosses class boundaries in its universal appeal as a sport for men.

Just as it’s popular in media portrayals of working class male environments – Rocky channels his frustrations, while Billy Elliott longs to escape his mandatory classes – boxing also has a relationship with upper class expressions of masculinity around honour and gentlemanliness: Queensberry rules, and all that. But when we put women in the ring, there’s just something about the purity of action boxing involves – simply punching someone else, with an emphasis on the upper body as the weapon – that makes people actively dislike women across all social classes going near it. In a way that kickboxing or judo doesn’t. Amir Khan expressed his distaste about it a while ago, following in the footsteps of Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier, who laughed it up in 1978. (Gotta assume they later revised their opinions, since both their daughters went on to box and even fought each other.)

Women have enough crap to deal with in the boxing world without having to get in the ring with AIBA just to earn the right to a pair of shorts. This is a serious sport, which carries a risk of serious injury, and caricaturing women’s involvement in it does them a great disservice. There’s a lot of romance in boxing – the image of the boxer in film is universally that of a lone struggler, with personal issues, addictions and anger management all channelled into the ring. For female protagonists, usually that gritty struggle involves a fight with sexism too. The image these women cut is powerful and often inspiring – but whatever you think of Million Dollar Baby you can’t quite see Hilary Swank shutting up and donning a skirt.

My favourite boxing film? Girlfight. It’s supposed to show fictional examples of sexist behaviour in boxing and in life – partly as part of the pattern all boxing movies tend to follow of lone-struggler-makes-good, and partly in order to affirm a positive message specifically to women who want to go there. It’s depressing to realise just how much truth there is in that film, and how far we have to go.

I hope Katie Taylor’s forthright dismissal of the skirt issue as “a disgrace” forecasts the failure of AIBA’s suggestion; the last thing anyone who’s fought that hard to get into the ring needs is a constant reminder that they’re still being cast as some sort of other.

  1. If anyone has tried this, let me know how it went. []
5 Responses leave one →
  1. Ephrael permalink
    November 1, 2011

    Regarding male roller derby players in skirts:
    At the Southern Discomfort (South England) vs Quad Guards (Toulouse) bout, played at Earls Court, London, in October; ‘Jay Pegg (f11)’ played in a skirt. No particular fuss was raised.

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 1, 2011

      I do love Roller Derby. Thanks for that :)

  2. November 2, 2011

    AIBA asked boxers to trial the skirts, which they said would allow spectators to distinguish them from men.

    What… I… what?

    Thing the first:
    I know pretty much nothing about boxing of any sort (although I have seen Million Dollar Baby, and it made me cry so hysterically it took me neartly twenty minutes to stop hyperventilating) but I find it utterly incredulous that the AIBA could possibly believe the fans cannot tell the difference between male and female boxers. At the very least, are bouts not scheduled and signposted, so the fans can literally see who is competing? Shame, shame, shame on you for assuming your fans are that ignorant and/or stupid.

    Thing the second:

    • November 2, 2011

      Ahem… Thing the second:

      I can’t even find the words for this.

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 2, 2011

      Yes, that entire whole bit is just so baffling. It reminds me of the Caster Semenya row a bit because it’s so ludicrous.

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