Why was Jiu-Jitsu marketed towards women?

I’ll preface this; my data is not an exhaustive sample. This is taken largely at random from surviving evidence from the period 1900-1940. As such, there may be some problems with it; for example, the Suffragette bodyguard may be overplayed in the history of Jiu-Jitsu in England because they served such a unique function. In fact, given that fighting was considered unusual for women, it is perhaps more likely that texts of films would show a female jitsuka than her male counterpart, and this may be skewing my research. So while I proceed,I proceed with caution.

Between 1900 & 1940, women appear to be over-represented in Jiu-Jitsu textbooks, articles, adverts and videos. Compare this to boxing manuals of the same period, which are almost completely devoid of women, and one is faced with a stark contrast. Some types of fighting were definitely “manly”, but it appears that Jiu-Jitsu was not. One might be tempted to suggest that Jiu-jitsu was seen as a “ladies’ art”, however the facts that from 1906 Sadazaku Uyenishi was teaching the art to the military, followed as early as 1914 by William Garrud who was instructing special constables for the police, and in 1915 William Ewart Fairbairn (later to become famous for developing Britain’s WW2 military combative system, “defendu”) published a manual of self defence for the Shanghai Police which was based on Jiu-Jitsu shows that it was taken seriously by people who needed combative proficiency for their jobs.

So at one end of the spectrum we have the army and the police (in this period exclusively men), people who need to fight for a living studying the art, and at the other end we have it being marketed to a civilian audience as “suitable for ladies”. What I would argue these two groups have in common – at least in combative terms – is a need to prioritise swift and crushing victory over notions of “fairplay” or “decency”.

What I am proposing is the notion of an aesthetic of combat, which at this time was almost directly aligned with gender identity. To illustrate this aesthetic, I suggest watching three fights. The 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between George Forman and Muhammad Ali, UFC 175’s Ronda Rousey vs. Alexis Davis (2014) and UFC 184’s Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano (2015). Unfortunately, I don’t have the correct permissions to reproduce or display these events – however I am sure they are not hard to come by in the digital era.

The rumble in the jungle is widely considered one of the greatest boxing matches ever, but it displays some boxing tropes so well that despite its exceptional status, I think it can serve to illustrate archetypes. The matchup between Foreman and Ali was a style difference of incredible power against brilliant scientific and technical boxing. Ali was at the peak of his physical abilities, and still looked vastly underpowered when compared to the world heavyweight champion. If the fight had been about standing and trading shots, Foreman would probably have taken it. Ali adopted two devices to prevent this being the case. Firstly, he tied Foreman up with regular clinches, controlling Foreman’s ability to throw clean punches and ensuring the referee would step in and separate the two – this allowed Ali to land a strike on the advancing Foreman from the outside, clinch up to minimise damage, and then be moved back to the outside by the referee. This allowed Ali to control the distance and the pace of the fight far better than Foreman could. Additionally, the wrestling and clinching was designed to sap Foreman’s strength.

His second device has become the stuff of boxing legend. Rope-a-dope was a tactic entirely designed for the ring. Leaning on the ropes allowed Ali to spread the impact of Foreman’s punches, much of the energy being absorbed by the elastic ropes rather than Ali’s body. Additionally, by covering or deflecting most of the blows Ali was tiring Foreman out and neutralising his power advantage in the long run.

Some observers thought Ali was seriously hurt, and worried for his safety. He certainly doesn’t look like a man who is winning the fight.

Part of Ali’s training had been huge amounts of body conditioning. His sparring partners would pummel him to increase his toughness, and this paid off. Foreman would chase Ali to the ropes, and throw lots of punches which were either blocked, absorbed or deflected. Ali would respond with a few well placed shots (eventually swelling Foreman’s face). If it got too close, Ali would clinch, be reset and the game repeated. Wearing Foreman down in this way allowed Ali to pick his moment and win by KO in the 8th round.

All of this took about 24 minutes of fighting. In those 24 minutes the athletes displayed values such as;
Physical endurancein simply fighting for that long
Physical toughnessboth Ali and Foreman took a lot of punishment and kept going
Fair playthere were no kicks, the wrestling was limited and the gist of the fight was a stand up event where two evenly matched men punched each other (this notion of fairness is closely linked with gloved boxing)
Self-awarenesseach man tried to play to his own strengths, and showed respect for the abilities of his opponent
IntelligenceAli in particular showed his intelligence by adopting a strategy based on the rules of the game. He knew that to go in all guns blazing would favour the more powerful Foreman’s brawling attitude, so he worked a longer game.

Contrast that with Ronda Rousey’s fights. Rousey is a former Olympic Judo player, turned to MMA. The combined length of her fights against Alexis Davis and Cat Zingano is 30 seconds. In the Alexis Davis fight the bell sounded, Rousey grabbed and threw her opponent to the ground, punched her in the face 9 times, and knocked her out. Fight over.

Against Zingano, the bell sounded, Rousey dodged a flying knee, grabbed her opponent, threw her to the mat and secured control of her arm. This placed her elbow in a lock and had Zingano not tapped, Rousey could have broken the arm. This took just 14 seconds.

In these fights Ronda displayed an entirely different set of characteristics to the ones shown by Foreman and Ali.

RuthlessnessRonda’s aim was to control her opponent and shut them down as quickly as possible. 
DominanceThere was no pretence at giving her opponents a fair shot. Ronda wanted to control them completely and she did so.
AggressionThe game plan was to take control and keep it. That meant closing distance and inflicting damage as quickly as possible.
DecisivenessAt no point in either match did her opponents have the opportunity to hurt Ronda. Her style of fighting protected her whilst inflicting maximal damage on her opponents as quickly as possible.

My argument is that the aesthetics demonstrated in this small sample of fights are widely evident over stylistics boundaries between 1900 & 1940, and that this explains why Jiu-Jitsu was largely marketed towards women in this period.

Broadly speaking, during peacetime the goal of civilised society is to cultivate the nobler aspects of masculinity whilst discouraging those traits which are potentially antisocial. Gloved boxing emphasises physical strength and health, which is very manly, whilst also encouraging a controlled, restrained form of violence. This particular style favours fair play – matches between equals and giving the other a chance. As such, it is a display of masculine nobility. It teaches young men to compete with each other in a stylised manner, and to control their temper – urging them away from picking on those smaller and more vulnerable than them (e.g. women and the elderly). In this way gloved boxing can be seen as channelling a natural male urge to violence and competition into a socially acceptable sphere where it teaches young men constructive values.

The assumption appears to be that if violence can be contained to a controlled, peer environment, then it can be a positive force. Violence is constitutive of male character, and boxing presents a trellis which supports the development along socially accepted lines.

For women, however, the assumption about violence is somewhat different. Violence is not constitutive of the female character (at least in this period) and so it is assumed that a woman is instantly a victim. The emphasis on a fair fight between peers cannot be carried over, because the assumption is that her attacker will be a man, with the advantages of strength and weight.

May Whitley’s 1933 video serves to illustrate this approach, “how 7 stone odd, scientifically applied, can defeat 14 stone”. In this case, all of the techniques shown serve to debilitate or incapacitate an attacker swiftly, allowing the woman either to escape or to render him harmless.There is no emphasis on fairness or control, because it is assumed that either of these things would place a woman at a disadvantage against a larger opponent. Instead surprise, dominance, aggression and decisiveness are emphasised.

These things can only be valuable in a limited context. One cannot encourage all members of a society to be aggressive and dominant – it would be a recipe for chaos. The moral guardians of a nation, however, can be excused on the grounds of necessity. If a woman is attacked by a man, it is the man who is morally wrong for attacking, and this justifies sudden and decisive retaliation on her part. Likewise, the policeman apprehending a criminal or the soldier overcoming an enemy must do it swiftly for their safety, the safety of those around them, and in order to uphold a moral order. (One could hardly condone a “fair fight” with a criminal – what if he was victorious and thus escaped?)

So I have to conclude that these two fighting styles were used and marketed differently because they served differing moral functions in relation to the control of gender identities.

The sport of boxing provided a safe outlet of masculinity for the majority of the male population. Encouraging violence, but reinforcing a set of rules surrounding its proper use and functioning as an educational reminder to young men that the power to be violent comes with responsibility.

Jiu-Jitsu, on the other hand, was viewed as a more practical street fighting system. Designed to give those who needed it a technical advantage. The army and the police would be natural customers, but in a peace time civilian setting, women made a much more natural target audience than young men, because they could always be assumed to be at a physical disadvantage. That is not to say that the only practitioners of the art were women, far from it. However I think the marketing suggests

1) That because it is not enshrined as “manly” jiu-jitsu was the only socially acceptable form of violence for women in this period.
2) The repetitive use of women in promotion emphasises that the style does not depend on physical strength, and could also have appealed to non-athletic males (without insulting their virility)
3) The framing of the use of women shows a concern with personal safety, and carries the message that Jiu-Jitsu is for “the street”. At a time a civilising offensive was in full swing it would not have been possible to depict men brawling in the street – regardless of the reason. So in some ways the female becomes a stand in for the safety conscious male.
Boxing was a tool whereby young men restrained their natural urge to violence and became productive members of society. Jiu-jitsu was the tool that the police, or any safety conscious citizen, could use to tackle those violent males who were not being curbed by social developments.


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