Sex Sells (But Is That a Good Thing?)

Fightland Blog

By Amy Winters

It's not news that some female fighters use their sex appeal to their advantage--getting more attention and more sponsorships and more non-fighting income and even more opportunities to fight than they otherwise might. There’s no question Ronda Rousey’s sex appeal was a factor in her being able to open up the UFC for female fighters, but if it took hotness to get women into the UFC, then fine—at least they’re there now.

But some of the MMA audience, still mostly men, tends to see the woman—the body, the face, the relative willingness to pose in a bikini—before seeing the fighter. Which for many people (both men and women) is proof that women still aren’t taken as seriously as men in MMA.

Felice Herrig sees things differently. Where some see objectification, the newly signed Invicta fighter sees opportunity. The manifestation of a new cage-fighting current of third-wave feminism, she’s tapped into an important marketing advantage women in MMA have that men don’t: an audience made up mostly of people who look at them as potential sex partners. Herrig is a skilled fighter, but she uses more than her skill to get sponsors and audience attention. “I would love for most people to be a fan of me because of my fighting,” she tells Fightland, “but if they like me because they think I’m hot or they think I’m funny, that’s okay.”

So Herrig delights unapologetically in her sexuality. She posts provocative photos (shot both by herself and others) and flirts with fans. She even designs her own skimpy weigh-in and fight outfits. For her last fight, Herrig wore a Superwoman-themed sports bra and skirt, and she arrived at the weigh-ins in a tight business suit and glasses--the Clark Kent of the WMMA universe. Her self-promotion strategy has even led to the occasional public pre-fight battles about that strategy with opponents—a marketing strategy within a marketing strategy.

Herrig’s most recent opponent, Heather Clark took issue with Herrig’s approach in an interview before their fight in March. “If I spread my legs, that’s trashy. ... If I want to pose sexy or do something like Ronda where she was nude but artistic, I believe that’s sexy,” she said. “I do think there’s a fine line between trashy and spreading your legs and sticking your tongue out and all that shit and being sexy and flattering and feminine.”

Women’s MMA veteran Tara LaRosa, meanwhile, doesn’t buy any of it, summing up many female fighters' attitude about using sex to sell in a tweet sent during the leadup to the Herrig/Clark fight:  “In general those who play up the sexy angle are those lacking skill.”

That would have been my opinion a few years ago, before I started watching women’s MMA obsessively. Now the argument isn’t about who is trashy or whether a fighter who posts sexy photos can also be good at beating people up. I think it’s a two-pronged argument that looks inconsistent but makes perfect sense to me—one part recognition that men still have a very particular effect on women’s MMA and one part “who gives a shit.” And Herrig was a factor in changing my mind.

Reactions to Rousey’s success are a good example of how the conversation around women’s fighting is still heavily focused on appearance rather than substance. When Rousey posted a photo of herself talking to lawmakers in New York about legalizing MMA a few months ago, a sizeable portion of the comments were about her legs, her breasts, and whether the lawmakers were looking at her legs or breasts. Go on any MMA-focused forum and search on the words “hotter” or “sexier,” and you’ll find all kinds of detailed discussion of one female fighter’s ass versus another’s tits. And I quit counting all the comments about how Rousey got into the UFC by sucking Dana White’s dick.

Though Rousey has a few notable near-nude photos floating around, most of the shots that emphasize her body are of her training or looking badass at a weigh-in or during a walkout. Rousey’s sexuality is definitely on display—even in talk show conversations about her sex life—but it’s a very aggressive sexuality. She’s not communicating that she’s there to make men happy; she’s saying that they’d better make her happy. But she is still saying something about men. Male fighters don’t have to say anything about women, ever.

You could argue that these things don’t matter. Rousey is at the top of the fighting world right now, and women are now not only in the UFC—they’re on the main card. But these things indicate that women’s MMA, especially in the UFC, is still in a precarious position and that some promoters and advertisers still insist on catering to the lowest instincts of male fans, even though the very large number of men I watch fights with are as thrilled as I am to see really good female fighters kicking all kinds of ass. Short-sighted promoters and advertisers and really vocal dickheads on the MMA forums still do have a lot of power.

On the other hand, who gives a shit? Felice Herrig certainly doesn’t. She carries on a constant flirtation with her fans, mostly on social media and at expos. She posts at least a couple of pictures of herself each day—some official sponsor photos, but mostly just shots of herself waking up or sweaty in the locker room after a workout, wearing a sports bra that reveals her impressive abs and standing in front of a pile of clothes she’d obviously worn earlier to go to the gym.

Herrig start posting these regular bedhead/workout photos with no goal other than to connect with her fans, but she saw an immediate difference in how they were received compared to the more professional ones. “Those get the most views and shares and comments,” she says. “The first picture I posted of myself right after a workout in the mirror, within two hours it got like 14,000 views.”

Herrig has a theory about why those pictures are so popular: “I don’t even think those pictures are sexy. It’s that it’s so real. The fans feel like they’re a part of your life.”

The fact is, MMA is a source of entertainment, and a successful MMA fighter has to be both skilled and entertaining to capture fans’ attention. For male fighters, though, that entertainment can take a lot of forms—the epic trash talkers, the stoic martial artists, the guys with the flying acrobatic kicks, even the wearers of silly hats. Female fighters are usually considered entertaining if they're considered hot.

But while there are uncountable stories of women being screwed over in the past for not being conventionally hot enough to be given high-profile fights, things are clearly changing. Not every woman signed to the UFC looks like a model—and by the way, there are women in the UFC. Invicta got good viewing numbers for their last several events—they’ve even made the move up to pay-per-view. And some promotions with reputations for undervaluing their female fighters are either losing them or have vanished for good.

As women become a larger part of mainstream MMA—both as fighters and as viewers—I think we’ll start to see a larger range of ways female fighters can get audience buy-in. They will likely always have to deal with a portion of the audience judging them by cup size, but there is room for creativity even within that particular cage. Herrig’s blend of sexy photos, flirty talk, jokes, and real fan engagement is at least richer and more personal than just random, predictable bikini shots; it’s an art she has perfected. She demonstrated that with the tweet she sent out immediately after I got off the phone with her the other day:

“Haha I just did an hour long phone interview ... What the interviewer didn't know was I was naked the entire time #bubblebath.” 

Check out these related stories:

Women's MMA Comes of Age

Women Really Arrive in the UFC

Julie Kedzie, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Early Says of Women's MMA