Philip is a blogger based in Sweden who writes about martial arts, gender stereotypes and relationships, inspired by his marriage to a black belt hapkido instructor.
Few things are more linked to gender stereotypes than physical strength and the ability to fight. Women have been called “the weaker sex” and men are traditionally viewed as “protectors”. Men are expected to be much better than women at fighting, simply because we are generally bigger and stronger than women.
There are of course exceptions to this general rule (there are small and physically weak men and very big and muscular women), but what really offsets the stereotype when it comes to self defense and fighting, is martial arts training. Several martial arts are especially designed to allow a smaller person to defend her/himself against a bigger and stronger attacker. They are much more about technique, speed, balance, body coordination and flexibility than size, weight and raw strength. In fact, some of them teach how to use an attacker’s own momentum, strength and weight to unbalance, throw or take the other person down. Obviously, this tends to favour women.
My wife, Leticia, has been practising hapkido ever since she was a small child. She is now a black belt and works as a hapkido and self defence instructor. So even though I am a healthy, fit, 28-year-old man who is significantly taller, heavier and stronger than her, she can easily wipe the floor with me.
I will never forget the first time she showed me some of her fighting skills. She had told me about her work as a hapkido instructor on our first date, but it wasn’t until almost four months later that she showed me her fighting skills first hand.
“I often get questions like “In a real fight you would win though, right?” and “You’re a fit guy, can’t you use your man strength and just overpower her?””
When I stood in front of her on and she told me to try and overpower her by any means I chose I felt I was towering over her, and more or less automatically and subconsciously I felt I better go easy on her.
Leticia quickly put me on the floor, and during the next 15 – 20 minutes or so, I tried harder and harder and again and again, with different approaches but always with the same result: me quickly ending up flat on the floor and/or immobilised in a painful hapkido lock. Twice I managed to get her off balance and take her down with me, only to end up immobilised in a hold with her legs locking and painfully bending my arm.
In the end I’d had enough and told her I gave up. No matter how I tried, there was no way I could defeat her, I was completely overwhelmed and outmanouvered by her skills and speed, and as if that wasn’t enough she informed me that she had been careful not to hurt me as I had no training in how to land properly.
This was a real eye opener and I started to question the many gender stereotypes we have in society. Getting my butt kicked by Leticia made me feel quite frustrated and embarrassed. Most men would react in a similar way in that situation, it is mostly taken for granted that losing to a woman at certain things, like fighting, is embarrassing for men. But why is that? From a logical standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. After all there should be no surprise that a man with no fighting training at all is no match for a woman with professional level martial arts expertise.
People react in very different ways when they find out I am married to a woman who is better than me at fighting. I often get questions and jokes, like for example: “Aren’t you scared?”
“In a real fight you would win though, right?” and “You’re a fit guy, can’t you use your man strength and just overpower her?”
“Men are used to seeing themselves as the protectors in a relationship, therefore fighting is seen as something closely related to the male identity”
At the beginning of our relationship, and especially after I learned just how easy it is for Leticia to defeat me in a fight, I worried about being mocked when people found out. That hasn’t happened though (with one of two exceptions involving people who really tried to offend me).
I have noticed women often love hearing about it, finding it inspiring. The reactions from men are more mixed – some feel it’s embarrassing to talk about and some even refuse to accept that Leticia is much better than me at fighting and wrestling. They start to argue that if I really tried or if it was a “real” fight, somehow I would win.
There is prejudice around women who practise martial arts, people think they will be prone to violence. Sure, she has the capability to beat up a man who is not trained in martial arts – but that obviously doesn’t mean that she will! I would say the contrary is true – there is a lot of focus on discipline and self control and restraint in martial arts training, and there are strict rules for martial artists to not use their fighting skills on other people except in self defence.
“Beaten by a woman” – is it really that humiliating?
Men are used to seeing themselves as the protectors in a relationship, therefore fighting is seen as something closely related to the male identity. When a woman is better at this, it can instinctively be interpreted by a man as if he losing some of his manliness.
There is also a fear of being made fun of. Because of our gender roles a man is generally expected to be better than a woman at most physical activities. Sadly, a guy who loses to a girl at fighting/wrestling/martial arts risks being the target of teasing and ridicule, like “you throw like a girl” etc.
Basic human instinct also plays a role here. During the tens of thousands of years that humans evolved as a species, there was no such thing as martial arts. Fighting was almost exclusively about physical size and strength – and obviously it would have made sense to assume a bigger and stronger man would always have a huge advantage over a smaller woman. We still have some of those old “cave man” instincts.
I have a rather traditional view of masculinity when it comes to personality and physical traits. I feel good about being taller and physically stronger than my wife – I can help her carry stuff that is too heavy for her. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, as long as you understand and respect that every person is a unique individual and no one should be judged or limited in life, just because he or she doesn’t fit into a stereotype.
Read Philip’s blog here