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The paradox of Fallon's fight: interlocking discourses of sexism and cissexism in mixed martial arts fighting.

Dude Looks Like a Lady bellowed throughout the arena as Fallon Fox waited to enter the ring for her professional mixed-martial arts (MMA) fight against Allana Jones. Jones chose the Aerosmith song to accompany her walkout before the fight as a particularly poignant stab at her opponent. Fox had gained notoriety a few months earlier in March 2013 after being forced out of the closet as a trans woman in a sex-segregated combat sport. (1) A reporter seeking to sensationalise her story ambushed her for the exclusive, but Fox curtailed the involuntary outing by contacting Cyd Zeigler of Outsports to write her story instead. Despite coming out on her own terms, she no longer possessed anonymity and reluctantly became professional MMA's first openly trans athlete. As a result of the revelation, Fox's MMA licensing organisations subjected her to medical review to verify that she met the medical requirements to fight as a trans woman. Even though she received the medical clearance to fight Jones, she endured transphobic jeers and epithets throughout the fight and since. Fox went on to win her match against Jones; yet, her victory was bittersweet. She continues to endure a relentless battle for the right to participate in women's MMA in the court of popular opinion. Heated debates in sports media about the fairness and morality of a 'former man' competing against women ensures Fox's presence in the spotlight for some time to come.

Fallon Fox's fight for inclusion comes at a time in U.S. cultural politics when trans people are experiencing increased visibility in the media and laws around transgender rights are beginning to gain momentum. The Obama administration has signed legislation against hate crimes based on gender identity, encouraged the application of Title IX (2) to transgender students, and removed barriers for trans people to update their official government documents. (3) A new California law now allows students to choose bathrooms and sports teams based on their gender identity. (4) In each case, these laws seek to protect the individual's right to identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned a birth. Cultural visibility has also increased and trans male-to-female (MTF) activists and fictional characters, in particular, have achieved increased visibility within U.S. media. (5) For example, Laverne Cox graced a 2014 cover of Time magazine as both a transgender activist and popular character on Netflix's Orange is the New Black. Concurrently, Janet Mock has been featured on numerous television news programs after her memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, became a New York Times Bestseller. In the sports world, former Olympic champion Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2015 ESPY Awards after publically coming out as transgender. These women have become icons of the trans movement within the U.S. and advocate for the individual's right to express one's gender identity in a variety of fashions and without fear of violence or retaliation. (6) The discourses of transgender acceptance have entered a mainstream conversation and taken root in progressive politics and popular culture.

The increasing visibility of trans people in the media and the legal measures to ensure their inclusion in society is certainly noteworthy; however, Fox's struggles in the MMA community demonstrates a key area of concern for trans inclusion. In this article, I scrutinise the discourses surrounding Fallon Fox's participation in MMA by both her supporters and opponents. More specifically, I examine the interplay between notions of gender identity, individual trans rights, and fixed sexual difference in MMA blogs, radio shows, and in sports and entertainment magazines that comment on Fox. On one hand, naysayers object to Fox's participation in MMA under the auspice of protecting cis women from the presumed immutable advantages of being born male. On the other, proponents for Fox's right to fight employ sexist understandings of female physicality to advocate on her behalf. In the end, both positions are concerned with maintaining what are considered 'normal' sex differences and excluding what are outside the normative boundaries. Both positions reaffirm a patriarchal, cisgender, cissexual system of power through sexist assumptions of 'biologically' sanctioned male physical dominance and 'innate' female physical lack. 7 The interlocking discourses of cissexism and sexism create a double bind, or a no-win situation, for trans women in combat sports; trans MTF athletes encounter cissexism on one front and sexism on the other. (8)

Both sexism and cissexism 'manifest in our gendered attitudes and actions, including our assumptions about what are considered "normal" (legitimate) embodiment, activity, and modes of being/belonging'. (9) Sexism privileges masculine identities above feminine ones while cissexism exalts gender-normativity. Sex-segregation in sport relies on embedded notions of gender-normativity to assert that there are immutable advantages offered cis male bodies and corresponding disadvantages for cis female bodies. Testosterone levels, muscle mass, and bone structure are the main 'advantages' afforded men that female athletes supposedly lack. The normative (large, muscular, and testosterone driven) male body presents a threat to the normative (small, frailer, and testosterone lacking) female body. As such, sex-segregation ensures that women may freely participate in sports without fear of unfair competition against stronger, faster men. The sex-segregation of sport operates on the premise that 'separate-but-equal' ensures fairness for normative women's bodies who cannot compete with men. This sexist sport system ignores any bodies that may operate outside of normative categories, exaggerates the differences between men and women, and polices the boundaries of sport to make it difficult for cis or trans women to transgress.

Several scholars have dissected the ways that trans athletes complicate a discussion of fairness within a binary, two-sex system of sports. (10) The system relies on the idea that bodies are inherently given advantages or disadvantages at birth and to transition physically to another sex means to gain or lose those advantages. One of the ways that cissexism manifests most clearly in sport is requiring that a trans woman be medically cleared as having mitigated the advantages formerly afforded her body--mainly sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy to block the production of testosterone. Trans inclusion in sport is only possible for those who have selected physical alteration that adheres to medically sanctioned categories of male and female. If they do not meet these criteria, trans individuals who identify as a gender or sex other than the one assigned at birth are excluded from most professional sports. Thus, as sexism maintains the notion of female inferiority, cissexism regulates what trans bodies may count as sufficiently 'inferior.' Cissexism and sexism are intrinsically linked to and supported by one another.

My approach to the study of Fox's inclusion/exclusion begins with the premise that social, medical, and scientific discourses are socially constructed according to dominant power structures. (11) Power resides in language and hierarchies of knowledge; thus, discourse determines what is true or false within any given knowledge framework or way of speaking. Stuart Hall argues that discourse 'governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about,' which means that discourse also limits other ways of knowing, seeing, doing, or describing something. (12) The biological discourse of sport often begins with the assumption that there is a hierarchical two-sex system that limits what is possible for those classified as female. The sex-segregation of sport is dependent on this particular knowledge of biology to maintain itself. Discourse analysis illuminates the production and reiteration of particular types of institutions and their human subjects. In order to analyse discourse in this way, one must surface what assumptions discourse makes, what hierarchies of knowledge it supports, and what subjectivities it marginalises.

My decision to study internet-based media commentary on Fallon Fox stemmed from what was at first a casual observation. I am a feminist scholar, martial artist, and frequent spectator of MMA, so I was interested in seeing how the MMA community might receive her in the women's division. I observed how people engaged with Fox's story on discussion forums, social media sites, and MMA blogs. I read popular MMA media websites such as Sherdog, MMA Fighting, MMA Weekly and more mainstream publications such as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Huffngton Post, and LGBT news sites such as Outsports. I began filtering the various media artifacts into arguments for and against Fox's participation in women's MMA to examine how these various news outlets discussed the controversy and how they operationalised knowledge about trans bodies. In sifting through these articles, I looked for patterns emerging from either side of the debate in order to illuminate the ways discourses construct her, her story, and the controversy. The more I read about Fox, the more I began to realise that many of these positions--both for and against her right to fight as a woman--curiously promoted a version of trans-inclusivity to some degree or another. (13)


Sport is a discursive construction that draws upon scientific and medical regimes of truth, which are governed by regulatory institutions. These discourses produce particular types of bodies--ones that are gendered, raced, classed, sexed, and determined otherwise fit and or able--and adhere to normalising technologies that classify identities within a hierarchy. (14) Transgender participation in sport is historically linked to scientific and medical surveillance that attempts to contain the threat of 'othered' bodies. For example, sport institutions such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) (the latter regulates MMA in the US) maintain a sex-segregated system by using a discourse of 'fairness' for cis women. The forgone conclusion of female physical disadvantage overlooks the range of bodies that make up the category of 'female' as well as the range that makes up 'male' even as feminist and queer scholars have long challenged the gender binary. (15) Dee Amy Chinn notes that the attempted regulation of 'unfair competitive advantage' means 'all individuals are required to be either men or women within a framework that considers these terms mutually exclusive.' (16) Thus, the maintenance of sex-segregated competition requires persistent regulation, by way of sex verification testing and trans athlete policies, to ensure athletes fit into one category or the other. (17) The IOC began allowing trans athletes to compete in the 2004 Olympics if the individual had undergone sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy to regulate their bodies within 'acceptable' ranges for their identified genders. (18) In 2012, just a year before Fox came out, ABC's medical committee recommended that transgender MMA athletes would be evaluated under criteria based on the IOC's policies. As a result, the Florida Boxing Commission, which maintains Fox's fighting license, determined that since Fox both underwent surgery and currently takes hormones, she has medically negated any male 'advantages' that her body previously held. (19)

Much of the discourse of fairness in sex-segregated competition is associated with the production of testosterone in the male body and the particular advantage of the hormone in competition. Yet, physiology could positively affect physical performance in a variety of ways that are not used as evidence in the same manner that testosterone or other 'male' physical characteristics are. Successful sprint athletes may have more fast-twitch muscle fibres than the average person; yet, an excess of these fibres are not viewed as an advantage. Basketball players are much taller than the average person, but height is not singled out as an advantage that prevents fair play with shorter athletes. Additionally, certain gene mutations even increase the body's 'oxygen-carrying capacity' and improve cardiovascular endurance for some athletes; yet, there is not a separate sporting category for such mutants. (20) Discourses around sex-segregation give much greater significance to testosterone than to other 'biological' factors that may create a predisposition for athletic advantages by assuming that a) testosterone always produces good athletic skills and b) athletic skills are not significantly influenced by any other genetic factors. (21) The assumption of the immutable advantage of the male body supersedes other factors in athletic performance such as non-sex based genetics or gender conditioning.

Sport is especially prone to discourses of biological difference because it is a social space that draws upon biology-based criteria for determining gender. (22) Other spaces, such as federal and state measures to prohibit housing and employment discrimination, use identity-based criteria. (23) In fact, 'gender-integrated spaces are more likely to use identity-based criteria, while gender-segregated spaces...are more likely to use biology-based criteria' for determining gender. (24) For example, preventing housing discrimination against trans people does not require that those individuals undergo sex reassignment surgery; rather, one may self-identify as trans without any additional stipulations. Since sport is decidedly sex-segregated, biology-based criteria for determining gender place more stringent regulations on who may participate in male and female sports. Additionally, Westbrook and Schilt argue that when 'men's' and 'women's' spaces are segregated, they 'are not policed equally--making access to women's spaces central to the debates over transgender rights.' (25) Westbrook and Schilt contend that preserving the safety of sex-segregated spaces becomes a key discourse for the regulation of trans MTF bodies and offer explanations as to why transgender inclusion is beginning to make strides in some spheres but not others.

Fallon's fight for inclusion in MMA represents the limits of trans rights within a sex-segregated combat sport even amidst a cultural moment where identity-based criteria for determining gender are becoming more mainstream. In the following discussion, I examine the positions for and against Fox's right to fight as a woman and demonstrate that each side of the debate relies on beliefs in the fixity of sex and the value of protecting weaker cis women to make their cases. Trans inclusion in combat sports becomes particularly difficult because sexist presumptions of the inferiority of women's bodies enable cissexist claims of threat.


MMA fighters, personalities, bloggers, and journalists reacted to the news that Fallon Fox is trans with a range of controversial responses that draw on conflicting discourses of gender identity and sex differences. The central argument against Fox's inclusion in MMA is the concern that male biological superiority presents unfair advantages or hazards for female fighters. Consider, for example, a Fox News online contributor's initial reaction to the news that Fallon Fox was a trans woman:
   Let me paint you a picture: your daughter is playing a contact
   sport. Say, football or hockey. She's gone from being your little
   girl to becoming a beautiful young woman. Opposite her on the field
   (or ice), is somebody who once was a man, until he decided that he
   didn't feel like being one anymore. This person can now legally,
   physically attack your daughter. (26)

Crowder's loaded assertions that a MTF fighter 'can now legally, physically attack your daughter' highlights particular anxieties surrounding MTF bodies in a sport where punching, kicking, and choking one's opponent is fundamental. By asking the reader to consider his or her own 'little girl' facing someone who 'was once a man' and who can now 'attack your daughter,' Crowder evokes a patriarchal discourse of protection and concern for the safety of the infantilized female body. The belief in inherent male physical dominance, or that being male is an immutable category presumed stronger, faster than female bodies, leads to panic that some remnants of maleness pose a threat of bodily harm against cis women. In contrast, the presumed advantages of a MTF track and field athlete might surface debates about the fairness of that athletes' participation in races against cis women; however, the body of the transgender sprint athlete would never make physical contact with any other women during the race. Concerns of 'unfair advantages' may still impact conversations around Fox's inclusion; however a MTF athlete's participation in MMA illuminates gender and sex panics concerning the safety of cis women.

One of the most contentious statements by a MMA personality came from an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter shortly after Fox came out. The UFC is the largest promotional organisation for MMA and has built an unrivaled media empire on its pay-per-view fights, its reality TV show, its other MMA media ventures, and its fighters. Consequently, the UFC, its athletes, and other affiliates are opinion leaders within the MMA community. Even though Fox has never been formally associated with the UFC, many UFC personalities commented on Fox in the months her story broke. Matt Mitrione, a former NFL football player turned UFC fighter, controversially called Fox 'a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak' who lied about his (sic) gender identity in order to 'to beat up women.' (27) Mitrione's comments illustrate the apprehension that a trans woman is really a man seeking to inflict violence against women. As Westfield and Schilt argue, much of the panic around trans MTF women is predicated on a fear of masquerading males entering feminine spaces to do harm to cis women's bodies. Mitrione affirms the panic around trans women entering into intimate contact with cis women and reacted with verbal violence against Fox. In Mitrione's logic, a MTF fighter is simply a degenerate man with a pathological appetite for violence against women.

The UFC responded to Mitrione's transphobic rant by temporarily suspending him for a breach of the UFC's code of conduct. In a statement issued by the organisation, the UFC affirmed that it 'is a friend and ally of the LGBT community, and expects and requires all 450 of its athletes to treat others with dignity and respect.'28 The UFC clearly expressed its intolerance for Mitrione's transphobic remarks; however, the organisation's objections to his comments centre on his depiction of Fox as a 'freak' or as 'sick.' They do not address his general concern that Fox had physical advantages or posed a physical threat to female fighters. The UFC disregarded remarks that featured assertions of 'male' physical advantages or physical threat to cis women.

Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator, also voiced suspicion of Fox using only slightly tamer language that Mitrione. In his weekly podcast, Rogan asserted that some men might 'choose' to become women in order to sadistically injure female bodies. He proposed that allowing Fox to fight other women would lead to an abuse of power by other 'crazy' MTF athletes who want 'to beat the fuck out of chicks.' He then continues, 'There's a lot of suicidal fucks out there. There's a lot of people that are like on the edge anyway.' (29) Even though Rogan uses language that is slightly less loaded than Mitrione's 'sociopath' or 'freak,' the words 'suicidal' and 'on the edge' still suggest that Fox is psychologically unstable. These two examples of a UFC personality labeling a trans athlete as perverted beg the question: why would the UFC fail to reprimand Rogan's transphobic remarks while punishing Mitrione's?

Interestingly enough, even as Rogan's choice of words in the podcast drips with cissexism, he provisionally supports Fox's right to self-identify as a woman. Rogan affirms that he is not a 'prejudice person' but he supports '100 per cent, anyone's right to be transgender.' (30) He objects to Fox's participation in MMA on the grounds of fairness or danger for cisgender fighters but not on identity-based gender criteria. He says;
   You can't fight women. That's fucking crazy. I don't know why she
   thinks that she's going to be able to do that. If you want to be a
   woman in the bedroom and you know you want to play house and all of
   that other shit and you feel like you have, your body is really a
   woman's body trapped inside a man's frame and so you got a
   operation, that's all good in the hood. But you can't fight chicks.
   Get the fuck out of here. You're out of your mind. You need to
   fight men, you know? Period. You need to fight men your size
   because you're a man. You're a man without a dick. (31)

Rogan delineates between gender and sex in his description of Fox. In his eyes, Fox can 'play house' or 'be a woman in the bedroom.' He also acknowledges that Fox may feel as if she is 'trapped inside a man's frame.' Because Rogan affirms gender-based criteria for Fox to identify as a woman, his proclamation that Fox was a 'man without a dick,' 'crazy,' or 'out of her mind' generated little criticism compared to Mitrione's comments.

The UFC ignored Rogan's other claims about the sexed-based advantages of maleness and his distasteful use of language. If we contextualise these events within the broader discourse in popular culture about trans rights, it is clear that the UFC pardoned Rogan because he simultaneously couched his rant in affirmative language supporting identity-based gender determination. The UFC's contradictory reactions to Mitrione and Rogan's rhetoric around Fox demonstrate the organisation's nod to progressive LGBT politics and attempts to present itself as an inclusive organisation in its statement sanctioning Mitrione. The move aligns the organisation with political and social policies advocating for fair and respectful treatment of those who identity with a gender other than their birth sex. This is especially noteworthy for a sports organisation that John McCain once called the broker of 'human cockfighting.' Despite its reputation for hypermasculine displays of physical power, the UFC demonstrates a slightly more progressive social politics accepting of nonnormative gendered and sexual identities--a nod to broader discussions of trans legal rights and the increasing number of trans representations in popular culture. Nevertheless, it is evident that the safety and protection of cis women's bodies is an acceptable biology-based discourse for debating the inclusion of trans MTF athletes in the UFC. As an opinion leader in the sport, Rogan affirmed Fox's right to identify as a woman but disputed her biological maleness as something that could be altered. The UFC failed to address this as a problematic position because the fixity of sex is rhetorically undebatable. The UFC's contradictory treatments of Rogan and Mitrione demonstrate a clear differentiation between accepting trans as a gendered identity category and refusing to question the fixity of male biological superiority.

Some women in the UFC and other fight organisations similarly expressed 'safety concerns' for the contenders Fox might face in the ring. Miesha Tate, a UFC fighter, said she would only take a fight with Fox if the medical community could prove Fox was '100% female.' Tate also couches her statements in trans-inclusivity by saying, 'I have nothing against transgender people. You should live your life however you want. It's about fighter safety. I wouldn't feel comfortable getting in with someone who is a woman but developed as a man. I just don't think it would be safe.' (32) For Tate, there is a clear gesture towards accepting Fox's gender identity, but believes there are sexed limits when it comes to the safety of cis women. Peggy Morgan, who competes in the Championship Fighting Alliance along with Fox, issued a statement on her management's website declaring that she would not take a fight with Fox. Morgan said:
   As an athlete and a woman, I am frustrated by the way the situation
   has played out and by the fact that many people seem more concerned
   with preserving Fallon's feelings than with protecting the physical
   safety of me and the other female competitors in the tournament.

In a similar fashion to Tate, Morgan speaks specifically to the discourse of identity-based gender determination and says that 'preserving Fallon's feelings' was overshadowing concerns of 'physical safety' of cis women. She considers it important to protect Fox's rights as a trans woman, but not at the expense of the bodies of cis women. Morgan and Tate highlight the limits of identity-based gender determination by citing biology-based safety concerns for women who may fight against Fox.

The concern for cis women's safety in a fight against Fox reveals a particular brand of cissexism, which draws upon patriarchal notions of protection and the sanctity of the cissexual body. However, these concerns coincide with a more progressive impulse to verify Fox's right to identify as a woman. The examples of people opposing Fox include proclamations of anti-prejudice attitudes based on an affirmation of identity-based difference. Fox's opponents uphold the progressive cultural and political value of protecting trans identities. Nonetheless, popular understandings of biological difference become the centrepiece of concern and the safety of cis women in a combat sport and serve as justification for transgender exclusion. Sexist beliefs about the biological inferiority of women and the innate advantages of male athletes are unquestionable and not available for revision. Female weakness is the central justification for maintaining sports segregation and preventing MTF athletes' participation in MMA even amidst growing visibility and greater rights for trans people elsewhere.

It is important to consider how a patriarchal discourse calling for the protection of cis women is racialised. When framing trans women as a threat to cis women, the latter are often coded as white. The two most popular women in MMA today are Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate--two hegemonically feminine white women. (34) Rousey and Tate are the faces of women's MMA even though there is an array of racial identities in the sport. Rousey and Tate symbolise the bodies in need of patriarchal protection from the devious Other because they are central to the conception of women's MMA as a sport. Peter Glick and Susan Fiske describe the discourse of women's protection as 'benevolent sexism', which they define as relegating women to subservient roles under the seemingly positive guise of 'protection, idealisation, and affection'. The conceptualisation of women as weak and in need of male protection maintains women's subordination to and dependence on men. (35) Middle and upper classed white women, in particular, have a long history of a precarious yet privileged position as bodies needing the protection of white patriarchal figures. In 1884, Sojourner Truth famously tied female physical inferiority to upper and middle class white femininity:
   That man over there says that women need to be helped into
   carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place
   everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over
   mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look
   at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered
   into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could
   work as much and eat as much as a man--when I could get it--and
   bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? (36)

Truth's words affirm that the myth of feminine weakness is also embedded in a culture of elevating middle and upper classed white women to a status of needing protection while devaluing black femininity along raced and classed lines. Kristin Anderson notes that contemporary sports media culture tends to emphasise the femininity of white women athletes while ambivalently fluctuating between promoting and disparaging black women athletes, such as Serena Williams, as masculine. She writes that 'black womanhood has not been tied in the same way as white womanhood to activities and attributes defined as distinctive and different from masculine attributes'. (37) Anderson demonstrates that the racialisation of weakness and protection that Truth spoke of in the 1800s still impacts black and white women today. MMA media emphasise the femininity of Rousey and Tate, which allows benevolent sexism to position them as frailer and more susceptible to injury than their male counterparts or black women. As a result of the racialisation of protection, the MMA community (coded as white men) must intervene in Fox's case to protect cis female fighters (coded as white). So, if benevolent sexism is invoked primarily for white cis women, then how is the trans threat racialised?

There is a persistent rape mythology surrounding trans bodies that frames them as seeking to deceptively enter women's spaces to violate and injure unprotected, female bodies. (38) Mitrione and Rogan both aptly demonstrated this particular brand of transphobia, but its roots are deeper than the contemporary moment. Feminist scholar Janice Raymond once suggested that transsexual MTFs seek to 'rape' women's bodies through appropriation or by deceptively entering the unprotected, sex-segregated spaces where cis women reside. (39) This mythology of deception and threat bares an important resemblance to the long history of representing black men as the Othered threat to white women. White patriarchy has historically coded black men as rapists, using this myth 'as a tool to justify the lynching and imprisonment of black men'. (40) One way to rationalise the subjugation of the black man is to portray him as threating the innocence of the fragile white woman. Consider, for example, the fact that white supremacist Dylann Roof reportedly proclaimed 'you rape our women, and you're taking over our country.. .you have to go,' before shooting and killing nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015. (41) Lisa Wade called Roof 'the modern equivalent of the white [lynch] mob' as he drew upon benevolent sexism to justify the need to protect white women from a mythical black rapist. (42) Talia Bettcher argues that there is a correlation between depiction of trans women as deceivers and rapists and 'particular history of lynching and where rape and accusations of rape continue to be used as instruments of racialised subordination.' (Evil Deceivers, p57) The black body, the trans body, and the black trans body all become suspect when considering the safety of white cis women who are conceived as physically inferior to their white male protectors. As a mixed-race, black, trans woman, Fallon Fox's perceived threat to cis women may bring cissexist responses to the discursive surface; however, her race certainly codes her in the racist mythology of the threat of the black male body. The discourses that vehemently object to her participation in MMA on the grounds of cis women's protection also conjure the threat of black men.


Fallon Fox has found allies and supporters in the MMA community, in sports media, in the trans community, and elsewhere. Liz Carmouche, an out lesbian UFC fighter, adamantly supported Fox when the story of her gender identity first surfaced. Carmouche says:
   There may be, understandably, some concerns that she will be
   stronger than other girls, but our sport is regulated by state
   athletic commissions who are extremely thorough in terms of fighter
   safety and medical screening.' (43)

Carmouche explains a standard defence of Fox that circulates in mainstream sports media: medical clearance means Fox has sufficiently proven that she is no stronger than the average female MMA fighter. Fox notes that while some fighters like Carmouche came to her defence, she has received more support in mainstream media than in MMA media outlets in the year since she came out. (44) Sports bloggers and journalists who advocate for Fox's right to fight as a woman emphasise the emotional experience and 'science' of transitioning in order to justify her participation in the sport. Liberal media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and others discussed below, attempt to reconcile conflicting biology-based and identity-based criteria for determining gender that Westbrook and Schilt outline.

Several journalists describe Fox's personal experience of transitioning and subsequent coming out through logics of privacy and individual choice. (45) These writers conceptualise gender identity as a category that can only be determined by the individual, which bares resemblance to the ways Fox's opponents characterise her right to her gender identity. Cyd Zeigler, who pre-emptively broke Fox's story in 2013, writes that 'due to circumstances beyond her control, she's being forced out of the closet well before she was ready'. His emphasis on her reluctance to self-disclose her birth sex assumes gender identification should remain unavailable for public consumption. His description of Fox being 'forced out of the closet' indicates that someone violated a personal and private aspect of her identity. Each of these articles uses the forced outing and the painful story of Fox's transition to humanise her and show the challenges she has faced in becoming who she is today. The highly personal tone of these articles stresses the individualised experience of transitioning and disclosing one's identity.

The same journalists who express support for Fox's inclusion in women's MMA also highlight the limits of non-normative gender identities within sports; a sporting commission's medical experts must have knowledge of the trans athletes' medical history in order to approve athletic participation. In his discussion of the state surveillance of trans bodies, Toby Beauchamp has observed that trans status can only be concealed if one simultaneously yields to 'full disclosure to the medico-legal system, which keeps on public record all steps taken towards transition.' (46) One's gender identity can remain private to the general public, but medical and legal authorities have the right to regulate the transition process. In Fox's case, the medical branches of the sport licensing authorities determine if she meets the requirements of being a trans MTF athlete. Sports writers supporting Fox underscore Fox's medical stamp of approval in order to justify her right to fight as a woman. For example, Loretta Hunt of Sports Illustrated expresses distaste for Fox's forced outing and states, 'In a perfect world, Fallon would not have been obligated to reveal her transsexuality beyond the state athletic commissions that license her (emphasis added). Hunt emphasises that the disclosure of ones' gender identity to the broader public is a choice and not an obligation; yet, she simultaneously confirms that an athletic regulating body has the right to determine gender legally. Greg Bishop and Nancy Hass also discuss Fox's public outing as a violation of privacy while assuring readers that medical experts had examined with Fox's case and sanctioned her to fight.

Even as they cite medical experts that agree that Fox meets the criteria for fighting as a woman, most of the journalists covering Fox's story seek to assuage concerns that Fox's MMA performance thus far was unexceptional compared to other female MMA fighters. After describing Fox's win over Erica Newsome by knockout in the 39th second of the fight, Zeigler uses examples of cis women who also displayed impressive finishes in their matches. He describes how Megumi Fuji famously established her 22-0 record by winning in the first or second rounds and cites Ronda Rousey's impressive rise in the UFC. Zeigler uses this evidence to emphasise that Fox's ability to knock Newsome out early in the fight is within the capacity of cis female fighters. Zeigler emphasises Fox's unexceptionally as a central piece of his argument for her inclusion in the women's division. Following this logic, trans women competing with cis women in athletic competitions must prove that they are unexceptional athletes.

Hass focuses on the role of testosterone in athletic ability and discusses the effects of hormone therapy on MTF athletes as proof for inclusion. She remarks that the regimen of hormones that Fox takes presents a particular irony for the athlete. The regular promotion of oestrogen and suppression of testosterone in Fox's body means, 'some of her female opponents would have more male chemical mojo pumping through their veins' (emphasis added). Notice Hass's insistence on labelling testosterone as 'male chemical mojo' despite the fact that she concurrently acknowledges cis female fighters as naturally possessing more testosterone than Fox. Testosterone and oestrogen are neatly divided into a sex binary despite the fact that men and women typically possess ranges of both hormones. The use of the word 'mojo' to describe testosterone signifies virility and sexual energy-a particular power that men can conjure in sports through their uniquely afforded genetic bounty. Hass assures readers that because of medical intervention Fox no longer has access to the natural 'mojo' that males do. Hass subordinates other reasons Fox may have lost the fight such as conditioning, age, or technique. In this logic, the winner of the fight becomes the person with more mojo, not the more conditioned fighter, the younger fighter, or the more refined striker. Hass uses a one-dimensional focus on testosterone to prove her case for Fox's inclusion.

Articles that advocate for Fox describe the pain and challenges of her personal transition and endeavour to reconcile public concerns about whether or not Fox has successfully become a woman. They attempt to describe the experience of gender identity and transition as personal and individual while simultaneously attempting to sanction scientific discourses of sexual reassignment and hormone therapy as biological proof that Fox does not possess male athletic 'advantages.' These journalists reveal the conflicts between an identity-based determination of gender with a biology-based one. They attempt to describe Fox in terms of her lack of exceptional 'male' abilities to prove that she can fairly fight in MMA as a woman, which is in keeping with her identification of self. Hass, Zeigler and others evidence Fox's athletic record as boasting nothing more impressive than other successful female MMA fighters and that her medical clearance is proof that she no longer possesses male athletic advantages. By affording testosterone a preeminent place in the determination of athletic ability and by signifying it as a uniquely male hormone, the discourses of biology depend on proving that Fox can fairly fight women because she lacks the one-dimensional element that gives athletes their advantage: male chemical mojo. These arguments depend on proving that Fox is just as subordinate to male bodies as any other woman while disregarding any other factors that may contribute to Fox's athletic successes or failures, such as training habits, determination, psychological wellbeing, other genetic factors, etc. Essentially, fixed sexual difference can be altered through medical intervention; but the only way to prove that the intervention has worked is to demonstrate that Fox is now physically mediocre and accordingly eligible for the women's division.

Fox's supporters use the sexist avowal of female inferiority to prove Fox is equally substandard and thereby deserving of inclusion in a sex-segregated space. Sara Ahmed refers to this brand of discrimination as 'critical sexism,' a perspective where those who adopt critical vantage points fail to see the sexism embedded in their 'self-assumed criticality.' (47) Fox's supporters in more progressive media institutions rely on a sexist characterisation of female athletes as substandard to speak against the cissexism that challenges Fox's right to fight as a woman. In fact, their primary arguments hinge on the science of weakness and unexceptionally of female athletes to prove their case for Fox. The result is that Fox endures cissexism from those who oppose her participation in women's MMA and sexism from those who support her inclusion. How can an effort to use sexism to oppose trans exclusion in sports possibly achieve social justice and inclusion? How can a MTF trans athlete ever excel in a sport where she constantly must prove her weakness in order to remain included?


The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one's life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalise motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby-trapped. (48)

Speaking with Fox after her loss to Ashlee Evans-Smith in 2014, Nancy Hass surmises that the defeat may have been predicated on the ironic lack of testosterone in Fox's body due to hormone therapy. Still, Hass predicts that Fox's loss will assuage other competitors' fear of fighting her and improve her chances of booking her next fight. Fox concurs, 'I guess this means that people will realise that I'm just a woman after all. I'm female. I'm human. Sometimes I dominate and sometimes I'm dominated.' Hass ponders whether Fox now realises that she cannot 'beat' biology--a logic that oversimplifies the diversity and complexity of the human body and disregards the mental, emotional, and physical labor that prepares each fighter for a match. Hass' discussion of the loss poignantly illustrates the paradox of Fallon's fight: if she beats a challenger through punching, kicking, or submitting her, she is rewarded with a win but must contend with critics who scrutinise her body's presumed biological 'advantages' and safety concerns for other athletes. If she loses a fight, she must struggle with the disappointment of defeat while reaffirming her advocates' insistence that she is unexceptional among women and nonthreatening. The more Fox succeeds as at proving her femaleness, the more she fails at demonstrating her athleticism.

Marilyn Frye argues that oppression creates situations that fix particular identities within a double bind: 'situations in which options are reduced to a very few, and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation (p11). The reliance on sexist scientific discourse of female athletic abilities in Fox's case guarantees that she will be paradoxically penalised for winning or losing. The interlocking oppressions of sexism and cissexism ensure that Fox remains locked within the double bind and points to the limits of using identity-based or biology-based criteria for determining gender in a combat sport. Most of Fox's allies and opponents acknowledge she has a right to self-identify her gender in private spaces and in public arenas that are sex-integrated. However, in the sex-segregated arena of combat sports, Fox's opponents employ sexism and cissexism to argue that her body is a threat to cis female bodies. This threat supports the patriarchal discourse of protection that seeks to prevent a deviant male body from inflicting harm on a vulnerable female body, yet, never questions the dominant binary of male/power and female/powerless. Fox's allies counter anxieties about violence against women by citing evidence that trans women no longer possesses the male physical characteristics that make one threatening. The positions for and against Fox's participation in MMA fail to recognise the myriad of factors that contribute to an athlete's success, such as training, conditioning, non-sex related genetics, psychological fortitude and determination, etc. Instead, they support a sexist sports system that values male bodies above female ones. Sexism ensures that the power to be a physical threat resides solely within the male body and re-enforces the necessity of biology-based criteria in determining gender in MMA and combat sports writ large.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.86.04.2015

(1.) Inclusive terminology around trans people is complex and ever changing. For a discussion, see Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press, Emeryville 2007. I use Serano's definition of trans woman as 'any person who was assigned a male sex at birth, but who identifies and/or lives as a woman.' Transgender is broadly used to identify those who identify with a gender other than the one assigned at birth.

(2.) A U.S. law passed in 1972 that, among other things, stated that no one would be discriminated against in the U.S. education system on the basis of sex.

(3.) Associated Press, 'Without Fanfare, Obama Advances Transgender Rights', 2014, at http:// www.bostonherald. com/news_opinion/ us_politics/2014/06/ without_fanfare_ obama_advances_ transgender_rights

(4.) Holly Yan, 'California Law Now Lets Transgender Students Pick Bathrooms', Teams to Join, CNN, 2013, at http://www.cnn. com/2013/08/13/ us/californiatransgender-school- law/

(5.) Male-to-female and female-to-male identify both the birth sex and the identified gender.

(6.) Katy Steinmetz, 'Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement', TIME, 2014, at http:// transgenderorange-is-the-new- black-laverne-coxinterview/

(7.) Cissexual and cisgender identify those individuals whose sex and gender align with the ones they were assigned at birth.

(8.) For the majority of this article, I simply identify people as trans women or cis women in order to keep the terms open and inclusive of a spectrum of trans identities (including those who undergo physical changes and those who have not; those who display normative genders and those that do not, etc.) and the variety of women that exist within the category of cis.

(9.) Julie R. Johnson, 'Cisgender Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Criminalisation of CeCe McDonald: Why Intercultural Communication Needs Transgender Studies', International and Intercultural Journal of Communication, 6, 2, 2013, p138.

(10.) See Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Basic Books, New York 2000. Shari Dworkin and Cheryl Cooky, 'Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Polices On Hyperandroginism in Elite Female Athletes', The American Journal of Bioethics, 12, 7, 2012, pp 21-23. Helena Tolvhed, 'Sex Dilemmas, Amazons, and Cyborgs: Feminist Cultural Studies and Sport', Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 5, 2013, pp273-289.

(11.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Random House, New York 1975.

(12.) Stuart Hall, 'The Work of Representation', in S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage, London 1997, p4.

(13.) It is important to acknowledge that popular MMA blogs and articles written by sports journalists certainly bare some differences in format, content, and research. An MMA blogger may not be subject to the style guides, editing, or research protocols that a sports journalist writing for a major magazine might. Discourses emanating from either type of source may be tempered by the particular constrains of the format or the decision-makers who decide what is published and what is not. Regardless, my aim here is to survey the popular content circulating in the MMA fan community (of which I am a member) in order to analyse the way Fox's right to fight is discursively constructed regardless of genre.

(14.) Cheryl Cole, 'Resisting the Canon: Feminist Cultural Studies, Sport, and Technologies of the Body', Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 17, 2, 1993, pp77-97.

(15.) See Fausto-Sterling; Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1994, p187; Judith Butler. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex-Routledge, Oxford 2011; Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth, Random House, New York 2000, p65.

(16.) Dee Amy-Chinn, 'The Taxonomy and Ontology of Sexual Difference: Implications for Sport', Sport in Society, 15, 9, 2012, p1292.

(17.) Heather Skyes, 'Transsexual and Transgender Policies' in Sport, Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 15, 1, 2006, pp3-13.

(18.) Transsexual Athletes OK for Athens, CNN, 2004, at http://edition. SPORT/05/17/ olympics. transsexual/

(19.) Loretta Hunt, 'How Fallon Fox Became the First Known Transgender Athlete in MMA', Sport Illustrated, 2013, at http:// mma/2013/03/07/ fallon-fox-profile

(20.) Ross Tucker and Malcolm Collins, 'The Science of Sex Verification and Athletic Performance', International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 5, 2, 2010, pp127-139.

(21.) Ibid, p7.

(22.) The National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) policy on trans athletes is more inclusive than the IOC's or the ABC's. The NCAA requires testosterone suppression for MTF athletes but does not require sex reassignment surgery. The NCAA also allows for a "mixed team" classification if the trans athlete is not taking hormones or has not been taking them for at least a year. The mixed-team concept allows for identity-based inclusion but still regulates what biologically counts as male and female for the sake of "fairness." For example, a male team with a FTM athlete could compete in an NCAA championship but a female team with a MTF athlete would be ineligible. See Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll, 'NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes', NCAA Office of Inclusion, August, 2011. Available from https://www.ncaa. org/sites/default/ files/Transgender_ Handbook_2011_ Final.pdf

(23.) Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt, 'Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/ Sexuality System', Gender and Society, 28, 1, 2014, pp32-57.

(24.) Ibid, p32.

(25.) Ibid, p32.

(26.) Steven Crowder, Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox Shouldn't Be Allowed to Beat Up Women, Fox News, 2013, at http:// opinion/2013/03/20/ mixed-martial-artsfighter-fallon-fox- shouldnt-be-allowedto-beat-up-women/

(27.) Matt Mitrione Slams Transgender Fighter Fallon Fox as "Sick, Sociopathic, Disgusting Freak," MMA Fighting Newswire, 2013, at http://www. mmafighting. com/2013/4/8/ 4197542/ matt mitrione-slams transgendered fighter-fallon-fox as-sick

(28.) Ibid

(29.) Joe Rogan on Fallon Fox, YouTube, 2013, at com/watch?v=k6_ 7BOGUXHM #t=54

(30.) Ibid

(31.) Ibid

(32.) Brett Okamoto, Miesha Tate Won't Fight Fallon Fox, ESPN, 2013, at http://espn. story/_/id/9068359/ ufc-bantamweight miesha-tate-says fight-transgender athlete.

(33.) Peggy Morgan: Why I Won't Fight Fallon Fox, Mixedmartialarts. com, n/d, at http://www. mixedmartialarts. com/news/436471/ Peggy-Morgan-WhyI-wont-fight-Fallon- Fox/

(34.) I think that Rousey certainly complicates hegemonic femininity with her fierce persona and bellicosity in the ring; yet, when outside the fighting arena, she typically dons hyper-feminine attire and strikes a Hollywood pose for the camera.

(35.) P. Glick and S. Fiske, 'The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp491-512. http://

(36.) Sojourner Truth, 'Ain't I a Woman?' In T Wayne (ed), Feminist Writings From Ancient Times to the Modern World a Global Sourcebook and History, Greenwood, Santa Barbara 2011, pp 226-228.

(37.) Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in the Post-Feminist Era, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014.

(38.) Talia Bettcher, 'Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion', Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 22, 3, 2007, p57. Hereafter Evil Deceivers.

(39.) Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Beacon Press,

Boston 1979.

(40.) Angela Davis quoted in Bettcher .

(41.) Erik Ortiz and F. Brinley Bruton. Charleston Church Shooting: Suspect Dylann Roof Captured in North Carolina. June 18, 2015, NBC News, available from http:// storyline/charlestonchurch-shooting/ charleston-churchshooting-suspect- dylann-roofcaptured-north- carolina-n377546.

(42.) How 'Benevolent Sexism' Drove Dylann Roof's Racist Massacre, June 21, 2015, The Washington Post, available from https://www. washingtonpost. com/posteverything/ wp/2015/06/21/how benevolent-sexism drove-dylann-roofs racist-massacre/

(43.) Aaron McQuade, UFC Fighter Liz Carmouche Makes Statement in Support of Fallon Fox,, 2013, at http://www.glaad. org/blog/ufc-fighterliz-carmouche- makes-statementsupport-fallon-fox.

(44.) Transgender Equality Hangout (Uprising of Love), YouTube: Its Gets Better Project, 2014, at http:// watch?v=3kpgRhoWOI.

(45.) For example, see Hunt; Nancy Hass, Fallon Fox: The Toughest Woman in Sports, GQ, 2014 at entertainment/ sports/201401/fallonfox-transgender- mma-fighter; and Greg Bishop, A Pioneer, Reluctantly, The New York Times, 2013, at http://www.nytimes. com/2013/05/13/ sports/for transgender-fighter fallon-fox-there-is solace-in-the-cage. html?_r=0.

(46.) 'Artful Concealment and Strategic Visibility: Transgender Bodies and U.S. State Surveillance After 9/11', in S. Stryker & A. Aizura (Eds.), The Transgender Studies Reader, 2nd ed, Routledge, New York 2013, p51.

(47.) Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press, Durham 2012, p2l7. http://doi. org/vzq

(48.) Marilyn Frye, 'Oppression', in A. Minas (ed), Gender Basics: Feminist Perspectives on Women and Men, 2nd edition, Wadsworth, Belmont 2000, p12.

Jennifer McClearen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research interrogates the cultural production, representation, and reception of the active body in popular media.
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Title Annotation:Fallon Fox
Author:McClearen, Jennifer
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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