Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reality TV: True Life: I'm a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter

I watched an episode of MTV's True Life series titled, "I'm a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter." It follows three guys who are training in mixed martial arts to start (or continue) professional fighting careers in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) - style competition.

Ian Stonehouse is a college student Colorado State University majoring in graphic design. He is balancing school and fighting, unable to quit one for the other. He is fighting unpaid matches in order to work his way up to professional status, only able to train part-time. In the beginning of the episode he is on his way to a match. He finishes it cleanly and quickly. He continues to train, and, at the end of the show, wins another fight, which puts him closer to breaking into the professional league.

Frankie Edgar is a professional fighter in UFC, and is preparing for both a fight, and his wedding to his fiancee, Renee, that follows ten days afterwards. He and Renee have been together 7 years together - her reaction to his fighting is denial, it's too much to handle. He's so busy with the upcoming fight that he cannot help Renee plan the wedding. After three rounds, Frankie's opponent is declared winner. It was a fairly clean fight with no injuries. He and Renee marry, and shortly after, discover Renee is pregnant.

Kit Cope won the Muay Thai kickboxing world championship, and turned to mixed martial arts fighting as something new, another venue in which to become a champion. Since switching fighting leagues, he's had three serious injuries, yet keeps fighting. He and his girlfriend, Aubrey, have been on and off for about 2.5 years, mostly because, as he describes, she couldn't understand that he needs distance from her (and emotional intimacy) as fights are approaching. At the start of the show, he has an office job, which he quits in order to train full time for his upcoming fight. He makes 8-9 thousand dollars a month on endorsements in the two months leading up to his fight. He wins the fight, starting him on a course back up toward professional UFC. He moved in with Aubrey after the filming, and then they broke up two months later.

The episode is on MTV's series True Life. I saw the show in the True Life website, which shows no information about production companies, sponsors, or the like. It is, to my knowledge, produced by MTV itself. There were no credits on the internet version of the show. The series shows youth (sub)cultures through documentary-style depictions. The topics are often provocative and more "mature," as they are not part of the public discourse, and sometimes considered taboo. This creates many levels of interest. Younger viewers may be attracted more for the thrill of watching something they "aren't supposed to." Teen and college-age people may be interested for the reason that it covers things they may be thinking about actively, or cultures they may be part of. For older viewers, it is a view into, often, things that younger members of society are taking part in, providing a sort of voyeuristic encapsulation of youth culture.

The advertising on the web-version of the episode was aimed at a younger audience (the two ads were Sour Skittles and Hillary Duff's perfume). Though I think the show is aimed, by different means, at all age groups, the advertising has a particular bend that, perhaps shows more the nature of young people than the actual intended audience of the show. I'm not sure of the tactics of advertisers, but I could see younger people being harder to retain as viewers (their viewing may not be as intentional, or loyal to one show, and they may channel surf during commercials). Thus, the ads I saw.

This episode shows the lives of three men engaging in Mixed Martial Arts fighting, a very masculine, violent, competitive "sport," that rewards with money the beating up (and sometimes death) of one's opponent. The guys in this show appear as "normal" guys...except they beat people up and make money off of it. And, I suppose I would say that's probably true. It is the ways in which masculine socialization comes out that differentiates, or, that is what the show and the producers would have us think. The lens they use shows these men as fighters - fighting takes over their lives, as evidenced in Frankie's line, "I'll enjoy my wedding, but when we come back from the honeymoon, I'm going to be getting right back into fighting." Family plays a close second to fighting, for these men, yet it is implied that that should never be the case for their romantic partners. I believe the show achieves this by condensing the material they collect in the narration process. To make a short, cohesive story, they must leave out all kinds of other details like what the rest of their lives are like outside of fighting and their romantic partners (what do these guys' parents think of their fighting careers?). They become viewed as fighting machines, all we see them do is fight or prepare for fighting, or talk about fighting with their girlfriends.

The show appears to be taking an "objective" stance to this subject - but this is never really the case. They have a specific agenda with producing a show about MMA fighting. It may have no ties to that sport or industry, but it may have to do with the appeal that shows about questionable and provocative subjects hold for the viewers. Just as with most reality tv, it seems, they feed off of controversy, even though they may put a guise over their work of somehow being better than the competition based reality shows, like A Shot at Love, I Love New York, A Real Chance at Love, etc. The thing is...this show is put out by the same network that does a lot of those shows as well, so it cannot so clearly cut ties, in my mind. It may be a different production crew, but that means only different people - they're still getting a paycheck from MTV, all the same.

One thing that really caught my attention was their portrayal of women. The women who are dating/engaged to the male subjects of this show are shown as, more or less, not having agency in their relationships. They explicitly say that they do not enjoy watching the fights, but they don't appear to hold up any resistance to it. In fact, Renee, Frankie's fiancee, actually had to plan most of their wedding on her own, because he was so busy preparing for the fight that was set for 10 days before the wedding (and where were either of their parents or other family in the planning process - or the whole show?). She understood that he would be so engrossed in training that he would be of no mind to plan - it was not shown if she ever put up resistance to this, asking him to move the fight to another date, or asking him not to fight altogether.
Kit and his girlfriend, Aubrey, have a similar situation, with its own problems: he needs his distance from her, and intimacy in general, when a fight is approaching. The way the story is told (by him), they were on-and-off for the better part of 2.5 years, because she couldn't get this point. At the time of filming, they are in one of their highs, and everything seems to be going OK. She repeats what he tells the camera, as if she had memorized it for a test. What bothered me most about this situation was the implications it has about their sex life and Aubrey's intimacy needs, which take a backseat to Kit's fighting. It implies a one-way exchange of power/influence.

Mixed Martial Arts fighting, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship League that it is a part of, act to reinforce and further normalize violence in this society. These fighters are paid to hurt and potentially paralyze or kill other human beings. In that way, violence becomes a way of life, as with crime and the military, violence is reinforced as part of our society because people can make a living off of it, and I don't see much difference or benefit to this form of violence over others. Just as mainstream, hardcore pornography normalizes violence against and domination of women, the fighting championship industry normalizes male violence and competition. It also makes it difficult for some of these men to reject because they are so tied up in capitalist patriarchy - getting paid to perform masculinity.

Race is never directly examined in this piece. The men in the lead roles are white, they fight white men, they date white women. Their friends are white, except for one picture of Frankie's past, when he tried out for the UFC reality show - it was him surrounded by three big, buff black men. That was it! It falls into the same mode of most television where race is untreated, sending a message to most of white America that this is just a "normal" thing (not a white thing). I see some trends within this episode, though I'm not sure that I can articulate it. This is a sport that thrives on white masculinity. Masculinities tied to other races may not value this form of fighting and competition as much, or may not have the privilege to do so, given the history of that race with white society. Such as, black manhood being characterized (in white eyes) by extremely violent tendencies and hypersexuality. I ask, would black men want to participate in this "sport" that only furthers those stereotypes about black manhood? In addition, the men are able to afford to both not have a full-time job in order to train, and also afford to pay the trainers for their services have a certain level of class privilege. If people of color had that class privilege would they want to put themselves at risk by fighting? Do masculinities other than those of the lead roles of this episode, perhaps tied to other races, ethnic groups, sexualities, for example, require members to prove themselves in similar rituals.

In terms of lenses, the production team really did a good job of hiding any motives behind the veil of the documentary style. It simultaneously shows the viewers a subculture that they may have been unfamiliar with - one in which violence is cultivated and rewarded and reinforced as masculine - yet renders it somewhat harmless, by depicting only a very limited range of experience in this culture. UFC and other competitive fighting is very dangerous - injuries range from minor cuts and bruises to dislocated joints, paralyzation, and death. Yet, the most damage sustained during this show was by Kit Cope's opponent, whose forhead he gashed open with his elbow. The only other serious injuries were the one's from Kit's past, pictures of which they showed. That was framed, however, in the light that he was unprepared - he had not trained in mixed martial arts but was going into that league. Thus, he "got what he deserved" seems to be the mentality, but now he's going at it again to prove himself, pushing through physical "discomfort" (i.e. debilitating injuries) in order to do so. In order to reach this pinnacle of a champion title, his limited masculinity essentially forces him to endure physical harm and push himself past his bodily limits. As Michael Messner writes in his book, Men and Masculinities, "men tend to engage in violence and high-risk behavior at much higher rates than do women; and men are taught to downplay or ignore their own pain.... Men tend to pay heavy costs - in the form of shallow relationships, poor health, and early death - for conformity with the narrow definitions of masculinity that promise to bring them status and privilege" (6). This episode is a case and point for Messner's argument.

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