Converging Media and Divergent Bodies: Articulations of Powerful Women in the Ultimate Fighting Championship
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Most television channels, websites, mobile applications, and video games dedicated to sports reveal a stark underrepresentation of female athletes even though girls and women avidly participate in athletics. Feminist scholars indicate that the paucity of media coverage of women in sports reflects a cultural disinterest in women’s athletic bodies compared to men’s—a discourse dependent on pervasive gendered notions about women’s physical inferiority. The array of media platforms for consuming sports and sports-themed content collectively reaffirms athletics as a dominantly masculine domain. Curiously, media scholars who study difference argue that one of the cultural features of new media technologies is the ability to provide more diverse representations than ever before. Streaming sites, social media, blogs, and other digital and web-based programs provide the capacity to customize and easily distribute content for niche or previously ignored audiences—including minoritized groups. Scholars have yet to analyze how some media organizations leverage new media technologies to revise discourses of women’s physical inferiority in transformative ways. Converging Media and Divergent Bodies: Articulations of Powerful Women in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) examines how the mixed-martial arts promotion produces and circulates representations of female fighters throughout the mixed-martial arts (MMA) promotional organization’s transnational transmedia empire. The UFC media brand includes Pay-Per-View fights, promotional spots, television specials, a reality TV show, video games, documentary webisodes, and a subscription-based streaming website. The diversity of UFC content and platforms is indicative of the broader trend of converging media—a contemporary feature of media culture where audiences can consume, circulate, and produce media in multiple ways. Converging media allows a proliferation of media content generated from the top down or the bottom up and gives marginalized identities, such as women in sports, greater visibility. Weaving textual analysis with ethnographic methods, I argue that the UFC introduced female fighters in 2013 as an innovative sports media convergence strategy that imagines difference (including gender, race, sexuality, class, and nationality) as central to its brand identity. The UFC’s approach is novel in sports media and is built on a burgeoning marketing ethos that believes increasing the type of representations available, via new media technologies, appeals to previously disregarded segments of the sports media market (i.e. women and/or fans of women’s sports). The organization is transforming some of the longstanding cultural assumptions about women’s sports and their fans by promoting female fighters and marketing to female fans. At the same time, difference becomes an ambivalent discourse that fluctuates between essentialism and homogeneity in a customizable marketing formula. The very notion of gendered difference, and difference more broadly, becomes flattened through market forces. Converging Media and Divergent Bodies resonates beyond the study of sport or media to theorize how cultural, technological, and economic forces influence revisions to our understandings of the gendered body in contemporary society. Converging Media and Divergent Bodies is an interdisciplinary project that draws upon feminist studies, media studies, sports studies, and cultural studies to consider the UFC as a cultural entity that operates within a contemporary social, political, and economic context. UFC media is complex in terms of form, including platform, genre, and content, and in terms of significance, such as cultural, social, and economic. I draw upon the cultural studies project to consider UFC media as impacted by various contemporary conditions. I recognize that the production, representation, and reception of female fighters operate in a particular context that includes technological innovation, changing rituals of consumption, neoliberal logics, burgeoning discourses of women’s physicality, and the increasing visibility of difference. This particular context is important for forming my in-depth readings of specific articulations, or moments, of convergence. Thus, I combine semi-structured interviews with critical textual analysis to connect the broader context to my readings of UFC executives marketing across platforms, of images and color schemes framing women on specific platforms, and of UFC bloggers creating and circulating discourses of women’s fighting as both producers and consumers. This interdisciplinary study illuminates the contested space of women’s physical participation in converging media culture while simultaneously surfacing tremors in longstanding ideologies of the gendered body.
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