Monday, January 25, 2010

What do Men Need to be Men?

November 6, 2009

Last night in class, I was in the middle of muddling my way through an omoplata when I noticed that something in the room was different. As I was positioning myself back on the mat to get into side control, I heard laughter. Don’t misunderstand, there’s laughter in the club…but seldom during rolling or drills. Usually all you hear is the sound of men breathing deeply and heavily, explaining the finer points of moves to each other in subdued voices. From a distance you can barely hear anything at all. But tonight there was a new student. Another female (…or maybe I was the new student and just hadn’t seen her until now). I was honestly glad to see her walk in. In three short weeks I’ve become accustomed to being the only woman in class, but at some level, it was still a relief.

Mind you it wasn’t just her laughing. Two of the men were chuckling along with her. I immediately thought back to the last class where the beginners instructor (he always has a none-too-thinly-veiled look of concern on his face when he’s working with me..more on that later) had me move deeper onto the mat so I wouldn’t hit my head on the wooden border. With a chuckle, he explained that if it were one of the two guys that were showing me moves, he wouldn’t have said anything. Funny thing is, I bet that hunk of wood is a heck lot softer than the elbow I took to the back of my head during sparring…I’m just sayin’.

But the guys…these men thoroughly enjoy themselves and the presence of women doesn’t seem to threaten them at all. In fact, most seem to welcome it. My first time shaking hands down the line, I was greeted with glowing smiles all the way from the head instructor down to the newest white belt. And that hasn’t changed at all.

The environment that BJJ creates is something that I think is rare for men in a gender integrated modern society. …A little background on the environments I’m used to interacting with men in: I work in business and just finished an MBA…male dominated environments, but ones in which women go toe to toe with them all day, every day. That’s actually one of the things that attract many women to BJJ…the fact that its principles are designed to allow a smaller, weaker person to dominate a larger, stronger opponent. (Even so, the level of female participation in the sport is low.)

I wonder though, what allows men to welcome and encourage women in an environment that is so thoroughly drenched in testosterone. There are four women in the advanced class, one of whom is a professional fighter, so I doubt the comfort comes from a confidence based on superior skill. I have a few theories:

□ At the end of the day, without the no-striking rules, all of them know they could probably take most of the women there. That doesn’t happen when you’re going head to head on a business simulation.

□ Maybe it’s numbers. Few women=little threat.

□ It’s possible that it’s the nature of jiu jitsu. It’s called “the gentle art” for a reason. There are no strikes (the elbow I took was an accident, and yes I’m still bitter) and technique is king. Beating someone using your weight or strength is generally frowned upon. All that is bound to drive away the more Hulk-Smash oriented crowd.

□ There’s also the possibility that women at the beginners level just haven’t been toughened up yet. .

New Girl has a very innocent and perky sweetness about her. There’s very little about me that says “sweet” or “nice”, but I’m guessing my awkwardness is apparent in my fear to fall and looks of frustration. I wouldn’t be surprised if more of my brioche-scarfing, anime-watching, encyclopedia-reading, mandarin-speaking, stiletto-wearing interior is leaking forth than I realize. (Many women in the sport resent having men taking it easy on them. Being a person who hates it when people let her win, I understand that from the perspective of pride and of quality in education. A guy attacking you on the street isn't going to hold back.)

□ When I first started checking out this school, I sat in on part of a kids’ class. The first thing I noticed is how happy the men were training little boys. I doubt you’d see that level of satisfaction even in an academic environment. I genuinely believe they find pleasure and fulfillment in turning boys into men. This is what I think is really going on. I think they’re happy. I’ve worked with men whose lives have gotten them things they want, but few whose lives themselves fulfill those wants.

I’m still left wondering though, whether men can fully explore the full spectrum of their…manliness with women present. I watch the guys go back and forth between rolling with men and women and you can see the constant ebb and flow of soft and hard, teacher and student, protector and opponent. It’s completely involuntary. It all seems very ironic, but I’ve gone through the same thing. Even with all the sweating and joint popping, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this feminine in my life. I’m guessing that’s what comes from being exposed to men in less tamed environments--the things that make females women become much more obvious.

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