Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting
Self-defense instructor, black belt, and generally cranky person Susan Schorn trains at Sun Dragon Martial Arts in Austin, Texas, where she learned karate from a second-wave feminist who could snap people’s bones like breadsticks. She is also the author of the memoir Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons In the Art of Living Fearlessly. She has been hit in the head more than most McSweeney’s columnists.
BY SUSAN SCHORN
I see that Princess Beatrice’s hat has sold at auction for $131,000 dollars, with the proceeds going to UNICEF and Children in Crisis—two eminently fitting recipients of the cash, given that the hat looks like something rendered by Dr. Seuss.
I didn’t watch the royal wedding, since my own unique experience with the sacrament of holy matrimony left me with a tendency to hyperventilate any time I see someone wearing a wedding gown get into a horse-drawn carriage. But it was hard to escape the public reaction to The Hat, and by extension to the costumes, or I suppose I should say fashions, of everyone at the wedding. Princess Beatrice and her sister Eugenie definitely took the Fanciest Hat honors, but there was plenty of talk about Kate Middleton’s dress as well, with its lace roses, thistles, daffodils and shamrocks, hand-appliquéd onto ivory silk tulle.
Silk tulle isn’t really my medium, but I was intrigued by the apparel of Prince William, who because of his various honorary appointments had his choice of military uniforms for the Big Day. In real life he’s an RAF Flight Lieutenant. He pilots a helicopter, which is pretty darned impressive if you ask me. You’d think that uniform would be respectable enough for anyone. Nothing shabby about a helicopter pilot, so long as he doesn’t actually show up in his flight suit. However, the prince took a pass on his RAF uniform, and chose instead the colors of the Irish Guard. This was reported to be his tribute to the Guard’s First Battalion, who are on active duty over in Afghanistan right now and probably didn’t have a lot of time to absorb all the royal wedding news. I’m sure they appreciated the gesture though.
(Ironically, had the prince worn the full Guards uniform, he would have won the Fanciest Hat award, hands down, since the Guardsmen normally wear the bearskin, known to non-military types worldwide as “those big black furry hats.” Prince William quite wisely substituted a forage cap instead.)
William’s brother, Prince Harry, also wore military dress, as did the princes’ father, Prince Charles—likewise the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of York, the Earl of Wessex, the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent. Maybe a few other gentlemen as well. Somewhere among the 1900 guests there surely was at least one woman with military experience who was entitled to wear a uniform, but if so, no one took a picture of her.
Everyone seemed to think it quite proper, and not at all odd, that Kate Middleton’s fairytale dress should be paired with Prince William’s military couture. The nod to the Irish Guard was approved by all. Certainly the troops in Afghanistan should be remembered, even in the midst of a national holiday—especially in the midst of one. And it’s not like anyone carried weapons (they were in church, after all).
Still, the mix of sacramental romance and codified violence struck me as a little peculiar, if only because everyone else seemed to think it was so natural.
This may be due partly to other events I was involved in around the time of the wedding. The very same weekend that Kate and Will got hitched, I found myself 1) watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship title match on pay-per-view at a Bikinis Bar and Grill, and then 2) holding a target and teaching a bunch of six-year-old girls, wearing princess dresses and tiaras, how to “kick like Lucy Liu.” I was quite surprised at the way both of these events served to magnify the perverse duet of sex and violence encoded in Kate Middleton’s gown and Prince William’s uniform. The combination of women’s sexualized bodies and male combat is a weird, counterintuitive pairing, like putting Tabasco sauce on a banana, but it’s damn near ubiquitous in our culture.
The vibe at Bikinis was further complicated by the fact that, of the six women at my table, I was the only straight one.
“I swear, I called all over town,” Laura had apologized on our way there. “This was the only place that was showing the fights.” I believed her, but I couldn’t help wondering: If we’d been a party of six straight ladies, would we have even entertained the option of going to Bikinis?
The waitresses at Bikinis wear (duh) bikini tops and short shorts. Every waitress who comes up to your table introduces herself and signs her name on a cocktail napkin (“Brandi,” “Alysha,”) which strikes me as creepy, even though I know they’re probably not real names. I suspect the autographs have something to do with the way tips are pooled, but the larger goal seems to be simply to parade as many bikini-clad women past our table as possible, and to make their attentions seem intimately personal.
I find the whole thing profoundly embarrassing, and am unable to address any of these young women by name, though I make a point of looking each one in the eye and smiling at her whenever I ask for something, or assure her that I don’t need another beer right now, thanks.
My friends seem unfazed by all the attention. They don’t seem unduly impressed either. You would think that, as a lifelong heterosexual, my gender-based social skills would have had time to gel, but evidently there is no gender identification I can’t make myself feel awkward around, one way or another. So it goes. I give up, and turn my attention firmly to the nearest of the big-screen TVs that cover every vertical surface in the restaurant. I’d rather watch two men pound each other into sausage than watch young women walking around in swimsuits. This is curious, because bikinis are something I see all the time at the swimming pool. Somehow, in the context of booze and men who fight for money, they take on a different meaning.
The fights we watch are pretty good. The shortest is Vladimir Matyushenko’s knockout of Jason Brilz in twenty seconds flat. Matyushenko is older than anyone at our table (except me), so it’s delightful to see him, after dispatching his opponent, pull on a T-shirt and hat and look ready to put in a 12-hour shift driving a truck.
The rest of the matchups are a bit more leisurely. Between rounds, the UFC Octagon Girls fill all the TV screens around the restaurant. They may sound like James Bond villains, but in fact they are what used to be known as Ring Girls—models in bikinis who strut across the stage, carrying a card with the number of the next round on it. It strikes me as a remarkably low-tech way of relaying this information. Each girl blows a kiss to the camera before she takes her seat at ringside, and I am suddenly thankful that the waitresses at Bikinis are not required to blow kisses.
By far the toughest fight of the evening is Jose Aldo versus Mark Hominick, because Hominick, who eventually loses by decision, sustains a head shot in the fourth round that instantly raises a hematoma the size of a baseball on his temple. The remainder of the match is ghastly to watch, not because of what happens but because of what everyone keeps expecting. I have to view the action intermittently, through the fingers of one hand. I can’t bring myself to look at the waitresses, and staring at the plate of cold nachos on the table in front of me quickly palls, so instead I take a look around at the other patrons of Bikinis.
They’re mostly men, of course, but I notice that there are other female customers. Though we’re the only all-girl party, there are plenty of husbands and wives. Not so many dating couples. Some people have brought their kids. To Bikinis. To watch full-contact, knock-out fighting. Little kids, like, six or seven years old.
“Hey, Princess,” a patron at a nearby table calls out to one of the waitresses. He evidently can’t be bothered to look up her name on his napkin directory. She smiles and sidles up to him, ready to bring him whatever he wants. I shift my eyes back to the TV, and Hominick’s bulging forehead. It’s less disturbing.
The day after the Bikinis outing, I volunteered at a children’s charity event where kids dressed up in costumes, as princesses and pirates and superheroes, and then got to try out various fun activities all around the grounds of the Women’s Club mansion. My friend Carmel, who trains with me at Sun Dragon, was my partner in the karate booth.
The little girls at the fundraiser were not dressed for karate. They wore high-heeled sandals and satin gowns with taffeta skirts, tiaras and sparkly face paint. And yet, for some reason, we got a lot more business from them than we got from the little boys dressed as pirates. We were swarmed with princesses. I found myself in a blur of glitter and petticoats, instructing, demonstrating, holding targets.
“Do you want to learn to do some karate?” I hear Carmel saying to yet another miniature Cinderella. “You do? That’s great! It’s a lot of fun! OK, take off your shoes, and put your wand here. Oh, your scepter. Sorry. No, you can leave your crown on. That’s fine.”
Around and around we go, coaching these tiny women on how to make a fist, punch a target, kick with a “Barbie foot” (toes pulled back), and kiai—“That means, yell really loud!” Dozens of them, scores of them. We could have a whole army of these fabulously dressed warriors.
Which ones, I wonder, will grow up to marry a prince? Which ones will end up wearing a bikini while serving men beer?
In the craft booth next to us, tiny pirates are happily making picture frames out of popsicle sticks. Outside, kids are bouncing in an inflatable castle. Looking out the window to the front lawn, I see a succession of horse-drawn carriages pull up to take the children for rides, and I take a deep breath.
These kids don’t find it at all unusual to put on a pirate outfit and then sit quietly at a table, gluing down sequins. They think nothing of hiking up their gowns and laying into a target like angry wallabies. It’s all open to them right now, the whole big sex-and-gender-and-power puzzle is just one big fantasy, and they are free to try on any part of it they want.
Pretty soon, that will change. One set of ridiculous costumes will nudge the little girls toward one role, while another set of absurd uniforms will elbow the boys in the opposite direction. They’ll move further and further apart, until the opposing camps of raging masculinity and bulging femininity are established, only meeting up at events like the UFC title fights, or, in more civilized dress, at royal weddings.
If I were a princess, I think, and I had a fairy godmother, and she granted me one wish, I’d wish that all of these kids, the boys and the girls, would find a way to hang onto their freedom. That they’d refuse be swayed by the big-screen TVs and the fashion columnists and the wait staff at the restaurants their parents bring them to, and carry on with their brilliant mash-ups of piracy, princesses, and punching bags. That all forms of power would seem equally plausible to them, and that all costumes would strike them as equally ridiculous, no matter how much the hat is worth.
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