The way we think about women and fighting has changed. You know how I know? Because Everlast now sells pink boxing gloves.
I ordered some new, lighter sparring gloves recently, on the theory that perhaps I consistently fail to keep my hands up because my gloves are too heavy (yes, I know it’s a stupid theory). The first time I bought sparring gear, ten or twelve years ago, it came in two colors: Red and black. Since then the manufacturers have added white and blue and silver.
Those are all colors men are presumably willing to wear. I think it’s safe to assume, though, that pink sparring gear is mainly going to be bought by women. And while I would never buy or wear pink gloves myself—the bloodstains would clash—some women clearly will, otherwise Everlast wouldn’t produce them. Pink shinguards, pink footpads, and pink headgear too (groin protectors only seem to be available in white).
The availability of pink sparring gear is a good indication that women are thinking differently about fighting these days. A much less whimsical indicator is the fact that more and more of us are being arrested for violent crimes. Since 1994, according to the Department of Justice, women’s rate of arrest for aggravated assault has risen 17%, whereas men’s arrest rate for the same crime has fallen 15%. The contrast for simple assaults is just as stark: Women’s arrest rate has climbed 31%, by almost a third, while men’s has fallen 5%.
And the next generation is keeping up the trend. Assault arrests for girls are up 36% since 1994, compared to a 1% bump for boys. Of course arrests rates can change for a lot of reasons. The mandatory arrest laws passed in recent years, to address domestic violence, may have something to do with these numbers. So it’s hard to tell—are we more violent than we were before? Or are people just now noticing?
Well, human nature is what it is; I’ve found that it doesn’t do to fret about it. The boxing gloves, though… when I really think about them, they worry me a little. Because even though I’m pleased to see more women participating in sportive fighting, pink boxing gloves hint at something more than just an acceptance of women’s violent potential. They show that there’s a market for it.
Which brings us, naturally, to Season Two of MTV’s hit reality show Teen Mom.
“Lashing Out” was the provocative title of the episode I sat through, at the suggestion of a friend who I think it’s probably best not to identify. The climax was the scene where teen mom Amber gets mad at teen dad Gary and punches him, slaps him, kicks him, and pushes her face within inches of his while calling him a “fat ass.” (This is just what we see, mind you. God knows what ended up on the cutting-room floor.) A disagreement over the care of the couple’s daughter sparks the violence, but that’s not what the fight is about, ultimately. It’s really about Amber’s self-esteem, and Gary’s masculinity, and everyone else’s discretionary spending.
There was a lot of hoopla about the episode when it first aired. Why wasn’t Amber arrested? How was the couple’s behavior affecting their child? Through it all, MTV wore the poker face of social responsibility. They were performing a public service, by raising awareness of domestic abuse. The network even inserted blurbs throughout the show promoting a teen dating violence hotline.
But it was hard not to notice, watching the show, that the public service spots were outnumbered ten to one by the commercials. All those ads for Toyota, and Target, and Burger King, and Taco Bell, and various smart phones, and this season’s biggest 3-D films—I guess those are public services too, in a way. If you watch the show online, a drug company selling a magic elixir called Latisse will educate you about the tragic malady of “inadequate eyelashes,” a disease I was previously, blissfully, unaware of. The makers of Clairol hair color and Wheat Thins also have a lot to teach us, bless their public-service-minded hearts.
I suppose it’s a legitimate public service to expose domestic violence. I go back and forth between thinking there should be a law against broadcasting this kind of thing, and thinking that every couple involved in domestic abuse should have their home life aired live for public viewing 24 hours a day. But Teen Mom, make no mistake, exploits domestic abuse.
The show’s producers frame the violence deftly. The sordid bout of punching and slapping in Amber’s apartment is prettily foreshadowed by an incident at the park, where Amber talks about her recent Krav Maga training. Amber is really “focused” on Krav Maga, she tells her cousin Krystal, and then demonstrates a few crisp elbow strikes, while the girls’ two tiny daughters, forgotten on the park swingset, swing ominously, silently, back and forth.
So when Amber punches Gary in the side of the head, driving his skull into a wall, it’s clear what the Teen Mom production team wants us to think. Not, “Good heavens, female-on-male domestic violence really does happen. How tragic. I wonder if there are any social services available to help these two unfortunate people?” but, “ZOMG, those Krav Maga lessons turned Amber into an uncontrollable killing machine!”
I developed a queasy feeling as soon as Krav Maga was mentioned, and the altercation itself was painful to watch. I kept wanting to change the channel to something more wholesome, like a bear-baiting.
Does anyone but me remember when MTV used to show music videos? They were good at that. Little three-minute morality plays, any story that could be told with a white horse, a rainstorm, and mirror—that’s the kind of thing MTV did really well. But the network sucks at incisive social commentary. Implying that domestic violence can be attributed to something as simple as a few Krav Maga classes is not merely irresponsible, it’s imbecilic. Domestic violence has complex roots, and reducing it to a six-minute story arc serves no one’s interests—except those of the network and its advertisers.
After the show, MTV aired an “exclusive interview” with Amber and Gary, where the couple talked about what had happened. On camera, Amber apologizes (to viewers, not to Gary), and says she’s getting therapy. “I’m not happy,” she admits, and boy does that seem like an understatement. “I’m still kind of pissed at what you did,” she tells Gary, apparently referring to his criticism of her parenting skills, or his threat to call Child Protective Services, or just the fact that he exists at all.
She seems very alone, this young woman, blank-faced and lost under the lights, with cameras tracking her every motion. And I wonder about the people behind those cameras. There must have been several people on hand when Amber assaulted Gary—one with the camera, one with the microphone, another one handling the lighting, probably. They are, one would think, responsible people; people employed by MTV or one of its subsidiaries. Yet not one of them stepped in to stop what was happening; not one person reported the incident to the authorities afterward. They saw Amber hit Gary, and filmed it; then they waited to see what would happen next, and they filmed that too. And then they took the footage to their editors who reviewed it all, selected the most compelling bits, and strung it together into a tightly-compressed, action-packed segment just the right length to nestle comfortably between the Toyota Sienna minivan ad and the Taco Bell XXL Chalupa commercial.
What must the production meetings for this show look like? Are these people proud of their work? Do they believe they’re making the world a better place? Do they sleep well at night? Have they ever hit anyone, or been hit themselves? Would they like to be? Because I can arrange that. They might learn a lot from the experience.
I have to say that Amber seems like a really powerful person. I mean, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to make her mad. I wouldn’t want to spar with her either; for one thing, she’d steamroll me. But more importantly, she has major control issues.
Now I understand about impulse control. I have worked on anger a lot in my own life, and even when I can control myself, the impulses do not go away. On the contrary, I’m tempted to do something impulsive, stupid, and violent on average about every five minutes of my waking life. Sometimes I give in to temptation. And I can say from personal experience that violence only works to make your life better in an extremely narrow range of circumstances.
So if we’re ready to think about women and fighting in new and hopefully better ways, let’s make sure we’re honest with ourselves—all of us, the ones doing the fighting and the ones selling it, watching it, and complaining about it. If we celebrate women’s potential for violence then we also have to take seriously their ability to cause serious harm. We don’t do a very good job of this where male violence is concerned, so maybe I shouldn’t expect too much. But it’s worth saying anyway: If you fight, you have an obligation to control your power, no matter what color gloves you wear.
And if you enjoy violence as entertainment, ask yourself if you’re doing anything, personally, to reduce violence around you. If not, you’re part of the problem.
And if you make millions of dollars selling the spectacle of violence to a nation of young impressionable people, then for God’s sake shut the fuck up about your concerns for the public welfare. No one fucking believes you.
As a final proof of their commitment to socially responsible broadcasting, MTV invited viewers of Teen Mom to discuss “Lashing Out” online, an invitation accepted with gusto by the show’s fans. If you go to the Teen Mom Web site, you can watch in real time as viewers chat about all four teen moms (you can also see ads for car insurance and baby clothes and Taylor Swift’s new album). Like Beatles fans, everyone who watches Teen Mom seems to have a favorite, and right now Amber is deep into Ringo territory. “Amber really needs her ass beat,” reads one pithy observation, seconded by a host of other viewers who want Amber arrested, detoxed, counseled, or kicked off the show (there is evidently a heavy crossover viewership with Survivor).
But the commenter calling for an ass-beating is, I suspect, arriving late to the party—it’s quite rare that someone behaves like Amber unless she has already, at some point in her life, had her ass beat. I say this from experience. I’ve never trained in Krav Maga, a new and not very traditional martial art, but I’m pretty sure they don’t teach you to put your face inches away from someone else’s and call him a fat ass. Amber learned that somewhere else. I’d love to talk to her about where, exactly. And I’d like to tell her something too; something my friend Amy often says.
Amy has spent some time working with women like Amber—women who have been in bad relationships, who’ve gotten hurt, or who have hurt their partners. These women have all sorts of explanations for the violence in their lives, and lots of ways to justify the fights they’ve been in: Self defense, alcohol, stress, poor self-esteem. There are many reasons to fight, and some of them are good ones. But as Amy tells the women she works with, “Once you’re in a fight, whether you’re hitting someone or being hit, you’re already having a bad day.”
Here’s hoping for better days for all of us.