Where some see objectification, newly signed Invicta fighter Felice Herrig sees opportunity. The manifestation of a new cage-fighting current of third-wave feminism, she’s tapped into an important marketing advantage women in MMA have that men don’t: an audience made up mostly of people who look at them as potential sex partners. Herrig is a skilled fighter, but she uses more than her skill to get sponsors and audience attention. “I would love for most people to be a fan of me because of my fighting,” she tells Fightland, “but if they like me because they think I’m hot or they think I’m funny, that’s okay.”
So Herrig delights unapologetically in her sexuality. She posts provocative photos and flirts with fans... Her self-promotion strategy has even led to the occasional public pre-fight battles about that strategy with opponents—a marketing strategy within a marketing strategy.
Women’s MMA veteran Tara LaRosa, meanwhile, doesn’t buy any of it, summing up many female fighters' attitude about using sex to sell in a tweet sent during the leadup to the Herrig/Clark fight: “In general those who play up the sexy angle are those lacking skill.”
That would have been my opinion a few years ago, before I started watching women’s MMA obsessively. Now the argument isn’t about who is trashy or whether a fighter who posts sexy photos can also be good at beating people up. I think it’s a two-pronged argument that looks inconsistent but makes perfect sense to me—one part recognition that men still have a very particular effect on women’s MMA and one part “who gives a s---.” And Herrig was a factor in changing my mind.
Herrig start posting regular bedhead/workout photos with no goal other than to connect with her fans, but she saw an immediate difference in how they were received compared to the more professional ones. “Those get the most views and shares and comments,” she says. “The first picture I posted of myself right after a workout in the mirror, within two hours it got like 14,000 views.”
Herrig has a theory about why those pictures are so popular: “I don’t even think those pictures are sexy. It’s that it’s so real. The fans feel like they’re a part of your life.”
The fact is, MMA is a source of entertainment, and a successful MMA fighter has to be both skilled and entertaining to capture fans’ attention. For male fighters, though, that entertainment can take a lot of forms—the epic trash talkers, the stoic martial artists, the guys with the flying acrobatic kicks, even the wearers of silly hats. Female fighters are usually considered entertaining if they're considered hot.
But while there are uncountable stories of women being screwed over in the past for not being conventionally hot enough to be given high-profile fights, things are clearly changing. Not every woman signed to the UFC looks like a model.
As women become a larger part of mainstream MMA—both as fighters and as viewers—I think we’ll start to see a larger range of ways female fighters can get audience buy-in. They will likely always have to deal with a portion of the audience judging them by cup size, but there is room for creativity even within that particular cage. Herrig’s blend of sexy photos, flirty talk, jokes, and real fan engagement is at least richer and more personal than just random, predictable bikini shots; it’s an art she has perfected. She demonstrated that with the tweet she sent out immediately after I got off the phone with her the other day:
“Haha I just did an hour long phone interview ... What the interviewer didn't know was I was naked the entire time #bubblebath.”
What do you think UG? Would your mom or your sister appreciate or understand using sexuality to sell asses in seats?