Ronda Rousey’s uneasy relationship with feminism.

Ronda Rousey is living, breathing, fighting evidence against the still-prevailing idea of women’s inherent physical inferiority. But she’s also quick to distinguish herself from “other” women, writes Stephanie Convery.

Ronda Rousey has been hailed as everything from a freak to a feminist.

Undefeated in mixed martial arts and the current Women’s Bantamweight Champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, she is often credited with single-handedly changing the gender dynamic in one of the world’s fastest growing and most popular combat sports.

Rousey’s supposed feminist credentials stem partly from this trailblazing: it was only in 2011 that UFC president Dana White said there would “never” be female fighters in the UFC. Now, the promoter’s highest paid champion is a 170cm blonde woman. But how feminist is Rousey, really?

In some respects, stories about her seem to come straight out of urban legend. In one particularly amusing anecdote, Rousey goes to the movies with her friends, and confronts a rude (female) patron whose male friends gets shirty in her defence. But when the confrontation turns to shoving, they find out the hard way that the pretty woman in the leopard-print dress just so happens to be an elite martial artist on the fast track to a bronze medal in judo at the Beijing Olympics.

That same Olympics, in 2008, was also the last time Rousey lost a fight: to Dutch judoka Edith Bosch. Rousey’s domination in martial arts since then has been so complete that spectators are lucky if they catch a fight that lasts more than a minute. Her first professional MMA fight lasted 25 seconds; her two most recent challengers for the UFC Bantamweight title, Bethe Corriera and Cat Zingano, lasted 34 and 14 seconds respectively. Not that her opponent for the title fight this coming Sunday in Melbourne should be underestimated – 34-year-old former boxing champion Holly Holm is also 9–0 undefeated in MMA and the match is expected to draw record crowds.

Rousey’s success in such a physical and stereotypically masculine sport can hardly fail to draw admiration and respect. She’s certainly dealt with her fair share of personal hardship, too: the suicide of her father when she was eight years old; an intense and difficult relationship with her mother; competition-induced eating disorders; homelessness, poverty and drug abuse. And her responses to the predictably sexist body-shaming she’s been subjected to as a successful woman defying traditional understandings of what women are capable of physically and mentally (intense muscularity, speed and focus, not to mention her record-breaking across the sport) has been sharp and defiant.

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Still, in spite of that, Rousey seems to feel she has a vested interest in distinguishing herself from those “other” women – the “do-nothing bitches”, as she calls them – who supposedly spend their lives hankering after men, who don’t work for or look after themselves, whose sole purpose is to find a millionaire man and to be “taken care of”. But this, too, is a stereotype, and a sexist one at that.

It is the contemporary incarnation of 18th century ideas about the essential feminine as passive, subordinate, in many ways ornamental, if not shallow and materialistic, and quite literally the property of men. Invoking such a stereotype is designed to firmly place Rousey in a distinct subset of “acceptable” women: she’s a woman, but she’s not one of those women.

This is something that former Grantland writer and columnist Molly Lambert called being “the girl in the boys club” – it is, in a way, a survival tactic, and one employed particularly by women in sexist or male-dominated environments. And UFC – indeed, combat sport in general – is nothing if not both of those things.

In those spaces, it’s easy to feel that the only way get by, let alone to thrive, is to denigrate a particular kind of femininity. But while this might seem empowering for the individual at the time, it’s a tactic that ultimately relies on reinforcing gender stereotypes (Rousey’s comments about trans fighter Fallon Fox have been similarly problematic) and sacrificing the group for the sake of the individual.

Indeed, Rousey’s own struggle for professional success doesn’t mean she has any particular sympathy for women as a group fighting for pay parity, her recent endorsement of US presidential candidate and self-confessed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders notwithstanding.

Just this October, Rousey explained her view in response to a question from an Australian reporter about the Matildas’ pay dispute and the persistent gender pay gap in sports.

“I think how much you get paid should have something to do with how much money you bring in. I’m the highest paid fighter not because Dana (White) and Lorenzo (Fertitta) wanted to do something nice for the ladies,” she says sarcastically. “They do it because I bring in the highest numbers.” No solidarity there.

Predictably, many sports bloggers and spectators around the world relished Rousey’s supposed sick burn against the femmos. Perhaps, though, it’s not surprising that the kind of feminism emerging from the elite levels of such a lucrative, hyper-competitive sport – if feminism is indeed what it is – should be almost quintessentially neoliberal.

Still, while Rousey’s personal gender politics might be highly questionable, in some ways her physicality is an argument in itself. She is living, breathing, fighting evidence against the still-prevailing idea of women’s inherent physical inferiority. She’s worth watching on Sunday for that fact alone.

This post originally appeared on ABC’s The Drum.

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