By Kay Morgan
Learning Karate has made me a total badass! she smiled. Before, I just used to be like a timid little girl. Now, I still look timid on the outside. But inside, I’m literally walking around with the knowledge that I could kill someone, if I wanted. It’s changed everything!
Too right, her sensei chimed in. Katie’s gone from being a little mouse, to really vicious! I just feel sorry for any guy who tries to attack her!
Katie (not her real name) blushed, looked down and gave a tiny, secret smile.
I was bewildered by this exchange in the pub after class. I’d spent the evening at my friend’s dojo, and felt instantly protective of her dojo sister Katie. In her early twenties but younger looking, she radiated fear, unconfidence and vulnerability.
Traits that would surely make her a natural victim to the wrong type of person.
I’d also trained a bit with Katie during the evening, and was pretty sure that she’d not be able to “kill” anyone – especially someone with bad intent – given her extreme timidity, and inability to work with anything but the gentlest of fake attacks, and a ton of kindness and encouragement.
She’d also poured out her traumatic life history to me, in full earshot of others, within minutes of sitting down with our drinks. This felt like a very well-rehearsed conversation, and only added to her appearance of complete defencelessness.
What was going on? I could see that this fantasy was deadly serious on her part; but surely the others didn’t actually believe what they were telling her?
I spoke to my friend the next day. She explained (just as I’d thought) that her instructor and the other guys in her dojo were determined to build the confidence of this vulnerable, wounded student. Hence the emergence of this bizarre “vicious badass” narrative.
My friend found the whole thing pretty creepy, not to mention dangerous for Katie, and was considering leaving over it. She knew she’d be labelled as mean if she tried to challenge it though, so just didn’t bother.
I couldn’t believe how angry and frustrated this scenario made me feel. And what the hell was the sensei thinking of, in particular? The idea of “women’s empowerment” is super-trendy, and good people want to support it. But this vignette is an example of totally fake empowerment, which either has no real positive impact at all, or could even be harmful.
And yet “empowerment” is genuinely possible in a martial arts context. How can you spot the difference between whether you’re offering, or being offered, fake empowerment or the real thing in your dojo?
Here are eleven possible ways to tell. Items 2,3,5 and 7 relate more specifically to women, but all the other items could apply to anyone . . .
1. Real empowerment fundamentally changes someone’s demeanour and bearing
Katie’s declarations of confidence were contradicted by her fearful demeanour. True power and confidence are expressed through the way we move our bodies.
Equally, studies have found that the way we bear ourselves and move our bodies can impact how we feel about ourselves; this idea has been popularised by Amy Cuddy in particular:
This two-way relationship between movement and confidence offers a virtuous circle to martial artists.The more we successfully practise assertive defences and attacks, the more power and confidence we should feel, and express through our bodies; and the more confident we feel, the better our technique should become.
2. Real empowerment may help to keep you safer; fake empowerment could put you at risk
It’s pretty well known by serious martial artists that most “Ladies’ self-defence” classes aren’t particularly “empowering” or useful. Given that so few rapes or other physical assaults are perpetrated by strangers jumping out of nowhere in the street (the vast majority are carried out by partners, family members, or other people known to the victim), it’s inexplicable how many courses focus on that scenario.
And do it poorly too.
Even if the attack is from a random stranger, a fun, cursory introduction to a few techniques with untrained, non-resisting, typically female partners, is unlikely to be of much use in the event, perhaps months or years later.
What’s most worrying however, is the false sense of confidence these courses may instil, not least because the school’s marketing may make unrealistic promises about the course’s impact.
More thoughtful courses seek to offer real empowerment, through understanding and addressing the actual realities of the violence that women are more likely to face. One such instructor, Alexis Fabricius, explains:
Not only do [our] courses educate women on the realities of violence against women, but they also provide information on the gender socialization process that women go through that make them vulnerable to violence in the first place. For example, women are raised to be feminine and demure in their actions, to not cause a scene, to be agreeable – all of these behaviours directly undercut their ability to effectively resist. To be able to say “No” or “I don’t want to do that” can be very difficult for women when they have been raised to please others, and to often put the needs and desires of other people before their own.
Opening participants’ eyes and minds to the way that our […] society has taught them to behave is a crucial step in overcoming the reservations women often have toward using resistance (verbal or physical). I have witnessed this many times in my own classes and workshops. When teenage or adult women join a martial arts or self-defense class, they are reluctant to hit plush pads, to practice with intent, to be sure in their movements, or to even make noise.
Even in an all-female space where participants have paid for instruction, it is difficult for many to let go of these learned behaviours. My students often tell me that they feel embarrassed about being loud, or giggle nervously when asked to hit the pads with force. Yet, when techniques are coupled with education, I see a transformation in these women. They are able to hit with intent and strength, they perform techniques, and they feel powerful.
I’m not generally a fan of “ladies only” martial arts classes; but any kind of class that can deliver this type of transformation deserves to be called empowering . . .
3. Fake female empowerment is often grounded in consumerism
Once upon a time, women’s empowerment was about access to education, birth control and other critical topics. Now, it’s all too often about buying stuff, as per this satirical piece in The Onion
Klein said that clothes-shopping, once considered a mundane act with few sociopolitical implications, is now a bold feminist statement.
“Shopping for shoes has emerged as a powerful means by which women assert their autonomy,” Klein said. “Owning and wearing dozens of pairs of shoes is a compelling way for a woman to announce that she is strong and independent‘”
Increasingly, savvy brands such as Dove and Always are using the idea of female empowerment to sell more stuff. As Nosheen Iqbal writes:
This extends to martial arts of course – female practitioners who want to empower themselves through consumerism have plenty of options such as the Bytomic Sparkle Ladies Boxing Gloves (Sparkle while you box in these new style boxing gloves . . . !)
More insidiously, martial arts and self defence are often sold to women primarily as “products” to improve their physical appearance in line with societal standards of attractiveness. Here’s an extreme example from Matt Fiddes Martial Arts, where the “self defence” aspect seems a definite afterthought.
4. Real empowerment benefits others, not just the individual
We saw in the previous point that “empowerment” is now all too often tied up with acquisition of material goods.
Hadley Freeman gives an excellent analysis of how the idea of “empowerment” has morphed into this rather selfish concept. She explains that it originally referred to the idea of providing autonomy and strength to marginalised people in the 1970s, and was often used in a feminist context in relation to women and girls in third-world countries.
However, the meaning has changed beyond recognition now, to denote: everything from deodorant to chocolate. Freeman charts the move in recent decades from the idea of a demographic gaining power for the good of the group to: just one woman gaining power for the good of herself – a shift from the collective to the individual.
This version of empowerment can be actively disempowering: It’s a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same. The ready participation of well-off women in this strategy also points to a deep truth about the word “empowerment”: that it has never been defined by the people who actually need it. People who talk empowerment are, by definition, already there.
In a martial arts context, focusing on your own empowerment while disregarding the wellbeing of the group (and ultimately your community) is to largely miss the point (and wider benefits) of your training. My Sensei says: live half for yourself and half for others, which makes good sense . . .
5. An empowered woman is inspirational to men and women alike
Another possible sign of fake empowerment, is when a female martial artist is always held up within a school as inspirational for other women. True power cuts across gender; and a truly powerful person is inspirational to other people, full stop.
Katie’s dojo brothers can talk all they like about the power she’s gained through martial arts training; but until it appears that they actually want to be like her in some way, it doesn’t mean a lot.
More cross-cutting empowerment is celebrated in a great article about Ronda Rousey: […] There’s no doubt that Rousey has influenced a legion of men and women to stop being #DNBs (do nothing b****), creating an aura of self-confidence that we all definitely need in our lives […] – Live Like Ronda Rousey: 7 Ways To Be A Badass
If you have female instructors in your school who only teach “ladies” and children, and who are routinely labelled as “inspirational to female students”, this could be for all kinds of very good reasons, and it would be really wrong and unfair to judge the situation without understanding these.
But for the sake of critical thinking, you might want to just question why they’re not teaching adult men too; and whether they could do so successfully if they wished. Also, you could perhaps consider what subliminal message this arrangement may send to male and female students about “women’s power” . . .
6. Real empowerment is grounded in real experience of real success
It’s all very well affirming to others (or yourself) that you’re powerful. But this can be empty without any real experience of power.
Personally, I have little time for a lot of the “empowerment” rhetoric aimed specifically at women:
There is no one like you. You are a beautiful star of a woman, exactly the way you are. I know, your head is saying but I am too fat, or too lazy or too stressed. Those are all thoughts. The reality is you are precious. You are growing, learning, expanding. And how you create your life is your art, and no one can do it like you. So claim your wild, quirky, creative self. No more comparison; nurture yourself as if you were your own best friend. Because that makes life so much more fun!
These words are lovely but toothless. We’re more likely to grow in confidence by successfully doing stuff (training, working, interacting with others), and confidently seeking to improve our imperfect selves, than by telling ourselves that we’re precious or perfect just as we are.
Confidence is […] an indicator of past success […] For example, there was a famous basketball player named Magic Jordan, probably, who had the confidence to take difficult shots because he had made them before and had been making them since he was a child. Those past successes are what helped him overcome his fear of future failure. If he had nothing but failure to draw upon, and yet was still confident, then he would be what science calls “a moron.”
7. Real empowerment isn’t necessarily pretty (and doesn’t have to be)
But when the vast majority of images of “empowered” women or “female warriors” are so heavily sexualised, and made to look stereotypically “pretty”, it can seriously undermine the intended message.
By way of contrast, here’s the image I used for an article called “Permission to be Unpretty” about how martial arts training can release women from societal expectations to look “nice”. Two very different depictions of “empowerment” and beauty . . .
Returning to the Matt Fiddes Martial Arts flyer above, the woman in the picture looks gorgeous with her tiny waist, free-flowing hair and coordinated pink and black workout gear – but if we’re looking for “empowerment” this image might not be a great indicator. . .
8. Real empowerment has a clear sense of its own limitations
I love my dojo beyond words, and draw on its teachings as a source of personal power. But it also teaches me how limited I am. We learn what it feels like to be incapacitated by someone else’s technique; and the practice of kumite in particular is a constant reminder of my own limitations. And I’m glad of it. Without such reminders, it would be all too easy to read more into our own progress than is actually there.
Blogger Winston puts it really well:
[…] We tend to think of empowerment as a removal of limits. Yet without those limits, we start to believe we can do all we pretend. That’s the kind of thinking that sets us up for disappointment. Acknowledging our limits is essential to understanding ourselves. For someone with a reading disability, pretending they can read isn’t empowering, it just prevents them from getting help.
When we accept our limits, it’s not a surrender, it’s the source of real empowerment [It] encourages happiness by allowing us to set believable goals for ourselves. Denying limits leads to setting unattainable goals. Attainable goals lead to happiness. Unattainable ones lead to disappointment and unhappiness.
[…] It’s time for us to empower our limits to celebrate how they empower us.
This clearly links to Katie’s story. It’s a difficult situation for her instructor; obviously they don’t want to crush her even further by harping on her weaknesses. But at the same time, it’s beholden on an instructor to support students to gain a realistic sense of who they are; and the indulgent fantasy this person is peddling to Katie feels very wrong.
9. Real empowerment is generated from within, not bestowed by others
Here’s a clear example of fake empowerment:
This season, some male designers also presented ideas of a strong, empowered femininity: at Balmain, Olivier Rousteing turned top models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner into fierce huntresses and gypsy queens, while Demna Gvasalia focused on an empowering shoulder and volume play at Balenciaga.
I don’t even need to critique this for the intelligent readers of this blog. Suffice to say that the real empowerment men and women may seek through martial arts training isn’t likely to be found by letting a designer dress you up as a warrior, in clothes that very likely cost a fortune and preclude real fighting or other natural movement – within the context of an industry known for its labour exploitation practices.
Empowerment isn’t something you can buy, or otherwise acquire from others. Al Siebert considers the paradox of trying to “teach what cannot be taught” in his book The Survivor Personality. In other words, the “survivor qualities” and “survivor spirit” he seeks to teach can only develop from one’s own personal experience – they can’t be instilled by a teacher. He therefore focuses above all on guiding the reader in the art of learning their own surviving, coping and thriving skills.
In the school of life the responsibility is on the learner, not the teacher. Through trial and error you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you. True self-improvement, self-confidence, and spiritual development come out of real life, everyday experiences, not from books or workshops.
– The Survivor Personality, Page 11
10. Real empowerment withstands pressure testing
M.J. Harday shares a sickening story of having been seduced by fake empowerment in a “McDojo”
(S)he explains how exciting it felt to be awarded a black belt after two years; and how proud the students all felt for having stuck with the training; “knowing” now that they could now defend themselves. The group carried on studying for their second and third dans, feeling their confidence grow all the time.
We learned a lot.
What we didn’t learn though, and didn’t even realize we weren’t learning, was how to use the techniques that were in the katas. We never learned to combine techniques. We never realized just because we could do these katas well, and just because we had nice looking, fast and powerful kicks, that we didn’t know how and when to use them. We never sparred. None of us had ever taken any real contact.
[…] I could have stayed on that happy little path for the rest of my life if not for what happened to someone else. […] One of the men I started class with, one of the guys who blazed his way through to black belt in 2 years and stuck with it along with me was beaten up in a way I didn’t think anyone could survive. He was a mass of ripped flesh and broken bones and blood, and that was after a few days of healing. He lost the hearing in one ear and for a while they weren’t sure he was going to walk again. All because he was attacked, and he thought he knew how to defend himself.
He says now that he was confident until he was hit with the first punch. All that kata practice hadn’t taught him how to block effectively.
[…] This guy could have died. As it is he will have lasting effects of being beaten for the rest of his life. It was an eye opener for all of us, when we realized none of us had ever even taken a serious punch.
I hope with all my heart that Katie doesn’t ever find herself in a situation where she seriously depends on her current fantasy ability to defend herself.
11. The apparent power of a victim identity is not true power
One really distressing red flag I saw in Katie was the ease with which she related the tragic events of her young life to me in a public place, as a complete stranger, while her sensei and fellow students calmly listened, and even chipped in – they’d clearly heard this narrative many times before.
This implies that she’s been allowed (or encouraged) to construct an identity within her school based on being a “victim”.
This is a seductive role, which can certainly feel “empowering”. Rory Miller writes:
There is great power in the victim identity. Instructors and other students go out of their way to be accommodating and gentle. The survivor can often get out of any drill or derail the whole class by admitting her discomfort
[…] The benefits of victim status must be given up to outgrow the victim status
[…] This is hard but critical. The subtle power in the victim status […] is power for people who have been made to feel powerless and it can be addictive.
– Meditations on Violence (YMAA, 2008), pages 165-6
Unfortunately, Katie’s going to find it really hard to break out of that role now; as her seniors, juniors, peers and even friends of the club all know her story, and have roundly defined her as a “victim”. She may not realise that the flip side of this is that her actual position within the school is very likely one of powerlessness and being viewed as weak. She may also put herself at severe risk if she continues to openly broadcast her vulnerability to others in this way.
I met “Katie” a while back, and this article has been fermenting since then. At the time I was pretty creeped out and annoyed with her sensei in particular; but obviously I don’t actually know them, or the context. I guess what really upset me, was her complete lack of awareness of the game being played out around her, coupled with the fact that others could see it – certainly my friend did; presumably her instructor and at least some of the other students could. Or maybe they couldn’t, and therein lies the problem.
Physical, mental and spiritual empowerment are at the very core of martial arts training. But it’s a hard, often thankless journey, and there may be seductive, easier-looking wrong turnings along the way.
I think there are two possible directions to take here. Either openly teach and practise your art as being not martial, and focus on its other benefits; or study something that’s martially effective, maintaining high standards, realistic expectations and an understanding of limits. But please don’t mix and match elements from the two approaches, as this can be dangerous, unfair and incredibly irresponsible.
Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or both, I hope this has given you some ideas to reflect on and critique what “empowerment” looks like within your own school; and consider the part you might play in ensuring that you and your dojo colleagues have access to the most “real” version possible . . .