After Hapkido class the other evening, I light-heartedly moaned to one of my senior-belted co-students about how there were some students in our class who had started after me who will, at the next belt test, overtake me.
I have no illusions about my own competence, and would not expect to ‘double test’ as the other students are, and my intention was really to mock my own plodding pace. Her response, however, surprised me.
She said that there are some things that ‘boys just learn faster’.
It had never occurred to me to pin my lack of progress, or the successes of the other students, on biology. I assumed that they simply came to class more or were more coordinated than I. Her comment, however, suggested that in her years in the school, she’d seen a lot of male students progress faster than the women.
Being in general the sort of person who revs up the social analysis anytime someone says something that smacks of gender determinism, I got to wondering – what could explain this, either socially or biologically?
The prevalence of women at various belt levels throughout the school, and the fact that our Saboumnim is a woman, (and the existence of accomplished professional female martial artists) quickly rubbishes the idea that men are somehow simply better at martial arts, but is it possible that in general men learn them faster?
In Hapkido at least, progress doesn’t have much to do with outright power, where men have the obvious edge of a bit more muscle mass and speed.
Hapkido is essentially learning choreographed movements (along with a philosophical side which I’ll leave for the moment).
From my limited experience in class, what you need to do well, at least in the early stages, is coordination, balance, a decent memory, focus, and a willingness to both toss people around and be tossed around.
None of these are obviously gendered traits.
I can’t speak for other women in my school, but the last of those is what I have the greatest difficulty with – although it improves with every class, I still get really rattled when people do some of the techniques on me at speed.
Despite expecting it, I still feel that in practice my opponents should be taking care not to do me harm, and pain and/or discomfort, however brief, and however instructional (or accidental), shakes my focus and makes me feel distressed. I am equally reluctant to throw myself into the techniques because I might cause pain to someone else.
It may be that for men (and I am speaking generally, obviously this is not true for all), being raised in a society where it is considered appropriate and character building for males to beat the crap out of each other throughout childhood and adolescence could preclude the mental block that I, at least, appear to have.
Years of both experience and social sanction have led them to be very comfortable both with fighting in a kind of friendly way, and with being a little beat up from time to time.
Inversely, there was never playful fist fighting between me and my female friends, and once adolescence set it, physical fights with boys, however ‘playful’ were a bit scary. Rather than getting a subconscious level of comfort with socially appropriate fisticuffs, I experience physical violence as something that girls did not do, and also as something malicious and dangerous; any physical pain deliberately caused by another person is seen as a threat. In the few self defense classes I have taken since the age of 13, the focus on ‘what to do if your rapist does this’ did nothing to mitigate that perception.
You can see how this could cause an issue in a martial arts class. My conscious mind can get behind the practice, but subconsciously, anyone who happens to be flinging me to the ground or bending my joints in the wrong direction is being mean and threatening, and it’s really difficult to fight the internal voice that’s screaming ‘get the hell out of here’.
So men, then, may have the advantage of a missing mental block, benefiting from experience that tells them men fight each other sometimes, which is ok, and fun, and it’s not anything to be scared of, whereas women are taught that fighting is mean and scary and violence is not the way etc.
There is another possible source of the male success, and it, too, is more mental than physical.
Saboumnim recently discussed in class this study, where sports performance was enhanced by the (erroneous) belief that the equipment used belonged to a professional. What this means is that one can be better if one can visualize oneself as somehow connected to someone talented in the task at hand.
Now quick, name 3 women martial artists. (Without Google).
Film and television are full of representations of male figures adept at various martial arts (like Bruce Lee) or just general butt-kicking (like Jason Bourne). As much as I enjoy martial arts films, the last time I came out of a cinema ki-yap-ing and generally playing at karate was after 3 ninjas.
After about 13, a girl absorbs that only boys get to be ninjas.
Is it possible that the men in my school also have the advantage of years of imagining themselves to be Jackie Chan, or Chuck Norris, or Jet Li?
I tend to seek out films with ladies kicking butt (Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Jessica Alba in Dark Angel, Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but it’s not quite the same thing, is it? There’s a difference between being a martial artist and playing one on TV (in a sexy leather ensemble, no less).
There is by extension a possible effect on instructors; being within to the same social context as the students may result in a tendency to expect more of male students, and therefore push them further, faster. I don’t think this is the case in my class specifically, I certainly feel pushed plenty hard enough as it is, and I believe my instructor to be quite conscientious in this regard.
However I can see how in the same way that a dearth of female CEOs leads some people to think that women can’t be CEOs, a gender disparity at high belt levels could lead some to expect a difference in performance and act accordingly.
Any sport or physical discipline is largely mental, and it seems more than plausible that men might process faster and more confidently in Hapkido, and other martial arts, because they are surrounded by messages throughout their life that encourage them to think of themselves as fighters, and women may struggle more, as they fight against an experience of being female that excludes both the inclination and ability to fight.
Oh Male Privilege. You’re everywhere.
More seriously, and usefully, perhaps having made these observations, I can more consciously work around all of this social programming and start imagining myself as the heir to Bruce Lee?
Or like these ladies: