Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Punching like a Girl: Embodied Violence and Resistance in the Context of Women's Self-Defense

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Punching like a Girl: Embodied Violence and Resistance in the Context of Women's Self-Defense

Article excerpt


This essay explores the way discourses of gender and aggression can be combined in the female body. Traditionally, the female body has been seen as that of a victim and the man's body as that of an aggressor. Although the behaviours are absorbed through learning and repetitive action, these essentialist discourses of the gendered body have become naturalized. I suggest that gendered behaviours are not fixed and, just as they are learned in the first place, they can also be unlearned and replaced by new ones. Using the example of women's self-defense, the essay investigates how women can train their bodies to both cause and endure pain and, through this, challenge the traditional feminine corporeal habitus. Women's self-defense offers a theoretical, but, more importantly, a practical way of resisting women's victimization in contemporary patriarchal societies.

Keywords: women's self-defense, gender narratives of violence, body techniques


Western cultures appear to be saturated with norms of bodily comportment linked to the socially significant categories of "male" and "female". From a very early age, we are encouraged to walk, sit, talk and eat in a "feminine" or "masculine" way, and our bodies become inscribed with cultural values and norms that tell us dichotomously, as women and men, which practices are acceptable to our gender and which not.

Violence and vulnerability are traits that have come to be strongly associated with the gendered body, and they have given rise to a "gendered grammar of violence" (Marcus, 1992: 392) that associates aggression and courage with masculinity, while weakness and vulnerability are equated with femininity. The essay focuses on these discourses, particularly on how they are embodied in the female subject. (2) I start from the premise that gender is performed (Butler, 1999), and that through repetitive action gendered discourses of violence and aggression have become embodied in individuals as habits that mould their bodies into particular postures, gestures and movement. However, while the body has become a primary site in which discourses of violence and vulnerability are perpetuated, I suggest that it is also in the flesh that these can be resisted. Therefore I accept the notion of the body as fluid and indeterminate as well as a site of human subjectivity (Csordas, 1993; Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

I begin this essay by exploring feminist discourses of the feminine body, which has been assigned the victim status either because of its "biological" attributes or, more recently, because of its inscribed gendered traits of passivity and docility. In both discourses, though in different ways, the fragility of the woman's body becomes naturalized. I will then consider how habits of aggression and submission are formed and trained in the body, drawing on Marcel Mauss' theory of "body techniques" (Mauss, 1973; 70) as well as on Iris Marion Young's discussion on female body comportment (Young, 2005), and using these theories of learned behavior as a starting point for exploring how the body is capable of both learning new habits and challenging old ones.

Self-defense, here, functions as an example of a means through which women can incorporate knowledge of aggression in the form of fighting techniques, body postures and speech, into their somatic consciousness. (3) The majority of material is drawn from semi-structured interviews which were conducted with seven self-defense and martial arts trainers and students, all of whose names have been changed.

Finally, as the issue of violence is a highly contested one in our society, I will briefly look into some views on the ethicopolitics of using one's body as an "implement of violence" (Arendt, 1969) and explore potential risks involved in training one's body to endure as well as to cause pain.

The Body as Enemy: Feminist Theories of the Body

The view of feminists of the female body has tended to be a victimizing one. …

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