“I think gender is disconnected from bodies — it’s an institution,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of East Asian and Women’s and Gender Studies Linda White. White was introducing a discussion on conceptions of gender in the martial arts. The discussion, titled “Takin’ It Like a Man: Troubling Gender in Japanese Martial Art,” focused on aikido, a primarily defensive martial art studied in Japanese culture.
“It complicates masculinity and femininity,” said Assistant Professor of Education Jonathan Miller-Lane, who co-hosted the dialogue with White. Miller-Lane and White, both students of aikido, spent the hour sharing their experiences with the art form as well as their thoughts on how gender influences life “on the mat.”
Aikido differs from other styles of martial arts in that it focuses chiefly on defensive techniques instead of offensive maneuvers.
“Aikidoists are famous for having terrible punches,” said Miller-Lane.
“It attracts people who aren’t interested in breaking things.” Miller-Lane emphasized the nonviolent nature of aikido, which some choose to refer to as a method of conflict resolution.
“In aikido we take what can be termed a confrontation and turn it into a beautiful interaction between two human beings.”
White prefers putting the emphasis on human beings rather than men or women.
“Gender varies by culture and varies historically,” she explained. “If gender came from nature, it would be equal across cultures.”
According to White, reducing gender to a dichotomy between exclusively male or exclusively female oversimplifies the reality of how it operates.
“The mat was a place where everyone mixed,” said White, recalling her initial experiences with aikido. White, now a first degree black belt, began studying aikido 25 years ago while living in Japan. The sport’s gender-neutralizing uniforms, ban on makeup and jewelry and generally silent environment within the dojo allowed her to forget about gender while practicing.
“Gender is not the first thing I’m conscious of,” she said, referring to her experiences on the mat.
Miller-Lane expressed a rather different take on the role of gender in the martial art. Currently a second degree black belt, he began studying aikido in Seattle under one of the few female instructors in the United States. To him, gender is both present and vital to the way he experiences aikido.
“It’s important that he’s a guy,” Miller-Lane said in reference to practicing with fellow male students.
“To physically explode into another guy — it allows for a different kind of male moment — it’s impersonal.”
For Miller-Lane, overcoming cultural norms of male and female approaches to conflict is an important element of aikido.
“Aikido is a way to make power and compassion in the same moment rather than power and domination,” he said, stressing the importance of leaving behind stereotypes of accepted male behavior. He likes that aikido departs from the pattern of males forcing compliance as a means to end conflict. It differs from conventional American sports such as football, which focus on domination rather than cooperation with opponents.
While their personal opinions differ somewhat, both professors believe in the benefits of aikido for both men and women.
“I can be big in a big way,” said White of her time on the mat. For her, the ability to step outside gender is a key component of this martial art.
“It’s interesting to learn about,” said Avery McNiff ’12, in reference to White’s ideas. Currently studying performance culture in the U.S., she attended the discussion to get a definition of gender within aikido.
Another student, however, remained more skeptical of the sport’s transformative potential.
“I personally think you can never forget your gender,” said Alexandra Vasquez ’12.
“I’m always aware. I’m always different. I’m always present.”
“Can we do it as human beings?” answered Miller-Lane when asked if we can truly leave behind gender in aikido.
According to him and White, aikido is about changing the dynamic between opponents. The emphasis lies not in power, but in balance and centering oneself with respect to the other person.
So, how do you respond to White’s question: “Does gender matter?”