Sitting next to me at a recent luncheon for the United Nations Association was a fantastic seatmate, “Emma Empowerment” (not her real name), who is a pillar of several communities that empower women and girls. She asked what I do, and I said, “I am an empowerment self-defense advocate, and have written a book about it called Beauty Bites Beast which is now a movie.”
Winking, I said, “I am a Wonder Woman!”
She brightened and added, “We just had a self-defense class for my group!”
“Terrific,” I replied. “Who taught it?”
“Oh, this really nice guy, Marty Martial Arts!” (also not his real name)
“Oh, OK. So, can I get real with you?” I asked.
A small hesitation, “Oh, OK. Sure.”
“You hired a man to lead a women’s self-defense class? Are you aware there are a whole bunch of women in this area who teach martial arts and/or self-defense?”
“I guess I didn’t really think about it,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “that happens a lot when it comes to women teaching women self-defense. The fields of martial arts and self-defense are related but not the same, yet they are both dominated by men. There are many women who teach both and are brilliant at it. And women often feel safer with other women, especially if they have a sexual assault history. A good metaphor is Alcoholics Anonymous, whose founders figured out that a recovering alcoholic has more credibility talking to an active alcoholic than a teetotaler who says to the drunk, ‘Hey, just stop drinking!’”
“Many male instructors are sympathetic,” I continued, “however, few are aware of the constant, daily, freeze-inducing drip of fear many females experience simply by walking down the street. They don’t know that demonstrating a martial arts move to a woman may not translate into her world, as she may not have any background with anything physical, at all. Ever.”
I wondered what field Emma was in, and asked.
“I am in sports,” she replied. “Now that I think about it, female coaches also get ignored and passed over for promotions, even for female sports teams. Title IX has been good for female athletes; not so great for coaches. People just assume a man will be better,” she said.
“Hmm… I basically let my own bias for male coaching unconsciously inform my ‘shopping’ for a self-defense instructor,” Emma said. “Exactly what I hate about my own field!”
“Indeed. These biases run DEEP and unexamined; they are rarely malicious,” I said.
There are so many glass ceilings in so many fields it’s mind-boggling to even grapple with the level of discrimination so many of us face, female self-defense teachers included.
At a recent campus screening of Beauty Bites Beast the young woman in the Student Activities office that booked me proudly said, “We’ve arranged for a little self-defense workshop after the movie!” Of course, the teacher was a “he.” The problem was the student hadn’t yet seen the film, which states, “Women teaching women empowerment-based self-defense is often key to teaching women and girls…at least until we shift general attitudes. Why? Even though easy-to-learn, physical self-defense skills are not rocket science, many women who see a man demonstrate those skills don’t say to themselves, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it!’ Most women don’t see themselves as potentially dangerous mammals. Most of us assume only men are born that way.”
After the screening, when the male self-defense coach showed up, I said, “I’ll be co-leading with you” and I was able to correct some very female UN-friendly moves he made. He was a good sport about it.
My preference and a core value of the non-profit IMPACT Personal Safety, for which I serve as a board member and instructor, is that we have a partnership with women and men. In our classes, women take the lead position so our students can experience the model of a woman in authority — as coaches must be — along with a supportive male. It’s important that women who have suffered trauma can witness men who care about ending sexual assault. However, there are also plenty of female self-defense coaches out there who don’t teach with a male co-instructor and are amazing at what they do.
There are men around the world who “get it,” although they are still too rare. Author Gavin de Becker is one of them. Another is Ger O’Dea in the UK, who has prospective female students read Beauty Bites Beast and Gavin’s The Gift of Fear before they begin work together.
That said, in Southern California there is now a Wonder Woman-endorsed solo male self-defense instructor. You guessed it: Marty Martial Arts. Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, knows deeply the glass ceiling female directors need to deal with. I doubt she selects what and who gets endorsed for movie-related PR. There’s already been a mainstream and social media kerfuffle about the women-only audience screenings, female empowerment in films, and the boldness of a woman (gasp!) being tapped to direct a huge “tentpole” film.
I would like to get the ear of whoever decided they’d have “Marty” lead Wonder Woman courses. Really? In the film (and comics), Wonder Woman is taught to be a bad ass by other women! None of us questions the ability of females from other species to model hunting and fighting for their offspring. Whoever you are, PR person, how’s this for a hook: Wonder Woman courses to be led by other Wonder Women!
NOTE: This article is an updated and expanded version of my column in the Pasadena Weekly that originally ran on June 8, 2017