Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight
Leah Hager Cohen
Random House: 208 pp., $24.95
In the spring of 2001, a timid, physically fragile and morbidly sensitive writer named Leah Hager Cohen walked into the Somerville Boxing Club in Massachusetts, where a former Golden Gloves champ named Raphaella Johnson was waiting for her in the ring. Cohen had first wandered into this world filled with Lucia Rijker wannabes the previous fall, when she’d heard that Johnson was training a batch of lower-income girls in the art of the sweet science. After several months hovering on the sidelines and taking notes for a book, she decided that she wanted to know what it felt like to hit someone herself. So that day she wrapped her hands, put on the gloves. She slipped through the ropes to confront her teacher and opponent, a squat, muscled flyweight who had once weathered a broken nose to win a silver medal at the 1997 Women’s National Championships.
The two women put their heads down and began to swing.
In “Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight,” Cohen writes of her interactions with Johnson and the four adolescent girls she observed that year. Nikki, Jacinta, Candida and Josefina are all intelligent, though somewhat psychologically busted, kids whose parents allow them to apprentice with the trainer so they’ll learn how to “wield power” in an intimidating updated female socialization ritual that has only the barest resemblance to my own personal memories of pining after adventure badges in the Brownies.
Indeed, “Without Apology” has a radically ambitious bildungsroman in mind, as its tale of these girls’ training is supposed to evoke the kind of passion endured by the convulsively sobbing audiences of the current Oscar hopeful “Million Dollar Baby.” In Clint Eastwood’s boxing pic, Maggie, played by Hilary Swank, triumphs under the gruff tutelage of Eastwood’s trainer Frankie (until, that is, she suffers the traditional fate of the professionally successful female character in Hollywood and is brutally destroyed).
“Without Apology” similarly focuses on the rise of the girls’ self-confidence and physical prowess, yet the narrative arc takes a turn that is almost unimaginable within the Hollywood studio system. The teenagers’ lives are suffused with hope, and some of them emerge at the end better than when they started -- but that is not the best boxing fable in the book. The most intriguing character development turns out to be Cohen’s own. Shrink “Baby’s” Swank character into a waif, and buff up her brain and emotional tenderness to a nearly bionic strength, and you’ve got a match for Cohen when she first walked into the gym that fall. But she doesn’t close her boxing year just as an emotionally integrated, six-pack-bellied protege blinking back cathartic tears while attempting to slug the eyebrows off Johnson. Instead, as she begins to bulk up and learn how to do combinations, she experiences a psychological evolution that sometimes makes her less resemble a female Rocky than that scary blond huntress-alien played by Natasha Henstridge in the “Species” movies.
For example, Cohen’s description of a sparring match with 12-year-old Sefina, one of Johnson’s tadpole boxers, could never be accompanied by the soulful guitar strains echoing through theaters at the close of “Baby”:
“I was uncomfortable with my own disappointment at not finding a bruise [on myself after a fight], and unsure about my relationship with Sefina. Yes, we had hugged at the end. But I wasn’t certain I wanted to get in the ring with her again. I couldn’t really tell if she had liked it, nor was I sure I could tolerate my mixture of elation and guilt over hitting her.”
“Without Apology” is a literary and sociologically flavored narrative, complete with citations to university studies on sexual harassment and the works of British child psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott that help explain why women and girls would be such eager berserkers, once given the chance. (Women’s boxing is a fledgling sport; the first Women’s World Championships were held in 2001.)
“When we think of aggression,” Cohen writes, “we most commonly think of anger, and this is one aspect of aggression that many girls must work to reclaim.... [Aggression] is linked to self-respect, agency, curiosity, power and creativity.”
Cohen refers to multiple social studies detailing the forces that can both repress and stimulate girls’ desires to bash each other senseless: “83 percent of girls in public schools experience harassment”; “parents and teachers ... stifle aggression in girls and encourage it in boys”; young women are “more easily regarded as sex objects than as athletes.”
Moreover, male supremacy is not the only culprit, as “girls become complicit in their own diminution. If the process of internalizing the rebuke is really successful, girls not only comply with it but believe in it, and the cultural myth is insidiously realized.”
I should admit right here that I am a reader who much more easily fathoms classical examples of feminine anger than scientific studies; I “get” Medusa a lot faster than I ever will Winnicott. This is probably why, when Cohen describes whacking at other women in the ring, she leaves an impression of wrath and damage that didn’t bring to mind sociological diagnoses, let alone Eastwood’s brand of hero worship. Instead, I was made to think of the terrible Furies in Euripides’ “Orestes.”
You know the Furies and what they did. Orestes killed his mother, Clytemnestra, because she killed Agamemnon, his father. Then, as punishment, Orestes was sentenced to be driven insane by these girls with “eyes of blood ... [and] bitch-hound faces.”
Cohen’s story gives us a portrait of a 21st century Fury: After her initial sparring bout with Johnson, Cohen is seething, her craving for retribution unlocked, and she’s tempted to paybacks that are a lot worse than controlled cuffings at adolescents like Sefina:
“A short time after I began sparring, I noticed that when I became angry at one of my children, I would fantasize violence. One of them might pout and whine, or lash out pettily at a sibling, and an involuntary image of delivering a blow, of my hitting the child, would flash through the unknowable, doubled-up recesses of my brain.”
Note, however, that the modern Fury also wants to direct some of that punishment at her own head. For instance, Cohen is far too comfortable with getting thrashed; in a crazy and completely deadly way, she is almost numb to punches:
"[After fighting,] I had a bad headache for two days and couldn’t sleep on that side of my face, which swelled and turned gaudy colors. I didn’t tell anybody about the headache, but I took perverse pleasure in not minding it. And then came a sour realization: that this pleasure was not new, and not safe.”
Sometimes the self-destructive urge gets so scorching that she even feels like ending her life, a temptation that is only exorcised in the ring: “Since I started boxing, I hadn’t had any suicidal thoughts.”
Anorexia nervosa -- “the year or two before I began to box ... I was walking a line between thin and dangerously thin” -- is another expression of this death desire, which is also tamed by Cohen’s efforts to build up strength and follow her trainer’s nutritional advice: “I find a shake with yogurt, milk, or ice cream (calcium) and a banana (potassium) is easier to digest. If you want to take it one step further, you could use Met-RX, found at CVS, which is a dietary supplement for athletes.”
Cohen’s Medea-like parenting, ecstasies over hematomas and queer diets are the newfangled customs of a contemporary Fury, or of another Euripidean character, the maenad. Consider this description of the maenads, the frenzied female followers of Dionysus, from “The Oxford Classical Dictionary”:
“Headshaking, jumping, and running, the maenads ... tear animals apart, handle snakes, eat raw meat, and are invulnerable to iron and fire, [as well as] insensible to pain.”
Don’t they seem like sisters?
After that first day sparring with Johnson in the Somerville Boxing Club, Cohen looked into the mirror and regarded her first black eye with a mixture of “victory and thanks:” “I was grateful for the sign of confirmation: We were not constraining ourselves unduly in the ring.” But though her happiness at her mutilation seems exotically sadomasochistic, we should by now be familiar with such ambiguous female responses to violence, for the problem that she battled out with Johnson is one that artists and philosophers have been trying to solve for centuries: What do women want? Why are they so angry?
The screaming banshee, the raging harpy, the more recent bumpy-faced, D-cupped alien, and now the starveling boxer with the fancy footwork and shiner are literary siblings who illustrate the ancestral freakiness of female rage. In the old days, these spectral avengers set their sights on matricidal princes; today their targets are as wide-ranging as the educational system, their body images and the depredations of “Desperate Housewives.” Yet whether they be blood-eyed goddesses or roundhouse-packing novelists, they’ve been threatening us since an age innocent of statistics and psychology. They’re as old as Story itself. *
From Without Apology
By the time I saw a punch coming, it was too late for my brain to send my body a message about how to avoid it. Essentially I had no defense. So my ring strategy -- not that I viewed it in those terms, but my de facto strategy -- was not to care. It went something like this: I don’t mind getting hit; I’m not afraid; and look! I can even move forward, even back you up a little, even occasionally land a punch! I was so exhilarated by my lack of fear, so proud, even, of my fearlessness, that it didn’t occur to me until the next day, when I was feeling the knotty bruises on the side of my head and the stiffness in my neck, that as strategies go, this one was really lame.