The gender politics of The Pin: Girls in wrestling and martial arts

In a 21st century update of "Vision Quest" meets "Footloose," the story of Joel Northrup, a homeschooled boy raised in the Pentecostal tradition, who demurred when faced with female wrestler Cassy Herkelman, captivated the sports imagination. Except in this version, Northrup doesn't buck his background and take on Herkelman.

He defaulted, Herkelman won by forfeit, and became the first female to make the quarter-finals ever in Iowa wrestling's 91 years. She subsequently lost two matches and went out of contention. All involved have been very chivalrous - Northrup's bishop is proud, his dad is proud, Herkelman's dad respected his beliefs and Herkelman herself said he was entitled to them.

In the media frenzy, though, the inevitable question still rises, 38 years later after Title IX was enacted: Should girls be allowed to wrestle boys?

Allowed? It should be required.

Fighting Back on All Fours
Let me back up. I grew up watching too many kung fu movies, and I finally started doing martial arts in college. The first thing though was to choose which one, and that meant experimenting with them all. There was Taekwondo, a Korean martial sport that made its Olympic debut in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. There was Wushu, a Chinese martial sport that flourished anew when martial arts was briefly banned in China during the Cultural Revolution. There was Judo, a Japanese martial sport which was imported by American servicemen returning from the world wars.

And it turned out, I liked the approximation of a death struggle. Wrestling might seem like two bodies groveling to an unpracticed eye, but it's as close to pure combat as you can come. No surprise how wrestling would become incredibly technical with the advent of mixed martial arts and the rise of "submission" wrestling.

In the end, I opted for Hapkido, which offers a little of everything - the kicks, the joint locks, and the mat wrestling. It bills itself as a martial art with self-defense application, something that every girl can appreciate. Hapkido had no rules - although in practice, of course, you have to have rules, both unspoken and spoken, or else everything is a death match and all beginners would be doomed.


And aside from the unspoken rules - you don't grab my womanhood, I don't knee your manhood - groundwork appealed because heck, that's where all attacks eventually end up. There are too many stories of female martial artists who only learned to act in one plane, but once horizontal, they were horribly subdued.

To boot, females have been trained (yes, trained) to freeze in fear. Yes, fear can naturally freeze you, but all your senses are working at the same time before fight-or-flight kicks in. But, through a thousand and one cultural messages, some girls suppress back talk and fisticuffs, and slow their reaction time to true threats. The one real thing martial arts teaches you is to assess and figure out to get that edge - whether it comes from intelligence, reaction, strength and/or skill - at that moment, so you can avoid or get out of the situation that threatens you.

I've heard girls say, even if they were attacked, they would never fight back. Really? I hope you're never put in that situation. And I hope if your loved one isn't, and you would have to witness that, completely helpless.



Mat Work, Not Mating
But here's another aspect of boy-girl interactions that only insiders talk about - because outsiders don't want to listen - it's not sexual. I repeat: Wresting. Is. Not. Sexual. (Except of course when you're talking WWE Divas or pretty much any girl-on-girl action. And apparently that's okay.)

Groundwork may be life-and-death. It may be one-upsmanship. But trying to choke some squirming opponent or pin down a pungent body slipping in his or her own sweat - nope, not sexual. A Detroit Free Press writer wrote about a young female wrestler, Kelsey Kennell, who did win a match, and how her fellow teammates supported her: Kennell's pin provided the margin of victory for the cheerleader and the 14 brothers she hadn't had before the season. was accepted immediately," she said. "It turned out to be like a family like no other. I mean, you figure you're spending every day with the guys for 3 hours after school and you have Saturday meets totally with them." That's the point of a sport, and sportsmanship. Where I train, "girls" work out with "boys" all the time. Some win. Some don't. Some compete. Some don't. Are there females who can beat males? Yes, because they have strategy, commitment, and vision. If they were matched with the same-sized male with the same traits? Sure, if they have the same strategy. The point is to outsmart and out-technique.

Are there men who do have more lascivious intentions? If they did, martial arts or wrestling isn't probably the first place they'd get their jollies. They'd probably prefer more submissive females to dominate, as opposed to playing with dominating females to submit.

Not that there haven't been love matches. I've attended about a half dozen weddings of martial arts matches - and that includes my own. But trust me, it's not much of a turn-on wrestling your mate in that setting. In fact, at times, it's like teaching your boyfriend or girlfriend how to drive stick - both just get really irritated by the whole process and the engine just stalls out. (Off the mat's a different story, naturally.)

Regrets and Kudos for Cassy
My only regret for Herkelman is that Northrup did default, because that gave naysayers a few false narratives: One, that Northrup was such a gentleman for not bodyslamming a girl - as if someone who has had broken collar bone and bloodied noses would actually be surprised about this. Two, that she never would've made the quarter-finals if some guy hadn't given up his slot for her. That she lost two rounds right after gives credence to those who don't need much. (And then there are those who say you "don't win" either way by losing to a girl or beating a girl. Talk about blaming the victim.)

Here's the deal: I much rather that Herkelman earned her loss. That said, I'm impressed she and another girl, Megan Black, qualified in the first place, and that Herkelman went on to lose fair and square. She has a 20-13 record, and that's an accomplishment ... given all the attitude out there.

And if some drunken frat boy tries something on her a few years later, she'll have that little bit of an edge to get the upper hand - maybe that torso for a nice lockdown.