April 13, 2015

Who’s Afraid of Ronda Rousey? (Walmart. Walmart is.)


Ronda Rousey (via Shutterstock)

Ronda Rousey (via Shutterstock)

I’m not scared of Ronda Rousey, and neither should you be. It makes sense why you might: she happens to have risen to international prominence as the most dangerous woman ever to step foot into an octagon. She has compiled an 11-0 record in UFC competition, has defended the woman’s bantamweight championship title five times, and is the consensus pound-for-pound best female mixed martial artist in the world. She ends fights in seconds, not rounds, striking with an impossibly fast blend of technique, aggression, and brutality. To step to her as her opponent is a nightmare no less harrowing for its brevity.

But that’s not something you or I have to worry about, lay weaklings that we are. Nevertheless, Walmart has determined that Rousey, avatar for bodily destruction that she is, is too violent for its shelves, and so her new memoir, My Fight/Your Fight, will not be available for in-store purchase. This story was first reported by your go-to source for enlightenment on the literary world, Page Six.

To be clear, Walmart isn’t exactly boycotting the book. The superstore will still sell Rousey’s writing online and even allow customers the option of pickup at Walmart locations that will, by corporate dictate, not put the book on display.

Walmart is fine profiting off a popular athlete’s popular writing; My Fight/Your Fight is already the 27th-best selling biography on Amazon, and it won’t even be released until May 12th. Walmart just doesn’t want a fighter’s face on its shelves.

So this bizarre situation becomes less about content judgment and more about branding. It’s questionable whether Walmart is even getting what it wants on that front, but it also might be getting exactly what it wants.

Clearly it doesn’t want to be associated with someone like Rousey, but its ban has made My Fight/Your Fight the only title people would associate directly with Walmart. Then again, the decision itself not to stock Rousey’s memoir is rooted in the theory that associations made based on what people see in stores will stand apart from, if not supersede, associations made based on what people read online.

Perhaps the buzz that Walmart is selling My Fight/Your Fight exclusively online—again, Walmart is the only book retailer associated directly with this book—only will help it nibble into Amazon’s comically large market share of online book sales, at least for this title, if not for more. In that case, Walmart wins on both fronts: it keeps its shelves Rousey-free while boosting sales of her book through its preferred channel.

This decision either makes no sense for Walmart, or all of the sense, and everything in between is also in play. So here we are.

It’s not the first time Walmart’s shelving policy came under scrutiny. Back in 2004, it returned 3,500 copies of George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops, claiming to have never ordered it—about which I call the bull variety of the first word you can never say on television. Walmart also once returned copies America: The Book by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show staff, citing the depiction of the then-sitting Supreme Court justices naked on page 99. Well, they didn’t cite page 99, it’s distressingly still seared into my brain over a decade later. Page 99. Memorable joke, that one.

Walmart did go the online-only route with Carlin’s book, so they’ve been going with that option for at least 11 years now. A large portion of the Walmart library is only available online. Rousey and Carlin happen to be prominent, publicized examples of a pretty routine strategy for the company.

That’s important when it comes to the question of whether Walmart is being sexist in the case of Rousey, notable female fighter. Walmart’s most popular biography titles with store availability are mostly free of physical violence, save for a couple WWE titles (neither of which include female wrestlers) and portraits of war heroes—mostly American Sniper in its various forms, some others.

True, no women in the bunch, but at the very least Walmart has plausible deniability here. The Chris Kyle types on Walmart’s shelves are violent as civic duty, while the professional wrestlers are performatively violent. It’s not as though every page of My Fight/Your Fight is going to be graphic photos of Rousey breaking limbs, plus one of the Supreme Court naked. It’s about the experiences and dedication that make an unrivaled mixed martial artist. But even if she’s never killed anyone, she doesn’t do what she does to keep America safe, and when she beats people down, it’s definitely real. Those aren’t necessarily good reasons to deny her shelf space, but they’re reasons Walmart can legitimately point to.

Even so, there’s hypocrisy in play here, even if it’s not the first thing you’d think of. A Page Six brief notes Walmart is the largest guns and ammo seller in America, but between the Second Amendment and legal game hunting, it’s a nonstarter. It’s not to ignore the obvious, devastating potential consequences of such gun sales, but the retailer has legitimate justification. Bringing up guns in the context of Rousey’s book, as many critics have, immediately makes this a Second Amendment debate first and foremost, steering too strongly into the politics of all this for it to be about Rousey and her book at all anymore. Maybe that debate is the more important one to have, but let’s pick the battles we can win here.

Keeping this strictly about the UFC champ, Walmart is being unsportsmanlike. Walmart sells all the MMA equipment you could need, from training bags to gloves to protective gear, some of it officially licensed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. If Rousey is too violent for Walmart, then either any recreationalist who buys its products is, too, or Walmart believes MMA fighters should remain recreational and shouldn’t compete to reach the highest level of their craft.

Either answer flies in the face of what athletic competition is about. Her fights are not steeped in valor, but in pushing the limits of human capability as far as they can go. None of her opponents are scripted to lose, nor is hurting them the goal; she performs her violence every bit as the pro wrestlers do, only she harnesses it to script reality to her whims. Martial arts have been around for millennia, and Rousey is using them in ways more dominant than we’ve ever seen before. Unless you personally are on the other side of the octagon, 15 traumatic seconds from winding up armbarred on the mat, that’s no reason to fear Rousey; it’s reason to celebrate her. Writing about how an ordinary little girl sculpted herself into a pinnacle of human accomplishment should by no means be considered off-brand in the company of entertainers and heroes.


Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.