Kim Howe: PJ Caldas is a Brazilian writer and expert martial artist who is an ardent supporter of strong female characters, as you will see in the blog below. Welcome to the Rogues, PJ!
By PJ Caldas
This is Sharon.
Five times per week, we train together in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in Port Chester, NY. Five times per week, she twists me into a pretzel and makes me tap to admit defeat.
Sharon is a beast.
When I was writing The Girl from Wudang and searching for inspiration for my female fighter protagonist, I asked Sharon what the most annoying thing men did while sparring with her. “The worst thing is when lower belts go light on me because I’m a woman,” she said, annoyance fuming from the top of her head.
Sharon may not be the most typical woman, though. In general, breaking years of conditioning to avoid physical shock is hard, as I experienced multiple times in the martial arts classes I used to teach. In one of them, an all-female class in San Francisco, I had to ask for help from my karate Sensei because the students plainly refused to punch either me or their classmates.
It might be hard to believe, but that really happened. These martial arts students wouldn’t dare hit anyone even though it was very skill they were there to develop. They wanted to learn to defend themselves, but were so trained to avoid any form of violence, they just couldn’t do it. As their teacher, it was hard to watch, because I could feel their conflict, the bottled impulses, the anxiety behind wanting to act against their upbringing.
“You need to tap into their protective instincts,” my Sensei suggested. He taught me a trick he got from his own teacher. “You give them something to protect…and tell them it’s their job to keep that thing alive. Then you charge after the thing. You will see.”
I didn’t like the idea. “I know it sounds wrong,” he said, “but it works.” So I tried.
Then, just like he predicted, one after another, they protected the poorly sketched bunny I drew on the white board on the back of the room. Suddenly, those punch-shy students were serving me the most vicious versions of what I had been teaching them. They punched, kicked and pushed me harder than they ever dared. And in the end, covered in sweat and pride, the class celebrated the survival of the bunny and their finally released aggression.
Even though I’ve always advocated for self-defense as a life skill, much like swimming, their post-sparring elation was an eye opener. It reinforced how all that energy had been repressed for years…to the point that I had to appeal to a pseudo-psychological trick to finally set it free.
I realize that men and women are different. And I don’t want to impose one side’s traits on the other. But if the bunny experiment showed me anything, it is that the ability to tap into our aggressive selves (and enjoy it) isn’t an exclusively male trait. That’s just societal conditioning.
When we say it’s okay for boys to wrestle in gym class but not girls, when we ask if boys want to fight and girls to dance, when we highlight vicious male fighters in sports and never their female counterparts…we are not avoiding the imposition of a masculine violence on women. We are taking away their option to experiment with self defense skills or even enjoying an ancient way to exercise they may love.
Making fighting a male thing is stealing it as an option everyone should have.
Thankfully, that seems to be changing. Fighters like Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes, Rose Namajunas and Zhang Weili have been building their own paths to stardom in promotions such as the UFC and WWE. Hollywood franchises like Star Wars and Marvel now have badass female fighters leading their own stories. And Michelle Yeoh! God bless Michelle Yeoh!!!
Icons matter in any cultural transformation. Characters, celebrities, athletes… But to deliver a full transformation, we need more. We need real women on the mats. Star amateur fighters like my friend Sharon and so many others I have been meeting in schools of all styles. They are the ones inspiring new generations of women who now believe they can defend themselves, enjoy the chaos of combat sports, and even beat bigger guys if they want.
For these women, pioneering and expanding the love for kicking ass among the female audience, breaking the stereotype of fragility is indeed a matter of honor, identity and even a mission.
My lead character in The Girl From Wudang, Yinyin, was inspired by them—women in Karate, Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, Muay Thai, Kung Fu, Judo, Wrestling, Capoeira, Aikido, Taekwondo… By all these rule breakers I’ve met in my 35 years practicing martial arts. Women who summoned their right to express their violent side. Who rejoice in the shock on the face of their opponents.
Do I want to push everyone into a martial arts school? No. The practice of combat sports may need to be redesigned before some (men and women) would ever think about trying it for themselves. And the bloody spectacle around live bouts may also need some rethinking if we want to achieve wider appeal. And hey, even after all that you may still not feel like trying yourself. That’s no problem either. You can still appreciate the badassery behind these mavericks busting the doors for everyone else behind them. And if by listening to these stories—the real ones or fictional, like mine —the work these pioneers have done will be worth their sweat.
Readers, have you ever taken up martial arts? Would you like to?
PJ Caldas, known in his home country of Brazil as PJ Pereira, was picked by the Dictionary of Brazilian Literature as one of the most important writers of the XXI Century. There, he published four books inspired by the mythology carried to the country by the African diaspora. Despite being “non-traditional” for the editorial standards in the country, he reached the top 5 best-selling titles multiple times as the highest ranked Brazilian on the list. Although he started his career as a computer programmer, it was as an entertainment and advertising executive that PJ reached international recognition. He’s won hundreds of awards including a Daytime Emmy for Innovation in Storytelling for his web series, “The Beauty Inside.” He has black belts in Shaolin Kempo, Wing Chun and Karate and also experimented with Tai Chi, Akido, Judo, Capoeira, Silat, Boxing, Muay Thai and Phillipino Knife Boxing. While researching his new book, The Girl From Wudang, he grew interested in grappling again and reconnected with his Rio de Janeiro roots by enrolling in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school in New York in which he currently holds a blue belt.