I’m having a blast playing Mortal Kombat 11. As I said in the podcast last week, I suspect that Mortal Kombat functions for me much the way pro wrestling does for other people: it’s a batshit costume drama with no pretenses in reality, featuring larger than life characters and violence/fighting that bears no resemblance to the real thing. It’s just wonderful, campy, colorful nonsense and a lot of fun to play with.
But two complicating factors are getting in the way of my wholehearted recommendation: the allegations of terrible work practices at the studio, and the casting of one Ronda Rousey as Sonya Blade.
Like so many women who train and compete in combat sports, I sure have had a journey with Rousey, and I’m not the first to espouse complicated opinions about her. She was a pioneer for women in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the first American olympic medalist in Judo, and the superstar that made competing in MMA at the highest levels not only viable, but possible and attractive for women. Back when I was boxing and only just becoming interested in grappling, I used to watch her takedown game with awe. Years later, grappling is the side of the sport that I have embraced fully, and it’s now my complete focus in training and competition.
I came to grappling and MMA much later than I would’ve liked, but it’s been an absolute godsend for me during some of the most challenging times of my life. You likely know what MMA is: two people, matched by weight class, get into an octagon and fight one another. Grappling is the side of the sport (and a sport onto itself) that’s all the fun stuff of MMA minus punching and kicking: so, wrestling, takedowns, ground fighting, submissions.
It’s intense, and personal, since you are with another person literally face to face, often with your body pretzeled around theirs, fighting with every muscle. You cannot half-ass it, it’s truly a whole-ass kind of sport. It keeps my mind focused, and provides a healthy, positive outlet for aggression and the sort of body positivity that comes, very literally, with facing scary situations and finding the skills to cope with them.
As a sport and a martial art, It’s strategic and difficult and has a learning curve that would make the “git-gud” part of the Dark Souls fandom weep. It’s also, famously, a system by which a smaller person can defeat a bigger, stronger opponent via technique. I’ve seen it in action on the mat and in real life (I’ve used it during tense moments in 911 calls and helping to break up a bar fight, as a bystander), and I adore that aspect as a pretty small person myself.
That I was awakened to this sport partially because of Rousey, her success, her stardom, and her skill… makes this as personal as a punch to the gut. Or, to be a little more accurate, a flying armbar.
Let’s examine some of Rousey’s worst sins. In a New York Post interview regarding Fallon Fox (a professional fighter who happens to be a trans woman), Rousey said some really awful transphobic bullshit. That’s not all—she definitely tweeted a piece of tasteless Sandy Hook Trutherism. She later apologized for that one, but the damage was done. Rousey has used her massive platform irresponsibly, and in the case of her comments on Fox, to accept and relay downright hate.
She also delivers a terrible performance in Mortal Kombat 11. In a world where the voice actors are given miles and miles of bananapants scenery-chewing lines to indulge in, she sounds as if she put about as much passion in as she does to brushing her teeth. It’s stunt-casting, but, importantly, bad stunt-casting, and it sticks out in cutscenes that are otherwise a lot of fun.
Worse yet, that she’s playing General Sonya Blade, a character that I—and I suspect many young girls in the early 90s—identified strongest with. Mortal Kombat has never had a serious tone, it’s always been an exercise in campy, ridiculous excess. But as a young girl, long before Rousey convinced me I could step into the ring or cage, Sonya Blade made me excited that I could play as a girl in a fighting game. And in her first incarnation, she wasn’t a wildly sexualized adolescent fantasy. She looked like a martial artist: a woman in a sports bra and workout pants (aka, an outfit you may actually train and fight in), and I obsessively learned all her moves, like any good 90s kid. The kiss of death was a little much, sure, but those scissor kicks? Hell yes.
And I sure loved Mortal Kombat 2 when it arrived for consoles in 1994 (so much so that I purchased an official players guide and devoured every word and screenshot, for lore as well as great babality and friendship codes), but… no Sonya. Mileena and Kitana were ok, I guessed, but I wasn’t as jazzed to play as them. Where was my 90s-fantastic yoga mom? My ass-kicking 90s-fantastic yoga mom, that is.
(She was is in the game… sort of. She’d been captured by the interdimensional warlord Shao Kahn, and was chained up n a background in the game’s final battle. But she wasn’t a playable character.).
It’s among all this stew of history and context and disappointment that I find myself in with MK 11, a game I am otherwise loving every batshit moment with. I don’t even care much about the fighting (it’s fine! I’m just shitty at fighting games), I’m completely in it for the experience of seeing where these wacky characters will go. I know something very dramatic happens to Sonya here (I won’t spoil it, but I’ve been spoiled on it), and it’s a massive shame that this ended up in Rousey’s not-so-capable hands.
Netherrealm Studios (or WB, I’m not privy to exactly who made this decision) certainly wanted to evoke something in the casting. Rousey is a draw, after all, and she’s a WWE superstar now, known and presumably loved by millions. She’s a woman known for her fighting prowess and, to some degree, stage presence. Star presence? She is, for better or worse, a celebrity.
But there are so many other women fighters they could’ve drawn on who aren’t terrible transphobes. How about Angela “Overkill” Hill, a UFC fighter who has taken her own love for games and fighting to a new level? Or hey, if you want a woman MMA pioneer there, Gina Carano has a budding career as an action star. I’m just saying, there’s no shortage of camera-ready women who kick real-life ass out there who haven’t resorted to throwing trans women athletes under the bus. And I daresay, they’d probably do a much better job than this delivery.