The Karate Kid and the emasculation of martial arts in the US
(I tried to post this as an article, but got a database error, so I'm just putting it here instead.)
No doubt the Gentle Reader is already familiar with the 1984 hit film "The Karate Kid". This essay will focus, therefore, not on reviewing or summarizing "The Karate Kid" for its own sake, but rather upon explaining the impact of "The Karate Kid" upon the public perception of the martial arts in the United States.
In order to address the issue of public perception vis a vis the martial arts, it is important to consider the history of this public perception. In the United States prior to the 70s martial arts were not nearly as mainstream as they are today. It was Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" that catapaulted awareness of oriental martial arts in 1973. The dynamism of the fight scenes and Bruce Lee's personality impacted the popular mind in a way that would be difficult to overstate.
How did Bruce Lee portray the martial arts in "Enter the Dragon"? Primarily, Lee uses them to fight. He displays anger and vigorous physicality as he howls like a banshee and throws staggeringly fast kicks and punches which decimate his opponents. Lee has gained his ability to fight in this manner by full contact practice against a fully resisting opponent; the film opens with a freestyle match between Lee and Sammo Hung in which Lee pummels Hung and then forces him to tap with an arm bar. Violent application of the martial arts is portrayed in a gritty manner; Betty Chung, playing the role of Lee's sister, uses groin kicks, eye gouges, and spinning kicks to fend off a mob of thugs, but finally disembowels herself with a broken shard of glass when she realizes that she is going to be overwhelmed. Finally, physical strength and endurance are portrayed as a valuable asset for the martial artist. Bolo Yeung brutally kills his opponents using spinal destruction techniques, bristling with muscular size and aggression the whole time. When John Saxon fights Bolo, Bolo's strength and aggression is once again spotlighted as the characteristics of a formidable opponent. Saxon's character escapes an arm bar not with an elegant technique or philosophical truism, but by biting Bolo's leg until he screams, legs go, and clutches at his leg. In the final scene, Lee looks fatigued, suggesting that his ability to keep fighting over the whole course of the film was a feat of determination and conditioning.
There is also a philosophical thread running through "Enter The Dragon". In a scene that was cut from the '73 theatrical release, Lee talks to a shaolin abbot about the role of meditative spontaniety in allowing a fighter to choose the right technique or strategy in the middle of a fight. This emphasis is done once more when Lee's character teaches a young student to execute techniques quickly and forcefully without letting rational thought confuse him or slow him down; this is where Lee speaks the famous line about a finger pointing away to the moon. However, this philosophy is not central to the storyline, getting only a few minutes of screen time, and fundamentally it is still a very practical philosophy with hands-on application to fighting.
The theatrical trailers of the early 70s for "Enter The Dragon" often had a voice-over which said, "Roper, Williams, and Lee....the deadly three!" This line is the perfect lead in for discussing The Karate Kid, because deadliness or lack thereof is very much the difference between how martial arts are portrayed in the two films.
In the Karate Kid aggression or physicality of any kind are portrayed as not only irrelevant to martial arts but also as the character traits of a bad person or evil martial artist who misuses his skills. The villians of the film, a gang of karate youth and their ex-military karate instructor, are shown as being physically strong, have a creedo of aggression ("Strike first, strike hard, no mercy SIR!"), and practice fully-resistant contact sparring in their dojo. In a highly visible contrast to this, the main character is skinny and lacks self-confidence, and Mr. Miyagi is an old man who judging by how he moves in fight scenes is no longer capable of kicking above waist height. However, the villians are always shown in a uniform bad light, and Daniel and Mr. Miyagi are always uniformly portrayed as being right. It is as if the only way to be the "good guy" is to lack physical strength, not practice resistive sparring, not train to actually fight ("I train karate so I don't have to fight!"), and to eschew aggressive mental attitudes while simultaneously nursing a victimization complex.
This rejection of physicality and aggression by Daniel while he simultaneously wants to learn enough karate to be able to defeat the bullies in a highly public yet physically safe venue (the big tournament) is nothing more than a sublimated passive aggressiveness. That is to say, he is obviously still angry at the bullies and wants to humiliate them all in a public venue where they can't gang up on him, but at the same time he dosen't want to have to openly go about any kind of grueling physical fighting practice in order to gain this ability. Mr. Miyagi's training regimen which is seemingly unrelated to fighting represents the passive manner in which Daniel acts out the aggressive desires which he feels are unacceptable; after all, as Daniel says, he's not training so that he can humiliate his enemies at the tournament; clearly, the real goal of martial arts training to publically humiliate the Kobra Kai by *not* fighting.
After all, it's not as if Daniel was only trying to defend himself from repeated unprovoked assaults. Certainly, the first time Daniel and his friends are bullied on the beach they are innocent victims. However, Daniel subsequently chooses to keep fighting with Johnny because Daniel can't deal with losing a fight in front of his friends. One would think that there's no shame in losing to a skillful karateka, but Daniel can only think in terms of his personal humiliation. Why else would Daniel lie sobbing in the sand after his beating and whine at everyone who tries to talk to him to go away?
And while bullying is undoubtably a bad thing for people to engage in, Daniel isn't entirely free of responsibility for continuing to bring it upon himself. If Daniel really wanted no trouble with the Kobra Kai he would have left well enough alone and just avoided them. Instead, though, Daniel seeks out petty revenge against Johnny by spraying him down with a hose at the school dance, even though common sense would dicate that this would accomplish nothing useful. Daniel causes a multi-car accident and endagers other peoples' lives when fleeing across the street after this prank but this dangerous act of irresponsibility never seems to weigh on him. Indeed, when he is subsequently rescued by Mr. Miyagi, his only thought is how to protect himself from the Cobra Kai in response to his own completely unnecessary escalation of the conflict. Daniel's only concerns pertain to his being able to get away with his prank and not be humilated in turn.
So, even though "The Karate Kid" spends a lot more screen time talking about philosophy behind martial arts, and de-emphasizes the role of physical skill and physical strength in a fight, this philosophical element manages to only be a cover for Daniel's passive-aggressive relationship with the Cobra Kai. The entire film is really about Daniel's desire to be able to defeat his enemies without having to get hit in training or struggle to apply his techniques in a realistic practice situation. By doing strange tangential exercises, he somehow magically gains the power to defeat the Kobra Kai without ever having to physically express his aggressive desire to do so. In effect, The Karate Kid is about Daniel's going about learning how to fight in an extremely sanitized and sanctimonious manner. To top it all off, Daniel is able to defeat people who actually train realistically at the tournament apparently entirely by virtue of his passive aggressive nonviolent inner philosophy. This is very different from Bruce Lee's character in "Enter The Dragon", who dosen't need external validation in order to practice martial arts and who isn't afraid to simply talk about how to fight.
However, when it came out in 1984, "The Karate Kid" was very popular. Like "Enter The Dragon" before it, "The Karate Kid" was able to influence the popular mind in the US about what martial arts are. Being a family movie, "The Karate Kid" had greater influence upon mothers and children who would not normally be the audience for an "action" movie such as "Enter The Dragon".
Now that one of the biggest markets for martial arts schools is children who are enrolled by their parents, it seems as if "The Karate Kid" has actually managed to put its mark on martial arts schools in the US, moulding these schools into its own image. Most martial arts schools today do not have full contact fully resisting training similar to what is portrayed in the opening scene of "Enter The Dragon". Many schools either have no sparring, or have light contact point sparring, while still claiming to teach students how to fight. In many cases, the students at these martial arts schools have no idea what it feels like to be hit and often lack the physical conditioning needed to grapple or strike a fully resisting opponent for three minutes or more. Much like Mr. Miyagi told Daniel that painting a fence all day would teach him how to defend himself, these schools insist by some strange logic that point fighting or situational drills are somehow comparable to a continuous violent assault.
Often times, as an excuse for not having any sort of full contact continuous sparring, a martial arts school will say on its web page or mission statement that it is about "spirit" or "being the best that you can be", or something like that, and not about something so base as competition or fighting. This kind of mentality in which is almost impossible for the student to perform unsatisfactorily in any way is exactly the difference between Lee and Mr. Miyagi. In "Enter the Dragon", when Lee's character is teaching a young student, he immediately talks about how to best throw an attack, and he smacks his student on the head whenever the student does something incorrectly. In powerful contrast, Mr. Miyagi spends a great deal of time validating Daniel. For example, Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi about the correct way to cut a bonsai tree. Mr. Miyagi responds that as long as the inspiration comes from the heart, any cut will be correct. While an all-accepting approach is fine for pizza topping preferences, it dosen't make very much sense if your school claims to be teaching self-defense. In a self defense situation, a student would either succeed or fail. No amount of idle self-validation would change failure to defend oneself into success, and so in the context of martial arts this attitude amounts to a disservice. In this way, The Karate Kid has managed to emasculate the martial arts in many cases.
Alternately, some schools that have no sparring claim that the techniques which they teach are so deadly that they render the exponent incapable of friendly sparring without producing numerous fatalities. The implication is that any kind of full contact simulated fighting is below what is being taught at these schools on a practical or philosophical level, very much like how Daniel and Mr. Miyagi eschew rigorous physical training in favor of painting a fence all day. This kind of technique-based hubris is perfecly represented by The Karate Kid, especially when Mr. Miyagi says of the Crane Kick (which Daniel is able to do under pressure without any previous practice), "if do right, no can defend." But of course, it's absolutely ridiculous to assume that any physical skill will be infallibly applicable in the chaotic circumstances of a self-defense situation. Police officers sometimes miss with their handguns or fail to "drop" the person whom they are shooting at when they are attacked on the street. If someone who spends time actually training with handguns can fail to stop an attacker in a violent situation, it makes no sense to assume that any kind of unarmed technique would be executed flawlessly in a similar situation, especially by someone who has not even practiced on fully resisting opponents before. After all, no matter what your unarmed technique is, it is not going to be more radically destructive to a human body than a magazine full of handgun rounds. But as ridiculous as these assertions about the deadly infallibility of these unarmed techniques are, some people believe in them enough to train at these schools. While I wouldn't go so far as to put the entire blame of this on "The Karate Kid", I would argue that "The Karate Kid" helped to establish the idea in the general public that infallible unarmed techniques exist and can be executed under pressure without a problem even with a very light amount of training.
Anyone whose only impression of martial arts was "Enter the Dragon" would have the impression that physical fighting is brutal, aggressive, and requires hard-trained physical skills that have been developed through a combination of conditioning and experience. On the other hand, someone whose biggest impression of martial arts was "The Karate Kid" would walk away with the strange impression that they are all about self-validation, self-confidence, and learning how to fight in a passive-aggressive socially acceptable nonviolent manner. Unfortunately, therefore, the popularity of "The Karate Kid" in 1984 created this impression among much of the general public in the US, which in turn created a large child/youth market for martial arts schools. As schools began to cater to "The Karate Kid" myth, the overall quality of martial arts instruction in the US declined, until we have the collection of mediocre and noncombative schools that we see today.