Prevalence of Martial Arts in Media

There are quite a number of things that we don’t quite notice in movies. I am not talking about easter eggs, I am talking about how Martial Arts are extremely prevalent throughout the media of Film. Movies like The Matrix, Kill Bill, Jackie Chan Movies, Mission Impossible, a lot of them include Martial Arts in some ways. Prior to Bruce Lee, I haven’t seen or heard of many movies that involve much martial arts, of if there is some sort of melee combat, it is typically European style sword fighting. I’d like to partially explore this unusual change in the media, starting with the initial perception of Asian Americans back in the 1900s.
Back in the 1900s, Yellow peril was active and many Asians in movie were typically just white actors dressed in YellowFace to act in the Asian roles. What little roles that Asians could get in acting was very small, it was either being the villain or being in a very weak position. Not only that, the Asian men were considered under sexualized and many jokes were frequently made fun of them. However, Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” changed much of that and changed the sexuality of Asian American Men in media from being undersexualized to still being undersexualized but it doesn’t matter to them because they believed honor (doing the right thing) is better than sleeping with many ladies at night. However, much of Bruce Lee’s appeal is his Martial Arts, and Cleine Parrenas Shimizu, author of “Straightjacket Sexualities”, stated that “he [Bruce Lee] has been accused of unconsciously sparking the stereotype of the asexual martial artist”(69). Shimizu was going onto another point, but she does acknowledge Bruce Lee’s influence on the stereotype that Asians know Martial arts. But the point is that Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” has been extremely popular earning 21 million dollars (quite a lot of money at the time) Due to the incredible popularity of Martial arts suddenly became, I believe that many studios capitalize on this and added martial Arts as a popular thing in films.
I’d like to start with The Matrix in regards to Martial Arts being used in film. Now, Neo needs to be taught Martial Arts in the film in order to fight against the protagonists. However, notice the background of the training program. Notice how distinctly “Asian”-esque it is. This means that the idea that Martial Arts is a distinctly Asian thing is common throughout American culture. The action scenes throughout the Matrix are distinctly hand to hand combat. While this can be justified with the difficult of carrying gun in and out of the matrix, I feel that this was intentionally designed. They even had to hire a Martial artist Choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping, to make the Martial Arts in the film feel as authentic as possible. In general, I believe that the director felt like adding Martial Arts to give more action to the movie itself.
Next I want to talk about Avatar the last airbender. This is a western created show created Nickelodeon Animation Studios. Even though this is just one show, I want to use it as an example of how Martial Arts is beginning to evolve the West. In Avatar, the Martial Arts are depicted in a highly fantastical manner, allowing their practitioners to manipulate material separate from their body. They even studied various styles of martial arts in order to create this. And considering the reception ( it has no doubt received a lot of recognition in the west. I believe this has to do with much influence of the Supernatural Martial Arts common in Hong Kong at the time. I cannot claim to know what was the first movie that had supernatural martial arts in it, but I do know that it is common these. Combined with the mystique and Exotic nature of Asian culture to the west, I believed this was one of the reasons why Avatar the last airbender was received so well in the West.
It seems like a stereotype that every Asian should know martial arts. However, with Bruce Lee’s movie introducing Asian Martial arts to the west, it would be understandable that western perception of Asians shifted from Yellow Peril to Curious interesting. After seeing something of Asians that was enjoyable, they wanted more and the media continued to slowly shift the interpretation of Asians being as the same interpretation as shown in Yellow Peril and depicted in an almost fantastical way. Still, very rarely depicted in a “normal everyday human” way though.


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