Training in the martial arts can be incredibly empowering for women, as Sam and Michelle have testified. So surely watching movies about female martial arts experts who kick ass must be a truly inspiring and liberating experience?
Well, not necessarily . . .
I was lucky enough to see Dr Colette Balmain from Kingston University speak on this topic recently. Her lecture was called:
Chick Kicks: Bad-ass heroines of Hong Kong Cinema
Colette’s presentation focused on the question:
Are the “kick-ass” women in martial arts movies liberational – or ultimately constrained by patriarchy?
Colette explained that although she was focusing on Hong Kong movies (to fit in with the theme of the conference this was part of), this is a wider question relevant to all martial arts movies.
Colette has analysed a huge number of female characters in martial arts movies. Her conclusion is that:
Female characters in martial arts movies can certainly be transgressive – but it’s always within limits.
Here are the limits she’s identified:
- The women in these films tend to be defined by their sexuality – which is typically either very over-stated, or very repressed – there’s rarely anything in-between. For example, in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh’s character (Yu Shu Lien) has been tragically denied her love. Colette argued also that when Jen leaps into the abyss in the final scene, this represents the fact that there is literally no space for her, or her desires.
- There are often undertones of male castration anxiety within scenes of women fighting men. This might sound extreme, but Colette played us a stunning movie clip from Kung Fu Girl (1973). And because she’d said that, I guess it had primed my mind, and it now seemed startlingly obvious (to me anyway!)
- Images of Asian women tend to fall into just two simplistic categories: the Lotus Blossom Baby or the Dragon Lady. Even many supposedly transgressive martial arts heroines ending up falling into one group or other. The typology comes from Renee E Tajima who explains that the Lotus Blossom Baby can also be presented as China Doll, Geisha Girl, or Shy Polynesian Beauty. The Dragon Lady can appear as Fu Manta’s various female relations, prostitutes, devious madams. But there is little in between.
- The female characters are often portrayed as being stymied by their out-of-control emotions. Either the woman’s crazy emotions prevent her from reaching Zen-like enlightenment; or the emotions fester inside her, and render her a “poison woman”. A typical example of a “poison woman” is Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Jade Fox is actually played by the same actress as in the clip above –Cheng Pei-pei)
- “Bad-ass” heroines are very often either “rehabilitated” by the end of the movie through marriage – or “punished” through exile or death.
- The movies often fetishise women’s bodies in a stylised way – Colette explained that The Lady Assassin is a typical example of this.
- Carol J Clover’s notion of the Final Girl in horror movies can also be useful for analysing some martial arts films: A common plot line in many horror films is one in which a series of victims is killed one-by-one by a killer amid increasing terror, culminating in a climax in which the last surviving member of the group, usually female, either vanquishes the killer or escapes.
Colette explained that the Final Girl figure has to be asexual and female. This allows the male viewer to vicariously enjoy the feelings of terror, without losing his own sense of masculinity. So the Last Girl is generally not an empowering figure – she is just a symbolic plot device, there for the male spectator. And in any case, she is often helped out at the end, and does not win the battle in her own right.
During the questions afterwards, one audience member asked Colette if it might be productive and healing to just stop talking in terms of gender, and think only in terms of human beings or martial artists, and their respective skills.
Colette and Dr susan pui san lok (another presenter at the conference) advised that this was indeed the ideal they’d like to reach ultimately. But that all the time unhealthy tropes keep repeatedly appearing in these movies, discussions on gender will need to remain out in the open.
Colette said that she has only just started to skim the surface of this fascinating topic, and intends to go into it more deeply for her next project. I for one will be looking forward to her conclusions very much . . . !
Colette was speaking at the conference: Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema organised by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.
You can read more about Colette’s work at: https://kingston.academia.edu/BalmainColette
Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can read her blog at www.budo-inochi.com. She also writes stories and other articles for the Good Men Project:http://goodmenproject.com/author/kai-morgan/