Are “kick-ass” martial arts movie heroines empowering – or not . . . ? (Guest post)

 

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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 . . .

Balmain Colette

Dr Colette Balmain

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.

ColettKungFuryBCUe 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/ 

Policing of Women’s Looks Is Alive and Well: Just Ask Renée Zellweger

renee-zellwegerThe celebrity newsreels were abuzz last week with the news that Renée Zellweger looks quite different from how she used to look.  People were shocked and demanded an explanation. Did she go under the knife? Why? And why won’t she fess up to it? The Telegraph asked it most bluntly:  Renée Zellweger: Why Does Her Face Look So Different? And of course, readers of People Magazine had strong reactions, ranging from “leave her alone” to “why doesn’t she just be honest about the work she’s had done?”

At least one article harkened back to what she’d said about cosmetic surgery in the past. Several retrospectives appeared (for example, this), as they so often did with Michael Jackson, tracing her transformation over the years as evidence of an evolving appearance that can only be attributed to surgery.

The whole thing spilled off of the celebrity pages and right into mainstream media. CBC Radio contacted me to ask if I would devote three hours on Thursday morning to make myself available to talk to eight different regional morning shows across Canada, each for 5-7 minutes. Topic: Renée Zellweger’s new look.

While I do have a few things to say about this, I reflected on my schedule.  It was packed that day from morning to night. Did I want to spend three hours, from 6-9 a.m., talking about Renée’s new look? Not really.  Pass.

What do I actually think about the whole thing? Mostly, the buzz she created by stepping out looking different than she used to is evidence of the prevalence of the policing of women’s appearance.

I agree with Leah MacLaren (who used to have Renée Zellweger as her celebrity lookalike until this week), who says:

Renée Zellweger’s face, just like her body, is entirely her own and what she does with it is none of our business. Given that she’s an actor, it should hardly be surprising (let alone galling) that she might wish to change her appearance to suit her craft. When she gained weight for the Bridget Jones series, after all, we collectively venerated her for it. So why the outcry over her face?

MacLaren thinks the real reason people are so upset is that we don’t recognize her anymore as the celebrity we have come to know. And that’s disturbing:

All the emotional baggage we projected onto her famous squinty-eyed smile is suddenly revealed for what it really is: A complete waste of time and energy. It’s our “Where’s my Renée? Give her back!” moment.

Rather than responding to the “did she or didn’t she?” question, Zellweger responded to the reaction to her appearance by saying:

“I’m glad folks think I look different!” she said.

“I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”

She says that any aesthetic changes reflect her newfound inner positivity and contentment, after having readjusted her work-life balance.

“My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy,” Zellweger told People.

“For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn’t allow for taking care of myself. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion.”

She eventually became aware of the “chaos” and “chose different things”, including a slower-paced, more fulfilling lifestyle.

“I did work that allows for being still, making a home, loving someone, learning new things, growing as a creative person and finally growing into myself,” she continued, noting that she chose to address the speculation because “it seems the folks who come digging around for some nefarious truth which doesn’t exist won’t get off my porch until I answer the door.”

Regardless of any judgemental criticism, Zellweger is more at peace with herself than ever.

“People don’t know me [as] healthy for a while,” says Zellweger. “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.”

It’s great that she can have such a light-hearted attitude about it all.  Because really, it’s no one’s business. I know there are those detractors who say that celebrities have chosen to live in the spotlight, that being subject to public scrutiny is the price of fame. But no one seems to realize that it’s that same public scrutiny that enforces a standard of ageless youth and perfect beauty.

I agree with Rebecca Shaw, who says that “The Renée Zellweger Pile-On Proves, Once again, That Women Can’t Win”:

The pressure to stay looking a certain way is damaging enough for women who are not in the entertainment industry. It is unimaginable within that sphere. All you need to do is take a quick look at how leading men like Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford are allowed to age with no repercussion, to see what is different for women. All you need to do is to see how those leading men age into their 50s and 60s are still playing sexy leading men, while their romantic on-screen partners stay 25 and 30 years old, to understand what is unfair here. Have a look to see how many great parts are written for older women. Have a look to see what age actresses are when they stop being cast as the love interest, and start being cast as the mother of actors similarly aged or younger than them in real life (in Riding in Cars with Boys Drew Barrymore played the mother of Adam Garcia, despite being two years younger than him in real life).

Think about the value we place on women, and how easily discarded and replaced they are once their skin starts to sag in a way we find unpalatable. Then think about all those reactions to Renee Zellweger’s face you saw.

We demand that women look a certain way, and we discard them like garbage when they stop. We demand they stay the same, and then we judge them for choosing to use plastic surgery. We comment if they look fat, if they look thin, if they look old, if they look like they’ve had work done. When women try everything in their power to hold onto those brief moments where society found them appealing enough to look at on a screen, when they try to stay looking the same because they know we will discard them as soon as they are out of date, we turn on them then, as well.

Women can’t fucking win, because we won’t let them.

Sadly, that’s not news.

 

Inspirational sports movies: Where are the women?

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Canada’s Globe and Mail just published a list of “Motivational masterpieces: 5 sports movies that’ll get you pumped.” Alex Hutchinson writes, “A good sports flick doesn’t just psych you up; it actually boosts your testosterone and makes you a better athlete. In order, a highly personal list of some all-time greats.”

Hutchinson’s list may be highly personal, fine, but it’s also a ‘veritable sausage fest’ (to borrow s friend’s phrasing that I now can’t resist using at every opportunity–thanks Shannon!) You can read it at the link above.

But I have a question: Where are the women?

Here are some of my favourite sports movies that would pass the Bechdel test:

1. Bend it Like Beckham

2. A League of Their Own

3. Million Dollar Baby

4. Whip It

5. Personal Best

Another fun list is here, at After Ellen: The 10 Hottest Women in Sports Movies.

What are your favourite sports movies about women athletes?