Ever since the first “Aiiyeeeeeeeee-hah” echoed through a darkened theater in the 1970s, martial arts films have been wildly popular, especially with adolescent and college-aged males. But what about the way they portray women?
Wendy Arons, assistant professor of communications and theater, surveyed a sampling of kung fu films with an eye toward issues of femininity, violence and power. Her findings, published last year as a chapter of the book Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in Movies, suggest the films represent both a step forward and a step back for the feminist cause.
Arons, who has practiced the Japanese martial art aikido for 12 years and is the chief instructor of the Notre Dame Aikido Club, says kung fu films generally cast women as either the powerful and competent warrior or the beautiful but helpless love object of the film’s male hero. The message: A woman can’t be both strong and a sweetheart.
“[T]he films seem to reinforce the idea that helplessness and dependence are attractive qualities in a woman,”Aron says.
Another unfortunate aspect of the films, she says, is that the warrior woman is usually “hypersexualized,” a sex object “fetishized” in a tight body suit.
. On a positive note, she says, violent women in kung fu films usually aren’t overly aggressive, sadistic villains but skillful fighters with the will to defend life or honor. And they usually brawl only when provoked. Male characters often are surprised by the female character’s fighting ability, but when she demonstrates her prowess, they “treat her like one of the guys.”
“Whenever I’ve given a talk and shown film clips, women in the audience are always jazzed by what they see,” the professor says. “There’s an impulse among feminists to want to embrace the image of a powerful woman and say ‘this is great that women can fight back and not be victimized.’ At the same time, it’s not wholly positive when that woman is wearing a teeny-tiny skirt and a bikini top.”
One film that breaks many of the kung fu conventions, Arons says, is the Academy Award-winning martial arts fantasy epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The central female character, played by Michelle Yeoh, is the film’s love object and a powerful fighter as well. The renowned Hong Kong actress is scheduled to participate in a campus conference February 28 through March 2, 2002, on Globalization and the Media in Asia.