Watching Kung Fu Like a Girl!: Gender, Audience and Martial Arts Films

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I’m not the person most people would think of as the author of Beyond the Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production, a scholarly book that uses the films of Bruce Lee to interpret novels, films and anime that incorporate African American and Asian and Asian American cultures.  And yet, that’s just what I, an African American woman, am.  It’s unusual because even though we have lots of scholarship and commentary on martial arts films, we still think all fans of martial arts are men.

In those few instances we recognize female fans, we think they are not interested in the same things as male fans.  Many people might think that a woman looking at Bruce Lee films would focus on the women, but I don’t.  It’s not because they are not there.  All of Lee’s completed films feature female characters. They often pale in comparison to Bruce Lee as the protagonist (but let’s be real, EVERYONE pales in comparison to Bruce Lee in a Bruce Lee film). Sometimes they are the romantic interest, as in Fist of Fury, or the damsel in distress, as in Way of the Dragon. Someone should do some work on that, someone other than me.

That’s not what I’m looking at. I’m looking at what everyone else is looking at: Bruce Lee! For example, if you’ve seen Way of the Dragon, you know that the climax of the film is the fight between Lee and Chuck Norris at the Roman Colosseum.  In my book, I discuss how the martial arts choreography establishes Lee as the superior fighter.  This meant that I had to watch that fight over and over and over and over. Slow-motion. Regular speed. What I discovered is that “the audience is constantly reminded that this battle is part of Tang Lung’s (Lee’s character) encounter with a hostile urban environment. So, when he wins the fight against Colt, he also implicitly triumphs in his encounter with a dangerous urban zone” (Beyond the Chinese Connection, 19).    Lee wins not only because his kung fu is better, but also because he fights for a righteous cause.   And I’m down for that.

I watch martial arts for the same reasons men do.  I’m interested in Lee’s masculinity in the films, his challenge to those with more power, his beatdown of the villains.  When the Japanese come to diss Lee’s martial arts school in Fist of Fury, I’m feeling disrespected too. And when Lee’s character breaks that sign in the fight at the Japanese judo school, I’m feeling vindicated.

As a female audience member, I’m also aware of the legacy of Bruce Lee represented by two of the most well-known actors in martial arts films.  On one hand, Jackie Chan took the comedic route Lee introduced in Way of the Dragon:

Chan’s choice to develop a predominantly comic career was related in part to his desire to step out of Bruce Lee’s shadow. Chan sought to carve out a new niche for himself, one that Lisa Stokes and Michael Hoover describe as the “anti-Bruce Lee”: “Whereas Bruce Lee kicked high, Jackie Chan kicks low. Lee broke through walls with a single punch; Chan hurts his hand when he strikes a wall. The former was serious; the latter is a comic. . . . By pursuing the comic route, Chan diverged from the recurrent themes of cross-cultural engagement and power struggles found in Bruce Lee’s films. As one of several Chinese actors used by Hong Kong film producers to fill the vacuum left by Lee’s untimely death, Chan quickly came to the conclusion that carrying on Lee’s legacy would not assure him the international stardom he sought. He aspired to fame in the Hollywood of his youthful imagination. (72-3)

On the other hand, Jet Li carried on Lee’s fight against the powers-that-be that we see in Fist of Fury:

While Chan’s films are often governed by comedy, Jet Li’s career echoed earlier Bruce Lee films that engaged national identity. Jet Li portrayed a more serious Wong Fei Hung in Once Upon a Time in China (1996), which emphasizes the figure’s resistance to British imperial forces and assimilation. . . . Recurring tensions between the Chinese and the various Western pow­ers that encroach upon them carries the plot of the film. Fei Hung reflects this in his suspicions regarding Western philosophy, protecting the Chi­nese peasants who have been captured as coolie labor by the British and openly criticizing imperialism. Li’s Fei Hung also protects Chinese culture. Corrupt Chinese officials, seeking to curry favor with the British and the Americans, encourage local groups to terrorize his Chinese martial arts school. They eventually force its closure. When Fei Hung battles the gang, he also fights to preserve his culture.  (81)

Female academics are almost always expected to talk about gender in terms of women. Fans of martial arts films are almost always configured as men.  But just because we watch kung fu like girls doesn’t mean we can’t talk about masculinity and action.



Crystal S. Anderson is an Associate Professor at Elon University in North Carolina.  In addition to doing research in comparative ethnic studies, she teaches courses on Asian literature, film and popular culture. She writes about Asian popular culture on her blog, High Yellow.



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