Fighting Talk: Martial Arts Discourse in Mainstream Films
Cardiff University, School of Journalism, Media and Culture, GB
Paul Bowman is professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He is author of numerous books on issues in film, media, cultural studies and martial arts studies, most recently Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (2015) and Mythologies of Martial Arts (2017). His next monograph is entitled Deconstructing Martial Arts and is forthcoming from Cardiff University Press in 2019.
This article examines conversations, dialogues and statements about martial arts in films that can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as martial arts films. It takes this unusual focus in order to glean unique insights into the status of martial arts in mainstream popular culture. The work is interested in the ways that martial arts are understood, positioned and given value within the wider flows, circuits, networks or discourses of culture. Films examined include Vision Quest/Crazy for You (1985), Lolita (1962), Roustabout (1964), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Rollerball (1975), Trading Places (1983), The Wanderers (1979), Once Were Warriors (1994) and Meet the Fockers (2004); and some discussion is given to ‘limit cases’ – action films such as The Matrix (1999) and Lethal Weapon (1987). The analysis suggests that martial arts tend to be represented in non-martial arts films audiovisually, and that on the rare occasions martial arts are discussed, they tend to emerge as improper or culturally unusual activities or practices. Because of their familiar, yet non-normal (unhomely/unheimlich, uncanny) status, along with their entwinement in senses of lack and related fantasies and desires, martial arts in these contexts are frequently related to matters of sexuality, insecurity and the desire for plenitude. Accordingly, although occasionally associated with higher cultural values such as dignity, martial arts are more often treated as comic, uncanny or perverse aberrations from the norm.