Enter the Dragon

On-Screen Heroines Inspire Women to the Martial Arts

Despite all the progress, the first women's world championship in Taekwondo didn't take place until the mid '80s. Men's championships had been going on for 15 years. Accordingly, the skill level among women has been raised significantly since the competitions started. And some female competitors have gone abroad in search of more vigorous instruction. Anngel Delaney, the New York State Taekwondo Heavyweight Sparring Champion, went to Korea to train for a short time, and found that men and women in the sport were treated equally. They trained together, ran together, and apparently, a male teacher would hit a man or a woman the same way to discipline them. That's equality.

"My coaches take me seriously," says Delaney. "But sometimes outside the sport, people don't understand. When I practice with guys, I don't notice them holding back in kicking. I spar with guys all the time. I don't think they hold back at all. If they do, it's disrespectful. If someone is beginning, that is one thing, but if you are at a black-belt level and trying to compete, you should be able to."

As for the recent wave of female martial artists in American cinema, Delaney wonders what took so long. "They were on-screen in China, where gender roles are considered more traditional. Why did it take until the year 2001 for these films to hit here?" Delaney asks. "Here, where women are supposed to be 'empowered.' "

Neither crouching nor hidden: state Taekwondo sparring champ Anngel Delaney
photo: Pete Kuhns
Neither crouching nor hidden: state Taekwondo sparring champ Anngel Delaney

Also, Delaney finds films like Charlie's Angels laughable. "They're so beautiful, they're so sexy, they're so strong. It's a ridiculous hyperbole. It's camp. But, at least they show women kicking and punching rather than . . . not."

The notion of women kicking and punching their way through a fight scene is, as Delaney notes, only new to the Western cinema. As Asian cinema enthusiast Alison Jobling points out, women have been fighting bravely among men in Hong Kong films for years. The films just haven't had the commercial success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. According to Jobling, "In general, women in HK films are accepted as equal participants in fights, should they choose to get involved. That is, if they can fight, they're fair game. Equally, someone who has no martial arts skills, male or female, is not considered hittable in a fight."

Thus, for some women—those exposed to Hong Kong cinema—the inspiration to take up the martial arts came earlier. But even for the initiated, the recent crossover success provided that last, necessary push. Barbara Fish, an ex-marathon runner from Manhattan, started watching vintage HK films featuring kick-ass ladies because she had a friend who reviewed them. She wound up becoming a huge fan. But Fish was especially impressed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Enough for her to decide to take up martial arts.

"I play tennis eight hours a week, I go to school and work full-time, so I haven't done it yet," says Fish. "But I walked out of there thinking, 'I'm definitely going to do it.' "

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