Enter the Dragon

On-Screen Heroines Inspire Women to the Martial Arts

Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi became role models for women in 2001. And on the heels of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's four Academy Awards—including the statue for Best Foreign Film—Yeoh and Zhang's status as heroines has only been further entrenched. They made Kung Fu look beautiful, athletic, and sexy—much as Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu did in Charlie's Angels and Sandra Bullock did in Miss Congeniality. These are qualities that are held high and yearned for in our culture. So it should be no surprise that there's been a recent surge in women taking up the martial arts.

Granted, in Charlie's Angels, the women do all this in high heels and skin-tight clothing while on cell phones with their boyfriends, but nevertheless, Hollywood is showing us that "save me, save me!" characters aren't as appealing to today's women. And, per usual, pop culture dictates change—as much as it reflects it. In the last year, female enrollment in martial arts schools has jumped. Beyond that, in the last five years, it's become increasingly desirable for women to know how to defend themselves and not just be a tied-up Jane waiting for Tarzan to come along and rescue them.

Master Kwang Sup Kim, who runs the Professional Taekwondo School on East 23rd Street, says he has seen a great increase in female enrollment in recent years—with a particular boost this year. "I think they start because they want to be in shape," says Kim. "Also, because of the movies they see coming out. Then, they start to understand the philosophy, and many of them stay."

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

There also seems to be a different kind of woman taking these classes. It used to be that the women who practiced martial arts often participated in other sports as well and were very athletic. Now, according to Kim, 70 to 80 percent of the women who begin taking classes have no previous athletic experience.

Says one white belt at Kim's school, "I never really did sports before. I just thought this would be a better way to stay in shape than joining a gym and doing the StairMaster. Besides, it helps with mental focus and getting out aggression!"

But it took some time for Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwondo, and other martial arts to catch on with women. Back in the day . . . well, three thousand years ago, men learned martial arts in order to go to war. In fact, says one instructor at the Professional Taekwondo School, "the word martial means 'fighting to the death.' " That wasn't exactly a chick thing to do.

As time went on, women started participating in sports like ice skating, tennis, and swimming. These were considered socially acceptable sports for the female gender. In the '60s and '70s, while women fought for equal rights, they were burning their bras—but apparently not their sports bras.

In 1972, Title IX was passed, requiring equal funding for men's and women's sports in secondary and post-secondary educational institutions. Before Title IX, only one in 27 female students participated in sports; today, that figure is one in three. Title IX also eliminated quotas on the admission of women students to law, medical, and business schools. The tearing down of these occupational boundaries encouraged more women to think of sports as a career possibility.

Bodybuilding, baseball, fencing, soccer, and even boxing and martial arts became more socially acceptable for women throughout the '80s and '90s. Still, the entry of women into these more physical and combative sports has been a slow process. For the martial arts, it required a change in the way they were taught.

Sensei John McGettigan of the World Seido Karate Organization on West 23rd Street, says that 20 years ago classes were a lot tougher and focused on physical strength. They were more intimidating to a prospective student. Gender and age may have played a part in whether or not people wanted to attempt a class. "I'm sure if you were a tough woman, you could get through it," McGettigan says. "But now, we hold your hand more. The classes are a lot more nurturing. Forty percent of our students are female."

When asked if he thought the current films affected enrollment, he said, "I don't see why they wouldn't. That's why I got started—Bruce Lee films!"

"Any kind of awareness will always bring in new people," says Priscilla Chen, of the William Chen Tai Chi Chuan School, also on West 23rd. She said that doctors are even prescribing Tai Chi as a form of alternative healing. This makes it more appealing for everyone. "Now, our older members are bringing their children in. It's a gentle introduction to the martial arts."

Lubo Penev, an instructor at the Professional Taekwondo School, agrees that featuring women as strong, smart fighters is inspiring, though he doesn't find the quality of martial arts in the films to be particularly good or accurate. Still, the cultural changes have had their effect; Penev says that he has taught more women than men since the school opened five years ago. Three became black belts this year.

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.' "

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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