Fitness and Agency
Rose clippers are a key symbol within Judkins family folklore. When I was about ten my mother bought my father, who does not garden, a set of rose clippers. These have lived, unused, in a cup of pens kept in their kitchen for over three decades. A “rose-clipper gift” quickly became family shorthand for the sort of present that no one wants, and which makes a not so subtle hint that some type of “self-improvement” (as in, “I think you need to help out in the garden”) may be in order.
I mention that as my wife invoked this image while we were watching TV a month ago. Peloton’s latest holiday advertising campaign featured an obscenely expensive stationary bike being gifted to an already fit and attractive mother by her equally fit and attractive husband. All of this was happening in the sort of “average American” home which exists only in television commercials. In real life such houses cost so much that dropping a few thousand dollars on an exercise bike would seem like an afterthought. Frowning at the television Tara proclaimed the bike to be a “rose clipper gift.”
Being a male who spends an ungodly amount of time at the gym, or jogging around Ithaca’s snowy hills, this comment took me a bit by surprise. If anyone wanted to give me a few thousand dollars’ worth of cardio equipment so that I could set up a home gym I would would be ecstatic. Daily road work is just part of training and it’s really unpleasant during the winter. But Tara reminded me that martial artists are weird and therefore my opinions on such matters were suspect. She found the ad to be disconcerting.
Nor was she alone. The release of this ad set off a wave of controversy on social media. Almost all of this focused on the fact that the husband was giving his already svelte wife a piece of cardio equipment, apparently with the expectation that she lose even more weight. Interpreting the advertisement through a weight loss lens suggested that the wife was in an abusive and controlling marriage. Both actors featured in the piece, as well as Peloton, were excoriated in the ensuing debate. And while Ryan Reynolds later hired the actress to promote his Aviation Gin label, Peloton’s stock price dove 10%. I am guessing that there are going to be many fewer exercise bikes beside the Christmas tree this year, regardless of the brand.
How offensive this advertisement is depends in large part on the subconscious assumptions that a viewer brings to it. It is framed as a montage of clips from the wife’s video diary compiled over her first year as a Peloton person. Set to “She’s so High” by Tal Bachman, the overall theme of the diary (and the advertisement itself) is one of personal transformation. It is interesting to note that weight loss is never mentioned anywhere in the spot. The actress looks practically identical at the start and the end of the advertisement, though she does wear slightly more fashionable work-out clothing towards the end of her “fitness journey,” suggesting a boost in self-confidence.
It seems that this advertising campaign was designed to sell a sense of belonging within the Peloton community (working out on your own, day after day, can get lonely), and the promise of personal transformation. The exact nature of the transformation being offered was left to the viewer to decide. In retrospect that was a bad idea as I think that a lot of people simply assumed that the only valid fitness journey for any woman to undertake is weight loss. And it is easy to understand why. Our culture is packed with messages telling people that fitness, health and weight loss are all one and the same thing. Women are targeted with these messages to such a high degree that it is easy to lose sight of the fact actual athletes and martial artists pursue a wide range of much more specific fitness goals.
It is certainly true that many people have come to the traditional martial arts looking for weight loss. But it is also true that if I were to interview the members of a local martial arts school where I do ethnography as to their exercise habits, most of them would say that they do tons of cardio so that they will have greater stamina and endurance in sparring and competition. Any boxing trainer will tell you that you have to put in the “road work,” and it doesn’t really matter whether your preferred flavor of pugilism originated in the UK, Thailand or China.
Not all of the students at this school see themselves primarily as fighters. A range of more fitness oriented kickboxing classes are also offered which attract a clientele made up primarily (but not exclusively) of upper middle-class women in their 20s and 30s who are already at a fairly healthy weight when they enroll. In short, these classes appeal to much the same demographic that Peloton is attempting to sell exercise bikes to. When interviewed many of these women refuse to identify themselves as martial artists despite the high levels of technical skill and fitness they develop after years of practice. But they all speak in glowing terms of the personal transformation that they have experienced.
Typically, this transformation is verbalized as a movement from weakness to strength. There is an obvious physical component to this (“when I started, I couldn’t do a single push-up!”), but this is typically tied to a larger discussion of mental and emotional resilience. Once the conversation goes a little longer the second transformation that often comes up is the transition from “outsider” to someone who is now a “member of the family.” In a time when people are starved for community and physical activity, martial arts have much to offer.
While it might be easy to note the differences between the women who want to spar and those who are just interested in the workout and technical aspects of a class, in a social sense they have something in common. Both have embarked on a quest for personal fulfillment and self-transformation that doesn’t entirely match dominant social norms.
As so many theorists have already noted (Bowman, O’Shea, etc.), there is an undeniable somatic joy that comes from kicking or punching something. It might come in the form of an audible thwack when a roundhouse kick lands on the bag just right, or it may be the sense of effortless flow when sparring is going well. Despite the many challenges, there is a sense of joy and personal achievement in martial arts training. Yet most TV advertisements seem to be telling women that they should be getting skinnier rather than stronger, and that they should be very concerned with society’s goals for their bodies rather than their own.
In contrast Peloton spots which focus on male riders have not raised the same objections. Afterall, men are allowed to engage in such activities because they simply enjoy cardio, or they want to keep in shape for the summer cycling season. When a fit male model gets on a Peloton bike no one questions his imaginary motives. But when a skinny woman is given one by her equally fictitious husband, it is all too easy to spin out a fantasy that denies her the same sense of agency that the women who make up the local kickboxing classes express every day. Even skinny people can have fitness goals or enjoy a certain type of exercise. Whether anyone should have to pay two-grand for an exercise bike is another matter entirely.
Enter Master Ken
All of this brings me to Master Ken. By way of preface I should say that I really enjoy these skits (written and acted by Matt Page) and I appreciate the amount of work that goes into producing material like this, year after year. I am a huge Master Ken fan. That said, in some ways his skits strike me as being similar to the Peloton ad we were just discussing. Like all texts, they are open to an infinite range of interpretation. Yet in actual practice, the way that someone appreciates them often reflects their prior experience with the martial arts. The more deeply versed one is in the natural history and ecology of the “strip-mall dojo,” the funnier Master Ken becomes.
Being a martial artist is hard work. It’s not just the physical challenge of dealing with sore muscles and the occasional injury. There is also a lot of emotional struggle that goes into practicing these arts and maintaining our communities. One simply cannot learn a new taolu or kata without the thought “I look ridiculous, why can’t I hit this stance” going through your head for months. Who among us has not at some point turned in a sparring performance that was so bad that we wondered whether it was even worth coming out for another round? What of the cognitive dissonance that happens when you pick a martial arts magazine from the 1970s (or 1980s, or 1990s) and realize exactly how little we used to know about these systems. In my darker moments I sometimes think that the entire globalization of the Asian martial arts in the post-WWII period was a decades long exercise in “fake it till you make it.” Of course our current media eco-system in which anyone with a YouTube channel can start putting out training material is sometimes enough to make you yearn for the good old days of Black Belt magazine acting as the arbiter of martial knowledge.
The stunning thing about the character Master Ken is how much of the stress and weirdness of martial arts training his skits speak to. It’s all there, from the dated models of masculinity we all trained under to the DIY ethos that characterizes the dual roles of martial arts instructor/small business owner. Master Ken provides us with the pathos we need as we laugh along with him.
But not everyone is laughing with him. I suspect that the character reads differently if you are less familiar with the traditional martial arts and their struggles in North America. Inside jokes always look different from the outside. Rather than being a type of self-critique, Master Ken now appears funny precisely because he has set himself on the wrong paths of self-transformation. Even more damming, his slap-stick routines and incompetent demeanor suggests that he has failed to achieve the degree of self-actualization that the martial arts appear to promise.
Perhaps that is inevitable as the martial arts have promised the public so much. Bruce Lee films promised fans that martial excellence was a pathway to both personal transformation, and through that, a type of social and political emancipation. Star Wars and the Karate Kid expanded the appeals of these narratives, making them safe and accessible to the children of America’s growing suburbs.
With the help of cinema and a handful of magazines, the transformative promise of the martial arts was quickly recast as a type of hero’s journey for the masses. Historically speaking, this promise contained both continuities and differences with the nationalist (Budo, Guoshu) and “muscular Christian” (YMCA, Jingwu) discourses that had boosted the martial arts during the pre-war period. The turn to a Joseph Campbell type monomyth seemed to hit all of the right notes during the 1970s-1990s.
Still, Peloton’s disastrous holiday advertising campaign illustrates the danger of promoting a mythic vision of personal transformation that the public at large cannot recognize or does not identify with. One is forced to wonder how relevant the thematic message of the Karate Kid is to audiences today. The characters are still interesting, but Netflix now seems intent on using them to tell a structurally different sort of story. Likewise, Master Ken is funny to most people because he reads as an example of failed transformation. We put our children in Taekwondo classes because that is supposed to teach them how to become responsible adults who will outgrow shallow fantasies, like the martial arts. Audiences subconsciously assume that it was the failure of the transformative power of traditional martial arts that left Master Ken a stunted man-child stuck in a subculture of equally deluded practitioners.
Making Transformation Personal
All of which is to say, the traditional martial arts have a marketing problem. That is no revelation. We have all been talking about this for a decade. Still, the backlash to the Peloton ad helped me to see this in a new light by illustrating just how serious the consequences can be when an internal narrative of transformation fails to match up with the expectations of popular culture.
This also suggests something important about what the traditional martial arts might do moving forward. The videos we see on YouTube of traditional (poorly trained, delusional) fighters being demolished by a MMA/Boxing/Muay Thai guys aren’t really the cause of our current troubles. Such fights have existed since the late 19th century. Rather, they are going viral now because society at large has lost faith in the transformative power of traditional martial arts training. And everyone enjoys watching evidence that confirms their preexisting beliefs.
Still, it is incorrect to proclaim the imminent demise of these systems. Society seems to crave stories of personal transformation just as much as ever, even if we no longer agree on the details of what is needed. And regular readers will already know that the way in which these arts have attempted to situate themselves in relation to such social discourses has changed in the past. Selling old wine in new skins simply will not do. The schools and systems that succeed will be those that take a close look at what sorts of personal transformations students are seeking and find ways to help them achieve them. The kickboxing classes that I mentioned earlier would seem to suggest that this is certainly a possibility. But doing so may require that we ween ourselves from the notion that the social expediencies of the 1980s (or the 1920s, or the 1890s) are necessarily binding on our arts moving forward.
This is one area where Martial Arts Studies may actually be able to assist communities of practitioners. So much of what we do seems hopelessly detached from the training hall. Yet when training halls are struggling, it may help to remind them of how much their practices have transformed in the past. Likewise, the work of Cultural Theorists, Sociologists or Anthropologists can illuminate the ways in which social expectation and desires are evolving in the current era.
Most of all, we can help to remind the public of the many ways in which the martial arts have brought about profound changes at both the individual and the aggregate level. It is critical that we not ignore the instances in which these transformative impulses have had negative consequences. In a perverse way their very existence actually underlines the reality of what the martial arts offer. And in an era when everyone is talking about Kobra Kai, they might help to counter some of the misperceptions that drive a certain (mis)reading of Master Ken.
Students of Martial Arts Studies are well situated to understand the trends that are challenging the traditional martial arts today, and to tell the story of how these systems are dealing with them. To ignore the growing miss-match between the myths of empowerment that have driven our systems in the past, and the visions of personal transformation that the public desires today, risks putting us in the same position as Peloton. Afterall, everyone knows a “rose clipper gift” when they see one.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Ip Man and the Roots of Wing Chun’s “Multiple Attacker” Principle, Part 1.