Cobra Kai: A Delightfully Subversive Pop Cultural Moment

by Miroslav Imbrišević

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Sometimes I get the feeling that I am sitting in a theatre, watching an absurdist play from the 1950’s. As I write this, a law student is being investigated by Abertay University (in Dundee, Scotland) for making “controversial” statements in class. Lisa Keogh, a (non-traditional) student and mother of two, had said in discussion that only women have vaginas and that men are on average stronger than women. Some of her fellow students reported her to the university for being “transphobic.” Rather than dismissing the complaints as silly, Abertay began an investigation and summoned Keogh to answer questions. The interviewer asked her if she had actually made these statements, implying that doing so is a serious matter requiring disciplinary action. We shall see how the case progresses and what it means for free and frank discussion in academia.

Widespread acceptance of these kinds of ridiculous judgments and disciplinary procedures – and the pressure to conform – means that people increasingly are self-censoring, and in doing so lose a good bit of their positive freedom (as Isaiah Berlin might have put it). [1]

This policing of right-speak and right-think is annoying because it suppresses other points of view, and this is one of several reasons I have been enjoying the TV series Cobra Kai. [2] Several characters, including one of two leads, refuse to self-censor, thereby representing a challenge to contemporary social and political orthodoxies, and there are subtle – and not so subtle – instances in which contemporary norms are subjected to harsh criticism. Cobra Kai is clever in the way in which it does this, so as not to trigger entertainment industry and activist scolds. There is an excuse for the show’s “miscreants” built into the show’s basic plot: They are consciously and explicitly living in the past.

Cobra Kai revives the central characters from the movie franchise Karate Kid (1984 and onwards) and shows us what happened to the first film’s protagonists, some 34 years later.

The show centers around the rivalry between old foes Daniel LaRusso (the original “Karate Kid”) and his nemesis, Johnny Lawrence. Johnny has resurrected the disgraced Cobra Kai dojo, which Daniel was instrumental in getting banned from formal competition, and Daniel, in turn, opens Miyagi Dojo, named after his deceased teacher, Mr. Miyagi, played by the late Pat Morita. Both characters have teenage children who also train in Karate, and this circle of characters and situations provides the main source of conflict for the series.

My favorite character (and one whom the show believably renders sympathetic) is Johnny, rather than the former films’ hero Daniel. Johnny is baffled by present-day living, a modern version of Rip Van Winkle. He is still living in the 1980’s, whether its listening to 80’s music or driving an 80’s sports car that has seen better days. He has never used a computer and doesn’t understand the internet or Facebook. These character and plot elements are what “license” him to say what in today’s world are considered outrageous things.

For one thing, Johnny is a sexist. He talks about “hot babes,” as if he were still a teenager. But his older version of masculinity is almost quaint in comparison with present-day sexual mores. When he discovers the internet, he searches for pictures of “wet t-shirt contests,” rather than the kind of hardcore pornography that is both ubiquitous and common and which his son’s delinquent friends consume. In both iterations, women are objectified, but today’s adult fare is far more extreme and pernicious, and its consumers are of  younger and younger ages. Once Johnny’s top student, Miguel, proves his skills in Karate, Johnny gives him hard liquor to drink: “This will make you grow hair on your chest!” Miguel is puzzled by this, asking “Is that a good thing?” illustrating that this generation has adopted the aesthetics of contemporary porn, in which both male and female bodies are rendered hairless.

After an advertising campaign to recruit more students, Johnny answers the phone: “Yes, we accept boys and girls. (…) Gender what? (…) Is this a prank call?” He still conceives of gender in terms of sex, and the contemporary conception of “gender identity” is incomprehensible to him.

Initially, Johnny is reluctant to admit a girl into the dojo: “There are no girls in Cobra Kai!” But his sexist attitudes give way when a new student, Aisha, proves to be a good fighter. She will not be the only one. Unlike so many of the followers of today’s identitarian politics, Johnny is open to having his mind changed.

Johnny is not the only “retro” character in the show, who is somewhat out of touch with the current zeitgeist. Daniel posts a promotional video for his Karate dojo on the internet, but people immediately complain about cultural appropriation, stereotypical music, Asian white-washing, and racism. Daniel is shocked by these accusations. He doesn’t profit from teaching Karate, as his lessons are free. In Daniel’s view, he is promoting Japanese culture in the US, which to him – and in keeping with earlier attitudes – is understood as being the opposite of racism and cultural appropriation.

I won’t say more about the characters, so as to not to spoil the fun for people who might be new to the series. Of course, Cobra Kai is not the only show with subversive streaks running through it, but here the writers have found a way to challenge contemporary orthodoxies and dogmas without having to sacrifice the character afterwards (by sending them into exile, or worse, by killing them off).

Like all good art, Cobra Kai works on several levels: there’s the fighting for martial arts fans; the teenage drama for younger audiences; the trials and tribulations of mums and dads; as well as the subversive messaging, which I am finding both satisfying and most amusing. I look forward to season 4.

Notes

[1] Here are some testimonies from academia: https://www.gcacademianetwork.org/#

[2] I wrote about Cobra Kai from the perspective of a martial arts teacher here: (https://idrottsforum.org/feature-imbrisevic201117/).

See also here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZODYFXJMYU&t=1s

6 comments

  1. Widespread acceptance of these kinds of ridiculous judgments and disciplinary procedures – and the pressure to conform …This policing of right-speak and right-think

    Manufactured outrage has become the new coin of the realm. It is the cheap, nasty and dishonest means the infantile use to claim power.

  2. I love Cobra Kai though I’m not at all interested in karate and I’m a 70 year old grandmother. Thank you so much for this most interesting review.

  3. I never thought I would read about Cobra Kai here 🙂
    For me, the first season is a meditation about masculinity. It’s also basically a love letter to the original Karate Kid.
    Starting from season two, while still good, I think it’s not that great anymore.

    1. Panrug, the EA is always good for surprises. I had the same thought about masculinity. It would be interesting to analyse how masculinity is portrayed in the series. My take on the seasons is different from yours: I think it got better and better from season to season – at least the martial arts choreography did.

  4. Miroslav,

    I’ve only watched about half an episode of Cobra Kai. That was about a year ago. When I get back on Netflix I’ll give it another try.

    On the Lisa Keogh and Abertay University controversy, I don’t think it’s about being “shut down” or a free speech issue, and according to Lisa she had no problems making her points and had extensive back and forth with other students even if at times voices were raised on either side.

    She’s seems primarily concerned here with the lack of engagement her arguments are getting: “In an online class, we were discussing trans issues, specifically the topic of men being genetically stronger than women. Nobody would listen to me so I posted an article about the transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox into the Microsoft Teams chat. And then, all of a sudden, the chat function was closed by the lecturer.”

    “I said to the interviewer, sarcastically, that I welcomed being punished for utilising my legal right to free speech”.

    As I understand it students don’t have an unfettered right to free speech in class, the right to have any or all of their arguments taken seriously, or the right as in her comment above to pursue a topic when a teacher, or lecturer, wants the class to move on, and personally, I find her definition of women as a person born with a vagina that has the ability to menstruate of little value, and her point about the average male being physically stronger than the average female, true, but uninteresting or in no way a decisive argument on its own.

    The University ended up dropping the charge of ‘disrupting a class’: “On reviewing the evidence available, including witness statements, class recordings and chat transcript, the board found no evidence that you had discriminated against another member of the university, the board found that you had not intentionally shouted in class”; and I’m inclined to believe their claim that the charge was never “centred around gender issues” or about Lisa’s right to express her opinions. At the same time I don’t doubt some students accused her without cause of discrimination, and of course it’s a shame that happened like it’s a shame some people felt they were justified when in supposed retaliation they subject some students and university staff to online abuse.

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