Masculinity on the Mat

From Ready Player One to Roseanne, popular culture in 2018 might be looked back on as “problematic,” to use a polite academic term, in its attempts to bottle and sell 1980s nostalgia. Conservative in both form and content ...

From Ready Player One to Roseanne, popular culture in 2018 might be looked back on as “problematic,” to use a polite academic term, in its attempts to bottle and sell 1980s nostalgia. Conservative in both form and content, such ventures have offered little more than elbow-nudging references to a bygone era to which younger generations are asked to genuflect. YouTube’s Karate Kid spin-off series, Cobra Kai (created by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg), should be remembered as the one reboot that was different. It’s novel, funny, and clearly aimed at smart, engaged young viewers on a platform they actually use in a world that tells them that culture is just their parents’ sandbox. But because YouTube is also responsible for the wide dissemination of fragile and toxic masculinities (see its role in the rise of Jordan Peterson), Cobra Kai is even more important for the way it lovingly resurrects one of pop culture’s classic bullies, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), to illustrate how potentially attractive toxic masculinity remains for younger generations—and how unambiguously wrong it is.

In The Karate Kid (1984), Johnny, buttressed by his fellow Cobra Kai acolytes, terrorizes new kid in town Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) after the two become mired in a love triangle. The movie’s David vs. Goliath narrative leans into flat types: Johnny is rich while Daniel is poor; Johnny is tall while Daniel is short; Johnny has an iconic shock of blond hair while Daniel sports a thick, brown tangle. Cobra Kai opens with The Karate Kid’s closing sequence: at the 1984 All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, Johnny follows the guidance of his unscrupulous sensei and sweeps Daniel’s previously injured leg as his absurd sidekick famously shouts, “Get him a body bag, yeah!” Daniel then heroically defeats his serial bully with Mr. Miyagi’s (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s) one-legged Crane Kick. From this memorable flashback, Cobra Kai makes a tidy and symbolic transition to the present day, cutting from Johnny writhing facedown on the tournament mat to Johnny, now middle-aged and hungover, lying facedown in his bed wearing loose boxers. Now, over 30 years later, we are finally going to see Johnny’s version of events.

Johnny, we soon learn, is a victim too. As episode 1 unfolds, the audience is quickly conditioned to link Johnny’s nostalgia for the past, as well as his dated cultural and social values, to his abandonment by the economy. He drives to work in his decrepit Pontiac Firebird while blasting Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” only to have the song score him pulling a rodent out of the rain gutters of an upscale suburban home. To top off this shame, Johnny cannot escape advertisements for Daniel’s successful car dealership, in which his old rival cheaply commodifies his karate legacy to sell cars (“We Kick the Competition!”). Desperate for money, Johnny begrudgingly reopens the Cobra Kai dojo. There, he attracts not only the attention of Daniel, renewing their rivalry, but also a clientele of the very “dorks” he once terrorized.

As a “minor-character elaboration” of the kind that has become popular since the 1960s (think Wicked or Ahab’s Wife), Cobra Kai is a standout success.1 By re-presenting spliced clips from the original film, the show primes its audience to develop a more complicated, even sympathetic relationship with Johnny’s previously flat character. Yet Cobra Kai uses this generic conceit to construct a compelling critique of generational politics and toxic masculinity. As Johnny sees it, he’s “going to give [his students’] pussy generation what it desperately needs.” However, unlike the original film, Cobra Kai doesn’t limit the viewer to the perspective of a solitary protagonist. After its first episode, the show’s camera roves, casting a sympathetic lens on a diverse cast of young characters whom Johnny and Daniel alike repeatedly frame as weak, entitled, and oversensitive.

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Leading this cast is Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), a socially awkward Ecuadoran American teenager who lives across the hall from Johnny in a run-down apartment complex in Reseda and seeks Johnny’s guidance to defeat a new crop of bullies. Through Johnny, Miguel confronts the absurd yet dangerous bigotry of an older generation largely responsible for saddling his generation with an absurd yet dangerous president not so dissimilar from Johnny himself—he, too, dismisses recycling, mocks people with disabilities, and disparages immigrants. Cobra Kai brilliantly uses these generational tensions to highlight the ideological continuity of toxic masculinity between the past and the present. In other words, even though millennials as a generation—and millennials of color in particular—overwhelmingly voted against this president, the show takes seriously that they are still susceptible to the same death grip of toxic masculinity that plagues their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

At first, the show treats Johnny’s ignorance as a humorous anachronism, on par with listening to hair bands from the ’80s, and Miguel gently chides Johnny for his Neanderthal views about race, gender, and sexuality. At one point, Miguel achieves a short-lived success when he convinces Johnny that his bigotry is unprofitable, and that marginalized young people are his best chance for students. Johnny’s first walk-in is Aisha (Nichole Brown), an African American student who is ridiculed at school and online for her weight. Johnny’s misogynistic impulse to body-shame her and assert that “women aren’t meant to fight, they have tiny, hollow bones,” provokes a laugh from viewers not only because Aisha quickly and predictably dispatches Miguel in a friendly spar, but also for its apparent ignorance of the Karate Kid franchise—if you grew up in the ’90s, like me, Hilary Swank is the Karate Kid. This joke also exposes how gender lies at the root of Johnny’s anger and insecurity. Indeed, gender undergirds most of the jokes about weakness that the audience is meant to find funny in the show’s early episodes.2

Through Johnny and Miguel’s humorous repartee on social issues and masculinity, the show successfully lulls viewers into the generic expectation that sensei and student are successfully training each other, just as each generation should be learning from the other. In a heartfelt and all-too-predictable scene, Johnny is able to convince the All Valley tournament committee (of course, Daniel is a respected member) to lift the lifetime ban on Cobra Kai because of all the ways his “dork” students have changed him. The audience might respond, yes, kids these days do need to toughen up, and, sure, maybe Gen Xers and Baby Boomers could be a bit more open-minded. But the show smartly unsettles this generic setup. While Miguel’s influence inarguably makes Johnny better, Johnny’s influence temporarily improves Miguel’s social situation but ultimately makes him a worse person.

In restaging its source text with minor but crucial differences, “Cobra Kai” develops a nuanced critique of masculinity.

The audience witnesses Miguel’s waves of excitement as he shuttles between his formerly sensitive self and the toxic and authoritarian masculinity that Cobra Kai sells—“Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy.” Mirroring the original film, it is this crossing back and forth that helps Miguel defeat his covertly misogynist bullies and initially score a date with Samantha (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s latent-karate-bad-ass daughter. But because Miguel disposes of his bullies so early on in the season, Cobra Kai can depart from the Manichaean setup of its source text. As the show continues, the dangerous consequences of adopting and extending Johnny’s masculine ideology come to define Miguel’s character arc. Johnny’s earlier jokes, which viewers were encouraged to laugh off as the lingering foibles of a stuck-in-the-past blowhard, disguise a villain far more frightening than the flattened bully of 1984, precisely because Johnny is so effective, sympathetic, and charming in his indoctrination of Miguel and his other students.

By first representing Johnny’s ideology as potentially attractive to a young man like Miguel, the show strengthens its final punch, when it lays bare the unequivocal wrongness of Johnny’s masculine performance. Miguel becomes more and more deeply entrenched in his understanding of masculinity as exercising power over other people, and the show documents his growing jealousy and overblown rage over a series of obvious miscommunications with Samantha about her friendship with Robby (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny’s estranged son and Daniel’s new protégé. Later, Miguel and Robby meet in the 2018 All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, where (spoiler alert!) Johnny is forced to watch in horror as his own past repeats itself, and the toxicity of his worldview spirals beyond his control.

In restaging its source text with minor but crucial differences, Cobra Kai develops a nuanced critique of masculinity, passing The Karate Kid through a critical lens rather than a nostalgic one. Unlike the countless reboots that fetishize the 1980s splendor of their original artifacts and exist, as Catherine Zimmer writes of Dynasty, merely in the service of their own brand, Cobra Kai equips its young audience with the capacity to mine new, political meanings from The Karate Kid—and to use them to their benefit in the present.

Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) in Cobra Kai

When I finished the show, I immediately watched The Karate Kid for the first time in over 20 years to consider the plot from Johnny’s perspective, a common response to minor-character elaborations. Instead, I found that Cobra Kai had sensitized me to other important details I’d missed as a child. For example, I listened intently as Daniel finds out why Mr. Miyagi is drunkenly weeping one night. It is his wedding anniversary. While he was fighting the Nazis in WWII, the US government placed his pregnant wife in a Japanese American internment camp, where she tragically died during childbirth. In that moment, The Karate Kid felt all too contemporary. It left me imagining how Miguel would react to watching this scene, aware of Latino families being separated at the border, children and infants being caged in internment camps.

Then I imagined older audiences catching up with their cherished characters Daniel and Johnny, cheering as they put these young “snowflakes” in their place—only to confront the horror of this attitude taken to its narrative conclusion. I imagined younger audiences watching Cobra Kai on the same platform that brought them the toxic influence of young male YouTube stars like PewDiePie or Logan Paul. For the younger audiences in particular, I am left hopeful. As Cobra Kai gestures toward its next season with back-to-back scenes of Samantha resuming her training and the ominous return of Johnny’s evil sensei, young viewers might see themselves preparing to fight for a different future: one that learns from the past instead of romanticizing it, recognizes authoritarianism when it sees it, and enlists strong young women to lead, rather than toxic men, old or young. icon

  1. See Jeremy Rosen, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace (Columbia University Press, 2016).
  2. In one humorously self-aware scene, Johnny and Daniel glimpse potential reconciliation when they get drunk and stalk their mutual love interest’s Facebook page together. By emphasizing the superfluity of the female love object in their rivalry, this scene echoes Eve Sedgwick’s observation about homosocial desire and the love triangle plot: “In any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 21.
Featured image: Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in Cobra Kai