At 6.28 in this BJJ promotion video from the early 1950s by Helio and Carlos Gracie, a “skinny guy” gets his girl stolen by bigger, stronger bully. But don’t worry – he signs up for jiujitsu lessons and wins her back!
Let’s ignore the 1950’s idea of women as property and prize, which jars with modern sensibilities, and look at the marketing message. This narrative around the marketing of jiujitsu is clearly based on this classic advert for the Charles Atlas body building system “The insult that made a man out of Mac”:
Again, a skinny scrawny guy, discovers the secret information that will turn him into a strong young bull and he has the powers to repel the sand kickers (with unlawful assault this time, but let’s forget about that at for a moment – it was a different age). He goes from being called a “little boy” by his girlfriend to being a “real man”.
In both cases we can see they’ve identified the target audience as the geeks. The skinny, scrawny men who need to gain knowledge and skills to compete with their more athletic contemporaries to win the approval of women.
So many times we hear the narrative that the founder of system x,y,z of martial arts was a sickly child or young man who overcame this using the power of his martial system to defeat not only his opponents but also his own weaknesses.
For example Chen Man Ching “An attack of tuberculosis turned Mr. Cheng’s attention to Tai Chi Chuan, which he credited with restoring his health.”
Bruce Lee “remained a sickly, skinny child throughout his early years”.
Grandmaster Huo Yan Jia (founder of Chin Woo) “frequently became ill and, as a result, was often taken advantage of by the other children”.
Notice that in the older, more conservative, Chinese narratives, there’s very rarely a women involved, unless it is the person’s mother. Sun Lu-tang was “a small and frail seeming child… When Sun’s mother heard that he was studying Kung Fu, She at first objected, afraid that he would hurt himself. Then she saw how much healthier her formerly-sickly child looked and give her blessing to him to continue his studies. ”
Do these stories bear much relation to reality? Sometimes, but often not. Here, for example, is a picture of the weak and sickly Helio Gracie who created Brazilian Jiujitsu by modifying the techniques of Jiujitsu to make them less physical, because he couldn’t use any strength in his techniques due to his frail condition.
He “was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why. “
There probably is a lot of truth to sickly or weak people practicing martial arts diligently to improve their health, but the narrative is so often used and so often repeated that I can’t help but think a bit of marketing has slipped in at the same time.
And what’s the modern day equivalent? I suppose that it’s become about marketing martial arts directly to women. Women today don’t need a man to protect them – they can do it themselves!
Where will it go in the next 10-20 years, I wonder? Classes for men to learn to protect themselves from women? It’s possible….
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these marketing trends, but I think it’s important to see them as trends. As always with martial arts – Caveat emptor “Let the buyer beware!”.