Essays, Bruce Lee


(c) 2006, Marsha Jones


The object of this paper is to outline briefly Bruce Lee’s historical background, examine what makes him a pop cultural icon, and observe how Bruce Lee, as an icon, is perceived from different perspectives.  Finally, this paper will look at how, even after his death, he is still an extremely marketable commodity.

First, Bruce Lee was born November 27, 1940 in San Francisco , California (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004), the son of a “ Hong Kong opera singer” (Stein, 1999).  Lee later became a child actor in Hong Kong (Stein, 1999).  By the time Lee was in his late teens, he became part of a street gang (Stein, 1999).  To prevent him from falling into a life of crime, Lee’s mother sent him to live in the United States (Stein, 1999).  In the United States , Bruce Lee, while staying with family friends in Seattle , was self-employed by teaching his Wing Chun style martial art (Stein, 1999).  Bruce Lee was first recognized in 1964 at an American martial arts tournament, when he beat a well-known black belt, who subsequently became his student (Stein, 1999).  After gaining recognition, Bruce Lee ended up playing the role of Kato, the sidekick in television’s The Green Hornet  series in 1966 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006).  Lee then moved on to make several martial art action films in the United States and later, in Hong Kong (Stein, 1999).  At the age of thirty- three, he died of a brain edema due to an adverse reaction to a painkiller (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2006).

Bruce Lee, though long passed away, is a pop icon as he still represents many things to many different people.  Narrowly, he signifies the underdog who can defy the establishment as depicted in many of his movies like; The Big Boss, Fists of Fury, and Way of the Dragon (Winokur, 2001, p. 212), where the common plot was Lee fighting for justice for those who could not fight for themselves.  According to Time magazine, Bruce Lee “represented the redeemer, not only for the Chinese but for all the geeks and dorks and pimpled teenage masses that washed up at the theaters to see his action movies” (Stein, 1999).  Bruce Lee as a signifier is simply a human male, short in stature, who is fast and violent moving ( Chandler , 2006).  The image of Bruce Lee’s muscles and his extreme athleticism represents the little man against the giant establishment (Stein, 1999), which can conjure up many people’s desire to be able to break away from the conformity of the status quo.

Next, in order to understand how Bruce Lee would apply to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy must be examined.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is comprised of five levels; physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization (Santrock et al, 2005, p.53-55).  Physiological needs represent the basic biological requirement to eat and sleep (Santrock et al, 2005, p,53-55).  Safety and security primarily corresponds to physical safety- in short being free from danger (Santrock et al, 2005, p.53-55).  Love and belonging signifies a person’s need to be part of a group whether family or otherwise (Santrock et al, 2005, p.54).  And self- actualization symbolizes the drive for a person to strive to become the “best that they can possibly be” (Santrock et al, 2005, p.55).  Out of all five of the Maslowian needs, Bruce Lee would appeal to safety and security, esteem, and self-actualization.

Bruce Lee would have been a champion against Asian oppression and an inspiration to many to begin training in the martial arts or even just to stand up for themselves; Bruce Lee’s persona had its consequences.  Bruce Lee’s fast, violent moving body could be looked upon as a symbol of violence to the pacifist-minded.  From the Maslowian pacifist point of view, Lee’s violent persona lives entirely in the safety and security need (Santrock et al, 2005, p.54).  However, Bruce Lee would not signify just a person protecting themselves, rather a person bringing harm to others–actually being a security threat.  This notion would be best supported by Time magazine’s Joel Stein, who said that “[Bruce Lee] spent his life turning his small body into a large weapon” (Stein, 1999).  Here we can see that Bruce Lee’s character felt he could solve all of his problems with his body and fists.

However, Bruce Lee would most likely signify the epitome of personal safety and security.  His rapid movements and hard body would be a great motivation for a person to begin training.  Lee’s body represents the perfect weapon and since many people fear being attacked (Borkowski, 1998, p.4), to achieve a body that is close to Bruce Lee’s would be an acquisition of safety and security (Santrock et al, 2005, p.54).

Esteem and self-actualization needs are closely linked in that a person is driven toward success and usually craves the acknowledgment for it.  The way Bruce Lee lived his life training to transform himself from a “little guy into a tough guy” (Stein, 1999) shows that through training he wanted to become “John Wayne or James Dean (Stein, 1999) of his time, who at the time were the heroes.  Based on Lee’s training, it can be said that he hoped to get stardom through his hard work and he actually achieved it.  This same pattern of striving to fill the need of recognition for achievement can be seen in millions of people around the world who choose to train in the martial arts in hopes of becoming someone who is close to that of a hero (Borkowski, 1998, p.xvi).

From another angle, Bruce Lee could also signify the resentment of white North America , especially just before his death.  This notion can be illustrated by the fact that he [Bruce Lee] “couldn’t get Hollywood to embrace him” (Stein, 1999).  An excellent example of Lee’s inability to be accepted by mainstream America is the fact that Bruce Lee was denied the part to play the hero in the television series Kung Fu, instead it was given to David Carradine (Forbes, 2000, p.40).  And according to Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bruce Lee’s friend and student, Lee “would have been perfect … a master working his art before the national audience, but whoever it was that decided such things made it clear to [him] they didn’t think a Chinese man could be a hero in America” (Forbes, 2000, p.40).  This resentment manifested in the above treatment of Bruce Lee may have been due to the fact that he was an Asian living in America .  During the late fifties and sixties the “anti-Asiatics” (Yu, 2001, p.16) sentiment would still be alive and well in the hearts and mind of the established white America .  This “anti-Asiatic” (Yu, 2001, p.16) sentiment would have stemmed from the fears felt by white American labour groups who believed that their livelihood would be threatened by the “Yellow Peril” which was alien and anti-American (Yu, 2001, p.17).  This exclusionary behavior of white Americans to anyone Asian or even of Asian decent left Asians in a narrow domain when it came to obtaining employment (Yu, 2001, p.16).  The status quo of keeping Asians from mainstream society was maintained through the creation of the stereotype of Asians capable of nothing more that being “meek house servants and railroad workers” (Stein, 1999).  So, when Bruce Lee came along in the late sixties and did not symbolize the subservient stereotype that white America thought he should be he experienced resentment.

Additionally, though Bruce Lee managed to break out of the anti-Asiatic mould set by white America , he also played into the negative stereotype that minorities are incapable of intellectually solving their problems.  Even Bruce Lee’s cocky body language and threatening stare (Stein, 1999) would have also tied into his attitude of fists before words.  The fist before words ideology can be illustrated in the fact that in the majority of his films, Lee was depicted as a threatening character who did not use dialogue to dole out `justice’ for the disempowered instead “[he] kills lots of people in retaliation” (Stein, 1999).

From the perspective of a concerned parent Bruce Lee would be viewed as the instigator of the wave of violent entertainment, since it was he who pioneered the popularity of violent martial arts films.  According to Richard Corliss, “kids can’t wait for their adrenaline fix” (Corliss, 2000) and adrenaline sells.   Unfortunately adrenaline inducing media includes violence (Corliss, 2000).

Marshall McLuhan once wrote “electronic civilization was creating conditions in which human life would be treated as expendable fungus” (Wolf, 1996).  What this means is through the proliferation of electronic media the value of human life would be diminished.  Based on this notion, it would be safe to say that to McLuhan, the saturation of Bruce Lee’s image and mannerisms in his widely distributed films would be the medium of the above message.  All of Bruce Lee’s films were action films and in action films there is the overwhelming presence of death and in provocative terms, outright murder.  In all of Lee’s films, the plots were usually the same, as the always involved Lee being surrounded by “about 100… enemies [who] mostly died as soon as he [Bruce Lee} punched them in the face” (Stein, 1999).  Even the way the enemies died signifies that people are nothing but ants dying at the flick of a finger, en masse, over a single trifle.  Furthermore, since human life is depicted as cheap and expendable by Bruce Lee’s films, one can also extend that society on a whole feels the same way as society not only relishes in the depicted violence but worships it, as violence sells (Corliss, 2000).

Bruce Lee would be considered a brand since his image and mannerisms has been modified and replicated to the nth degree through different types of media.  Bruce Lee has been peddled and recycled through all the windows of exhibition (, 2005).  The windows of exhibition represent the different modes through which Bruce Lee’s movies have been shown to the public and repackaged and shown again.  If one even types the name Bruce Lee in a search engine one would receive thousands of links to all sorts of games, merchandise and services that would be somehow linked to Bruce Lee.  With Bruce Lee’s image, mannerisms and films being “widely imitated” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2006), one can say that Bruce Lee and his martial arts has become a thoroughly “commodified culture” (Esbury & Ferrington, 1999) that has been distributed throughout mainstream culture.  This “cultural commodification” (Esbury & Ferrington, 1999) means that the product being sold is Bruce Lee’s aggression and athleticism.  This vast product being presented in videos, music and films means that millions of people will buy into the notion – if one trains like Bruce Lee, one can be like him or if one does not train, watching is just as close.  Bruce Lee’s image and mannerism has been changed into a promotional tool (Roth, 2005) that has been designed to make money by allowing consumers to buy a piece of Bruce Lee.

Personally, I admire Bruce Lee because to me, he represents strength, determination, and discipline.  Since the age of six, I still remember watching Bruce Lee movies every Saturday afternoon and marveling at his physical ability and wanting to be just like him.  By the time the movies no longer aired, a few years later, I was still affected by the images I saw.  All I could do for the next six or so years was beg my parents to let me train in the martial arts.  However, at eight, I was told by my parents that I was too small to train.  But on my twelfth birthday, I got the greatest surprise a chance to train in Tae Kwon Do, the Korean version of empty hand combat- to me, style did not matter I only wanted to be able to train like Bruce Lee.  From that time on, I have always tried to continue training.  And even when I cannot train physically, the values of martial arts essentially what I believe Bruce Lee represented; therefore, has helped motivate me through all my endeavors.

In closing, though Bruce Lee is a pop icon as he can be a marketing tool that can be used to peddle merchandise that symbolizes the fantasy that society craves, he also represents the positive aspects of discipline and athleticism of the martial arts.


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PHOTO: Bruce Lee & Chuck Norris, in Way of the Dragon (fair use, for purposes of scholarship). Image:BruceLee14.jpg