The Body of Bruce Lee

By Charissa Dechène


As my dad is a huge Bruce Lee fan, I watched a lot of his movies growing up. As I mentioned in my blogpost about female representation in Mad Max: Fury Road, I am a big fan of the sci-fi and action genre. The movies of Bruce Lee and more particular his philosophy were and still are an inspiration.

Always be yourself; express yourself; have faith in yourself.
When I look around, I always learn something and that is to be always yourself, and to express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it. Start from the very root of your being, which is “how can I be me?” ~Bruce Lee

That is why I chose to analyse his movie Enter the Dragon for a paper I had to write during my Bachelor. This blogpost is a slight adaption of that paper.


We are offered the spectacle of male bodies, but bodies unmarked as objects of erotic display. There is no trace of an acknowledgement or recognition of those bodies as displayed solely for the gaze of the spectator. They are on display, certainly, but there is no cultural or cinematic convention which would allow the male body to be presented in the way that Dietrich so often is in Sternberg’s films. We see male bodies stylised and fragmented by close-ups, but our look is not direct, it is heavily mediated by the looks of the characters involved. And those looks are marked not by desire, but rather by fear, or hatred, or aggression.” (Neale 1983: 14)

In this blog I will analyse two of the, in my opinion, most important scenes in the Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon” as an answer to Neale’s article. He states that the male body in (action)movies is often portrayed as a spectacle, in which the body is not being placed as an erotic object but is imbedded in a story about competition and battle. The male body of the movie character could incite ambivalent feelings with the male viewer, which not always has a positive effect. The male body is often portrayed in movies as an ideal, virile and phallic, which could provoke feelings of insecurities with male viewers that manliness is something which is elusive. This can result in aggression towards the male image which is being created in a movie (Neale 1983: 280-1).

This psychoanalysis and Oedipal vision of Neale states thus that looking at men by men can evoke feelings of competition and inferiority. Moreover the male body is presented as something that can be defeated by constantly punishing and rack it. Neale argues that in the discussion about gender, sexuality, representations and cinema it mainly focused on the representation of women. Men, he says, have mostly been mixed into the discussion because of the Gay Movement. However these where then mostly focused on the representation of gay men (Neale 1983: 2). He states that

Heterosexual masculinity has been identified as a structuring norm in relation both to images of women and gay men. It has to that extent been profoundly problematised, rendered visible. But it has rarely been discussed and analysed as such.” (Neale 1983: 2).

Neale states that the male movie character is constructed by a certain guideline, in which they fight and do not speak or when they speak it is in deficient English. The latter is a Freudian interpretation of Neale, because in this theory talking is being associated with subjecting to law and power, or in other words it is not phallic but feminine.

In the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s body is seen as a spectacle but is not however continuously being punished and tormented. Moreover, the viewer does not see his body solely from the other characters’ points of view. In the scenes where Bruce Lee’s body is being hurt it also seems that this is not bothering him, because of his complete control over his body. Also, in the movie Lee talks often about the benefit of knowing one’s body to be a better fighter. This way, we look at his body, but the body is also being incorporated in the story about a body. However, his body is also embedded in a story about, what Neale argues, competition and battle. However, this only seems to be the fighting tournament at the island, which can be seen as secondary to the main storyline in which Lee wants justice for the death of his sister.

This blog will be an exploration about this genre and representations of the male body therein. I am using two scenes for a close reading. The first is the scene in which Lee explains to a student that you, as a fighter, should not think, but feel to know what to do in a fight. In this scene the philosophy of martial arts becomes more clear.
The second scene is in which this philosophy becomes reality by the complexity of the space in which he is in (the mirror scene). This blog will offer an understanding in the way Bruce Lee changed perspectives of masculinity in actionmovies.

Scene from 'Enter the Dragon. I do not own any rights of this image.
Scene from ‘Enter the Dragon. I do not own any rights of this image.
Scene ‘Finger Pointing to the Moon’
Before this scene starts Lee has a conversation with his master in which his fighting style is being set out. The most important point is that he does not fight, but that his body is doing it by itself.

The viewer sees Lee fully dressed, covering up his muscled body. This scene stresses the importance of controlling one’s body and Lee explains his martial arts philosophy.
Lee stands firmly on the ground and greets (gesture of respect) his student Lao. Lee’s greeting is controlled, he simply bows his head forward and brings his fist together with his other hand which he keeps flat. That Lee has control over his body becomes even more clear when you compare his greeting to that of his student. Lao bows with his back and folds his hand on the hand with which he made a fist. Lee asks Lao to kick him. When Lao attempts to kick, Lee effortlessly avoids it. Lee then speaks harshly to Lao, intimidating but not violently. “What was that? We need emotional content.”

Lao tries to kick Lee again, but Lee dodges his kick once more. Now Lee indicates that Lao has given content with anger. “Emotional content, not anger!”
With this he meant that when you fight, your emotions should be genuine, the body becomes the medium to show your emotions. The third time is a charm. Lao finally gets the rhythm of using emotions to fight. However, when Lee asks how it feels he answers that he has to think about it. Lee is not satisfied with this answer and slaps him on the head. “Don’t think, feel! It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory”. According to Lee’s philosophy one should not concentrate on the execution of the action, but just do it.

This challenges Neale’s argument, who stated that a constructed gaze is being marked by, among other aspects, violence. This scene illustrates that the gaze of the subject (in this case Lee) is not always constructed with anger and aggression, but shows that it can also be by controlling and canalising the right (non-violent) emotions. Although this philosophy is partially based on Shaolin Kung Fu, this type of fighting is still incorporated in a lot of action movies to this day. While Bruce Lee in this scene is not corporally punished, he does punishes his student by hitting him on the head. However, the student’s body should be seen as that of a boy and not a male body opposing Neale’s argument.

Scene ‘Mirror Fight’
Before this scene starts there was a big fighting scene between all attendees of the fighting tournament. Lee chases after Han. When Han disappears in a secret space we discover that this is a mirror room.

I do not own any rights of this image
During this scene, as in most of the movie, Lee has a bare chest. Because of the mirrors in the scene, Lee’s body becomes a spectacle for the viewer to see in every detail. The drops of sweat on his chest and face, the widened veins, his eyes and his muscles are aesthetically filmed. Lee seems concentrated, while his opponent Han seems tense.

Drawing on Lee’s philosophy this can be seen as that Han is a bad fighter. Although Lee’s body is depicted as a spectacle it is not, in my opinion, eroticized. His body is not doing something related to sexuality, but is being used as a weapon. Moreover, the viewer’s gaze is not drawn towards his crotch but to the body parts with which he fights. However, as a female spectator I have to admit that looking at Bruce Lee’s body can be erotic. This can be connected to the way Bryson has analysed body building:

[…] attention passes, according to the classical model of fetishism, away from the primary zone of sex to secondary displacements. The whole body is phallicized, from marks of inflation, to removal of body hair, to exaggerated dilation of the veins. The masculine imago is contemplated […] by crossing out the actual genital area and passing its characteristics to the body image as a whole via a trope of metonymy: the whole is made to stand for the part.” (Bryson 1994: 235-6).

In the sense that his body is marked with widened veins, I would connect this to Bryson. However, I think that he ‘sculpted’ his body to maximize his bodily strength and not for the art of body building. Besides, the removal of hair, seeing that he is Asian, has probably not been necessary.

The use of mirrors in the scene makes it extra exciting. You can see Lee and Han, but you cannot clearly make out if their bodies are actually together or if it’s their reflections. Although the scene depicts a dual, it is not easily linked to the classical western dual-analyses in which the spectacle revolves around looking at each other and in which the object of the gaze also becomes the subject. The mirror scene in Enter the Dragon has added a new dimension, the mirrors. This disables a classic dual, because the two subjects cannot stare into each other’s’ eyes for a long period of time. Also, there are not a lot of phallic looking objects used during the fight and the camera does not zoom in the crotches of the subjects.

The scene ends with Han speared on a weapon he himself had hidden behind a secret door. Lee seems to be shocked of his own strength, but then returns to the big square.

The impact of the scene has been huge. One example is that the scene was the inspiration, or possibly a dedication to Bruce Lee, in the video, directed by Wayne Isham, of my favourite song  Try Again performed by Aaliyah.

The body of Bruce Lee is at first sight connected to masculinity and thus with gender rather than sexuality. However, his male body does not construct ideas about femininity or gay male bodies as is been stated by Neale (1983: 2). In the two scenes I analysed it becomes clear that the male body is not solely portrayed and presented as a spectacle imbedded in a story about competition and violence in which the male subject is constantly being physically punished. Moreover, in the first scene Lee’s character contradicts the notion that ‘heroic’ subjects in movies are silent. Lee is being portrayed as the hero of the movie and has something meaningful to tell. This is similar in the micro genre fantasy in action movies like Batman. The second scene illustrates that the gaze of the subject, and that of the spectator, is not always drawn towards aggression, fear and hate.

Ultimately Bruce Lee’s body is, in Enter the Dragon, disconnected from notions of gender and sexuality. It does give an idea of what a male fighter’s body should look like, but in the movie itself the body is not associated to gender constructions. Lee’s body is used as a medium to express feelings in the form of martial arts.


– Bryson, N. “Gericault and Masculinity” in Images Visual and Cultural Interpretations (ed.) N. Brsyon, M. A. Holly & Moxey, K. Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, pp. 228- 259.
– Neale, S. “Masculinity as Spectacle,” Screen (1983) 24: 2-17.
– Enter the Dragon (1973), Robert Clause.

2 thoughts on “The Body of Bruce Lee

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unfortunately, your assumptions about this movie are completely incorrect. Enter the Dragon is a finely crafted visual expression of Zen. It’s a “bridge” a method designed to shock the viewer into becoming awake to something quite unusual. “It” certainly is not the Body in the sense you proclaim, but is the result of Zen’s power to move beyond what is most familiar to experience for one’s self its praxis. The mirror scene comes from a very ancient discovery made by Zen Masters, and has to do with the mind, meditation and the freedom from suffering. It visually demonstrates the process through which the mind has to go through to finally be able to see reality for what it actually is. That is to say, we have to destroy all the illusions first, if we are ever to see the actual path which leads us to becoming our True-Self. Bruce was a philosopher before anything else. And like a true Zen Master he cleverly used visual storytelling to convey Zen. And true to that tradition a person either ‘sees’ the real story which lies below the surface or they imagine that what they are seeing is a super fit Asian man filling up the silver screen….Enter the Dragon is a koan… Old-Zen told in an Old- Zen style using the modern medium of film. Proof that Bruce Lee was an extraordinary man indeed…


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