The Karate Kid & the Meritocracy Myth

Applying Critical Discourse Analysis to The Karate Kid

There are stories. Then there is the meaning behind the story.

The most obvious narrative arc in The Karate Kid (1984) is Daniel’s ascension from a novice martial arts student to a regional champion. This rise is paralleled on a slightly more subtle level by Daniel’s elevation on the ladder of social status.

While he is initially shunned by the group of wealthy young people he aspires to join (as demonstrated early in the film in the scene on the beach), in the end Daniel is embraced by Ali and accepted by his rivals in Cobra Kai. Thus we watch him move from the position of outsider and outcast to a place of prominence in his community. It’s all drawn pretty clearly. 

At first glance, this narrative arc seems to be fueled exclusively by Daniel’s moral character. He is a good person. He loves his mother. He is willing to work hard. He’s courageous. And he’s funny. 

These traits are closely associated with his improvements in karate as Mr. Miyagi tests Daniel’s character in a variety of ways. As Daniel passes these tests, he proves his moral qualities.

Daniel is a person of merit. That’s obvious. And his merit leads him to success in sports and in social status. 

This is where we can pause to consider a third narrative arc at work in The Karate Kid.

He not only goes from novice to champion and from outcast to local celebrity – Daniel also rises out of poverty.

It’s worth noting that all the humiliation Daniel suffers in the film stems directly from being identified as poor. As Daniel makes his twin ascent in martial arts and social status he also attains the signs of wealth, distancing himself from an identification with poverty and associating himself with typical images of material success.

Reinforcing Myths about Poverty and Meritocracy

In American films, it’s common to see a traditional “Horatio Alger” story play out. This is the stereotypical tale of rags to riches where a hero escapes from poverty and rises to wealth by sheer force of character. The good man rises to the top because he is good.

The link between moral qualities (merit) and material success is crucial to this version of the American Dream.

Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller put it this way in The Meritocracy Myth: “According to the ideology of the American Dream, America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity.”

The image drawn here is a positive one. However, there is a flip-side to this positive mythologizing of the American system.

If “getting ahead” is a result of being a good person, then being poor means that you are not a good person.

Critics have long argued that an uncritical belief in the link between moral character and income can have harmful consequences, saying, “Many people who do not live in poverty have a tendency to criticize the poor and blame them for their supposed laziness, lack of intelligence, or willingness to make bad decisions. They believe in a just world, where the poor must have done something to deserve their fate” (Just Harvest). A society that views poverty as a measure of personal moral failure is very unlikely to take action to alleviate poverty (i.e., If you’re poor, it’s your fault.)

This negative concept is a direct corollary to the so-called meritocracy myth highlighted by McNamee and Miller above. And this is where we can turn back to The Karate Kid and ask some critical questions about the values being expressed in the film.

Get the Car, Get the Girl

Why does Daniel succeed in The Karate Kid? This question doesn’t only apply to winning the karate tournament at the end of the movie.

One of Daniel’s central goals in the film is to “get the girl.” He falls for Ali early in the movie and takes bold steps to win her over. She is responsive, but his gestures fall short. At one point, he is embarrassed by having spaghetti dropped down the front of his shirt at a dinner event Ali is attending.

This is a critical moment in the film if we think about the way it defines Daniel’s story as a struggle to rise above poverty.

Here, Daniel has snuck into the restaurant through the kitchen. He knows that he won’t be allowed in through the front door, because he is not rich. (It’s a party for the wealthy.) He stands at the kitchen door peering into the party and watches as Johnny Lawrence dances with Ali and kisses her. Johnny is flaunting his access in this moment – his access to elite parties and his access to Ali. And it’s all because he is rich.

Then Daniel gets spaghetti all over his shirt when a waiter rushes through the kitchen door. Daniel is marked, literally in this case. His class status is written in pasta sauce all down the front of his shirt.

That is a moment of Daniel’s greatest failure and one where his class status is most fully on display. There is a turn, however. Daniel begins to climb the class ladder. He gets a car.

As a birthday gift, Daniel receives a car from Mr. Miyagi. It’s a big, shiny, vintage automobile. And it’s a familiar symbol of class status.

Previously, Daniel had ridden a bike to get around. When he went on a date with Ali, his mother had to drive them. Suddenly, Daniel has come into possession of a car and it is at this moment that his relationship to Ali becomes secure.

“Good People Are Not Poor People”

The character of Mr. Miyagi provides another notable correlation of moral quality to material success in The Karate Kid. When we meet Miyagi, he is depicted as a simple handyman in a run-down apartment complex. His personal qualities are vague and questionable. He exists within the drab world of poverty as it is imagined in the film.

It’s not long before this façade is replaced with a very different image of Miyagi. Daniel begins training with Mr. Miyagi and goes to Miyagi’s home where he discovers a sort of urban oasis, a paradise hidden within a fenced-in yard.

Not only is Miyagi a home-owner. His house is very nice!

After this point in the film, Miyagi is no longer portrayed as a poor handyman doing the dirty work at a run-down apartment. Now his disheveled workshop in the apartment building becomes a topiary space where Miyagi patiently and even majestically trims bonsai trees. No longer subject to the dreary grey of poverty, Miyagi is now a guru, surrounded by bright colors, taking Daniel out on a boat, inviting him to spend time at his neat and orderly home, etc.

These features of Miyagi’s character are revealed along with his moral qualities. When Miyagi proves that he is a kind and generous person, the audience discovers that these traits come with perks.

Why is this a problem?

None of this has to be seen as a problem. It’s true that good people can have good outcomes in life. If that is the main idea behind The Karate Kid, there is nothing wrong with that in terms of logic or morality. 

But if we are reading this filmic text through the lens of Critical Discourse Analysis, we will take note of the values being expressed relating to poverty and success in The Karate Kid. The film is playing into the stereotypes mentioned earlier – the presumption that moral qualities determine a person’s socio-economic status. Good people don’t stay poor.

Daniel only succeeds after he has risen above his initial state of poverty, making friends with middle-class Mr. Miyagi and cheering on his mother who has earned a promotion at work. These factors are a critical undercurrent in the story. And they lead to a surprising conclusion.

Daniel doesn’t win because of a well-timed crane kick. He wins because of a shiny new car.

The message of the film would be revolutionary if, instead, Daniel remained at the same socio-economic level yet still won the tournament and got the girl. If that were the case, the film would be saying that the presumed link between moral qualities and success is a false presumption. The movie would be undercutting that pernicious stereotype. But that’s not what The Karate Kid does.

The Karate Kid reinforces the stereotype and conveys the idea that a person of high character will ascend materially, gaining wealth as a result of moral strength, and will then attain all the benefits of that station: romantic success, athletic success, elevated social status, etc.

While we can say that the film is certainly showing us a family that begins in poverty through no real fault of their own, it also plays into the notion that merit inevitably leads to material success.

Of course, this is “just a movie.” It’s entertainment. But it’s entertainment that offers a potentially harmful view of poverty as a personal failure instead of a systemic one.

We are not invited to criticize an economic system that expresses itself in stark conflicts between one class and another. Nor are we drawn to question the powerful social mechanisms that insulate the wealthy while exposing those of lesser means to debasement, derelict housing situations, and all the rest.

We’re instead led to the comforting conclusion that good people can create their own fate in America and rise above any forces that stand in their way.

The Critic’s Job, Not the Filmmaker’s 

We don’t have to say that every filmmaker is responsible for providing social analysis. It’s not fair to expect a cogent criticism of our cultural systems from writers and directors who are interested in other things.

The point here is not about responsibility and expectations. The point here is about how we can assess cultural products within a framework that exposes the value-statements being made in those products. 

We can let the filmmakers make entertaining films like The Karate Kid. And we can do the analysis for ourselves.

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