There is much nostalgia surrounding The Karate Kid (1984). People talk fondly of their memories when this film came out, quote Mr Miyagi with pride and comment on the effectiveness of the fight scenes. One thing that constantly crops up is Ali, often followed by ‘with an “I”’ (mockingly, in most cases). Being the object of the hero’s eye means that the female is relegated to the role of the “It girl”, the girl to be “got”. Ali certainly has the California Girl charm, which viewers unanimously agree makes her the film’s eye candy. Despite this, Ali is not beyond criticism from the fanboys.
Her introduction is one of types. Daniel’s first enquiry as to her identity is ‘the Hills’. Ali is a girl from the Hills, so she’s automatically a young woman of status. At the bonfire, Daniel’s informed that ‘the blonde is looking at you’. Obviously, we’re human, we like to categorise, especially when we’re referring to strangers whose names we’re not yet aware of. At this point, it feels like this method of exposition robs her of being a layered supporting character. She’s clearly not the karate kid of the film’s title, nevertheless, that doesn’t permit placing her in boxes. Yes, they’re trying to present her as someone who Daniel is punching well above his weight for (pardon the pun), but the writers have a chance to move past that as the film progresses. They do to some extent: she’s the only mature character with her head on her shoulders. Her dismissal (she apparently ditched Daniel for a university guy) at the beginning of The Karate Kid Part II completely reverses any character development she might have achieved as the film progressed.
Now let’s discuss the issue of the Ex. Quite a few people sympathise with Johnny because ‘she broke up, he didn’t’. Typical teenage behaviour fuelled by hormones. Those who espouse these views use this as one of the many points to paint Ali as the cow who won’t give him a chance. He just wants her back. Problem is, we’re left to speculate why they broke up. I can perhaps see that his willingness to change despite his faults make him less of a despicable villain. I do not see, however, how this makes Ali the bad guy for not wanting to know him at this point. The “teenage” argument works both ways. If he’s allowed to be sore about their breakup, she’s allowed to be annoyed at his behaviour. Who would’ve thought that a mere radio would be the source of discussion on internet boards as to who’s to blame for the dispute: Ali was being immature by switching it back on/turning the music up, Johnny was being immature for taking it off of her and eventually breaking it when he doesn’t get his way. So who’s to blame?
If Johnny did or said something abhorrent when they dated, then continuing to be obnoxious doesn’t help in his favour. Ali being chided by the internet makes little sense since we don’t know what he was like beforehand. He must’ve been pretty bad for her to refuse a conversation with him. The way he tosses/hands Ali over to be restrained while he fights Daniel also doesn’t work in his favour. Some may argue that he’s doing that so that she doesn’t get caught up in the fight and hurt. Possibly. It still appears a mark against Johnny.
Next: ‘It’s your fault’. The type who always blames his actions on the woman. Daniel may have been a bit of a twerp, but I missed the part where Ali controlled his arms and legs in the fight. “It’s all your fault” and “You made me do this” are the slogans of abusers so Johnny’s behaviour needs to be checked before it develops into actions with worse consequences. This is not a statement that Johnny was abusive, but certainly that behaviour such as this, left uncorrected, is hazardous in the future.
In defence of Ali, she recognises the importance of Daniel’s safety and tells him to leave the radio. It may be her property; it’s not worth being at the other end of Johnny’s fists. She checks up on him after he’s beaten up, and is even subjected to his wounded male pride. As much as you feel sympathetic towards his embarrassment at being publically beaten up, it’s not her fault. Now she’s about to become a pawn in a competition between two high schoolers who really should just get out their masculine aggressions through a simple arm-wrestling match. It wouldn’t be a karate film, but at least it would reduce Ali as the source of competition for these young men. Her letting Daniel pay for her lunch without so much as a polite “thank you” or any sign of humility undoes the building portrait of a perfect Ali, you’d be happy to know. Miniscule, I know. It’s still an issue of manners; an indication of some privilege. I also side-eye her taste in men to begin with. Johnny and Daniel. Girl, why? Actually, I can see why she moved from him onto the UCLA guy.
Another issue of contention for internet commentators is that Ali invites Daniel to the country club purposely to rile Johnny up. Again, maybe a part of her wants Johnny to suffer. Teenagers (and immature adults) always resort to stirring jealousy in order to punish current or ex-partners. It hardly makes her a vixen or witch (or whatever epithet you can find on the internet). She could’ve invited him as a way of presenting him to her friends and family formally. What better place than a regular haunt? It has been suggested that she did this on purpose also to put Daniel in his place socially. I find that hard to believe: she still defends him when she could’ve easily submitted to Johnny’s charms and not defended him to her father.
With her knowledge of the rules of karate, I would’ve loved to see some sort of spoof (or maybe even integrated into the actual storyline) where she kicks ass in the tournament. Mr Miyagi decides she more emotionally mature than Daniel so he trains her instead. Wishful thinking, of course. I wouldn’t dare request a film based on this in current climate lest there be a backlash (see Ghostbusters for reference).
So why have I labelled her a heroine when she is merely the love interest? I call her heroine because she puts up with masculine competition and parents who have no issue when a boy forces a kiss on their daughter and ask him if he’s ok when she’s visibly upset. I’m still holding out for: The Karate Kid: Revenge of a Hills Girl.