Yoon-Young Lee first heard of jiu-jitsu when she saw images of suffragettes in long dresses using jiu-jitsu to stand up to police brutality in England in the early twentieth century.
“The women’s social movement in Korea is now focused on reclaiming the physical abilities of women. So that was one kind of educational news that was supposed to go to the women’s community. That’s how I saw jiu-jitsu. I think it was embedded in my mind for a while. I think it maybe had been a good motivation for me to join my friend when she asked me to do it.”
Yoon-Young describes herself as “a stereotypical girl” at the time. “It was not like I had motivation to train sports. I was skinny, I thought going on a diet is better than working out. My friend wanted to join military service, so she needed a dummy to practice on. She’s shorter than me, but she wanted a challenge, and I’m tall, so she wanted to use me,” she said in an interview with the Jiu-Jitsu Times.
As an independent film-maker, it seems natural that not long after beginning her jiu-jitsu journey, Yoon-Young decided to film a short documentary. Fight Like a Girl, released in 2016, was screened at numerous film festivals in South Korea and the US. Intimate, reflective, and filled with pathos, it documents the lead-up to Yoon-Young’s first tournament and her experiences afterward. Yoon-Young is courageous and generous in sharing her inner dialogue with her camera. Some elements of her life will be recognizable to high-level competitors on the pro-circuit as well as novices – the tiny, cluttered room with gis hung out on every available surface that is her home, for example. “Well, not the home I had hoped for,” she reminds us in the film’s narrative.
“My parents are very conservative, especially my mum. The image of being feminine is already built up, and she observes it… The reason I had to live in that tiny room was because I had to leave my house. My parents couldn’t let me train jiu-jitsu, because to them it was just hugging sweaty guys and rolling on the floor. It was just not appropriate. There was a miscommunication, and I had to leave my house.”
Throughout the film, she talks about her desire to fight and be strong, and expresses her frustration at the limitations that gender stereotyping creates for her. She includes conversations with male black belts who state that women are only interested in jiu-jitsu to lose weight or learn self-defense. Yoon-Young does not see herself as special – she describes her desire to be strong and to fight in terms that posit it as something natural, inbuilt and human, and resents being portrayed as a victim by the self-defense narrative that plagued her early experiences with jiu-jitsu in South Korea.
Finally, Yoon-Young turns her camera to Professor Heejin Lee, South Korea’s first (and at that time only) female black-belt.
Professor Lee speaks from within her own academy with a self-assurance that has been missing from Yoon-Young’s narrative so far.
“I admit there are issues of discrimination or unfairness,” Professor Lee says, sitting on the mats inside her academy, Queen of Jiu-Jitsu. “But when we discuss a matter of equality and making it fair, we shouldn’t divide the stances by only gender. Not just as any woman or any man, but rather focus on each one’s capabilities. Make them admit by showing how much you can pull off. Then it’s done, right?”
Before meeting Professor Lee, female role models for Yoon-Young were hard to find back in 2016, although she notes that there has been a significant increase in women’s participation since then.
The end of a relationship with a fellow jiujiteiro ignited within her a new desire, one that would ultimately expose her to more women in positions of ownership, which she sees as the most beneficial situation.
“I wanted a proper territory of mine that I can influence. It was like I jumped levels from the first documentary.” She assumes an exaggeratedly high-pitched voice for a moment. “Let’s fight, girls,” she laughs, in parody of her younger self, but then takes on her ordinary measured tone again. “But now, woman wants territory. That’s why I had to make an answer in the second documentary. How can I get from having the will to fight, to owning my own territory and pioneering the unexplored environment?”
The answer that Yoon-Young distilled from her desires at the time was movement — a theme that she will explore in three parts in the upcoming documentary – physical movement, social movement, and immigration.
Yoon-Young felt that it was important to share her personal experiences in Fight Like a Girl, a feeling that was confirmed by the response she received from audiences at the film festivals where it was shown.
“I met an enormous amount of female audiences who were looking for this kind of story,” she recalls. “This kind of narrative is about woman’s body. I had never seen a woman in real life who wants to be stronger. My motivation to be strong was vague, and I didn’t explain it in my documentary. Women in the audience found it amazing that a woman can be stronger. It was a wake-up call to me. All these girls came up to me and said, ‘I want to learn jiu-jitsu.’ I was a white belt, I didn’t show fancy techniques. It was more suffering and sweating, and they still found it very fascinating. What I found was that what I wanted was something that normal women would want. So I could happily generalize that desire to be stronger – not to be thinner or more beautiful, more pretty, to have more men.”
Yoon-Young views her voice as an important contribution to a collective female voice, and her personal choice to practice jiu-jitsu as a revolutionary act. But she also believes that she has a duty to extract stories about the female experience in jiu-jitsu from a broader spectrum of voices. Her new documentary will feature a number of experienced jiujiteiras from South Korea, the US, and New Zealand. She believes that amplifying women’s voices and elevating the female experience in the public eye will help to validate the feelings and experiences of individual women and make it easier for women trying to relate their lived experiences to male counterparts.
It is clear that as a woman and jiujiteira, Yoon-Young has come a long way from the tender beginnings we witness in Fight Like a Girl. Where she once questioned herself, her abilities, and her place in what she perceived as a male-dominated space, she now has a mature awareness of her importance as part of the broader narrative of the reclamation of women’s bodies.
When it comes to jiu-jitsu, she says, “Korea has changed a lot. Many women have earned their colored belts now. Now we have two female blackbelts and upcoming five to ten blackbelts.” But she sees the need for more female leadership. “Teenage girls are forced to do absurd diets to just lose weight, and they lose their physical abilities ultimately. We think that is very wrong. We don’t want them to start with a background where they victimize themselves. We want to change that. I want to change that. That is the power that we find by training jiu-jitsu. We find ourselves, our bodies, retrieved. We regain our bodies and our physical abilities. It’s a revolution for us to train jiu-jitsu.”
Yoon-Young would like to thank her professor Douglas Santos, a “phenomenal progressive man” and one of her biggest supporters, as well as her teammates at DS Team in New Zealand. Fight Like a Girl is available for viewing on filmfreeway.com. Yoon-Young’s second feature-length documentary is scheduled for release in 2021.