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The new biopic Elvis covers the early career of Elvis Presley and his enormous influence on American culture. Elvis popularized the Black art form of rock and roll with a broad white audience in a racist society. He horrified some television viewers with his sexually suggestive dance moves. And, as American literature scholar Taylor Hagood writes, he helped turn karate into an obsession among many Americans, particularly poor white people in the South.

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Elvis began studying martial arts while stationed with the US Army in Europe from 1958 to 1960. He studied with Jürgen Seydel, known as the father of German karate, and with Murakami Tetsuji, a Japanese instructor living in Paris. In the 1960s, Elvis began incorporating his karate skills into his movie and stage performances. In a semi-autobiographical skit on his televised ‘68 Comeback Special, he fought off attackers in a karate-influenced dance.

Hagood argues that karate was particularly appealing to men like Elvis, who grew up in poverty, surrounded by the threat of violence, and who had reason not to trust the legal system to keep them safe. Elvis’s father had served time in prison for falsifying a check. At the same time, karate’s focus on discipline—and avoiding violence if possible—resonated with certain southern ideals of masculinity and honor.

Beyond the potential for unarmed self-defense, karate encourages the development of an internally based sense of self, even in the face of stigma and hardships. When Elvis’s wife, Priscilla, left the marriage, Hagood writes, it damaged the public image that he had carefully cultivated of a happy family. At that point, he devoted himself more thoroughly to karate, eventually earning an eighth-degree black belt.

Hagood writes that Elvis’s movies helped expose more Americans to karate, paving the way for the boom in American martial arts films in the 1970s. Harum Scarum (1965), for example, introduced the theme of karate giving power to oppressed groups to fight government corruption. This motif continued in iconic ‘70s movies like Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones, in which karate empowered not only poor or institutionally powerless men—white, Asian, and African-American—but also women.

Elvis’s influence on karate continued through the Tennessee Karate Institute in Memphis, which he helped establish in 1973. The school catered mainly to lower-income and middle-class white people. Hagood argues that the connection between Elvis, karate, and southern white poverty extends into the twenty-first century, including in cultural references like the animated series Johnny Bravo (and spin-offs), in which one of the significant characteristics of the unemployed Elvis-like titular figure is his karate practice.

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Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 26, No. 3 (April 2004), pp. 1–13
Popular Culture Association in the South