In karate—or any form of physical fighting, really—there exists a common phrase to describe one-on-one battles: “mano-a-mano.” Mano-a-mano is at the core of Netflix’s Cobra Kai, a Karate Kid spin-off that pits Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) against each other once again. It’s a recurring theme in the series: two parties are always contending. Johnny versus Daniel. Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) versus Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Cobra Kai versus Miyagi Do. Even though mano-a-mano is often mistaken as a gendered term (man-on-man) and Cobra Kai feels like it could be a male-dominated show, neither is true.
Mano-a-mano simply means hand-to-hand. And hand-to-hand combat can involve anyone, women included! With nuanced heroines, stunning duels, and a boatload of concerned mothers, Cobra Kai pushes women to the center of the mat. They deserve our attention just as much as the Johnnys, the Daniels, and the Kreeses of the show.
From the very first episodes of Cobra Kai, it’s made clear that women are no longer mere onlookers of the dojo. Aisha Robinson (Nichole Brown) is one of the very first members of Johnny’s Cobra Kai studio, immediately wiping the floor with Miguel in a quick battle. Though Johnny initially protests the idea of a girl in his dojo, the message is clear: the women of Cobra Kai are willing to put up a fight for their love of karate.
The ending of the first season of Cobra Kai is unforgettable. Not only does the finale mark the grim resurrection of Sensei John Kreese, it also flings a new key player into the karate ring: Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser). Although the prodigal daughter long neglected her martial arts roots, her return to the mat is epic. Her sole karate move in Season 1—a dazzling flip in the very last moments of the finale—lends itself to the rest of Cobra Kai as we know it. As long as the Miyagi-Do stands, we truly have Sam to thank.
After jumping through many training sessions, a couple of boyfriends, and a traumatic fight sequence in the second season, this new season of Cobra Kai finds Sam back at square one. No more karate. She can’t even walk up the stairs of her high school, she’s so traumatized by her scarring battle. Sam’s conflict with the wounds of karate is unique to the rest of the show: none of the other characters seem to dwell too long on their traumas. Take Miguel, for example—even though he’s nearly paralyzed at the beginning of the third season, he’s still eager to fight by the final episode. Instead, Sam processes her relationship to martial arts with thoughtfulness and grace.
Her rival, Tory Diaz (Peyton List), offers perhaps the exact opposite experience—and yet, that’s a good thing. Tory doesn’t think before she launches a kick or initiates a fight. But as Season 3 introduces, that’s because she’s always had to be on the defense. She’s been the sole protector of her ill mother and young brother, sparring with her cruel landlord and juggling a few jobs. By the end of Season 2, Tory may look like another jerk looking to sink a punch over some boy drama. But thankfully, in this new season, we get some much-needed backstory in Tory’s wheelhouse. She’s been offered no mercy in life, so Cobra Kai’s motto adorns her lifestyle perfectly.
And while the battle may always seem to rotate between the guys, Tory and Sam are given a vigorous duel of their own. The women of Cobra Kai are not only allowed to fight — they’re allowed to be as vicious, angry, and spiteful as their male peers. The series may exude masculine energy, but the women of the show have just as much brute force as the men.
Young women are at the center of Cobra Kai, but all women are offered their spotlight in the series. Mothers are omnipresent in this karate universe, almost always burdened with all of the worries that come naturally with hand-to-hand combat. Who wouldn’t be a little wary of a high school karate ring? Amanda LaRusso (Courtney Henggeler) is a successful entrepreneur—somehow, she balances her life at the car dealership with a bashful, karate-obsessed husband. While we may get tired of her scorn towards martial arts, it’s totally justified. That said, it would be killer to see the entire LaRusso family in action together.
Veering into spoilers for the most recent season, The Karate Kid’s beloved Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) returns to San Fernando Valley in Season 3. Though she’s beckoned by Johnny’s dopey Facebook texts, her help is more pertinent than she knows. Ali is the gauze that will heal Johnny and Daniel’s old wounds and bind them together to battle Kreese. Without Ali’s rational side, the two guys wouldn’t have released their bitterness. No longer just an object to win in Johnny and Daniel’s war, Ali’s resurgence is key to the journey into Season 4.
Cobra Kai isn’t some brilliant work of feminism, and it doesn’t need to be—the tongue-in-cheek humor, nostalgia, and fight scenes are enough to carry the whole ensemble. Nevertheless, Cobra Kai’s women are some of the best characters in the show and we should cherish them as the karate goddesses they are. Even though women didn’t fight in The Karate Kid’s original All Valley Karate Tournament, here’s hoping they nab the top prize in Cobra Kai’s big Season 4 battle.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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