In this week’s class assignment, I was given the task of investigating the life of Ruan Lingyu – perhaps the most prominent Chinese film star during the Golden Era of Chinese Cinema. Ruan Lingyu was born in Shanghai, China in 1910 and gained popularity at a very young age for her work in films such as Love and Duty (1931), Little Toys (1933), and The Goddess (1934). Lingyu’s life followed the “rise and fall” trajectory we see in modern celebrities. Despite her fame and success, Lingyu is best remembered for her suicide at the age of 24 that mirrored the plot of her penultimate film New Women (1935). Lingyu’s life and work are not only interesting, but they also demonstrate key features of how women are represented (especially in the media and pop-culture). However before I make my argument, I wish to share my findings on Lingyu and her interesting life story.
Lingyu did not have an easy childhood. She was born into a poor family. Her father was an oil factory worker who died of tuberculosis when she was five, so she was raised by her single mother who worked as a housemaid to help the family get by. But in 1918, Lingyu received a scholarship to attend a missionary school that taught a namely western education. Sports, dance and acting were part of the curriculum, and it was in school that Lingyu decided to pursue a career in acting.
The young girl started her movie career and took the name of Ruan Lingyu (to hide her “shameful” modest upbringing) in 1926. It was around this time that Lingyu met Zhang Damin, son of the wealthy and prominent Zhang family that Lingyu’s mother worked under as a housemaid. Lingyu’s acting career was stable (she had signed a contract with Mingxing Film Company), but her stardom was impeded by her perturbed private life. Although there are varying, contradictory accounts from my sources, it is definite that Damin mistreated and abused Lingyu in one way or another. Lingyu was reportedly raped by Damin, and Damin also had a severe gambling addiction. In 1928, Lingyu tried to commit suicide for the first time due to the stress she faced from this relationship.
However, in 1930, Lingyu hit a big break with her film Reminiscences of Beijing, in which she plays a prostitute, and began to work on her most memorable films, including: Love and Duty (1931), Little Toys (1933), and The Goddess (1934).
Nearing the pinnacle of her success in 1933, Lingyu left Damin and began living with a rich tea tycoon named Tang Jishan. Damin filed a lawsuit (Lingyu was now making a substantial amount of money), and the tabloids took this as an opportunity to exploit Lingyu’s personal life and make personal attacks. Lingyu, Jishan, and Damin became the focus of the media as Lingyu’s film New Women premiered. Ruan Lingyu was criticized for her private life, and her behavior was described as “damageable to the society.” Women of Shanghai during this time were criticized of being obsessive, snobby, materialistic, and loose in their sexual lives. Although Shanghai women were adored and romanticized on screen, they were marginalized and criticized in Chinese society. Things became even worse for Lingyu when Damin charged her with the crime of adultery.
Sick of the media rumors, on March 8, 1935, the young actress took three bottles of barbiturates and died from the overdose. The death of Ruan Lingyu’s was a commotion. Soon after she died, the newspapers were full of rumors and stories of her death. It did not take long for Ruan Lingyu to be transformed from a beautiful film icon to a degenerate whore.
There are many issues regarding Lingyu that are relatable to modern celebrities and social psychological concepts women still experience today in Western culture. The concept I wish to focus on is the Madonna-Whore Complex. In its simplest form, the Madonna-Whore concept is the idea that women in society are viewed as members of either one of two categories: the Madonna (pure, chaste, beautiful) or the Whore (sexy, seductive, promiscuous). This societal framework was prevalent in Lingyu’s work as well as her own personal life, and it is still a framework we see used today. Viewing women with this stigma in place is obviously dehumanizing women into items that can only be placed under two wildly dichotomist descriptors.
The film I got the opportunity to view was The Goddess (1934). The film centers on a young girl who becomes a prostitute to a wealthy gambler in order to care for her son. When the girl tries to leave, the gambler threatens her son’s life. In an attempt to escape, the girl hits the gambler with a brick and he dies. The girl is arrested and sentenced to prison, but he son is raised by a friend. The film ends with the prostitute pleading that her son never learns the shame of who his mother truly is. She tells a friend to tell her son that she is dead, and she imagines her boy’s successful life that she won’t be able to share with him.
In this example, it is clear how the protagonist is viewed by the society as The Whore and nothing more, regardless of the fact that she is a good mother and stands up for herself by trying to leave the situation. The whole film is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfHL98VAYhA. In the film we can see the young girl taking care of her child (26:41, 36:49), but we are constantly reminded that she is a prostitute (5:20,1:03:00). Additionally in the plot, the other parents get her boy kicked out of school when they find out she’s a prostitute, and they don’t even consider her a mother — or a person in general. Perhaps the worst part of this film is at the end of the film when the prostitute tells her friend to tell her son that she is dead. She’d rather be dead than have others see what society has labeled her… this is not unlike what happened in Lingyu’s personal life.
Lingyu’s other films are thematically similar. In Love and Duty, Lingyu’s character plays a loving housewife (the Madonna) who is dutiful to her husband who instantly becomes ridiculed when she leaves her husband for a man she really loves and lusts after (the Whore). In New Women, the protagonist Wei Ming kills herself after she is unable to escape the label of becoming a prostitute, even though she is a wonderful schoolteacher through most of the film.
These themes also mirror Lingyu’s personal life. Lingyu killed herself after hostile attacks from tabloid reporters who criticized her. They shifted Lingyu’s public reputation and image from a beautiful movie star (Madonna) to a runaway wife who sleeps with a married man (Whore – even though most of the biographies I read indicate that Lingyu did not know that Jishan had a wife and kids).
Unfortunately, this view of women has not changed much over time, and it is just as prevalent in Western culture. The first example that might come to mind is Marilyn Monroe. Monroe had a life with a similar trajectory to Lingyu’s. Monroe had a rough start growing up in the foster care system, she hit big success when she was young, she was idolized and became an instant sex symbol, and then she committed suicide because (this is one of many theories) she was stressed with all of the attention and gossip to over her and her affairs, especially with President John F. Kennedy. Just like Lingyu, after Monroe’s death there was mass outcry and media coverage with all varied opinions of the event.
However, a more recent (though less dramatic) scandal example was at the VMA’s over the one and only Miley Cyrus. There were multiple outcries, slandering on social media, and angry hate mail at Miley’s hypersexual performance. However, if you analyze the situation carefully, you’ll find that it is clear that this outrage is due to the Madonna-Whore Complex. We expect Miley to stay within the category we assigned her. On Disney Channel as Hannah Montana, Miley was immediately labeled as a role model for young girls, a child star, a Madonna. When the VMA performance occurred, no one really stopped to evaluate Miley from an objective viewpoint and consider her beliefs and her goals of the performance – for many, she was just immediately labeled a whore, even if she was merely trying to create a new image and aesthetic for herself.
These examples are only a brief glimpse into the double standard and dichotomous categorization we place on women, but even just with these examples, it is evident that this way of thinking has been around for a long time and it still occurs today — and hopefully from this, we can learn to be more aware of the issue and work towards a representation of women that is not seen through this unfair Madonna-Whore lens.