History is more often not a lesson in progress but a lesson in repeats. And nothing underscores the cyclical rather than linear nature of history for me than watching silent and early sound cinema. When I was old enough to understand what Mae West was not so subtly alluding to, I was surprised by the risque and ribald reality of the 1920’s and 30’s that was put back behind closed doors in the 40’s/50’s to be later re-opened in the 60’s. The flapper girls and sheik boys (yep, that’s the male equivalent) of the 20’s were the predecessors to the hip cats, hippies, and hipsters of later decades in the U.S.
These modern girls and boys of the U.S. had their equivalents elsewhere, such as Japan and China, particularly the city of Shanghai of the latter, and these restless youths are on full display in Sun Yu’s silent 1934 film Queen of Sports. Yu had written the screenplay specifically for star actress Li Lili to play the main character of Lin Ying. The film follows Lin Ying as she flirts with the pleasures of the time while aspiring to be the three-event winner at the National Track and Field competition.
The film quickly introduces us to Ying’s fiery spirit as the country girl released upon the pleasures of the city. She climbs to the top of the steam spout of the ship she came in on to see all she can see, her future as vast as her vision from that vantage point. The fact that she is climbing up while still in a skirt tantalizes the audience, (as does all the voyeuristic thigh shots throughout the film), and reveals how she could care less about decorum. Later on we see her bouncing around a hotel with her dog, her energy and zest for life appearing endless. This exuberant introduction to Ying also preps us for her success as a sprinter. She quickly surpasses the former female track star, a rival who eventually plans revenge in hopes of returning to her status on top of the podium.
Since women’s sports are often neglected even in the present day, it is intriguing to find such an early representation of the women’s sports film. Although women did begin participating in a limited way in the Summer Olympics in Paris in 1900, it wasn’t until the 1928 summer games in Amsterdam when women got ready, set, and going on track and field events. Apparently some women collapsed during the 800 meters, resulting in it being banned for women until 1960. There is a possible allusion to this stereotype of feminine fallibility in Queen of Sports where a woman collapses from symptoms of tuberculosis. As detailed by Susan Sontag in her book Illness as Metaphor, tuberculosis was a disease with significant symbolic value in the earlier 19th century, symbolic value that likely carried over into stories of the 20th century as well.
The film features images of sprint races, shot-put, javelin, pole-vaulting and the high jump. A little football (aka soccer) action is also thrown in since Ying’s beau is a college footballer. Watching films from the distant past always have me curious about extinct gestures. Since silent films rely heavily on exaggerated gestures, I wonder if what I am watching is representative of habits from the time or if the movements are merely for dramatic effect. For example, was the women lifting a leg when kissed really a common gesture or was it something common in cinema to represent a woman’s pleasure? If present in real life or not, was the gesture memetic? Did the audience go out and begin reenacting the gesture like the horse dance in Psy’s Gangnam Style music video? What Queen of Sports has me wondering around gestures is if the style of running or shot-putting were true to the time. One thing that is obvious, however, is the limitations of this pre-Fosbury era of high-jumping. Fosbury ingeniously expanded our ideas of our bodies’ affordances. His flop rose the bar to new heights.
Along with the sprinting, the shot-put receives prominence because Ying’s best friend is an excellent shot-putter, allowing manifestation of a masculine-femininity throughout the film whenever her best friend makes an appearance. This more masculine of feminine portrayals is refreshingly not played for jokes, jokes that require you to accept as legitimate only a limited frame of gender expressions. Her friend is presented as attractive, no lesser than the frolicking flappers. She is allowed to pursue the sporting excellence that is the best fit for her somatic type. Considering the use of masculine women as humorous props in films such as Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, USA 1984), this is another example of where the past was more progressive than the future.
Queen of Sport is an interesting film to place within the scholarly research on the negative impacts of female athletes bearing their bodies, or posing for provocative shots, in an effort to increase visibility of their sport. Think of the occasional salacious poses demanded of women athletes to ‘promote’ their sports, such as U.S. Olympic gold medal alpine skier Lindsey Vonn when she made the cover of Sports Illustrated. The research of sociologist Mary Jo Kane, PhD of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota in the U.S. has demonstrated that such sexual portrayals of women athletes actually turn women and male spectators off from watching women sporting events, significantly turning father’s off as spectators. What she found can be summed up in the title of her article written for The Nation on July 27, 2011, “Sex Sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports”.
This study was done in the U.S., so how applicable it is to East Asian countries needs to be validated, but Queen of Sports makes me think about this research because Ying’s scandalous moments are clearly demarcated from her athletic moments. When she’s flapping her dress up to expose quick peeks at her thighs for the viewer, the scenes are clearly separated from her character is competing, albeit in shorts that were perhaps provocative for the time. In spite of the sexual overtones of many scenes, the non-sexual nature of the sporting events are clearly set off from the salacious scenes. This is just my response to Queen of Sports and a study of one person (and a self-study at that) is not research. But perhaps my reception of Queen of Sports might hint at a nuance to Kane’s research – how a medium of still photography such as a calendar or magazine photo spread heightens the sex so the sport is lost. In addition, these photos often use props to reference the subject as an athlete, conflating women’s sports with sex. In Queen of Sports, we have a complete story of a moment in a young woman’s life. Her life outside the track is compartmentalized. The sexual flirtation is seen as separate. When she’s in the runner’s blocks, all the outside world is blocked from our minds.
Queen of Sports might demonstrate for us a difference between the impact of still photography and the moving image, but the plot appears almost predictive of what studies have found following the implementation of Title IX, the U.S. federal Education Amendments in 1972 that tied federal funding to schools ensuring equal opportunity based on sex, which included scholastic sports opportunities. Quoting from the report “Title IX: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education” put out by The National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education for the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, “Research has found that girls who play sports are less likely to get pregnant or take drugs than those who don’t play sports; they’re also more likely to graduate and go on to college.” When Ying goes to parties with her beau, there might not be drugs, but there is definitely alcohol and there is definitely the possibility of her getting pregnant. We also witness her grades suffer due to the hedonistic exhaustion of her evening activities. Her ability to excel at sport when she dedicates her time to it returns her to a more disciplined life, extracting her from the venues where she is vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy and the negative impact of heavy alcohol usage.
All that dedication is what makes the ending of Queen of Sport confusing. I don’t know what to make of the ending. And because it’s the major plot point of the film, I can’t tell you what I can’t figure out without risking spoiling the film. I resolve that my lack of understanding has to do with my limited knowledge of Chinese historical myths or popular philosophies of the time. But the sign of an intriguing film is that it motivates me to seek out the answers through conversations with folks who know more about Chinese history, to read scholarly work about that time in China’s history, and to give Queen of Sport another run around the track on my computer or if ever provided the opportunity, on a movie screen with musical accompaniment.
A earlier version of this piece appeared on the APG Sports website, a website devoted to sports in East Asia. That website is no longer accessible so it is reposted here with some recent edits.