Good girls don’t

I’m not sure why I’ve seen as many productions of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as I have. Social obligation tends to force me into a seat watching a play I detest. I mean, I really, really dislike this play. I can’t even credit the effort of various directors to contextualize the story of breaking a woman’s spirit in ways that make it tragically tolerable. (I’ve never seen this work.) I don’t have the inclination to accept the play’s plot as representative of its time, because there are other Shakespeare plays that don’t make me sick to my stomach, so why bother trying to squelch active disdain?

So I’m not really inclined to appreciate Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of… trilogy as an accurate representation of its time. I’m not a cultural historian, so I have no idea what things were like for women in pre-industrial Korea. I just know that I don’t really care for its portrayal of “good” women as passive and patient, no matter how elegantly drawn it is. “I think that the process of a girl becoming a woman is one of the biggest mysteries and wonders of life,” the creator said in an interview. I wish he had thought harder about that mystery and hadn’t imposed what strikes me as such a male notion of wonder upon it.

Young Ehwa lives with her widowed mother, who keeps a tavern in the countryside. Mom advises Ehwa on womanhood, pounding in the notion of the woman as flowering shrub, patiently waiting and gently blossoming until a male pollinating insect will deign to settle upon her, and all will be well. Just look at Ehwa’s friend, the porcine Bongsoon, who actually lets curiosity lead to action. Bongsoon is less attractive than Ehwa, and her mother clearly isn’t giving her the lecture on the botany of desire or instructing her that true love waits. You can be damn sure that, should Bongsoon find a man stupid enough to marry damaged goods, birds won’t fly from the trees and every bell in the countryside won’t ring when that marriage is consummated. Bognsoon is an object of ridicule and contempt because she has the nerve to act on her desires.

That’s so gross to me. And it unfortunately reminds me of an episode of The Gilmore Girls, another tale of a young single mother and a beautiful teen-aged daughter. The mother, Lorelai, is eavesdropping on a conversation between her beautiful daughter, Rory, and her daughter’s less beautiful friend, Paris, who is telling Rory about her first sexual experience. Lorelai breathlessly waits to see if Rory confesses any particular kinship with Rory, and while Rory doesn’t judge Paris, she reveals that she’s not ready yet. Later, Lorelai privately celebrates the fact that she has raised “the good kid.” I liked most of The Gilmore Girls a lot, but that sequence rang so endlessly false to me, given Lorelai’s circumstances and her honesty and willingness to act on her own desires. (Maybe the creators realized how icky this sequence was, given the circumstances around Rory actually losing her virginity.)

I wouldn’t be inclined to excuse The Color of… as a period piece. It’s relatively contemporary in terms of when it was created, so it reads more as an exercise of nostalgia for a time when good girls remained pure. I’d much rather read something like Morim Kang’s 10, 20, and 30, another tale of a single mother and daughter, that actually respects female desire and development and the ways unique women deal with it.

(The Color of… trilogy is the subject of the inaugural Manhwa Moveable Feast. Visit Manga Bookshelf for a list of links and resources.)

15 Responses to Good girls don’t

  1. Aerliss says:

    Hmmm, I’ve always considered The Taming of The Shrew to be about a woman who felt that to be strong she had to be masculine and aloof, but comes to realise, through various events and circumstances involving a man she hates, that the feminine is just as strong as the masculine.

    I’ve only seen it a few times though… maybe I put my own slant on it.

    Aaaanyway.

    Thanks for the warning. Think I’ll avoid that trilogy XD Although the idea that she’ll build a HUGE fire to bring him back, as a fire butterfly, is amusing; don’t such creatures usually end up a bit crispy?

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Y’know, as many times as I’ve seen and discussed the play, I’ve never heard that position on it or seen that approach in the staging. I’ll have to think about it!

  2. […] Good girls don’t – David Welsh (The Manga Curmudgeon) […]

  3. Erica says:

    Oh David, when we finally get together, I see our conversation as an orgy of food, drink and screaming with frustration about this and all the other series in which girls put up with shit, because men are, like, the sum and total of our existence. I’ll bring the wine, you bring the cheese and we can both bring our outrage.

  4. Sadie says:

    I always read the Taming of the Shrew as a tale about how love can change you and compromise you, leave you both happy and miserable.

    I accept the portrayal of both Ehwa and Bongsoon because I think it’s real. Both are playing at what they think love and sex are. Ehwa’s fantasy involves waiting and dreaming. Bongsoon’s involves petting and hoping the boy will like her for it. It’s all so Dawson’s Creek isn’t it?

  5. Johanna says:

    I was looking forward to hearing your criticisms, David, because I respect your opinion, but I’m afraid they’ve left me confused. You don’t like Ehwa’s story because it reminds you of a (badly-written, yes) TV show episode? And because you object to the way you envision Bongsoon’s hypothetical story turning out?

    Ehwa’s mother may tell her to wait, but Ehwa takes action in seeking out the monk and then making a choice against him. I don’t think you’re portraying the full scope of the story accurately.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I don’t like Ehwa’s story because she doesn’t really develop. Her attachments are more abstract and conceptual than rooted in feeling or urgency. I could have accepted her feelings for the monk, which struck me as a young person’s fantasy of star-crossed romance more than Ehwa having feelings for him, if they’d been contrasted later by her having specific feelings for the man she eventually marries, but I never felt that she knew him so much as that he seemed in some way right, and that there was something noble in waiting for their difficulties to iron themselves out. Her choices were not to act — to wait until the man she thought she wanted could come and claim her, and she viewed that with the same feeble romanticism that she expressed towards the young monk. I’m probably still not explaining this very well, but I found her frustratingly passive. She assumed that the world would of adult feelings reveal itself to her rather than taking steps to explore it, and I’ve probably seen that approach have dire consequences far more often than an approach like Bongsoon’s.

      And honestly, I found the portrayal of Bongsoon as an object of ridicule objectionable, not some projected outcome for her, though I think that can be reasonably extrapolated. Ehwa remains chaste and emotionally loyal, and she’s the pretty, perfect bride with the blissful wedding night. Bongsoon is the ugly bridesmaid.

  6. […] his tone, and his choice of language. David Welsh makes a wonderful point in his post “Good girls don’t” about the way Kim portrays Ehwa’s friend Bongsoon whom he constantly sets up for […]

  7. Brigid says:

    I found the character of Bongsoon very problematic. I actually thought the way she was drawn, with slanted eyes, would be considered racist in a Western work, and I agree with you that there is a serious double standard with regard to women’s sexuality—it’s nice to yearn, but not to actually act on it.

  8. […] new contributions to the Manhwa Moveable Feast, beginning with David Welsh’s post “Good girls don’t. I’m not really inclined to appreciate Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of… trilogy as an accurate […]

  9. […] Shelf, their discussion column, to the Color of Earth trilogy. At The Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh objects to the portrayal of sexuality in the story. Michelle Smith reviews The Color of Heaven at Soliloquy […]

  10. […] or confusing their story with the one the author wanted to tell, or reacting to what they’re reading into the story instead of what’s on the page. But I should have chosen a less inflammatory word […]

  11. Caddy C says:

    Very interesting read!

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read this manwha so I can’t really comment on the specifics. But the examples you cite seem to be particularly blatant good girl/bad girl narratives in which a girl’s sexuality is the sole determinating factor in her worth as a human being.

  12. NancyP says:

    I thought the graphic artistry was excellent. I do think that the story renders the time and place well. Small towns are small towns all over the world – not much to do, plenty to gossip about. Social choices were few, the mother did the best she could to be independent and raise her child, and the options were few. Owning and running an inn/local bar at least guaranteed a roof over their heads, at the price of tethering herself to the bar in the late afternoon and evening. I interpret the mother’s waiting for her “picture man” as bowing to the inevitable, accepting the consequences of putting her child first, choosing to stay rooted, and falling in love with a wanderer. It’s no surprise that she does her best to raise her daughter as a “good girl” – Ehwa’s chances are limited in village life, as she is not from a “good family” (one with land, large number of kin, and “respectability” in business dealings and general behaviour), a matter of economic practicality.

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