Good girls don’t

June 23, 2010

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.)