Welcome to the fourth installment of Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle! Joining me as always is Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
We’re going to shift our format a bit this week with a special look at Kim Dong Hwa’s Color trilogy (The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven) published in English by First Second. Kim’s trilogy is the subject of this month’s Manhwa Moveable Feast, so I suspect it’s no surprise to hear that this is something both Michelle and I have been reading.
The Color trilogy traces the coming-of-age of Ehwa, a young girl in pre-industrialized rural Korea, from her first spark of sexual curiosity to her eventual marriage to her true love, Duksam. The story is also heavily focused on Ehwa’s relationship with her widowed mother, a tavern owner who discovers new love for herself in a traveling artist known only as “The Picture Man.”
MELINDA: Let’s get right to the meat of things. There’s been a lot of discussion among critics about whether or not this series is inherently sexist. Michelle, I’d like to start with bringing up a statement you made in your recent review of The Color of Heaven:
I know that the limited scope of life for a woman in this time and place is historically accurate, and that for a mother to say, “There is nothing better in life than getting married” reflects a period where marriage provided the ultimate in protection for a woman … To be honest, I think a large part of my ire is due to the fact that The Color Trilogy is written by a man. If a woman wrote these things, I’d still be annoyed, but coming from a male author I can’t help but read such statements as downright condescending. Try as I might to view these attitudes through a historical lens, I’m simply unable to get over my knee-jerk reaction.
First of all, I wouldn’t characterize your reaction as knee-jerk at all. I think what you’re reacting to (and I mentioned this in comments, but I’ll reiterate it here) is not the story’s historical context, but the author’s own sexism which he reveals in the way he portrays the realities of the period. My immediate thought upon finishing the series was that I found it inexpressibly sad. Ehwa’s mother spends almost the entire series teaching her daughter about what a woman’s life is in their world and helping her learn how to endure a lifetime of waiting and heartache that can only be relieved by the companionship of a beloved man. And I suspect there is quite a bit of historical accuracy in this sense of utter helplessness and lack of worth placed on a single woman in that period.
But despite the bleakness of their circumstances, Kim portrays it all with a loving nostalgia. Even when expressing the sadness and longing felt by Ehwa and her mother as they wait for their men, he portrays it all as beautiful and even romantic. This isn’t matter of being true to the period. These are Kim’s own values being revealed here, and that’s what we’re reacting to. The same story could be told without that veil of fond nostalgia and it would read very, very differently. If this series had actually been written during that time period, that would be different matter as well, but Kim is a contemporary writer, and as such, he’s responsible to contemporary readers for the story he’s chosen to tell and how he tells it.
MICHELLE: I didn’t put it so coherently in my review, but I definitely think I was responding to that sense of “loving nostalgia,” as you put it, when I wrote of condescension. I know realistically that I shouldn’t be expecting these women to be entertaining big dreams that would defy their social norms at the time, but I did expect at least some acknowledgment that their circumstances rather sucked, even if they couldn’t do anything about it. Instead, we get lots and lots of rhapsodizing and romanticizing.
As I replied in comments, one can contrast this with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, written (I think) about 200 years before The Color Trilogy, which deals with women with limited opportunities who must find husbands if they hope to achieve any kind of security in the world, and even in this well-loved romance novel such a pursuit is not romanticized.
MELINDA: I’m glad you brought up Jane Austen specifically, because I think she’s a prime example of an author with a very strong voice. In fact, I often feel that when her work is adapted for the screen, this is a crucial item that tends to get overlooked. She makes it absolutely clear at all times how she feels about her characters, their circumstances, and their society.
Kim makes his feelings just as clear through his character designs, the flow of the panels, 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 ridicule for lacking Ehwa’s sexual virtue, even to the point of drawing her as an unattractive character. This is a man with a strong point of view regarding what it means to be a woman and what makes a good woman, and it colors the entire series.
MICHELLE: I like some adaptations of Austen’s work a great deal (Colin Firth!) but it’s a sad truth that most of her commentary is not represented. A lot of times I think Pride and Prejudice comes across as a simple rich boy, poor girl romance, but there is real danger looming for the Bennet girls once their father dies and inheritance of the only home they’ve ever known bypasses them entirely. Elizabeth may be willful enough now to hold off on marrying for convenience, but as exemplified by the conduct of Charlotte Lucas, not every woman is so fortunate.
I read David’s comments on Bongsoon with interest this morning! For some reason, the scene that sticks in my mind is one in which she’s depicted as being so boy crazy that she’s hanging around a boy’s home, pretending to call for an escaped family pet that actually died three years before. She’s not an ideal woman, waiting patiently like a flower for a man to alight, but aspires to be a butterfly of her own and winds up making a fool of herself.
MELINDA: There’s a great quote from last year’s Good Comics for Kids roundtable on the series, in which Kate Dacey expressed similar thoughts about Bongsoon.
As Kim draws her, Bongsoon has a piggy face and tiny, slanted eyes that make her look grotesque, especially when contrasted with the graceful way in which he draws Ehwa and her mother. I felt like the author was passing judgment on his own character, inviting us to view Bongsoon in an unfavorable light for being easy.
And the boy Kim sets up for Bongsoon’s sexual partner, wow… I think almost every time we see him, he’s got his hands in his pants, and not just in there, but obviously playing with his so-called “gachoo,” as we’re made painfully aware by the “wiggle wiggle” sound effects throughout. And I say “painfully aware” because I’ll admit that made me really uncomfortable. I never thought I was a prude, but there were things in this series that I felt very squeamish about, which I hadn’t expected at all. I’m not big on sound effects for bodily functions. Some things are better left untranslated, in my view. Heh. Obviously this is not a valid criticism of the series, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it affected my experience as a reader. And really, in terms of that character, I think this goes along with my point. It seems obvious that we’re meant to be repulsed by him, just as we’re meant to look down on Bongsoon for the things she does with him.
MICHELLE: I have long reconciled myself to my own prudishness, so there were many things in this series that simply made me go, “Eww.” I think it’s possible to talk about sex without being gross—and, indeed, the final consummation of Ehwa and Duksam’s marriage, while incredibly silly with all its over-the-top symbolism, is at least not gross—but when you focus on the body parts and functions themselves without the attendant emotions, gross is what you get. Sometimes it seems like everyone in the village is a complete horndog, like the tavern patrons who continually proposition Ehwa’s mother.
MELINDA: This actually brings me to another point you made in one of your reviews, regarding the consistent focus on Ehwa’s developing sexual maturity as opposed to her emotional maturity. And while it’s true that coming-of-age stories do tend to revolve around sexual awakening, it’s notable I think that though we experience Ehwa’s sexual development in meticulous detail, there’s very little attention given to the development of her romantic attachments. In fact, I’d say out of Ehwa’s romantic episodes, the one that’s best-developed is actually her early crush on the young monk. That’s played out very realistically for a crush–all shy meetings with a heavy spark, leading to lots of mooning about. By contrast, her true love story with Duksam is barely developed at all.
I think it’s partially this strong bias towards Ehwa’s sexual development that leads me to distrust the author’s feelings about women. He’s quoted as saying (in an interview at Newsarama), “I consider the process of a girl becoming a woman one of the biggest mysteries and wonders of life.” But he appears to regard that process as being primarily about sexuality. Not only are we shown very little in terms of Ehwa’s emotional development, but she never shows interest in really anything besides learning about sex and men, though she carefully remains a virgin throughout. That seems like such an exclusively male fantasy.
I’ve seen people explain this away as a lack of other compelling pastimes for a young woman in that period, but Kim really doesn’t push that concept very convincingly otherwise, even when it seems like he could. He could easily have set up sex (or thoughts of sex) as a welcome distraction from a woman’s otherwise grueling, tedious life. But aside from enduring village gossip and lewd remarks from patrons, there isn’t much made of Ehwa’s mother’s hardships as a single woman in her world, and Ehwa is never seen doing chores or helping her mom out at the tavern–other things one might assume to be unavoidable realities of her lot. Even learning to cook is kind of tacked on near the end, as though it hadn’t occurred to anyone earlier on. So it’s difficult to imagine that Kim is specifically trying to make a point about Ehwa’s tragic lack of stimulating occupation. More than anything, it just seems like… well, that’s what he’s interested in and what he associates with “a girl becoming a woman.”
It’s not only Ehwa who is shortchanged by this. Her mother, too, fails to get her due for carrying on so valiantly in a man’s world. Even when she expresses so clearly her love for her daughter by refusing to sell her off to make her own life more comfortable (an opportunity, one assumes, that other parents in the area would jump at, considering the poor girl who is married off to a nine-year-old), by glossing over her true hardships, I think Kim lessens some of the impact that decision might have had. We never get the feeling that Ehwa’s mother is dangerously short of money or that she truly dislikes her work. She even makes excuses for the lewd tavern men later on in the story, carefully pointing out how hard their lives are, and highlighting the kernels of wisdom hidden within their obnoxious banter. The lives of both Ehwa and her mother are carefully viewed through rose-colored glasses throughout so that the fantasy is never broken.
I suppose what I’m saying here is really a response to those who have been equating cries of “sexism!” with an inability to recognize the story’s historical setting. I think the real problem is that Kim doesn’t portray the historical setting thoroughly enough. It would be one thing if he was viewing women of the period with careful historical objectivity, but he’s not. He is clearly writing from a place of deep nostalgia and his choices are incredibly subjective. He picks and chooses only what supports his vision of the ideal woman–one that is scarily close to what might have been envisioned by an actual man of that time period.
MICHELLE: In terms of Ehwa not showing an interest in anything besides men, she’s not exactly encouraged by her mother who never talks to her about anything but men! I was surprised that it was only when Ehwa was seventeen and on the verge of marriage that her mother thought, “Oh, perhaps I should teach her to do some things around the house.” What a poor, neglected brain Ehwa has! Now I’m getting riled again considering that a girl who dwells in ignorance to this degree might actually be someone’s concept of the perfect woman!
This causes me to wonder what qualities the author believes make up the perfect man. It would seem that Duksam is supposed to fill that role. Faithful and dependable he may be, but he’s also fairly devoid of personality. I wonder if, in his way, Duksam isn’t just as idealized as the women are.
MELINDA: Heh, yeah, I kind of wondered about that too. I guess if we use Duksam and The Picture Man as models, we could assume that the ideal is a big, strapping man who values the freedom to wander, is good in a fight, a stallion in the bedroom, and offers questionable financial security. Another male fantasy? :D
MICHELLE: Yeah, I thought it was pretty amusing that sex with Duksam rocked Ehwa’s world so thoroughly that she was, like, apparently hallucinating clouds and waves or something. Though it’s pretty sad that it’s portrayed as the defining moment in her entire life and is awarded a multi-page spread of snicker-inducing imagery.
MELINDA: So, I feel like we’ve been tearing down the series for a while here, though there are some really lovely things about it. The artwork is fairly stunning in its simple beauty and the poetic language is quite evocative and soothing at times. I have difficulty focusing on those things because my personal experience with the work was so dominated by feelings of alienation in terms of how poorly my own values line up with the author’s, but whatever I think about why the books are so beautiful, I can’t deny that they are.
MICHELLE: Actually, I pretty much can’t stand the poetic language and really desperately wanted the characters to just speak plainly. I did enjoy the art, though, especially depictions of landscapes or interiors like the family kitchen. When we were discussing Ehwa’s lack of interest in anything but men, it occurred to me that even if we had seen more details of her days at the market—or, in fact, some scenes of what the market is like besides the fact that one can buy a mirror there—that would’ve gone a long way in showing that she is interested in something besides boys.
MELINDA: I enjoyed the language for about a volume, and then in isolated moments later on. That’s a very good point about the market and other details of village life that were left out of the books. I bet he would have drawn scenes like that beautifully as well.
Also, to be fair to Kim, despite my complaints above, there are specific times when he expresses real dismay over some of the realities of the time period for women. He comes down clearly against arranged marriages as well as a married woman’s traditional place in her in-laws’ home. You’ll note that these are two things Ehwa does not have to endure, which is interesting. In the first case, it’s to be expected, since he uses Ehwa’s mother as the primary vessel for his voice and that’s something within her control. The second is not, but perhaps this is a horror he simply could not bear to impose on his beloved characters, as it seems Ehwa’s mother dodged that bullet as well. Or perhaps this reflects his own mother’s (and grandmother’s) circumstances, since the work is at least partly biographical.
MICHELLE: Those omissions are interesting. Perhaps his mother did go through the “horror” and he simply couldn’t figure out a way to romanticize it!
MELINDA: Like you, I really wanted to enjoy these books and it actually pained me not to. I feel like I spent each page of each volume trying and trying to put my personal reactions aside so that I could just let myself sink into Kim’s romantic vision of the time and of the women he wrote and drew with such obvious affection. I don’t hate these books, but the disconnect I feel between my perception of the quality of these women’s lives and the author’s perception of it is too great for me to like them.
In my introduction to the series, I quoted this review from a (male) writer at grovel.org who praised the series for being “so appealing, so feminine, so gloriously gentle and pretty and lovable, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a flower.” Though I mentioned then that I thought this assessment was perhaps not quite fair to the series, upon reflection, I think it describes it quite well. And I guess that’s my problem. That’s a concept of femininity that devalues women, and it is painful to see that being glorified by a contemporary writer, regardless of setting. The contemporary eye should be able to look back at a period when such an ideal was in place and recognize it for what it is. Kim embraces it with his whole heart.
MICHELLE: Exactly. I don’t hate the books but I just can’t like them. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I do think that you’re right. Also, reading the quote above before I read the third and final book in the trilogy informed how I read it to some extent, as I was aware that the same things I was reading and grumbling over were the same things a male reviewer had read and taken to be lovable and perhaps an accurate reflection of women today.
MELINDA: As this column has run on unusually long, it’s probably best we stop here before we rile ourselves up further.
Be sure to check out the growing collection of entries for this month’s Manhwa Moveable Feast, where you’ll find a wide range of opinions on this series.
Thanks for joining us! Come back again next week for a fresh edition of Off the Shelf!