The subject of sexism in the Color trilogy became central in yesterday’s 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 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.
David goes on to discuss Kim’s treatment of Ehwa’s sexually active friend, Bongsoon.
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 … Bognsoon is an object of ridicule and contempt because she has the nerve to act on her desires.
Then, in yesterday evening’s Off the Shelf, Michelle Smith and I discussed our feelings about Kim’s ideas about women at length, including the difference between the story’s historical setting and the values expressed by its contemporary author.
MELINDA: 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 … 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.
MICHELLE: 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.
Michelle also had some thoughts about the story’s portrayal of its male characters.
MICHELLE: 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.
Near the end, I sum up in a characteristically wordy manner.
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.
Though a number of the participating critics have made arguments about the sexism in the series so far, it’s important to note that not everyone agrees with this assessment. In the Manga Out Loud podcast linked in yesterday’s update, for instance, Johanna Draper Carlson goes so far as to describe the series as “a feminist work.” The podcast as a whole is well worth listening to for insights from both Johanna and host Ed Sizemore, but it’s a particularly useful source for those seeking a contrasting point of view on the question of Kim’s perceived sexism.