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Archive for January, 2014

9a2149f150155b275461a2d912498eeaAt the suggestion of one of my readers, I recently started reading the Korean webtoon, Cheese in the Trap. Since I ended up spending most of my weekend reading all the chapters that have been translated into English, I can confidently say it’s addicting.

Hong Sul is a 23-year-old college student who has just returned to school after taking a leave of absence. Much to her surprise and suspicion, Yoo Jung, a handsome, popular, and super rich upperclassman, suddenly wants to hang out with her. While he seems like the perfect guy to just about everyone else, Sul is convinced he’s hiding a dark side.

cittThe premise may sound typical, but the execution is anything but. Switching between the past and the present, readers (and Sul) try to piece together what happened before the heroine took her leave of absence and reconcile that with the present situation. At first this can be a little disorienting, especially since some of the characters’ relationships are so different in the past compared to what they are in the present, but after a chapter or two, the pattern becomes clear and a good back-and-forth flow is established. Flashbacks often reveal something about Sul’s relationships and her experiences with people while simultaneously deepening the mystery.

Along the way, issues like bullying and stalking pop up and so far, those issues have been handled well. Those instances add drama yet are presented as serious problems. Perhaps that’s why watching Sul deal with bullies has been inspiring. Although she keeps many things (like her worries and problems) to herself, Sul speaks up and rationally confronts others when she needs to. Her attempts don’t necessarily end the problem and more often than not someone else–usually a guy–has to intervene, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing her stand up for herself and others. She never feels like a damsel in distress who frivolously tries to make a stand. Her words and actions mean something and the help she receives–be it from a man or not–seems realistic.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the daily life of Sul and her classmates. While I’ve read slice-of-life manga before, Cheese in the Trap is one of the few that tackles the realities of college students in a way that is both entertaining and down-to-earth. How often have you seen your favorite slice-of-life characters complain about the cost of tuition? We see Sul talking to friends about school-related issues, dealing with horrid group projects, and trying to balance top grades with jobs. It’s common for school to become just a backdrop for the social drama that is the focus of the story.

Additionally, slice-of-life dramas/romances often center on the school-age heroine’s search for romance. When academics are mentioned, it’s customarily at the detriment of the heroine who is revealed to be a poor student. Making some heroines of school-based series struggling students is one thing. It’s good to represent a variety of people so, depicting such a protagonist strikes a chord with those of us who struggled in school or know someone who did. Yet at the same time, like with many of the trends and tropes I discuss on this blog, seeing the majority of those heroines fail academically gets old. Ultimately, the school girl heroine, who is supposed to represent an average, likable girl, coincides with academic underachievement and that’s not a particularly good message.

Therefore, the fact that Sul puts an emphasis on her academics set this comic apart from others that I’ve read. She works hard to get good grades so 97245321that she can get scholarships takes on jobs to support herself and get through school. She doesn’t even bother with romance because she’s afraid it will distract her from her academics. It’s made clear that Sul’s top grades aren’t the result of genius, which might have made her hard to relate to for a major of readers, but rather the result of hard work and sacrifice. Sul’s character is still that of a normal young woman, but she represents different struggles that are just as important to depict as the struggles depicted by the typical school girl type.

The rest of the cast and Sul’s relationships with them are equally remedying. The joys and troubles of relationships explored in Cheese in the Trap are not limited to those of dating and romance. Instead, there is a healthy mix of friendships, potential romances, classmates, family, and everything in between. Another nice change is that the romances aren’t presented as rosy dreams of young lovebirds, driven by destiny and the search for “the one.” While Cheese in the Trap‘s romances can be as touching as any good romance, these romances also feel more reality-bound. There are sweet, blissful moments mixed with tenser ones as the couples try to overcome issues and make their relationships work. The relationships aren’t limited to heterosexual relationships either. As the series goes on, a homosexual couple is introduced and I thought the series did a good job of creating two realistic characters who happen to be homosexual instead of two caricatures of gay stereotypes. When this couple becomes more involved in the plot, the difficulties of being homosexual when those around them aren’t so accepting is explored.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about this series, but for now, I’ll leave you all with this: Cheese in the Trap certainly has drama and mystery (and exceeds nicely at both), but at the heart of the story is a twenty-something woman trying to work her way through life, learning just as much about herself and relationships with others as she is about academics. Three-dimensional characters and relationships, a good mix of genres, entertainment, and serious issues, and an excellent execution make this a series I highly recommend.

Edit: Here is the link to a site that allows you to read the comic in English while still supporting the creator. Make sure to follow the site’s instructions on how to access the translation or you’ll just see the comic in Korean.

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In my review of Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen, I praised it as being a more modern rendition of Disney’s classic princess formula. While I tried to briefly explain what I mean by that, my thoughts on Frozen understandably left some people a little confused. After all, what about out-of-the-box hits like Brave or Mulan? Those are both great princess movies featuring protagonists and stories unlike any of the other Disney princess movies, aren’t they? In this post, I want to clarify what I mean when I say Frozen is an improvement of the classic Disney princess formula and why I put Mulan and Brave in slightly different categories. To start, let me define what I consider to be the classic formula.

Princess Protagonist + Romance-focused Plot = Classic Disney Princess Formula

The basic elements of the classic Disney princess formula are a princess protagonist (born royal or married into it) and a plot centered around romance. That is not to say that there are not other plots in the movie other than romance, but that romance plays a starring role in the story. The classic formula is called such because these are the basic elements of the oldest Disney princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) and remains the dominate formula in their princess films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled).

On a side note, Jasmine from Aladdin is an exception to the formula because she is not the protagonist of the movie she appears in, but rather the female lead and love interest of the protagonist, Aladdin. Anyway, now let me break down why Mulan, Brave, and Frozen do or don’t fit this formula.

Mulan: Non-princess Female Protagonist = Not a Disney Princess MovieDownloadedFile-1

I’ve written about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. Disney markets Mulan as a princess. In fact, the only time we see Mulan nowadays in when a dolled up version of her appears in banners brimming with all the lovely ladies of Disney’s princess stories or in other princess-themed Disney merchandise. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that Mulan has no connection to royalty other than saving the Emperor’s hide at the end of her already epic adventure.

While Disney may call Mulan a princess, I see no reason to put her in that category. Her story is much closer to the many male-centered Disney adventures that focus on the growth of a young male protagonist and his relationship with friends and/or family. The only real similarity that I see is that Mulan is a story centered on a woman, just like Disney’s princess movies. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to include her in the princess category and since comparing Disney princess movies to Mulan is like comparing them to The Lion King or Hercules, I don’t. That comparison is fine and doable, but it’s different from comparing a princess movie to a princess movie.

Brave: Princess Protagonist + Non-romance-focused Plot = Non-Traditional Princess Movieimages-26

Brave, on the other hand, is a movie I count as a Disney princess movie because it does feature a princess protagonist. I would, however, consider this movie to be a non-traditional Disney princess movie. Why? Because Brave throws out the romance plot so central to the majority of Disney princess movies in favor of focusing on a mother-daughter relationship. Of course, other Disney princess movies I’ve classified as classic, romance-based plots feature other types of relationships, too, like Ariel’s relationship with her father, but the type of relationship that is most central to those plots is the romance. In Bravethe main plot revolves around how the heroine and her mother come to understand each other when they are forced to work together to undo a spell, pushing what may have been a sub-plot (the heroine’s relationship with her parents) in another princess movie to the forefront.

Frozen: Princess Protagonist + Romance Plot + Non-romance Focused Plot = Tweaked Classic FormulaDisney-Frozen

Frozen falls somewhere in between the pure classic formula and the non-traditional formula, but because the protagonist is a princess and romance, while not the only important plot, is still a central plot, I’m considering it an upgraded version of the classic formula. It mixes elements of the classic formula (romance) with aspects of non-traditional princess movies like Brave (focus on relationships other than romantic ones).

As I said earlier, some of the Disney movies I’ve placed under the category of “classic formula” do have other sub-plots dealing with non-romantic relationships and wishes for freedom/adventure, but those sub-plots are just that–sub-plots. They take a backseat to the main romance plot or are wrapped up tightly in it. For example, getting a chance to see a new world is acted on and achieved only through Ariel’s romance with Prince Eric; Jasmine and Rapunzel ultimately only get their desired freedom through their relationships with their love interests; Tiana has dreams of owning and running her own restaurant, but the story is not about her accomplishing that dream, but of her romantic relationship with Prince Naveen, etc. On the other hand, Anna’s romance and her wish to help/have a relationship again with her sister are equally important in Frozen. Romance is the focus of a good portion of the movie, but obtaining goal A doesn’t get overshadowed by romance nor does Anna’s romantic relationship mean the achievement of that goal.

Pocahontas probably falls somewhere in this group, too. The protagonist is a princess, but unlike Brave, there is a strong romance-focused plot. Like Frozen, there is also another strong plot running alongside the romance–the tension between the English settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe, which the heroine and her love interest try to bridge. However, it’s been years since I’ve seen Pocahontas so, that’s one I need to revisit.

Anyway, that’s it! To some, it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but I hope this makes my stance a little clearer.

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Disney-FrozenOver the years, I’ve complained a lot about Disney’s expansive line of princess tales, from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. Even with renditions that I liked overall, namely their adventurous undertaking of Rapunzel (Tangled), I still had moments where I felt something was left to be desired. Well, Disney, you’ve finally done it. I enjoyed your newest princess movie, Frozen, as both a story lover and as a feminist. As a movie that follows your classic princess formula, i.e. one that has romance as a focus, this is an improvement.

Like many princess tales, Frozen‘s featured protagonist is a teenaged princess, Anna, but in this case, she’s not the only one. Anna’s got an older sister named Elsa and, as we’re quickly shown, the two are close. But Elsa has a little secret. She was born with a magical, wintry power that allows her to create ice and snow with just the touch or wave of her hands. It’s all fun and games until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, which leads Elsa to close herself off from everyone to protect them. The years pass and the sisters grow distant as they live their separate lives in a castle completely shut off from the outside world. Soon, however, Elsa comes of age and must emerge for her coronation. While Elsa is terrified of what might go wrong, Anna is ecstatic and wants to use the opportunity to the fullest after the years of loneliness, maybe even find her “prince.” But when an argument breaks out between the sisters and Elsa’s powers are revealed, she’s labeled a sorceress and flees, inadvertently putting her kingdom into an eternal winter as she goes. Worried about her sister and the kingdom, Anna sets off to find Elsa, picking up some help in the form of a boy and his reindeer (not to mention a talking snowman) along the way.FROZEN_color_p2_3_V2

In recent years, Disney has made an effort to put forth princess protagonists who don’t wilt at the first sign of trouble and Frozen is no exception. Both Anna and Elsa are dynamic characters who display fears and flaws viewers of both genders can relate to while amply showcasing their inner steel as well. And although the sisters get into their fair share of difficult situations, neither feels like a helpless doll, collecting dust while they wait for a prince to save them. If anything, spunky Anna could be viewed as taking the hero’s place for her sister, although Elsa is anything but helpless and has her own crucial part to play. Needless to say, the interaction between Anna and Elsa is wonderful and while Anna’s relationships with Kristoff and Hans are very important, the plot between the sisters is just as much so. In Disney’s past princess films and many other romantic fiction, it’s been hammered home that romantic love can overcome anything, but through Anna and Elsa, Frozen wisely makes it clear that romantic love is not the only powerful form of love.

As for Elsa, overall, I like that the queen/witch character is not vilified. Typically, the queen/witch has great power and independence, but she endsElsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200 up ruled by jealousy, vanity, and other shallow, ugly emotions, resulting in her torment of the innocent heroine before her inevitable downfall. As a result, power and independence in women almost goes hand-in-hand with evil in many classic Disney princess movies. Elsa, however, is an independent, powerful woman who girls and boys can relate to and like. Of course, it’s arguable that Frozen‘s queen/witch character loses some of the authority and power her evil counterparts command since Disney puts her in the role of the persecuted victim. That was done to garner sympathy for a character that plays the villain in the tale Frozen is based on. This role change is something I’ll try to look at more in-depth in a later post. For now, however, I’m just happy that Disney is trying something new.

images-94Disney also continues its trend of pulling away from perfectly plastic prince charming in favor of a more layered, interesting male lead with flaws and quirks of his own. In Frozen, just as there are two female leads, there are two male leads: one prince (Prince Hans) and one average guy (Kristoff), both of which play vital roles in the story. Hans very successfully sets himself apart from the 2D princes of old and I found Kristoff to be an improvement to Disney’s gruff male lead formula. In their attempt to create a new down-to-earth male lead in the princess movies, Disney began featuring more rugged types, the opposite of the stark, clean blankness of past prince characters. The result in the last two movies were somewhat the “bad boy” type. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog starts off as an egotistical playboy while Tangled‘s Flynn Rider is a wanna-be “cool criminal” type. Both were good guys deep down, of course, a goodness which the heroines eventually bring out in them. It’s a charming and fun concept in fiction, but since this trend has been used a lot and can send the wrong message about real-life relationships, I’m happy that Disney took a slightly different approach with Kristoff. As with the past two male leads, Kristoff is a little gruff with the heroine, Anna, resulting in fun and dynamic interactions between the leads, but not once does Kristoff try to pose as a “bad boy.” Instead, he’s an honest, hard-working guy who is perhaps a tad socially awkward, a trait which he shares with Anna and that reflects their mutual struggles with loneliness and isolation.

I also feel Disney has improved its messages about romance. Toward the latter half of the movie, a song starts in which one of the male leads is disneys-frozen-2013-screenshot-kristoffreferred to as a “fixer-upper.” At that moment, my heart sank, thinking this was when fiction would once again announce that if your potential mate has traits you don’t like, all you have to do is stick with and change him/her. But Disney didn’t say that this time. In fact, they made a clear effort to tell viewers that you can’t change people like we’re always told you can. Rather than searching for the “perfect” one like Cinderella or even The Little Mermaid suggest, or finding someone who has flaws that you don’t like and believing you can change those aspects as movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog seem to say, Frozen settles upon middle ground. That is, recognize that we all have flaws and don’t expect to whisk those flaws away with love. It also directly challenge the romantic idea that one can simply bump into the right person and know instantly that this is “the one.” Instead, Frozen sends the message that you must get to know someone before love truly enters the equation. In the end, it touches on the issue of accepting reasonable flaws, but cautions viewers to watch out for duds.

There are still things to improve such as including a lot more POC in their movies, but Frozen is a step in the right direct for Disney’s romance-focused princess films. After years of transition, trying to balance romantic fantasy with modern ideas, I feel they’re finally starting to hit the right notes; female and male leads who break stereotypes and standard roles, a plot with just the right touch of magic, hilarity, and heart-felt moments that both adults and kids can enjoy, and messages that freshen up an old genre, even directly contradicting old fairytale notions. I haven’t read “The Snow Queen” which Frozen is based on so, if you’d like to read an insightful post on that angle, check this post out, but just judging the film, I would recommend it as a large improvement to the classic Disney princess formula.

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