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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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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When I tell people that I am a feminist and especially when I reveal that I review fiction on my blog from a feminist perspective, it’s sometimes taken for granted that I dislike fiction that isn’t feminist. That’s a hell of a lot better than assuming I spend my days plotting the overthrow of men, but enjoying and reviewing fiction is a bit more complicated than that for me so, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

It goes without saying that I love finding stories that, in addition to being  generally well told, thought-provoking, and striking, promote healthy, modern ideas about gender and gender roles. When I discover those gems, they tend to get a special place in my heart, as well as on my blog. After all, finding fiction like that means I can enjoy every aspect of the story without feeling let down about gender representation. Even more than that, stories that present characters–male or female–fighting against gender norms or dealing with the real effects of gender norms in society can leave me with a sense of empowerment and make me think about gender roles in society and in media. Other times, fiction depicts characters who are non-stereotypical and appear unrestricted by gender norms, which is equally refreshing even without an obvious message on gender roles. Frankly, putting feminism aside, those types of non-stereotypical characters and plots appeal to me more as just a fan of fiction since that makes the overall story more interesting.

But to be honest, those examples aren’t particularly easy to come by. It’s like needling out one perfect book from the mounds of average ones. Excuse me for using a corny phrase, but if I had a penny for every time I crossed paths with fiction that had sexist content, I would be a rich woman. Sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination are, sadly, one of those elements of societies that are deeply engrained in our ways of thinking and are hard to get rid of entirely.

Writing on Gagging on Sexism and getting feedback from others has clarified the way I view sexism in fiction, just as it has helped me see larger issues differently. It is easy to pick out series that I personally feel do not have good stories and that promote highly sexist or archaic ideas about gender, roles, and relationships. It’s harder, however, to discuss series that I enjoy or maybe even really love in many ways, but that disappoint me in other ways relating to gender representation. Whether I am reviewing those series or simply reading/watching them for my own pleasure, as a story lover, I don’t want to dismiss a work of fiction that succeeds in entertaining me. Yet, at the same time, I am bothered by gender issues, which in one story may not be a problem, but that are often part of larger trends that promote unhealthy representations of gender. I can’t just ignore that or the problem will pass by as acceptable.

In those cases, I don’t think the stories should simply be dismissed as “bad.” Instead, I try to make others aware of these issues as they read/watch it. We can still enjoy fiction that may have non-progressive aspects and that feed into larger issues of gender representation. However, it is better to be aware of those issues as we enjoy that fiction, rather than mindlessly ingesting it.

When I write a post on a series, I try not to suggest that you to reject or accept a series based on whether it is feminist or sexist. Occasionally I come across a piece that offends me to the point that I recommend others against it, but usually I see other problems with those rare examples than just sexism. In fact, even series that I praise aren’t necessarily written to be “feminist,” but are series that I, looking at it from my feminist perspective, felt promoted ideas that are modern, non-stereotypical, and/or thought-provoking in addition to being plain good stories. In the end, whether I point out good aspects of fiction or bad, my goal is simply to stop and think, and get others to think, for just a moment to consider what fiction is saying to us.

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In this series, I analysis princess characters who defy the stereotypical representation of princesses in fiction, the beautiful, kind, and romance-focused princesses like those in Disney movies (click here for a refresher). When it comes to destroying the princess stereotype, it’s hard to get much further from the traditional type than Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Azula. Unlike the other complex princesses I’ve discussed who were characters one could consider “heroes,” this princess is ruthless and completely proud of it. In the well-known Nickelodeon series, Azula plays one of the main antagonists and boy, does she make an excellent one! She’s the pride and joy of her father, leader of a nation that has systematically invaded and taken control of other societies and a man cold enough to burn and exile his own son. Rather than sit around a palace in a puffy dress waiting for others to take care of her, Azula has been charged with an important mission to capture the greatest threat to her nation–the Avatar–and she thrills at the chance. This is obviously not your average princess character so, without further ado, let’s break down her characteristics.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITSimages-76

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of typical princess material in Azula. She’s attractive, but that is never the focus of her character and most of the series she appears in armor or something else that’s easy to fight in (the picture to the right is one of the rare instances when she looks more traditionally feminine). She’s a perfectionist, but she’s not perfect like some of Disney’s earliest princess characters. While she would like to be perfect and tries her hardest to be, it’s clear that Azula is human and therefore imperfect, much to her frustration. Romance is never a factor so, Azula doesn’t fall into the category of prince-crazy princesses who give up everything for them or whose whole story revolves around romance. And as for kindness…

NON-STEREOTYPICAL TRAITS

AzulaAzula has followed closely in her father’s footsteps; she’s an egoist who knows just how to manipulate, threaten, and control those around her, even people she calls “friends.” Is that something to be admired? Most of us would probably say no, but one of the things I like about Azula is that she’s not nice. She has high ambitions and won’t let anything or anyone stand in her way, even if it means hurting someone else. It’s not unusual to see this trait in male characters, but rarely is it seen in female characters. So often female characters, whether they’re princesses or not, are supposed to be nice. Sometimes they’re obviously nice and other times they’re tough girls who come off as cold, but are revealed to be softhearted girls who have been put into a difficult situation and forced to toughen up. If a female character is ever mean, it’s almost always in a petty, shallow way (i.e. the mean girl who torments the nice girl because they both like the same guy). But where are the merciless girls, the mean girls who have more on their minds than making a nice girl look stupid in front of a guy? Azula is one of the few I can think of and she’s actually quiet complex.

In addition, she’s extremely capable, unlike many of the classic Disney princesses. Azula is given big responsibilities by her father/ruler of her country and she handles them excellently, to the horror of the protagonists. Arguably, she does a better job of hunting the Avatar than anyone, beating out her older brother and a decorated admiral, and (without spoiling anything) accomplishes some amazing feats for her country. She’s also one of the most skilled firebenders (think of it as magical martial arts) in the series. Besides her father, the Firelord, Azula is the second-baddest villain in the series. If a series has a female antagonist, she typically doesn’t play a huge part and is usually one of the weakest enemies. The fact that Azula is a princess just makes her badness all the more amazing since princess characters are most often depicted as damsels in distress or (if we’re lucky) heroes; either way they’re supposed to be good people.

To sum it up, Azula is the anti-Disney princess princess character. She has power as a princess and she uses it to her fullest advantage. She’s brutal, capable, complex, and one of the best female villains I’ve come across. So, if you’re looking for princess characters who destroy stereotypes, Azula is definitely one to check out. She won’t disappoint.

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To ring in the New Year I’m doing something a little different from my normal posts. I thought I’d end the year by shining the spotlight on some movies, books, manga, and anime that I found satisfied both my need for a good story as well as my need for awesome heroines. As I’m sure you all know, it’s not easy finding strong, realistic female characters in fiction all the time and while everything I’ve chosen may not be perfect, I’d like to give some suggestions for those of you looking for some satisfying fiction (and some non-fiction) for the coming year. I’d love to do individual posts on these suggestions in the future to further explain why I found them appealing, but for the sake of quickness, here’s the list:

Fiction Books
  • Abhorsen trilogy (by Garth Nix)
  • Fire (by Kristin Cashore)
  • Graceling (by Kristin Cashore)
  • Harry Potter series (by J.K. Rowling)
  • Moribito series (by  Nahoko Uehashi)
  • Pride & Prejudice (by Jane Austen)
  • Song of the Lioness series (by Tamora Pierce)
  • The Twelve Kingdoms series (by Fuyumi Ono)
Non-Fiction Books
  • America’s Women (by Gail Collins)
  • Elizabeth I (by Anne Somerset)
  • Enlightened Sexism (by  Susan J. Douglas)
  • The Mysterious Life of Private Thompson (by Laura Leedy Gansler)
  • When Everything Changed (by Gail Collins)
Manga
  • Nana
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Ouran High School Host Club
  • Paradise Kiss
  • Sailor Moon
  • Skip Beat!
  • Usagi Drop

Anime

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • Beast Player Erin (streaming legally on Crunchyroll.com)
  • Cross Game
  • Library Wars
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • The Twelve Kingdoms
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena
  • The Rose of Versailles
  • Usagi Drop

Movies

  • Elizabeth (2008)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes
  • The Heiress (1949)
  • Disney’s Mulan
  • Offside
  • Persepolis
  • True Grit (2010)
  • The Young Victoria

This list will be posted as a page labeled “Recommendations” from now on. Some of these I chose based on the thought-provoking messages dealing with gender while others simply presented strong female characters. I enjoyed (or am enjoying in the case of a couple of those on-going manga) all of the stories in the fiction I have on this list. As for the non-fiction, I listed a couple of books dealing directly with feminism and a number of books about women in history that I found inspiring. If I have done a more thorough review of something on the list, I will put a link to that review on the page (there aren’t many right now). Finally, because I’m always looking for more stories of strong women, this list will certainly grow (I’m positive I’m forgetting a ton as well). On that note, if you have any suggestions for me to look into, I’d love to hear them and will try to read/watch it when I can. I wish everyone luck in the coming year and hope you’ll continue to support Gagging on Sexism! See you in 2012!

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On my never-ending journey in search of strong women to read about, fiction hasn’t always come through for me. Sure, they exist, like some kind of beautiful, fleeting dream, but these elusive characters (borderline myths) just don’t appear as often as they should. But with the easy switch of a genre at last this starved woman is beginning to find the satisfactory story she’s been looking for. Forget fantasy, bring on the fact!

The women of history; do we really know them? We met some of them in school, of course. Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Mary Washington, etc., but behind the dry pages of high school’s history textbooks lie amazing, daring women with lives that play out as well as any drama or romance. But unlike Pride & Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett or True Grit‘s Mattie Ross, these women were real, starring in stranger than fiction lives!

For example, remember the story of the mysterious Chinese warrior, Mulan? Based on a poem about soldiers who later realize their friend from the army is a woman, the adventurous tale was brought to most of us through Disney. The pretty young woman who doesn’t fit in takes up the guise of a man and enters the army in place of her frail father. There she eventually finds comrades, action, and after her gender is revealed, comfort in herself.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Now meet Sarah Emma Edmonds whom I met recently in Laura Leedy Gansler’s The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. At seventeen, this Canadian farm girl vanished to become Frank Thompson in order to avoid her father and an arranged marriage he had planned. Unlike Disney’s Mulan, Emma was unaided as she fled to the U.S. and made her own living until the Civil War began in 1861. Out of love for this country (and perhaps a large sense of adventure), Emma joined the Second Michigan Infantry.

For a woman who loved a good tale, Sarah Emma Edmonds’ life could beat even the best adventure novel, something so full of action, cunning, close calls, friendship, and even a bit of romance that it couldn’t have been made up half as well.

"Frank Thompson"

There are good, strong fictional female characters out there, but, if you ever get a bit tired of searching for those needle in the haystack girls, don’t pass up a good chance to get acquainted with inspiring and entirely real women. So, let me leave you with a quote from Emma, who was herself inspired by a fictional heroine as a girl:

“I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar. All the latent energy of my nature was aroused, and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips. I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. …I was emancipated! And I would never again be a slave.”  -Sarah Emma Edmonds (The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier)

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