Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

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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!!Spoiler Warning!! If you don’t like spoilers and plan to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, don’ t read on. 

Lisbeth Salander, the main woman in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The name has circulated like wildfire amongst book readers and pops up often in conversations about strong female characters. But rather than sparking great inspiration in me, the name Lisbeth Salander leaves me feeling cold. Of course, this is only my opinion and I have only managed to read the first book, but this is why Lisbeth Salander, despite all the hearsay, is not a strong female character in my eyes.

  1. Her chillingly cool demeanor.

Lisbeth Salander from the movie based on the book.

Lisbeth Salander has not been treated well, has a troubled and (apparently) violent past, and does not connect well with other people. She’s also a hacker and doesn’t particularly think it’s a good idea if people find out about that little secret. In short, she doesn’t let people get too close.

But her coolness toward other characters goes further than that, extending past the normal aloof character that just takes a little more time to warm up to. People often complain that female characters are too emotion, but Salander has almost a total lack of emotion and a no mercy attitude. In reviews I have read on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this is one of the aspects that many readers link to her supposed strength as a strong female character. For me, however, it reminds me of a male archetype of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters: unrealistically emotionless (maybe they were trying for stoic?) and shoot-the-gun-then-asks-questions type. Actually, I felt I couldn’t connect to Lisbeth Salander as a realistic female at all. Sure, she’s supposed to have psychological issues that may play a part in her borderline sociopathic behavior, but that still doesn’t make her a strong female character. Lacking emotion is no better than having too much emotion in the strength department and the only emotion Salander shows best is anger.

2. Her reaction (or non-reaction) to a woman’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps a moment of emotional attachment was supposed to come when young Salander is taken advantage of by a guardian of hers. Since she is seen as being unable to take care of herself, especially her money, she has a guardian to keep tabs on her. Thus, when Salander’s pervious guardian passes away, the new guardian, a man, decides to force the attractive charge to perform sex tricks on him for her own money. This is shocking and has the reader on edge; how is Lisbeth going to handle this? Fall to pieces or find strength to do something about it?

Of course, she does what any woman would do; cold, hard, violent revenge and blackmail. There is seemingly no feeling over what happened besides Salander’s anger over knowing she’s been used by some sick monster. She tortures him, giving him a taste of his own sadistic nature, and thus solves the problem. But where is the empowerment in that? To me, this act does not eliminate feelings of victimization, but rather just makes Salander an angry victim. That is not strength and definitely not empowerment. Perhaps if I knew what was going on in her mind it would make me feel differently, but there is nothing given to me as a reader but hollow revenge by a hollow character.

I believe we as a society are a little confused about what makes a strong female character. There are Kill Bill types: deadly women who know how to sling a weapon and take cold revenge, but have little or no realism and, frankly, remind me of a common, Dirty Harry male character stereotype projected onto a female character. Or the Elizabeth Swan (Pirates of the Caribbean) types: tough women (either mentally, physically, or both) placed into a damsel-in-distress position who have the strength not to cry about it (whoopie), not to mention are attached to a male character in some way (who will no doubt save her). (Let’s not even get into undermining “strong female characters” by sexualization.) Neither of these are truly strong female character types. Perhaps I am the only one who sees this in this particular character, but I feel that when I look at “strong female characters,” I should not think of the man she is in love with nor of an unrealistic male stereotype, but a person, whole by herself and fully able to take care of herself whether that means living on a prairie in the wild west or saving the world.

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