The Newhouse Center, Wellesley’s Center for the Humanities, hosted a mini-conference on Feb. 21 titled “Images of the Girl from West to East: From Austen to Manga,” which aimed to explore “how girlhood has evolved from the time of Jane Austen to the present in East and West.” The international symposium invited guest scholars from across the world to locate the adolescent girl in history through literature, media and film. The panelists included professors Jinhee Choi from King’s College London, Shawn Maurer from the College of the Holy Cross and Kyung-Sook Shin from Yonsei University (Seoul). Eve Zimmerman, an associate professor of Japanese at Wellesley College, facilitated the conference as the moderator.
The symposium was preceded by a screening of the Korean film “Little Forest,” a remake based on a Japanese manga series, on Feb. 20 in the Collins Cinema. The film revolves around Hye-won, a girl in her twenties, who navigates her sense of self and her way through life by returning from the city to her rural home after an unsuccessful attempt to secure a stable urban lifestyle, job, and relationship. Breaking free from the constraining, hostile urban life where competition for employment or financial burdens prevailed, she embarks on an unhurried journey accompanied by beautiful nature, peaceful solitude, old friends, good food and the memories of her childhood and mother. The aesthetic and mouth-watering food Hye-won makes and enjoys in the film underscores Hye-won’s personal experiences and attitude towards life, as she further grows to understand the virtues in life and her place in it. A bright red tomato is portrayed as alluring and passionate, a fruit that comes into fruition only after the longest period of growth and waiting. Viewers can almost feel its refreshing taste when Hye-won recalls a discussion with her mother on the uncertainty and ambiguities of new beginnings of life and love over tomatoes. She also makes Mak-geoli, a Korean rice wine, a drink with an “adult taste” that she calls sweet only after experiencing life’s most bitter moments. The protagonist mentions that the best food is the food we make ourselves – taking the initiative to create something on one’s own and bearing the outcomes whether it be too spicy or just right.
Professor Jinhee Choi viewed the film with a more critical eye, focusing on the relationship among the kitchen, food and girlhood in modern manifestations of gender norms in films today. By terming “Little Forest” as an “Asian homecoming film,” she first compared such films with “Hollywood travel romance films” like “Eat, Pray, Love,” wherein white female protagonists would rediscover themselves via a transnational experience of moving away from home – traveling to foreign territories to learn and appreciate local values that would in turn help reinvigorate themselves. By contrast, both the Japanese original manga and Korean remake of “Little Forest” depict female protagonists initiating an inward journey by coming back home and gaining their self-esteem and worth through the self instead of exploiting “the Other.” Professor Choi later discussed the portrayal of the kitchen as a space that develops and remakes the mother-daughter relationship by integrating the mother and girl through childhood memories of cooking together, but subsequently differentiating them as separate individuals as the girl becomes an adolescent and adult. Hye-won, as she recreates her mother’s recipes in the same kitchen her mother used to work in, reinvents her menus and herself, discovering authenticity and agency. Professor Choi also added that this film expressed and related girlhood through the memory of her childhood and cooking, not as a mere demographic term.
Professor Shawn Maurer led the talk on how Jane Austen’s novels, through the creation of adolescent characters and narrative form, made possible our understanding of adolescence, or the “age of emotion.” Although the term “adolescence” did not exist at the time of Austen’s writing, Austen turned her attention to her female characters as girls in a distinct life stage – a suppressed one between childhood and adulthood – wherein they would contain their energies of youth to retain a modest reputation for marriage. Austen’s portrayal of her characters’ consciousness (Marianne Dashwood’s emotional excesses in “Sense and Sensibility;” Lydia Bennett’s self-centeredness and uncontrolled, boy-crazy behavior and Elizabeth Bennett’s outspokenness, bodily exuberance and emotional responses towards Darcy and Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice” Anne Elliot’s deep feelings of emotion and memory in “Persuasion”) well depicted the experiences of the adolescent stage and cast light on the term widely understood today.
Professor Kyung-Sook Shin then turned the discourse from the West to the East by focusing on the identity of the girl in colonial Korea as portrayed in the media in the 1930s. Through her research, she came to the conclusion that “girlhood” as depicted in prominent media sources at the time was associated with self-evident conflicting characteristics that simultaneously infantilized sexualized the girl as immature but alluring. Popular media imagined a homogenous identity for girls from different social classes and backgrounds in regard to the process of Japanese imperialist expansion and modernization, which posed a challenge to girls and women who attempted to resist fixed images of themselves and claim agency in their lives. Textbooks which educated girls on the “virtue” of living for others as caretakers and homemakers and school curricula that taught them delicate sensibilities deemed “appropriate” for a colonial girl also contributed to the self-contradictory image of the girl as a gendered subject.
The symposium lasted for approximately two hours from 4:15pm to 6:00 pm and was followed by a Q&A session during which the panelists answered questions asked by the audience and each other. One of the questions asked was in regard to the open ending of “Little Forest” and its relevance to the movie’s overarching theme. Another member of the audience asked whether there existed a difference in the attitudes of the girls in the East and the West in terms of passivity, to which one panelist replied that the girls represented in Eastern media were no less passive but in ways different from Austen’s girls.