girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. they noticed what we want noticed. (the girls, 30)
i’m all about girls.
i don’t care about “squads” or “girl gangs” or whatever term is trending; just give me girls in all their messiness, complicated-ness, and weirdness. give me girls who come together and form friendships and loyalties, girls who might fight one instant and stand up for each other the next, girls who rally around each other, not because they’re BFFs but because they’re friends and they’re living in this moment together.
last week, i watched “청춘시대 (age of youth)”, a twelve-episode drama about five girls in their twenties who live together in a share house. they’re strangers who end up together because they need a place to live, not because they’ve rounded up friends with the intention of getting a place and being flatmates — korean society doesn’t actually work like that; generally, you live with your parents until you get married. (it’s why love motels are so prevalent.) maybe it’s proximity, maybe it’s the nature of shared space and being away from family, but, whatever it is, they become friends — and, for twelve delightful episodes that squeezed my heart and made me laugh and cry, i thought, i am all for more dramas/films/books about girls.
roughly two weeks ago, i caved and read emma cline’s the girls, which, it’s fair to say, was one of this summer’s most heralded releases and a highly-anticipated debut by a twenty-something girl. maybe it’s not fair to call a twenty-something a girl, but i don’t know — i quite like the word girl, and i don’t use it condescendingly.
the girls is loosely based on the manson murders. we follow evie, a bored, unattached fourteen-year-old whose personal life seems to be caught in the in-between. her parents are getting a divorce; she’s distanced from her best friend; and, when she comes across suzanne and the girls, she’s immediately intrigued. she starts spending more and more time with them on the ranch, where the leader, russell, has amassed a cult following, and all of this, the entire novel, is pointed toward the gruesome murders of victims who are essentially in the wrong house on the wrong night.
cline captures the wide-eyed wonder of what it is to be a girl beautifully, to be caught in the limbo of adolescence, wanting to be someone, to be part of something. there was quite a bit about cline’s writing and storytelling that i liked, despite her tic of phrasal fragments that drove me absolutely up the wall — cline would honestly benefit from falling out of love with her own language because she has talent and potential, and it will be exciting to see how she grows and matures as a writer.
ultimately, however, i found the girls flat and anticlimactic. cline does capture the era of 1960s california beautifully, and she encapsulates the nostalgia with which people tend to look back at that time and place. however, she fails to do much with it and doesn’t actually bring us into the murders from a different perspective. evie herself is too protected, her removal from the murders too orchestrated to be a successful attempt on cline’s end to preserve the integrity of evie’s voice as an innocent. suzanne and the girls also aren’t fleshed out enough so they don’t feel like actual people, as anything more than ciphers of russell’s demands and the objects of evie’s fantasies — and, even if the latter were the point, that evie projected her wants and desires onto these girls and therefore could never see them as real, dimensional people, cline also fails to drive that home.
in the end, the girls failed to deliver what i’d hoped it had promised. it didn’t give anything new or interesting or insightful regarding the murders. it didn’t take us into the girls’ minds or sink us into what makes these girls so interesting. it didn’t give us much that was solid or complex or real about these girls at all.
a glossary of terms:
- unni (언니): what a girl calls her older sister — or a girl who is older than she is
- dong-saeng (동생): a younger sibling — or someone who is younger
- sun-bae (선배): someone who’s been at school/work/setting longer (i.e. a third-year)
- hoo-bae (후배): someone who’s newer to school/work/setting (i.e. a first-year)
- jon-dae-mahl (존대말): honorific speak
- bahn-mahl (반말): casual speak
- chung-choon (청춘): youth
things to note about korean social relationships and language:
- korean society is all about hierarchy.
- the easiest way it breaks down is obviously by age.
- however, once you get into college or the work place, it’s not necessarily about age but who enters the school/work place first. you could be older than someone age-wise, but, if s/he started school before you did, s/he would be your sun-bae.
- accordingly, instead of going by the year you'll graduate college, in korea, you go by the year you enter college.
- korean has different levels of speak, the two most common of which are john-dae-mahl and bahn-mahl.
- when meeting someone new, if the age and/or status gap is glaringly obvious or has already been defined, the older/higher-ranked might use bahn-mahl from the start.
- otherwise, you start by using the honorific with each other. at one point, you will establish how you will speak by figuring out your social relationship to each other. if you’re older (or of higher rank), you’ll “lower” your speech. if you’re younger, you will continue to use the honorific.
- if you’re the same age, you’ll likely both lower your speech.
- you generally never call someone older than you by name.
- (my brother tried to do this once; instead of calling me nuna, which is what a boy calls his older sister, he tried calling me by my name. he never tried it again.)
- usually, you will call someone by his/her surname, followed by the relevant social label. for instance, in this drama, we know the characters as yoon sunbae, kang unni, song (or ji-won), ye-eun, and eun-jae.
- eun-jae, because she’s the youngest, calls everyone in the house sun-bae (if they go to the same university) or unni (if they just live together) and uses the honorific. on the other hand, yoon sunbae, as the oldest, calls all the girls by name and uses bahn-mahl.
what was the point of this linguistic/cultural education? i’ve no idea. i just think it’s interesting, especially the ways that language creates a structure/foundation on which relationships are built.
it’s also interesting because, when i think of girls, this is what i recognize: this social hierarchy that provides structure and protection, these defined relationships that situate us in connection to each other and give us a place and a role, these girls who flock together within this structure and look after each other.
it’s interesting because the language demonstrates clearly that we exist in proximity to and in relationship with other people.
i’ve never been the sort of reader who looks for relatability or recognizability in books. i grew up on the white canon, reading only the classics from british, russian, and french literature, so the notion of being able to relate to characters wasn’t one that even crossed my mind as a possibility. i didn’t read to find myself or see myself. i read because i loved language and story, because i was entranced by these worlds i’d never know, characters i’d never meet, places i’d never go.
maybe it helped that i never felt like i needed to find a place to see myself reflected. i grew up bilingual and bicultural, watching korean dramas and listening to korean music; all my media and cultural touchstones are korean. even now, i have no idea what’s going on in western entertainment, whether in the pop scene or in hollywood, and this is certainly something i never thought much about and maybe took for granted, that representation (or the lack thereof) was something i should think about.
a growing awareness of this has shifted the way i read in recent years, and going from the girls to age of youth was a reminder of where i come from, how i approach literature, what i find relatable and recognizable and why. it was a reminder of the things i’ve sometimes yearned for, the life i might have had had i been born and raised in korea, these social relationships i know and understand so intimately yet have not partaken in.
it was a reminder of who i am, that i am korean, specifically korean-american, that these are two contributing sides of my identity that inform the ways i see the world. my ethnicity and nationality are not the defining forces of my life; i don’t think any one thing is (we contain multitudes after all); but there will always be this hybrid in me, this double-stranded thing that keeps me on the fringes of both cultures and usually tends to place me outside them, despite my attempts to fit.
to be honest, sometimes, i still don’t know how to feel about that.
i didn’t really believe that friendship could be an end in itself, not just the background fuzz to the dramatics of boys loving you or not loving you. (43)
i knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. (237)
there’s something universal about being a girl — how we’re taught to obsess over our looks, to define ourselves according to how others see us, specifically how men see us and, also, desire us (or don’t). there’s something universal in the way girls are torn down, reduced to their physical appearance, taught to be critical of themselves and of each other, and there’s something so painfully familiar about the self-loathing, the insecurities, the meanness.
it doesn’t matter your ethnicity; i certainly see it on both sides of the pacific. cline, in particular, does a stellar job depicting this in her novel, and that was my favorite thing about the girls, the way cline captured this sense of girlhood, what it is to be a girl in her adolescence, waiting for life to happen and disappointed with its banality. i could see why evie was drawn to the girls, why she kept going back to the ranch, and there’s a lovely, nuanced poignancy to her adolescent self, a loneliness girls can recognize as well as that moment of realization that this is the world, and it is one that is not kind to girls.
and i think that’s what makes female friendships so precious, this notion that we have each other and understand each other, that we know and recognize the dangers of the world. it’s what made age of youth such a delight to watch, to see these girls come together as friends, not in the romanticized sense of BFFs or forever friends, but in the everyday, in the ways we learn to live with each other, in the ways girls band together and get through life.
i loved this drama. it wasn’t a perfect drama; some of the story lines were too dramatic, some of the episode endings abrupt; but it was genuine, heartfelt, and real. it got to the heart of what makes female friendships so intense and wonderful, and it got into all the pettiness, the craziness, the loyalty of girls.
it gave us five fully-fleshed, unique girls, each with her own life and desires and loneliness, with her own quirks and fashion style and personality, and it brought them together and showed us what friendship looks like. they stand by each other; they yell at each other, fight with each other; and they cry and scream and throw bags out windows — but, then, something happens, one of them is hurt, and they’re there, no questions asked.
maybe they won’t always be there because maybe this is a friendship reserved for youth, but that’s not the point. forever isn’t the point.
the point is that they’re in their twenties, and they’re going through their growing pains, and they happen to have met at this juncture in their lives. what’s important is that these girls are living in this moment, that they have these friendships with whom to experience youth.
what’s important is that they’re present; what’s important is now.