Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Women and Femininity

By An Na

Women and Femininity

I do not like to be pretty. Pretty means you cannot play in your nice clothes and Uhmma grabs your hair with a wet comb until your eyes are pulled shut and then she ties it all up with a bow and says, You look very pretty. Uhmma says that sometimes I have to look pretty so everyone will see what a nice girl I can be. (5.8)

We feel Young Ju's pain—literally. Why does being feminine need to be all about prettiness and physical pain? And what does being a "nice girl" have to do with being pretty? Why even be "nice"? We see a budding feminist in Young Ju…

An ahjimma will curl your hair so you will look just like a real Mi Gook girl. (5.16)

Uh yeah… you have us on this one. We're not sure why Americans are so often associated with curly hair, American girls especially. Maybe it's the whole image of a little blond, curly-haired Shirley Temple that Uhmma's trying to force on poor Young Ju.

Outside the important place that will make me pretty, Uhmma fixes the bow in my hair. She tucks my hair behind my ears. Good, she says and then opens the door. We step inside. My nose wrinkles iee! This cannot be the special place. There are ugly smells inside. Worse than Halmoni boiling clothes in soapy water. Uhmma sees my nose and gives me the squinty eye. I push my nose back down. (5.34)

What's the point here? The process of becoming "pretty" is—ironically—really ugly, complete with bad-smelling, toxic fumes. Nothing organic going on here.

Who is that girl? She cannot be me. Her hair is too big. It stands up big as a bush, just like the hair of the toy man with the rainbow face. Uhmma did not tell me this was curly hair. She said it would look like the sea. But it does not. I am a Mi Gook girl with big ugly toy-man hair. (5.58)

So… sounds like Young Ju doesn't like her new hair. More to the point, she now looks like a male clown—all that pain and suffering, only to produce more pain and suffering. It's interesting that Uhmma totally doesn't share Young Ju's perspective. Talk about a generational split.

What did I just tell you! Apa shouts. Woman, were you listening? Did you hear anything I said? I do not want to grovel anymore like some b****. (9.8)

How is Apa demeaning to Uhmma? He uses "woman" like it's some general category for stupidity, and he implies that Uhmma's a "b****" since she's the one who wants to stay at Gomo's house ("groveling" he calls it) until they get better settled in America. Apa can't just get personal with Uhmma—he has to drag down women in general too.

I wander over to the couch and start to tuck in the corners of the yellow blanket. Gomo says, What a good housekeeper you are. Here, sit down and watch what we are doing. You will have to learn how to be a good older Uhn-nee. It is your responsibility to help your Uhmma take care of him. (10.42)

We just wonder: if the situation were reversed and it was Park Joon Ho who was the older brother to a newly-born Young Ju, would Joon Ho get the same kind of responsibility speech? Hrm...

I put my hands behind my back, cross my fingers, and tell everyone, "My brother. He die."

[…]

"I the only Park now. I keep name like boy." (11.2-4)

It sounds to us like Young Ju's got a serious case of sibling rivalry with a dose of gender envy on top. Who can blame her though? Even though her brother's just a baby, he's got their Apa wrapped around his little baby fingers… and mostly because he's a boy. Young Ju's just playing out a fantasy here in which she's the favored (and only) son who gets the honor of passing on the family name.

Apa, you have to stop [Joon], I say.

Young Ju, Apa says, shaking his head. Joon Ho is a boy. It is natural for him to pee outside.

I don't understand why Apa thinks boys and girls cannot be treated the same. Why they are so different. There is no dictionary for these kinds of questions. (13.40-42)

If we could only confront Apa on Young Ju's behalf… Where exactly does he think girls peed before toilets were invented anyway? There's no clearer example of Apa's sexism than this scene.

Pastor Kim smiles and gestures as though announcing me on stage. He tells my parents, Young Ju is looking very grown up. More and more like a demure young lady.

My toes curl inside my shoes at the mention of becoming a young lady. My shoulders hunch slightly forward to cover any signs of my developing young-lady body. (24.34-35)

Sounds like Young Ju's not just a tomboy, but a girl who doesn't want to be reminded of or have attention drawn to her growing, female body. Especially by a guy, even if he is a pastor.

Uhmma smooths my forehead, my cheeks. Tucks my hair behind my ears like she used to do when I was young. I put my arms around her and rest my head on her shoulders.

She murmurs, You are my strong girl. (29.31-32)

Finally… a definition of girl that Young Ju can work with. This scene comes right after Uhmma apologizes to Young Ju for chewing her out after Apa gets arrested (and then leaves with his girlfriend). It's a true turnaround for Uhmma and not just because she steps up and apologizes: Uhmma redefines Young Ju with a more supportive title by calling her "strong girl."

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