When South Korean webtoon artist Dangi started working on her eponymous work last year, which deals with her personal experience growing up with two brothers and abusive parents, she did not know how her readers would react.
In the series, she talks about how her mother would only provide dinner for her father and her brothers; she would have to either eat out by herself or make her own food. Another episode dealt with a traumatic experience in which she was beaten by her older brother as a child and how her mother did not stop him.
“I had never really talked about my experiences with anyone in detail before working on this piece,” the 32-year-old told The Korea Herald. “It was very personal and very painful. I didn’t share because I thought I wouldn’t be able to bear it if someone listens to my story and doesn’t understand what I went through.”
To Dangi’s surprise, the work has been well received by readers, many of whom reached out to her saying they had also been discriminated and abused by family members at home. Within the first 44 days of the series being published online, “Dangi” received more than 3 million hits, becoming the most-read webtoon in the shortest time frame on Lezhin Comics, one of the most popular online platforms for webtoons here.
On Monday, the series topped Lezhin’s daily most-read chart for webtoons that belong to the “reality” genre, and ranked 14th place among webtoons of all genres, including romance, fantasy and action.
“I was shocked at such enthusiastic response, but it also made me realize that I’m not alone in my experience,” she said.
The series, which is also available in hard copy in bookstores, shares in detail what it is like to grow up as a Korean girl in an abusive, patriarchal home.
As a child, she constantly faced sexism by her parents who openly favored her brothers over her.
Before her younger brother was born, the author used to think her older brother was getting special treatment because he was the older one. Whenever her father returned from business trips, he would only bring gifts for her brother and she would get nothing. Whenever her older brother was sick, her mother would take care of him and give him medicine. When Dangi was sick, she would have to go visit a pharmacy herself and get her own medication.
It was after her younger brother was born that everything became clear to Dangi: she was being discriminated against because she was a girl.
“My mother would force me to give up my favorite things, such as toys and books, for my younger brother, because I was older,” the author writes in the book. “Then I realized, she would never say, ‘You should give up things because you’re older’ to my older brother.”
“Dangi” explores the intersectionality of gender and age in her violence-filled family life as a young Korean and female child.
The author said she has received responses from some readers who claimed that it is impossible for a young author like her to have experienced such intense gender discrimination at home. They questioned the credibility of her personal narrative.
“One reader wrote on my Facebook page, and it was something like, ‘The author must have been born in the mid or late 1980s. Korean families didn’t have gender discrimination against children in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This webtoon cannot be true,’” the author said. “And it was kind of interesting because many female readers, who are even younger than I am, started responding to that post. One of them said, ‘I am younger than Dangi and I was discriminated against by my family members because I am a girl.’”
Aside from sexism, Dangi said she was exposed to emotional abuse throughout her childhood. Her parents frequently fought violently in the presence of their children, at least three times a week. They often threatened to physically harm her, while verbally abusing her. The author said living in such a stressful environment severely affected her self-esteem during her teenage years. She was bullied by her classmates while attending middle school. A few years later, Dangi found out that her younger brother was also being bullied in school.
A recent study by Sungkonghoe University found that children who are emotionally abused at home are more likely to develop depression and experience bullying in school. Meanwhile, according to a 2010 study by Cornell University in the U.S., siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults.
South Korea’s current child protection legislation as well as policies do not specifically include childhood exposure to marital conflicts and violence in its definition of child maltreatment.
“I can totally relate to those studies,” the author said, adding that about 30 percent of all teenagers who write to her for help have experienced bullying on top of suffering emotional abuse by their parents at the same time. “Home is supposed to be your last resort when things fall apart in your life. It is the place where you return for comfort and support. I did not have such a place, and this made me even more vulnerable to other kinds of violence.”
“Dangi” does not just deal with the author’s own experience. In her efforts to understand her parents, she also talks about her family history. Her mother, who had two brothers and three sisters, also experienced sexism while growing up in a country town in Gangwon Province. She and her sisters were not allowed to continue their studies after middle school and their parents only offered to finance their youngest son’s post-secondary education. She also suffered an unhappy marriage to her husband as well as a very turbulent relationship with her mother-in-law, who was overprotective of her son.
The author said it is both ironic and sad that her mother internalized such sexism and discriminated her own daughter against her sons. Up until the author moved out two years ago, her mother would only make Dangi help her with chores, such as making kimchi and laundry. When she suggested asking her brothers for help, her mother would say, “Men are not supposed to do those things.”
“I think I understand my mother, but I can’t forgive her,” she said.
The author said she thinks her older brother is also a victim of sexism at home. “He’s so used to getting special treatment. He doesn’t know how to empathize with others,” she said. “He was exposed to marital conflicts just as much as I was. Our father was very patriarchal. I assume these things will affect his life if he decides to form his own (family) by marriage.”
Since her first webtoon episode was published online last year, she has received at least 300 emails from her readers, who shared their experience of domestic violence. Therefore, season two of “Dangi” features the real-life stories shared by her readers, many of which are heartbreaking.
One of them features a young man in his 20s who had to give up his dream to be a pianist because a violent incident triggered by his father, who was heavily drunk at the time, severely damaged his fingers.
Dangi said she often does not know what to tell her teenage readers, who reach out to her for help. One of the young girls who wrote to Dangi called the police after finding it unbearable to watch her parents fight. When the police came, however, the officers simply said, “Oh, it’s another marital conflict. You should try to solve it yourselves,” before they left. Upon learning his daughter had contacted the police, the father beat his children even more that night.
The best advice she can give to those in their 20s and above, she said, is that one should not try to please their abusers in the hopes of changing their behavior. “The chances are, they are probably not going to change,” she said, adding that she only speaks to her younger brother after moving out two years ago. She no longer talks to the rest of her family.
“The most practical thing to do is to save money and move out. But I can’t give that advice to teenage boys and girls,” the author continued. “That’s when I feel completely helpless. And I guess this is where the government or other public authorities should intervene.”
For more information on Dangi and her work, visit www.lezhin.com
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)