Just a quick heads-up: This blog post will be discussing themes relating to child sexual abuse. If you’re uncomfortable with such topics, please proceed with caution. Also, some of the images in this post are probably not suited for work.
There’s an adorable little manga I like named Gisèle Alain, about a precocious thirteen-year-old rich girl in 19th century France who inherits an apartment building and spends her days helping its tenants with all sorts of odd jobs, from plain old deliveries to live-changing affairs. More so than because of its gorgeous artwork and lovingly represented (if somewhat animefied) historical setting, I love it because of how nuanced it is for a slice-of-life. Rather than a perpetually happy-go-lucky manic pixie dream girl, Gisèle is an actual character with actual feelings, and the manga loves to explore the ramifications of her relentless desire to fix other people’s problems, whether these people actually want her to or not. Sometimes, everything turns out just fine, but sometimes it goes horribly wrong, and Gisèle has to deal with the consequences. It injects what could have been a run-of-the-mill slice-of-life with actual character, a strong sense of continuity, and most of all, a surprising moralistic bent.
Gisèle Alain is never preachy, but it does love to explore the ethics of good intentions. What is the right thing to do when you genuinely believe you know better than other people what is best for them? Is it correct to help those who don’t want to be helped? Is it wrong to let someone help you at their own expense? Almost every character in Gisèle Alain struggles with these questions in some capacity, yet there is no character who embodies them better than Colette.
The third chapter of Gisèle Alain introduces readers to Colette, a woman who moves into Gisèle’s apartment block after being chased from her previous residence for a crime she (allegedly) did not commit. Gisèle almost immediately starts to look up to her, but Eric, Gisèle’s assistant and surrogate older brother, is a lot less smitten with his new neighbour. The reason for his suspicion soon becomes obvious: Colette is a cabaret dancer. Being a sheltered nobleman’s daughter, Gisèle has no idea what a cabaret is, but the fact that her new friend dances for a living excites her tremendously. Figuring Gisèle deserves to know about her line of work, Colette decides to give her the grand tour of the city’s red light district.
Mind you, Gisèle is only thirteen years old, so naturally Eric is not okay with this. Unfortunately for him, Gisèle makes a sport out of ignoring everything he says, so soon enough, she gets to meet Colette’s colleagues, who tease Gisèle when she blushes upon learning that cabaret is “like opera, but naked”. In order to cheer her up, Colette asks her if she wants to know what cabaret is like. Gisèle says yes, and Colette complies. It’s a scene that would be outstandingly objectionable in pretty much any other manga, but in Gisèle Alain, it somehow works, culminating in an enthusiastic round of applause by the titular character.
It works because without denying the fact that it is by all means a highly questionable thing to do, mangaka Sui Kasai focuses on the beauty and allure of Colette’s performance rather than on its eroticism, and Gisèle’s appreciation of it, the nature of which they somewhat deliberately leave ambiguous. However, it doesn’t end there…
So yeah. Colette, a grown woman, kisses Gisèle, a thirteen-year-old, full on the lips. When Eric arrives to pick her up and sees the lipstick marks on Gisèle mouth, Colette teases him by saying ‘she might have overdone it’ and that what she did is ‘a secret between girls’. Eric responds by slapping her in the face, stating that ‘she’s just a kid’. Owch.
Who can blame him, though? The fact remains that Colette has done a pretty reprehensible thing. She has effectively abused a child’s innocence to expose her to sexual acts she is too young to consent to. There’s a discussion to be had about whether Gisèle Alain‘s portrayal of Colette, a lesbian cabaret dancer, as predatory (and polyamorous, but more about that later) is nuanced enough to escape some very toxic presuppositions about LGBT people and sex workers, but that’s a question for another time. What I wanna talk about now is the way in which Gisèle Alian invites its readers to evaluate the ethics of Colette’s actions based on her good intentions.
After all, the manga makes it very obvious that Colette does know that she cannot prey on Gisèle. She didn’t do the things she did out of lust, she did them out of genuine concern. She introduced Gisèle to her world, because she took pity on the girl’s naivité and wanted to give her an opportunity to explore her sexuality, because she felt Gisèle was ripe enough for that sort of thing. It’s impossible to tell if Colette wouldn’t have done the things she did if Gisèle hadn’t expressed interest in her line of work, let alone if she’d chosen not to see Colette dance, knowing full well that it’d involve nudity, or if she’d expressed her discomfort with what had happened up until then. Yet none of that really matters. I am not a legal expert, or a child psychologist, or an expert on what is acceptable sexual behaviour involving minors. What interests me is how Colette’s ostensibly unethical actions are framed in such a way that they fit within the manga’s overall, nuanced explorations of intent as a benchmark for morality.
The latest chapter teaches us a bit more about Colette’s ethics. When Gisèle — once again as gullible as they come — tells Colette’s girlfriend Marie that she saw Colette going out with another woman, Marie hires her to find out whether Colette is cheating on her. In the end, it turns out that Colette isn’t having one affair, but three. Yet when Gisèle brings all her girlfriends together and they ask Colette to pick one, Colette answers that she loves all of them equally. She was just too scared of telling them that she loves other people as well.
The parallels with the earlier chapter are rather obvious. Once again, Colette does a bad thing, once again she does acknowledge that she did a bad thing, yet once again her intentions were nothing but good. All she wanted was to make her girlfriends happy by sharing her love with them, while keeping her infidelity a secret so that wouldn’t make them sad either (getting serious Her vibes here, now that I think about it). Unlike after her first meeting with Gisèle, things turn out just fine and dandy for Colette this time, as her girlfriends laugh off her response as ‘typical’ and then proceed to celebrate Gisèle’s birthday.
If they all end up in a happy, five-way polyamorous relationship remains to be seen, but the idea that all the girls acknowledge Colette’s justification for her actions as ‘typical’ does tell us a lot about her character. One of the girls even tells Gisèle “I don’t know if you should call it cheating. That’s just how Colette is”. They’ve come to expect her to do bad things for good reasons, because in spite of the interesting discussions to be had about her behavior, Colette is a fairly simple soul. Everything she does, she does for love. She is a person in love with love, and she’ll do anything to get people to enjoy the beauty of love.
That is eventually also why, in my opinion, having her character be a sex worker works. Colette isn’t an exotic dancer because she is — pardon my language — a ‘slut’, nor does she sleep around because cheating would be in her nature as a sex worker. She chose her profession because spreading the joy of love and sex is her entire reason for existing. That of course doesn’t justify some of the shit she pulls, but it does fit perfectly within the manga’s greater central themes. Colette constantly crosses all sorts of boundaries, but her innocence and good intentions make readers ponder these boundaries. They don’t justify her infractions, but they do make her human.