Thursday, October 16, 2014

Grappling with Gender issues, the Reel Deal, part 6

Bold sections by Lord Covington

In a recent post, we discussed how certain tv programs may have negatively affected Toddleworth's views on gender. Now, we are discussing the movies that he watches. We started here with Frozen. and continued with Monster HouseThe Little Mermaid, and ParaNorman, Here is the continuation:

Agency: Does the character act for herself? Does she make her own choices or have them dictated?
Backstory/Goals: Does the character have a past, or plans for the future?
Traditional Gender Roles: How much or little does the character conform to traditional gender roles?
Relatability:  Is the audience able to form a connection with this character/are they viewed as a realistic person?
We're doing this more or less chronologically, which will also correlate with our recent increase in being critical of media.

"Coraline", based on Neil Gaiman's novella of the same name, is Toddlesworth's current favorite. When I say favorite, imagine loving a movie such that you would watch it twice a day for 2 weeks if allowed.  He is not allowed...luckily for us. This movie aces the Bechtel Test in most every scene. Granted, that's not hard to do when most of the characters are female. As discussed earlier, simply passing the Bechtel Test, doesn't necessarily imply positive or empowering roles for women.  Thankfully, Coraline is a buffet of agency in various believable ways. 

Agency: Coraline is the main character of the story; she is a young girl of about 12, who loves exploring and hates being ignored by her parents (who are too busy working to pay attention to her.) She is happy to go out on her own and explore. She bravely faces down the villain of the movie and escapes--then goes back to rescue her parents. While there are points where she has to do what her parents want her to do, the main actions of the film are at her discretion. While exploring her new house, she discovers a child sized door leading to a long dark "breathing" tunnel, which was just recently a brick wall that led nowhere.  Putting myself in her shoes, I may have been too afraid to go alone. She isn't.  Coraline crosses through the tunnel to meet the film's main antagonist: The Other Mother.  The Other Mother looks like Coraline's mom, albeit more cheerful. She appears kind and loving in the beginning, but is soon revealed to be some sort of ancient soul eating entity with sewn in black button eyes

The Other Mother shows Coraline a world of delightful toys and games and shows; and cooler versions of her weird neighbors. If anything, it's fun and exciting, until the Other Mother directly asks if she can sew buttons in her eyes.  The Other Mother herself has her own reasons for her actions. She may want someone to love, she may "just want something to eat." The Other Mother's hunting method seems to be temping children with everything they ever wanted, getting them to let her sew black buttons into their eyes, and then "eating up their lives".  While Coraline gets to escape the initial trap with the help of the Other Wybie, the Other Mother retaliates by kidnapping her true parents.

Backstory/Goals:  Both characters are shown to have a past, and plans for the future.  Coraline looks at a picture of her friends back home, and mentions that she wants things growing in the garden when they come to visit.  Her main goal at the beginning is to stave off boredom, but by the end she is faced with the challenge of escaping from the evil Other Mother, saving the souls of the ghost children, and rescuing her real parents.
We see in the dead children evidence that The Other Mother has been The Other Mother to at least three children in the past.  We know her goal is to keep Coraline with her at all costs, at first through the trickery of a pitcher plant--by seemingly offering a sweet new life. It seems keeping Coraline there is necessary to her survival, as she becomes less nice and more desperate, manipulative, and frightening at the end of the film.

Traditional Gender Roles: How much or little does the character conform to traditional gender roles?
Coraline is an explorer, who does not seem at all inclined to traditional roles. She mentions that she is too old to play with dolls, and the toys we see in her room include a squidcat and a skeletal turtle. She has many different outfits in the film, one of which is a pink striped sweater and black skirt (under a yellow raincoat), but none of her other outfits are 'traditional' pink or purple.
The Other Mother does seem to embody traditional gender roles initially. She looks perfectly presentable, and is always happy and welcoming to Coraline. She cooks wonderful meals for Coraline to enjoy, and knows her taste in clothing quite well. It is shown to all be a ruse, when under pressure the Other Mother shows her true, tall, insectoid, intimidating form.

Totally harmless....

Nightmare fuel!

Relatability:  Is the audience able to form a connection with this character/are they viewed as a realistic person?
 Coraline as the eponymous lead is admirable for her cleverness and courage.  She has an adventurous and exploring nature viewable in the fist scene.  Moving to a new, large, and more than a little creepy house can be daunting for any child.  I personally threw an absolute fit for having to move school districts, and I was 12 years old.  Coraline is just brave. But not in a way that seems unreal.. just in a way you hope you would be if you were in her shoes. Her new house comes with unsettling people: creepy old has-been actresses, and bizarre blue Russian acrobat with a mouse circus no one but him can see. Also, the movie adds a character not present in the book, Wyborn "Wybie" Lovat, who Coraline initially despises, but eventually befriends.  While he may ultimately be the most innocuous of characters, his introduction is the most frightening (He rides her down on his bike while wearing a skeletal welder's mask.)  Coraline's reaction to all of these new things is initially boredom, and then curiosity and excitement as she discovers more unusual things. 

The Other Mother is a monster, and evil, that's a given.  However, she is still a well developed character with her own story or agenda.   She has issues with cats.  She controls the entire world on the other side, and all of the "Other" characters are just extensions of her, though they are not entirely under her control. But the Other Mother is a nuanced being with her power and her avarice.  It seems likely she really does love Coraline, as much as a thing like her can.

As an aside, Coraline's "real" mother is an excellent character for the screen time she has.  She is pretty obviously the authority in the household.  Coraline's father is more laid back.  While she is prone to be grouchy and authoritarian, she still cares about her daughter even if she is short with her. The truth of the roles of the Mother and Other Mother are hidden in the beginning of the movie. Coraline's Mother is no fun, and never lets her have her way, while her Other Mother is always pleasant, feeds her delicious food, as opposed to her mother's mid-movie offer: "How do you feel about a mustard-ketchup- salsa wrap for lunch?" The true natures of each are revealed by the end of the movie, as the Other Mother is of course revealed to be a monster, and Coraline's true mother shows the kindness she is of course capable of: she surprises Coraline with the gloves she had wanted earlier in the film, as well as going along with Coraline's plans for a garden-planting party, even though it turns out Coraline's mother really does hate dirt.

The beginning and middle of the film are full of nuanced characters, and a main character brimming with agency. The harshest criticism we could give so might be about the two extremely scantily clad actresses. But now we come to the end of the film. As we mentioned before, Wybie is the only character added from the book. We were both very fond of the book before watching the movie. There were a few minor differences earlier in the film, but nothing major and most were actually improvements. However, we  had a hard time forgiving the film for the change it pulled in the end.

In the end of the book, Coraline manages to escape the Other Mother's clutches, narrowly. The Other Mother's hand is snapped off and manages to escape the other realm and spends a week trying to get the key from Coraline. Coraline realizes life just can't go on without her dealing with the hand. She cleverly, purposefully, sets up a trap for the hand. She spends three trips going the long way round through bushes to a deep, dangerous well mentioned at the beginning of the book. She asks her mother to borrow an old tablecloth she didn't need anymore so she could have a tea party with her dolls. "I thought you were too old for dolls" said her mom. "I am," answered Coraline, "It's just protective coloration." These theme is discussed earlier in the book while Coraline is watching a nature documentary, and is obviously also the method the Other Mother uses, disguising herself to look like Coraline's mother. Coraline carefully removes the cover of the well and lays the tablecloth over it, using dolls and cups to weigh down each side. She then goes back to the house and loudly announces her intention to have a tea party, and mentions that she will be playing with the key. She makes sure the hand is following her, lures it to the tea party setup, and carefully lays the key on the tablecloth (over the uncovered well.) The hand takes the bait, jumps for it, and is trapped, hopefully forever.

In the movie, Coraline IS heading to the well to dispose of the key. However, she does not know the hand has escaped. It jumps and tries to snatch the key from her neck. Just then, Wybie roars onto the scene on his bike, knocks the hand off of Coraline and almost falls into the well himself. The hand falls in as well, but scrambles up Wybie and attacks his hands on the ledge of the well, making him loose his grip with one. Poised to attack Wybie's other hand, Coraline snatches the Other Mothers hand with a blanket she had been wearing for warmth. As the hand begins to escape from the blanket, Wybie throws a huge rock on it and smashes it to bits. Coraline bundles the rock and hand up into the blanket, ties the bundle with a key, and together the hurl it into the well.

This ending is NOT terrible. However, the ending to the book went so much further to showing just how capable and clever Coraline is.  For a character who was only added so Coraline wouldn't be 'walking around and talking to herself' it irks us endlessly that Wybie gets to be so much the hero in the end. Coraline's agency is diminished, even if not totally removed.   Even though it was a joint effort, in our minds Coraline should have been the one to either make a plan, or at minimum be the hand smasher.

For all of it's failings in the end scene, I think the movie holds up well and gives Toddles a great young female role model. Coraline is unfailingly brave, as Toddles will tell you. He will describe her as a hero. He has even asked to be Coraline for Halloween once or twice. (I thoroughly encourage this, even though I am sure he won't go with that as his final choice, because I am going as the other mother!) I am pleased that Toddlesworth might want to be Coraline. I recall from my childhood on a couple of occasions wearing a skirt or some such out of curiosity, and receiving shame and punishment. There was a frantic worry that I would turn myself gay, or something.   In my more mature view, I realize that that was never going to happen.  I was born what I am, as Toddlesworth was born whatever he will be. The only result my family's shaming reaped was to ultimately weaken the bonds we shared.  He will not be harmed by taking something from any traditionally gendered attributes.  Also, I'll be damned if he'll be harmed by someone ignorant shaming him.   In my view of a truly equal society, people determine their role models based on the quality of their character, rather than the quality of their arbitrarily assigned genitals.  For example, I want to be this young lady when I grow up!

The best lesson of all is given in Coraline's own voice. She tells us that being brave isn't absence of fear, but instead "when you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave."

Do svidaniya, readers!

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