A couple days ago I saw Coraline. First off, the movie was stunning. The other world was a perfect blend of magical and creepy. Visually, the film was incredible. In the end, however, I kept wondering what will children take away from this?
What particularly fascinated me was Coraline's depiction of working mothers. In the movie, Coraline's mother is a self-obsessed writer who works from home and (Horror of Horrors) doesn't cook. While Coraline's dad is also a workaholic, he gets depicted as a lovable fool. The father's role is changed from the book, he is a far more "present" figure in the movie.
The neglected Coraline, of course, enters an imaginary world. In it, she finds her other mother. Her other mother cooks and cleans, and gives Coraline her every hearts desire. Coraline soon discovers that this perfect mother is an illusion, a witch in disguise, who is after Coraline's eyes and her soul. Ultimately, Coraline realizes that there's no place like home, and that she loves her parents, despite their flaws. Also, Coraline's mom learns to garden or something.
While the graphics and effects were incredibly innovative, something about the plot felt very anachronistic to me. The film was much less Disney and much more Grimm's : a morose cautionary tale. The treatment of the mother reminded me of this book I was once enthralled with in high school, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. The author, Bruno Bettelheimer, was a Freudian psychologist who set out to explain the intended lessons behind Grimm's most famous fairy tales.
Bettelheimer had one chapter in his book on dead parents in fairy tales, focusing on stepmothers. He found there were several commonalities in the depiction of stepmothers throughout the stories.
1. The original mother is depicted as the good protector, and is only cruel when she denies a child's (unreasonable) desires.
2. There is always a split between the good mother and the stepmother, so the good mother image can remain intact while the child can project all bad feelings onto the bad mother.
3. The depiction of good mothers is as extreme as the depiction of bad mothers.
4. Parents are not real parents, real parents or (exalted) parents will return some day.
5. A child can be angry as long as ultimately that anger is not addressed at the "real parents"
In this frame, Coraline makes a lot of sense. A child is allowed to project their feelings of resentment onto the "other" mother rather then be angry with their real neglectful mother. Even the father's depiction falls along classic lines, Coraline and her mother fight for her father's attention. Bettelheimer has a particularly freudian analysis of this dynamic.
In the days of Grimm's fairy tales, stepmother based stories were created to help children deal with the reality of mothers dying at child birth. These mothers were often replaced with stepmothers who acted as children's competition for resources and affection. So if, similarly, this new parable is designed to serve a social purpose or to teach children life lessons, I wonder, what is the cautionary tale of Coraline cautioning against?
Although, in the end the working mother "wins", neither the working mother nor the domestic mother is depicted favorably. If the working mother is indeed the hero, why was her portrayal exceedingly harsher than her husbands? Is Coraline teaching children to deal with the realities of working mothers or is it just illustrating the persisting truth, that women can't have it both ways?