Things to think about before/after seeing Coraline

22 02 2009

So last weekend I saw the movie Coraline, which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to everyone. It was slightly creepy but still beautifully made and entertaining. As much as I liked it, there were still some highly gendered aspects of the movie that kept nagging at me.

Coraline’s real mother is a busy working mom who never really has much time for Coraline. Her husband, Coraline’s father, refers to her as “the boss”. He cooks all the time, instead of the mom, and Coraline takes issue with this. She gets upset that her mom never cooks and tells her that she should cook. It’s a bit strange how Coraline, a young girl, keeps trying to enforce gender roles within her family because usually it’s the other way around. It just goes to show pervasive gender roles are in society and how ingrained they are in even young children. Coraline wants her family to seem “normal” and “perfect” which would mean that her mother would be the one to cook.

Meanwhile Coraline’s “Other Mother” epitomizes the stereotypical 50s housewife who just stays home, cooking and cleaning. She wears an apron, spends most of her time in the kitchen, is always heavily made up, and even dresses up in some instances. She feeds Coraline, nurtures her and gives her things that she wants. Her whole identity is based on motherhood – she is just the “Other Mother” who tries to find out everything that Coraline, or other children, want in their mothers, and tries to fulfill their desires to be the “perfect” mom. The thing about the “Other Mother” though is that she represents a matriarch. (SPOILER ALERT!) She created everything and everyone in her world. The father is emasculated and controlled by her, thus she is in total power.

And of course, the “Other Mother,” the only older female character in a position of power is vilified. She is sneaky, clever, scheming and domineering, and consequently must be evil. She, like the surrogate maternal figure in Disney movies or fairy tales, is ugly, possessive, powerful (which is a bad trait for a woman to have), power-hungry (also a bad trait for a woman to have), and must be stopped.

Also, Wybie is the only African-American character. He is eccentric, likes to catch slugs, and goes around in a dirt bike and weird helmet. just a strange, awkward kid. He is also very submissive – he has a hunched posture and whenever his grandmother calls for him he is quick to obey and dash back to her. (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!) In the “Other Mother’s” world  his lips are sewn together and therefore is silenced.

Another important thing to consider is who’s doing what behind the scenes. The protagonist of the movie may be a girl (and the antagonist a woman), but the animation industry, like the movie industry, remains very male-dominated. When you look at the credits after the movie, the screenwriter, director, editors, most of the animators are men. Surprising? No, not really.

With all this said, I want to reiterate that I still really liked Coraline and I still think that if you haven’t seen it already, you should go see it, because it’s amazing. (See, being a feminist doesn’t mean that you abstain from all things fun but instead you participate with a more critical and conscious eye.)

Seasons of Plagiarism

22 02 2009

When I was in high school, I, like many other gay teenagers, had a visceral reaction to my first (and second, third, fourth, etc.) viewing of the Broadway musical “Rent.”  Here, I thought, gay people were being depicted positively and unabashedly.  I was a total Renthead, buying the soundtrack, posters and all that.  It wasn’t until a few years later, in college, that  I cast a critical eye of the musical.

I started to resent that the heroes of the AIDS crisis in the world of RENT were straight people.  The characters were cardboard.  The depiction of lesbianism no longer seemed edgy, but trite.  And that music.  Glossy, melodramatic pop fodder.  If someone were to write rock opera as a vehicle for Britney Spears’ comeback, it would probably sound a lot like RENT.  I’m sure many former RENTheads shared my embarrassment after seeing Chris Columbus’ hideous film adaptation of the musical, which didn’t even try to hide the glossy commodification of “bohemian” lifestyles.  It was so bad, it almost read as a satire of self-important AIDS artists/activists, running around subways singing about love while homeless people who aren’t nearly as pretty as Rosario Dawson freeze to death in the streets.  

I say all of this to lead up to a feminist book recommendation.  If you, like me, lost your love of RENT but couldn’t ever quite bring yourself to bash a mainstream depiction of AIDS, gay people and political activism, I’m here to give you the justification you have been waiting for:  Jonathan Larson plagiarized the plot of RENT.  The source material?  Not “La Boheme,” but lesbian writer/activist Sarah Schulman’s 1990 novel about (insert recap of the plot of RENT here) “People in Trouble.”  In her 1998 book “Stagestuck: Theater, AIDS, and the marketing of Gay America” she details her unsuccessful attempt to defend her copyright, while making a larger argument about the commodification of gay culture, the homophobia that demands straight people/ideas be at the center of our discussion of homosexuality and the cheapening of AIDS political art and activism.  

Reading “Stagestruck” was shocking and an important reminder that we radical feminists should always be wary of mainstream media, should resist the temptation to over-identify with the commodities being peddled to us as empowering and should question who is doing the peddling.  (For instance: did you know that Jonathan Larson was straight?  Didn’t have AIDS?  Had only lived in NYC for a few years?  Has no involvement at all of AIDS activists? Admitted to using Schulman’s novel as fodder for his plot?)  Read it.  And if you want to read about lesbian experience from a lesbian perspective (or you want to know about the radical work done by AIDS activists in the late 80s/early 90s…which you should, since the commodification of AIDS has gone to a whole new level with recent pop-activist campaigns and Bush-iscized rhetoric about AIDS “victims”) then read Schulman’s “People in Trouble.”

Rant over.

Sorry.  I don’t know how to include the full-size photos.  Damn you technology!