Welcome! Maybe introductions can come later, but for now let’s just say this will be a space where my friend and I—and, depending on how things go, maybe other people, maybe you—can write about politics, gender, and texts of all kinds. I’m going to try getting things started with some brief observations on reading Henry Selick’s movie Coraline alongside James Cameron’s Avatar. (Coraline I’ve seen, Avatar I haven’t; that will almost inevitably be remedied in the end, right?, but at the moment I’m still at a point where it seems possible to say that I have absorbed so much information on Avatar, and read so much great leftist criticism of it online, that actually seeing it is less than necessary. Which is probably wrong, but I’ll think of this as an experiment.)
So just what is going on with the increasingly sinister “Other Mother” who presides over, and is finally revealed to have created, Coraline Jones’s alternate world? The specifically filmic Other Mother: of course there’s much to be said about (m)otherhood in Neil Gaiman’s novel, but there are also new particularities here. In a recent guest post for Womanist Musings, from her series on monstrosity and feminist analysis, Natalie Wilson situates the Other Mother of Selick’s adaptation—as distinct from Gaiman’s character, at least to some degree—in a long American cinematic tradition of grotesque maternity. Comparing Gaiman’s and Selick’s respective versions of the character, Wilson quotes Gary Westfahl’s observation that Selick’s film “falls back upon a commonplace analogy between black widow spiders and domineering women—found nowhere in the book—making the Other Mother increasingly resemble a spider and even at one point having her try to trap Coraline within a gigantic spider web.” The analogy may be commonplace, but I think it’s worth adding that, by the time we’ve reached the gigantic web, a more direct kind of quotation is going on. As she gets angrier, more clearly possessive and threatening, and less recognizably human—complete with a miniature version of herself, in the form of a little octopus doll from the Other Bedroom who says to Coraline, “Yeah, I wanna hug your face!“—the Other Mother specific to this film emerges as a revision of what might be contemporary American film’s ultimate mother-monster figure: the Alien Queen from Cameron’s Aliens.
And this intertextual engagement is striking for a few reasons. It’s impossible to know just what the legacy of Cameron’s Avatar will be, but it certainly feels tempting right now to say that Coraline is going to have to be seen retrospectively as an animated 3D movie—even one about avatars, about a new world that seems flawless and limitless, and, unfortunately, about a white savior—that was conceived and released in the moment just before the global event that was Avatar. Mark Fisher at k-punk has pointed out that Avatar itself “is in some ways a reversal of […] Aliens.” As the title of his post implies, one of the most interesting ways this reversal gets played out is specifically in the approach to extraterrestrial maternity: the insectoid alien mother of “Get-away-from-her-you-bitch!” infamy is here transformed into the planet Pandora’s nature goddess, Eywa, unseen, omnipresent, infinitely benevolent, and a kind of ideal substitute for a Mother Nature back on Earth who is understood by everyone to have been “killed.” In fact the world of the Na’vi, the world of Avatar, is meant to be an ideal substitute for Earth in every respect, an Other Earth; and for Cameron’s protagonist Jake Sully in particular, as Aaron Bady observes, it functions as an anti-modern paradise of perpetual American (male) childhood: “nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you.” The new world of Avatar, then, is a stereotypical, not to say stereoscopic, fantasy of boyhood that mirrors the fantasized domestic girlhood of Coraline. Cross through this portal …
… and enter a complexly feminized space that exists purely for your enjoyment, where you are allowed to stay forever, and where a divine mother forgives virtually every transgression—even if she does also demand a transformation from you. In one case you must leave your human body behind—but that’s supposed to be fine, really, because you get to fulfill James Cameron’s Wish to be a Blue Indian. In the other case, well, you are going to have buttons sewn into your head, where your eyes used to be. “Soon,” as the Other Mother tells Coraline, “you’ll see things our way.” And that is not supposed to be fine (even though, as the servile Other Father tries to explain, in a line typifying the kind of creepiness that Coraline does really well, the needles are “so sharp you won’t feel a thing!”). Disobey, and Eywa collapses back into the Alien Queen. This is a particular way of getting at the trauma of 3D: buttons sewn into the eyes, an alien attacking the face.
All of which is maybe to say—thinking more for a moment about those portals themselves, or, in other words, about the 3Dness of these two movies—that the eventual appearance of the monstrous-mother trope in Coraline is seriously overdetermined. Not only an expression of misogynist anxiety surrounding contemporary motherhood and fatherhood in themselves, I would suggest, it’s also a site for the displacement of what turns out to be an uneasy argument, even a self-cancellingly reactionary one, about 3D spectatorship, in the form of a weirdly precise miniaturized (p)restaging, through one child’s consciousness, of problems from Avatar. The world of 3D, Coraline ultimately says, is a beautiful and alluring one, put together by a consummate artist, but it is not to be trusted, and not a world in which you (should) want to stay long, because it will change your vision. Part of why seeing the movie in 3D is such an unnerving experience, after all, is that you sit in the theater watching the heroine resist having big black buttons replace her eyes, and what makes her ordeal all the more immediate to you is the pair of big black buttons that you’ve put over your eyes. It is as if Coraline had predicted the depression apparently experienced by so many people who beheld, and then had to depart from, the stereoscopic universe of Avatar: it’s a film about that depression, embodied, made monstrous and wounding. And so the kind of critique of Avatar that has been voiced by, among others, Caleb Crain, below, is closely related to a critique that Coraline seems to direct, through the scapegoating of a character who is really its artist surrogate and world-builder, at itself:
“[W]hat about Avatar‘s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion, planted by Cameron with the cynical intention of distracting the viewer from the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness. The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned.”
Or, as the Other Mother says: “You could stay here forever if you want to.” It’s worth noting that James Cameron himself has talked repeatedly, not only of his view that Avatar is a movie “about women,” but also of himself as a kind of auteur-mother who can’t be bothered while he’s “crowning.” So Avatar becomes, in addition to everything else, a big cis/male joke about labor, or the-difficulty-of-authorship-as-the-grossness-of-motherhood. You could say Coraline preemptively takes that idea and runs with it, in such a way that its own anxiety about the kind of movie it is becomes indistinguishable from the threat of a terrifying, encroaching mother.