March 22, 2023

CHARI | On “Coraline”, Self-Reflection and Our Favorite Childhood Media 

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I got my first tattoo last year. It is a small button, only slightly larger than a quarter. When consulting with the artist, I specified that I wanted a button with four holes in it, like in Coraline. “Oh, you also want one of that movie?” He gestured over to a heavily tattooed man sitting in the front of the shop. “Jake, show her your leg.” Jake (I think his name was Jake, I honestly don’t remember) pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a full color portrait of Coraline’s titular protagonist, complete with blue hair and the top of her yellow raincoat. I felt a little basic after that, knowing that I wasn’t even the first person in the shop to ask for a Coraline tattoo. But reflecting on that experience got me thinking about all the people I know who love Coraline (both Neil Gaiman’s book and its movie adaptation). What about this children’s film resonates so deeply with so many people?

In Coraline, the seven-year-old eponymous character finds herself alone and bored after her family moves to a new house. One day, she stumbles upon a door in the house that leads to another world. This other world has another set of parents who have buttons for eyes and shower her with attention, food and gifts. However, Coraline eventually discovers that her Other Mother is a spider-like monster with a history of stealing children’s souls. Coraline is then tasked with rescuing her real parents after the Other Mother kidnaps them. 

Coraline’s outward themes can best be summed up by a tagline on some of its posters: “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Coraline, the summary reads, is simply a movie about appreciating what you have. Coraline had been frustrated and bored with her real parents, but as the Other Mother revealed her true colors, she realized how much she loved them. 

While this interpretation may provide comfort for some, I was never fully satisfied with it. There has been lots of discussion in YouTube videos and academic papers alike about the Other Mother being a symbol for abuse. Often, abusers manipulate their victims by presenting them with gifts and love-bombing them with attention, just as the Other Mother created a shiny world of singing mice and beautiful flowers just for Coraline. 

The Other Mother, as the obvious villain of the story, immediately draws the attention of most readers. But to me, the black-and white, good-and-evil relationship is not the only interesting relationship in the story. In the movie adaptation, Coraline’s real parents lack warmth and continuously ignore Coraline’s communication about feeling lonely in their new house. Her mother expresses her disinterest when Coraline shares a dream of hers over breakfast, instead dismissing her daughter in favor of her work. 

That is why the initial warmth and cheeriness of the Other Mother was so welcoming to Coraline when she found it. Of course, I am not suggesting that Coraline’s real parents did not love her, or that occasionally distracted annoyance is anything comparable to what the Other Mother did. But after further reflection, I realized that this movie was so comforting to me rewatching as an adolescent because it fully validated the loneliness I felt when it seemed as if the people I loved the most had no time for me. This was a feeling I felt a lot as a child and a teenager, and something I still feel even now, as a college student in a place full of busy people. 

I also appreciate the realism of the film’s ending. After rescuing them from the clutches of the Other Mother, Coraline discovers her parents retain no memories of their kidnapping and of their young daughter’s heroic mission to save them. This makes the ending bittersweet, because while we know Coraline is a brave, courageous hero, her parents do not. I saw this decision as a sad reminder that internal growth is often not acknowledged by those around us. This is why I think Coraline resonates so strongly with a lot of people who struggle with mental illness, trauma and addiction. Invisible battles are a lot of work, and often others will never notice the effort you put in to mitigate them. It can take a lot out of you to show up and be the best version of yourself for the people around you, and often those people will never understand that, even if they try. 

On a lighter note, I also think that Coraline is a wonderfully brave and mature yet realistic character. I regret not asking Jake at the tattoo place whether it was the stop-motion animation or the themes of family in Coraline that made him want to get it permanently etched onto his body. However, I am sure his reason was equally potent and unique. That is why Coraline is one of my favorite films of all time: It provokes a blend of thought, comfort and nostalgia among those who resonate with it.

Ayesha Chari is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Column of One’s Own runs alternate Wednesdays.