Although when I first watched Coraline at the age of nine, I had a slew of nightmares for months to follow, for some reason I revisited the film time and time again. From the haunting soundtrack in partial-gibberish to the meticulous set-design and bizarre characters, the story captivates viewers through equal parts comfort and fear of the unknown. But perhaps one of the more intriguing themes that can be accredited with drawing in younger audiences, is the movie’s subversion of the brave boy archetype, in having the main character, Coraline, save the day.
The brave boy or hero archetype is usually filled by the protagonist – a male individual who overcomes some sort of internal and societal conflict to save another from a perilous situation, often having to convey strength and rationality. As can be seen in movies like The Lion King and Kung Fu Panda, children’s animation has no shortage of heroic male characters that exhibit behaviors consistent with traditional masculinity. Though male protagonists often have help from female characters in overcoming their predicaments, they are rarely placed at the forefront of the action – where their part usually fizzles out around the climax and rejoins nearing the end with some kind of congratulatory gesture. It is important to understand that the mere presence of female characters is not enough when it comes to disavowing harmful stereotypes, which, for young girls, often promote passivity, compliance, and physical appeal over intellect and self-determination. Despite the shift in Disney movies of girls and women taking up more actively heroic roles, such as in Frozen and Moana, a great emphasis is still placed on their femininity, through dress, maternal compassion and song. This is why the way in which the character of Coraline Jones was written and picturized is so important, as she both breaks away from binary portrayals of girls in children’s movies, and takes on the traits of the conventional male hero.
From the commencement of the film, when the Jones family moves into the Pink Palace, the audience is introduced to a curious, adventurous, and rather sarcastic young girl, who is largely independent for an eleven-year-old, due to the lack of attention she receives from her workaholic parents. Immediately, the viewer’s interest is peaked, as her expressions resemble – what has come to be known as – boyish, where she passes witty remarks to her friends and parents (like telling her father that the dinner he made looks like “slime”), goes slug-hunting and is not afraid of making a mess of her clothes. In my opinion, Coraline is a healthier representation of the average girl than many popular depictions, in how she is not overly feminized in appearances – she has short hair, is mostly seen wearing muted colors, a coat, denim, and boots – or in demeanor – where she is both physically and verbally expressive – which is in contrast to the prim, timid, good-daughter stereotype we have all come to know. She also expresses frustration in a way that is unexpected; that is, you will catch her yelling and stomping multiple times throughout the movie, flailing her arms, and at one point, shattering a mirror in an attempt to save her parents. Through all these supposedly small personality quirks, Neil Gaiman sets Coraline’s gender performance as an important facet of the story.
In the journey to save her parents from the terrifying Beldam – who holds them hostage in an attempt to acquire Coraline’s soul – while initially, she shows fright at the thought of being devoured, because of which she returns home hoping to find her mother and father waiting for her, she quickly realizes that she must overcome her fear and face the dilemma head-on. Instead of turning to others for help, she comforts and collects herself by confiding in a cat, and singing herself a tune that her father often sang. Coraline does not seek to entangle anyone in her situation but asks for advice from her neighbors in a calm, collected manner, all while she pieces together a plan for their release. When arriving in the Other World to confront the Other Mother, at no point does Coraline betray her emotions by breaking into tears, instead, she leverages the Beldam’s love for games against her, in suggesting that they play a “finding things game,” of which the prize would be her parents and releasing the souls of previous victims. Upon her agreeance, Coraline is left to race against time through a battle of wits, resourcefulness, and agility, where she must fend off the Other Mother’s creations to win.
Finally, when Coraline saves her parents, the lost souls, and is able to seal off the door from the horrors of the Other World, she meets her parents who have no real recollection of the events. In seeing them she exclaims “mom, dad, you’re home!” after which she is met with questioning expressions, but is equally content despite it. So, although she is briefly thanked by the ghost children, Coraline is never truly praised by those she set out to fight for in the first place (her parents) – due to their memory loss – thus, becoming a hero without making a big deal out of it.
By bending representational norms of young girls, and in having Coraline emerge triumphant through both mentally and physically strenuous challenges, Neil Gaiman shows viewers that girls are equally capable of dealing with testing tribulations, and that gender is not the determining factor nor a hindrance to the characteristics one exhibits, or the roles they take on – in this case being the brave girl or hero.