Emily (foresthouse) wrote,

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A Few Thoughts On Coraline and Christianity or Possibly Politics, I Am Not Quite Sure Which

I happened upon this article today: Two Stories for Children, by Fritz Spencer, and it just made me go "...WHAT?" It also infuriated me rather a lot; hence, this post.FN 1

In a nutshell, Spencer compares a Brothers Grimm tale, "Mother Holle" (or Hulda), to Coraline, a story by Neil Gaiman that was then made into a stop-motion animation film by Henry Selick (which is the version being referred to in the article), apparently to make a point about politics (which is never really made). Spencer's conclusion regarding the two is that "Mother Holle" is a profound tale with a valuable moral lesson (presumably good for children and Christians and the political Right, as specifically mentioned), and that Coraline is a horrifying and disturbing tale, and the exact opposite of "Mother Holle" (presumably bad for children and Christians but probably loved by those evil Lefties). He states that (and I have to quote here, or you will not believe I am not making this up), "[t]hose who made "Coraline" are also likely to endorse the evils of abortion and homosexual marriage, and given a chance, could easily change America into a Soviet-style hell on earth."

A SOVIET-STYLE HELL ON EARTH. Do you hear that, Neil Gaiman, Henry Selick? Your children's story will lead us straight to Soviet Hell. FOR SHAME.

Considering that I have just been re-watching Coraline on my iPod in preparation for The Secret Craft Project I am doing next weekend (time permitting), and it has been making me smile on the Metro and I have been reminded anew of how magical it was to see it in 3-D in the theater, I feel the need to speak up for Coraline in the face of Spencer's wrongheaded understanding of the movie (which I am pretty sure he didn't actually watch, after reading his article). So here we are.

Honestly, I'm not even sure about all of the points Spencer is trying to make, because whatever comparisons are being made between the two stories are fairly inaccurate, not to mention that his summation of each story is also inaccurate or at least incomplete. He states that he's using the stories to give "a better understanding of politics," but I think he forgot the part of "writing an article" where you actually have to make specific points that support your hypothesis (after stating said hypothesis or at least giving us a clue as to what better understanding of politics we should be getting from this). So the most I can glean from the article is that Spencer is attempting to use the comparison of stories to say that the sort of people who would make and show a movie like Coraline to children are What Is Wrong With Our Society, Bad UnChristian Folks, and belong to "the tormented soul of the Left," and that therefore the Good Folks (of the Right?) have got "a battle against...spiritual wickedness" to contend with. He actually says both that: a) ChristiansFN 2 should have boycotted the movie; and b) the vision of our world as portrayed in Coraline is from people in HollywoodFN 3 who see a world "terrifyingly unlike our own." He then implies (quoting Paul in the Bible) that they are "rulers of the darkness of this world." (YES, REALLY. Neil, your new title as "Ruler of the Darkness" awaits. Would you like a twisted iron crown with that? Henry? How about you?)FN 4

Since I very clearly disagree with him, let's take a step back for a moment and do what Spencer was attempting to do, i.e. a "side-by-side" comparison of the two tales, but from a somewhat more even or possibly informed footing. Then we will see if perhaps there is a political point to be made, and also if "Mother Holle" is a good tale for all children and Christians, and Coraline is an evil movie that children and Christians should not be allowed to see.

Here are the basic points Spencer is attempting to make in his article:

1. The brothers Grimm are awesome because of their well-known moral fairy tales, and Mother Holle is a good story for children and Christians, full of sweetness and light and good moral lessons.

2. The people who produced Coraline are evil and will bring Hell to Earth if given a chance, and Coraline is a bad story for children and Christians, full of terror and hate and bad moral lessons.

3. Something about how the existence of such a story and movie as Coraline illustrates that the Rulers of the Darkness are going to Rule us all if we don't watch out, and the moral Right has a stiff fight ahead of it if it wants to stop the Soviets from taking over. I think.

Ready? Here we go!

Point 1, Part A: The brothers Grimm and their stories.

OK, there is A LOT of literature available on both the brothers Grimm and their original stories, at your fingertips via a Google search (which the article's writer CLEARLY DIDN'T HAVE), so I am just going to go with the basics here, by using a reputable source to illustrate that neither the brothers Grimm nor their stories were what people may think they are today. My reputable source? National Geographic, which featured a collection of the original Grimm stories, with an introduction that kind of says everything I want to say in two paragraphs:

Looking for a sweet, soothing tale to waft you toward dreamland? Look somewhere else. The stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 1800s serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it—capricious and often cruel. The two brothers, patriots determined to preserve Germanic folktales, were only accidental entertainers.

Once they saw how the tales bewitched young readers, the Grimms, and editors aplenty after them, started "fixing" things. Tales gradually got softer, sweeter, and primly moral. Yet all the polishing never rubbed away the solid heart of the stories, now read and loved in more than 160 languages.

Wikipedia also has some interesting things to say about them. To sum up, the brothers collected these stories from many people as part of their interest in language and preservation of culture (i.e. not primarily to entertain or to teach children moral lessons or anything like that). The stories were often presented as scholarly studies of folklore. They later changed some of the stories after criticism that they weren't as suitable for children as the title of the collection suggested. I am not saying any of this is bad or makes them not awesome for what they did. I am just saying, this is the context of where these stories came from; the brothers were a couple of guys interested in folklore and language, who worked probably very, very hard to gather and produce a collection of stories from their culture.

Point 1, Part B:

Regarding the stories themselves, National Geographic is not wrong in saying that the tales can be pretty harsh. I'm not going to analyze them all, but seriously, at least give Brother and Sister a read. In short, the siblings' mother dies, the step-mother beats them, they run away and she chases them around the woods not letting them drink from any of the streams they find, it turns out she's a witch and she turns the brother into a deer when he finally drinks some water, the siblings go live in isolation in the middle of nowhere, the deer is hunted and wounded, the sister meets a King after the hunt and marries him (hey, one good thing!), the step-mother is jealous and suffocates the sister(now Queen) in the castle right after the sister gives birth to her child, the King doesn't even notice that his wife is now the step-mother's ugly daughter disguised as the pretty Queen, the Queen ends up haunting the place until a nursemaid notices her, the King eventually figures things out, the Queen comes back to life, the step-mother and ugly daughter are killed by being torn to pieces by wild beasts and cast into the fire and burned, respectively, and then, finally (what must be years later since they're little at the beginning of the story) the brother turns back into a man.

Now tell me that's not a little bit horrifying and/or disturbing in places? I mean, "torn to pieces by wild beasts." REALLY.

And a lot of them are like that. Violence, cruelty, torture, trickery, it's all there. Now let's look at a summary of Mother Holle, the story specifically discussed in the article:

A widow has an ugly lazy daughter and a pretty industrious stepdaughter. She hates the stepdaughter and makes her do all the work until her fingers bleed. Can I tell you how much that image makes me cringe?FN 6 Anyway, she gets some blood on her spinning shuttle, and washes it off, and it falls in the well, and her mean stepmother sends her into the well to get it. She falls in the well and ends up in a beautiful nice world, where she is asked to do some menial tasks, which she does. She helps an old woman by working for her, and has a nice life with the old woman. Then, for no overt reason, she becomes homesick and wants to go home, so the nice old woman sends her off home with a ton of gold as payment for her work, and the shuttle. When she gets home the stepmother and stepsister are nicer to her because now she has gold (seriously). Then the greedy stepmother wants gold for her daughter, so she sends her into the well. The lazy girl does none of the things asked of her once she sees she'll get no immediate reward, and so when she leaves, Mother Holle covers her in pitch (presumably hot pitch) that never comes off. Now that? Is horrifying. Justified, maybe, for the morality of the tale. But still horrifying.

So. Is this a good story for children? Well, it's no better or worse than many other children's stories, I guess, in the "how will it affect them?" department, but I wouldn't necessarily trumpet it as the most wonderful child-teaching tool ever. From the perspective of the good daughter, it's got an interesting moral: Be industrious, be helpful, be hardworking, etc. without questioning why, and you will be rewarded for your labors with a nice life, money, and an approximation of affection or respect (because you're now rich). Seriously, that's what it boils down to; if the heroine were to sit down and think, "what have I learned here?" this is pretty much what she'd come up with. (I'm not saying it's bad to tell kids, "work hard, and you will succeed." Just that this is kind of a strange story to pick for it.) From the perspective of the bad daughter, it's got a slightly more helpful moral for parents to use on their kids: don't be lazy, or you'll get nothing, and also a nasty punishment for your laziness. Hey, that'll scare the kids into doing what they're asked! I'm not really sure what the moral would be from the perspective of the stepmother - it's ok to be mean to your stepdaughter, because if she leaves she will still miss you and come back to you a rich woman, and it's not a good idea to push your own child to succeed, because she might end up coming back all covered in pitch? OK, maybe there's no succinct moral there. But you get the point. It's not exactly sweetness and light and shining morality.

As for whether it's a good example of Christian behavior (See Biblical law), um. Well, I wouldn't choose it first, probably. In terms of Old Testament Christianity, it doesn't particularly illustrate any of the Ten Commandments or anything. I mean, the heroine does honor her stepmother in doing the work she's told to, but it's not like she's ever really rewarded for that in a way that would make a child think they should do that too. And in terms of the teachings of Jesus (New Testament), well, it does touch on one of the Evangelical counsels (obedience), but in actuality, the Evangelical counsels aren't something that all Christians need follow (and of course if the story were about that, having all that gold would be a total no-no. Jesus preaches against materialism). As far as I can tell, it doesn't touch on the New Commandment very much at all, since there's really no mention of affection in the story at all other than homesickness. As for the values expressed by the Sermon on the Mount, well I guess we could say the pretty daughter was rewarded for being meek and doing what she was told? It's a stretch. There's also the discourse on holiness, which is the "do unto others..." bit, but again, I don't think the pretty daughter's reward comes because she treated others as she would want to be treated, per se. Again, it's a stretch.FN 7

Point 2, Part A:

Now, let's take a look at the people who produced Coraline and their stories. The primary two are Neil Gaiman (the book's writer) and Henry Selick (the screenplay's writer and director). Here I will focus on Neil because Coraline is his story, although I gladly acknowledge Henry Selick's wonderful adaptation of it to the screen. Of course I cannot claim to know all there is to know about Neil, nor am I his bestest buddy with a detailed personal knowledge of his life. (And I wouldn't even be discussing this except that the article's writer has unfairly cast aspersions on his moral character - ruler of the darkness, indeed!) However, I can say that from reading Neil's journal fairly often and from the two times I've met him, very briefly, he seems like a very kind person with intelligent views on how to treat others, and a good moral compass. He supports causes that I believe in, and goes out of his way to help others support good causes via his journal, etc. I can also say that I am acquainted or friends with some of his friends or acquaintances (as the six degrees of separation thing goes) and they are good people who I'm sure would not be friends with him if he were secretly a terrible person plotting to drag the world into hell! Indeed, they all give very good accounts of him. On the whole, I can say I have heard nothing at all to indicate that Neil is not a wonderful, kind person. Like the brothers Grimm, he is interested in telling stories, and in the various cultures and mythologies of the world, which often find their way into his stories in one way or another.

Point 2, Part B:

More relevant than Neil personally, in terms of something I can speak to in more detail, are the stories Neil writes, including his many books for children and young adults. There are many. So I am not going to discuss them all here. But take a look, for instance, at the synopsis of Blueberry Girl. Does that sound like the sort of book that would be morally objectionable? I don't think so, and neither do its reviewers. True, Neil's stories often venture into dark places, but by the end, the protagonists emerge into the light again, having learned something and become wiser for their adventures.

This is, in fact, the case with Coraline. In summary, the story (movie version) follows Coraline Jones, who has just moved to a new place with her two parents, both of whom are focused more on their own lives and troubles than on their daughter. While they are not cruel to her (nor do they make her work until her fingers bleed!), they frequently ignore or neglect her, and the isolation of the apartment building means she is left visiting with the odd neighbors and the weird boy whose grandmother owns the place. She clearly wishes things were different. The weird neighbor boy gives her a button-eyed doll he's found that looks like her. Coraline then finds a locked door in the wall with a button key, and after her mother opens it, in the night she follows some mice downstairs and discovers another world behind the door. In this world, her mother and father are fun and attentive, and everything is just as she would wish it to be (cheerful parents, good food, a nice bedroom, etc.) Even the neighbors are fun and entertaining instead of slightly odd. The only strange thing about everyone is that they all have button eyes. Coraline visits the Other world several times, and on the last fun visit, her Other Mother tells her she can stay if she lets the Other Mother sew buttons on her eyes. Coraline refuses, but on returning home, she discovers that her parents are missing - the Other Mother has taken them.

Coraline then goes back to the Other world, but the Other Mother punishes her for her refusal of the button eyes by imprisoning her in a mirror with three ghost children the Other Mother stole before Coraline. They ask her if she will help find their eyes (stolen by the Other Mother) to free their souls. Coraline gets out and challenges the Other Mother to a game, in which she must find her parents and the 3 ghost eyes. Despite adversity, Coraline succeeds in finding the ghost eyes and her parents, and traps the Other Mother forever in the Other world by locking the door and throwing the button key (and the Other Mother's hand) down a deep, deep well. In the end, Coraline is overjoyed to be back in the real world with her real parents. She helps them make a beautiful garden and throw a nice party for the neighbors.

So. Is this a good story for children? Well, as with Mother Holle, let's boil down the moral of the story that Coraline would have learned if she had sat down at the end of it all and thought about it. It's pretty easy to pick out the main moral, since it's the tagline of the movie: Be careful what you wish for (and the unspoken corollary, be grateful for what you have, and make the most of it). I doubt anyone would object to the idea that making the most of what you have and being happy you have it is wise and something children should be taught. There's also the wisdom of being leery of things that seem too good to be true, and that sometimes you have to be brave and persevere to overcome adversity, as well as the idea that you should help those in need, and that being kind to others can enrich your own life. These are all things I would be comfortable teaching my children.

As for whether it's a good example of Christian behavior, well, actually (although I am fairly sure it was not particularly written with this goal, given that a) Neil Gaiman is Jewish in heritage, at least, although I don't know if he practices; and b) I don't profess to be able to expound upon his personal religious beliefs, whatever they may be (although I can see that he knows quite a bit about various religions, from his stories etc.)), the story has at least one main theme that meshes with Christian values. In helping the ghost children (which Coraline didn't have to do to receive the benefit she wanted, i.e. getting her parents back), there is a good example of The New Commandment (love one another) as well as it being in line with Jesus' teaching about the good Samaritan and helping others. I will not belabor points to try to make a story that isn't a Christian allegory into one, but I will say that I don't see any morals in the story of Coraline that a Christian would object to.

Point 3:

I have no idea what this article has to do with politics, really. But Spencer seems to be arguing that the imagery in Coraline is so disturbing that it will permanently damage the fragile minds and souls of children. He claims that the story is filled with terror, darkness, and hate, and that this is the vision of the world as seen by "many in Hollywood" who will, if allowed, swoop in and perpetrate their terrible, Leftist values on an unsuspecting world.

Yes, Coraline has some scary images of terror and darkness, but I think Spencer has not dealt with many children if he thinks their psyches and souls are so fragile that a few scary scenes will damage them permanently (as I remember with fondness many of the books from my childhood, including such tales as The Witches by Roald Dahl, which had a ton of creepy images). Not to mention that it also has magical, delightful scenes that a child would enjoy, a happy ending, and a good moral foundation (as discussed above). And although it is not a movie, if Mother Holle were to be made into one, faithfully, I am pretty sure the imagery of the stepdaughter working until her fingers bleedFN 8 amidst the cruelty of her unloving "family," and the ending imagery of someone permanently covered in pitch wouldn't be met with cries of delight. Not to mention that I personally find the moral of that story somewhat shakier than that of Coraline. As for the hate, well, yes, the evil Other Mother shows hate, but then, in Mother Holle, so does the evil stepmother, who loves only her ugly daughter. So, you know. No leg to stand on, really.FN 9

By this juncture, I think any intelligent reader who's made it this far gets the points I am trying to make, so I'm not going to belabor them further. But seriously? How anyone can be so misguided as to have interpreted a delightful, magical tale with a valuable lesson at its heart (and I'm referring to Coraline in this instance, in case there is any confusion here) as such terrible story? It just boggles the mind.FN 10

FN 1I realize I should probably just say, "Lolol, nobody is going to listen to this moron anyway, he's writing in some tiny local paper that no one will even read," but hey - if it's on the internet, someone out there is going to read it. And even if Mr. Spencer never sees this post, at least the counterargument to his stupidity is out there in the ether now. And anyway, I had fun writing this. Even if it ended up waaay longer than intended.

FN 2Of which I am one.

FN 3Actually, Neil Gaiman, Writer of Coraline, lives in Minneapolis. Although he has probably been to Hollywood.

FN 4Spencer also notes that Henry Selick worked on "Nightmare Before Christmas," I suspect because this further condemns Mr. Selick in his eyes. Of course, Henry Selick has worked on many projects, including James and the Giant Peach, a story by one of the best-loved children's authors out there. But this would probably not redeem him in the eyes of our esteemed article-writer, since Roald Dahl was known for the dark humor in his children's books, and I am sure the Devil was involved in their writing. Despite this possibility, I read all of them as a child and I turned out quite well, thank you.FN 5

FN 5No comments from the peanut gallery, please. I can at least claim that as an attorney, I've passed all of the ethics tests and certifications required by law school, the American Bar Association, and three separate states, which should go some way towards proving I am not completely morally corrupt. See also FN 2. No Ruler of the Darkness crown for me!

FN 6A lot, thanks to Smallville. I will never get the image of Lex playing piano until his fingers bleed out of my head, EVER.

FN 7Please note that I am not arguing anywhere here that the Grimms' fairy tales don't often have good morals. I'm just saying that's not the same as them necessarily being specifically Christian morals.


FN 9And as for the line about "the evils of abortion and homosexual marriage"...I just have no idea where that even comes from, so I really have no answer to it. It's not relevant to a discussion of the value of these stories at all.

FN 10Made you look!

And now, as a reward for those of you who made it all the way through this looong post, trivia!

Coraline "Goofs"

This one's my favorite: In the scene when Coraline firsts sees her father, she places the Coraline doll down on a box. In the shot, the Coraline doll's arm is hanging over the edge, but in the next shot, the doll's arm is by its side.

Because my theory is it's not really a goof. AIEE THE DOLL CAN MOVE ALL BY ITSELF RUUUUN. Hee.


In other things, a link you should really check out because HELLO FUN: A Practical Ghost Story by Lee Thomas.

And the craziest music video I have seen in QUITE SOME TIME: Lady Gaga - Bad Romance Crazy, and yet STRANGELY HYPNOTIZING.

And, hey! I just discovered that Amanda Palmer is going to be doing a concert in Falls Church Thursday. Have now bought my ticket and will be meeting up with the webgoblin and a couple of others from Balticon for the show. WHEE.
Tags: annoyances, articles, balticon, concerts, coraline, dan guy, literary analysis, literature, movies, music, rant, the internet iz serius biznes, video clip, wonderful neil, youtube

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