This is an edited transcript of a presentation I gave at the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference that took place Oct 11-13 in St. Louis, MO. I am currently in the early stages of revising it for publication, and hope to start sending it out to journals early next year. As always, I welcome any and all feedback and comments on the ideas presented within. Also, because this paper is incomplete and not currently published in any journals, I would ask that if you want to quote it or cite it in any way, please contact me for permission first. Thank you.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, INTO THE FALLOPIAN TREE, AND THROUGH THE VAGINAL TUNNEL: FANTASY, FAIRY TALES, AND FEMALE SEXUALITY IN SPIRITED AWAY, PAN’S LABYRINTH AND CORALINE
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), the films Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006), and Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) all feature stories in which young girls enter a new world of adult responsibilities and concerns, and are guided on their journeys through these worlds by an older male character. All three films use fairy tales and fantasy tropes to explore the various challenges and opportunities faced by the female protagonists as they navigate both their emergent sexuality, and the tensions that exist between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
According to Joyce Carol Oates (1997), much of the material that comprises our modern conception of fairy tales was originally provided by women, but was archived by men. Similarly, each of the films I discuss here are based on traditional fairy tale and fantasy tropes, but were written and/or directed by men (and, in the case of Coraline, based on a book written by a man). More importantly, all three films make use of “fantastic realism” to explore the lives of three young girls who live in what Allison Waller refers to as “a real world that is primarily domestic, familial, and restricted, but at the same time have access to experiences…that open up mystical possibilities of empowerment, fulfillment, and sexuality” (2004, p. 78).
This becomes interesting when considered alongside Kay Stone’s (1975) assertion that most fairy tales heroines are “severely restricted at a time in life when heroes are discovering full independence and increased power” (pp. 46-47). Stone draws on Freud to point out that female symbols are a common occurrence in fairy tales and fantasy literature, and she writes that they often “suggest the possibility of either entry or entrapment” (p.47). What sets these films apart from more traditional interpretations, is that they are about emergence rather than entrapment. The heroines of each film exit the world of childhood, and emerge into new worlds of adult responsibilities, anxieties, and pleasures. In other words, while most fairy tales are about repressing or restricting female sexuality, these three films use fairy tale and fantasy tropes to explore themes of budding sexuality, individuality, and independence.
Since all three draw inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, it is important to at least briefly examine the similarities between the films and Lewis Carroll’s fantastical tale. According to Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (2007), “Lewis Carroll’s narrative hovers between fantasy and reality and plays on the slippery boundaries which distinguish the child’s territory from the adult’s” (p. 49). Meanwhile, Sherry L. Ackerman (2008) explicitly compares Alice to Persephone and argues that their journeys through their respective underworlds actually represent a journey through the unconscious.
The same could be said of the three films discussed here, because each one features a young girl escaping her mundane life by traveling through a tunnel into a fantastic world filled with talking animals, wicked stepmothers (or in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, a wicked stepfather) and other fantasy and fairy tale creatures. While there, she embarks on a series of quests only to come out the other side feeling more mature, confident, and independent. Furthermore, the links between the the films and the Alice stories is strengthened by the presence of surface similarities — such as mirrors and/or flowers — that appear in each text. Most prominently, at one point in Pan’s Labyrinth, the character of (Ivana Baquero) Ofelia appears in a costume clearly inspired by the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland (Fig. 2).
Without dwelling too much on the nature of Charles Dodgson’s relationship with his muse, Alice Liddell, I would like to take a brief look at the sexual subtext that can be found in both of the Alice stories. I will then explain how similar subtext can be found in each of the three films. According to William Empson (2006), “The [Alice] books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms” (p. 39). Indeed, Alice embarks on “a journey into femininity” and finds herself situated “between the little girl and the woman” (Talairach-Vielmas, 2006, p. 51; p. 52). Meanwhile, Carina Garland (2008) argues that the Alice stories consist of the “spiteful attempts of the male author to suppress and control Alice’s agency so that Carroll can desire and own her” (p. 22). It is tempting to make the same claim about each of the films, but a closer examination reveals this is not the case. While each film is written and/or directed by men, the narratives are more about empowerment and increased agency, rather than control and suppression. Nevertheless, the link between the films and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories provides an opportunity to examine how all three use fairy tale and fantasy tropes to explore issues of female sexuality.
OLDER MALE FIGURES
First, in each film, a fantastical fairy tale creature representing an older male figure guides the young heroine on her journey through a world of adult pleasures, fears, and responsibilities. For instance, in Spirited Away, Haku conforms to the “shapeshifting lover” trope; he first appears as a beautiful and androgynous boy who is older and more knowledgeable than Chihiro, and he teaches her how to navigate and make sense of the strange, wondrous, and altogether frightening new world in which she finds herself (Fig. 3). At other times, however, Haku manifests as a feral, mysterious, and somewhat phallic dragon whose appearance both entices and frightens Chihiro (Fig. 4).
In Pan’s Labyrinth, the faun inhabits the role of the older male character (Fig. 5). In traditional folklore, fauns are depicted as playful creatures generally associated with trickery. Over time, however, they have become associated with sex due to a close identification with the Greek God Pan, who is primarily known for his sexual prowess. Thus, in Pan’s Labyrinth, the link between the faun and sexuality becomes rather obvious.
Finally, in Coraline the cat conforms to the “talking animal” trope, and he represents an older male figure who tempts Coraline away from her other mother (Fig. 6). This in turn adds to the tension that already exists between Coraline and the other mother due to Coraline’s independence. This antagonism culminates when Coraline throws the cat in her (other) mother’s face; this act indicates that Coraline flaunts her relationship with this older male figure to make sure that her mother knows that nothing can be done about it (Blackford, 2012).
FORBIDDEN ROOMS AND DOORWAYS TO OTHER WORLDS
Writing about the significance of forbidden rooms in fairy tales, Penny W. Caccavo (1992) argues that a key often represents a girl’s own finger, while the doorway and the room combine to represent her genitals (Fig. 7). This imagery signals that the girl moves “toward integration of a formerly secret part of herself into her body image in preparation for the future possibility of sexual intercourse and motherhood” (Caccavo, 1992, p. 133). This interpretation applies to each of the films considered here.
When Coraline first encounters the doorway to the Other World, it is locked. She gets the key from her mother, only to open the door and discover that the opening is bricked up (Fig. 8). When she returns later that night, however, Coraline finds that the bricks have disappeared to reveal a vaginal tunnel that grants her access to another world that contains immense pleasures, but also great anxieties and fears (Fig. 9). It could be argued that by inserting the key into the lock and opening the door to the Other World, Coraline has discovered her own sexuality through the act of masturbation. This is supported by the fact that in the shot immediately following Coraline’s discovery of the tunnel to the Other World, she appears disheveled and exhausted; her is hair tousled and her eyes are half closed, and she has a look of satisfaction on her face (Fig. 10).
Similarly, in Pan’s Labyrinth, the faun gives Ofelia a piece of magic chalk, which allows her to create and open doorways to forbidden rooms (Fig. 11). Thus, the chalk becomes a key of sorts, one that allows Ofelia to access new worlds of adult responsibilities and anxieties, and allows her to discover and take charge of her own sexuality.
In Spirited Away, the spirit world could be considered a forbidden world, and by entering the tunnel, Chihiro leaves behind the world she knows (the world of childhood) and enters one filled with strange new pleasures, anxieties, and responsibilities (the world of adulthood). The differences between these two worlds, as well as the changes they bring about in Chihiro, are represented by the tunnel in that bridges them. The entrance to the tunnel is somewhat vaginal (the statue at the entrance even resembles a clitoris), and it is bare when Chihiro enters, but is lush and overgrown when she emerges at the end of the film (Fig. 12). This signals that Chihiro is no longer a child and has begun her journey toward sexual maturation.
Each film also features a replacement mother figure who conforms to the “Wicked Stepmother” archetype prevalent in fairy tale and fantasy literature. Indeed, both Yubaba (in Spirited Away) and the Other Mother (in Coraline) represent a smothering or controlling type of motherly love and/or discipline designed to keep the heroine of each film docile, or in a state of perpetual childhood (Fig. 13). Yet, both Coraline and Chihiro are on the cusp of womanhood, and therefore they must liberate themselves from these dominating mother figures in order to gain some measure of control of their own sexual agency.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, meanwhile, Carmen represents a replacement mother figure, though one who Ofelia initially believes to be her real mother (Fig. 14). Carmen is not wicked like Yubaba, nor is she purely evil like the Other Mother. In many ways, though, she is still a controlling figure; she is critical of Ofelia’s reading habits, exerts control over the way Ofelia dresses, repeatedly demands that Ofelia refer to Captain Vidal as father, and expresses disappointment whenever Ofelia refuses to act like a proper lady. Initially, Ofelia tolerates this behavior. After the faun reveals that Carmen is not Ofelia’s real mother, however, Ofelia begins to resist Carmen’s gentle but domineering ways, and she retreats into the fantasy world where her real mother lives. This is interesting, because The Queen represents an opportunity for Ofelia to return to a perpetual state of prepubescence, but as I will demonstrate below, that is not exactly the case.
Before I get into that, however, I want to briefly touch on another way that that each film explores the sexual maturation of the three heroines, and that is by turning the girls themselves into mother figures (often to fantastical creatures). First, in Spirited Away, Chihiro becomes a mother figure to No-Face, Boh, and Yubaba’s guardian (both of whom have been transformed into helpless creatures by the witch Zeniba), as well as to the wounded Haku later in the film (Fig. 15). Similarly, in Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia becomes a mother figure first to the invalid Carmen, and then to her newborn baby brother during the film’s climax (Fig. 16). Finally, Coraline becomes a mother figure for both the three ghost children and the Other Wybie (Fig. 17).
THE FLOWER BLOOMS
As in Wonderland, flowers play an important role in each of the films. Flowers are often linked with notions of sexuality, and Freud considered them a “female symbol” (Stone, 1975, p. 47). Therefore, it becomes important to note that Coraline features a fantastical garden filled with magical flowers, and when they first blossom, they create an image of Coraline (Fig. 18). This suggests that Coraline herself is blossoming now that she has taken her first tentative steps into the world of adult responsibilities and anxieties.
Meanwhile, in Spirited Away, Haku leads Chihiro (known as Sen at this point in the movie) through a lush garden, and then restores her lost identity, which earlier had been stolen by Yubaba (Fig. 19). The flowers represent Sen’s first awkward steps into the world of sexuality, which she takes alongside the older male character. Sen then undergoes a transformation of identity (becoming Chihiro once more) that is not unlike the transformation a girl undergoes as she transitions into womanhood.
While Chihiro and Coraline more or less embrace their newfound sense of sexuality, individuality, and independence, Ofelia retreats from it. At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia returns to the fantasy land, ostensibly to live in a state of perpetual prepubescence with her real parents. However, the flower that opens at the end of the film suggests that she has already blossomed, whether she wants to or not, and that her journey into womanhood (on a purely physical level, at any rate) is underway (Fig. 20).
THE IMPACT OF BODY IMAGE ON FEMALE SEXUALITY
Another way that the films use fairy tale and fantasy tropes to explore female sexuality is by looking at the impact of issues involving body image on the sexual development of girls and young women. Societal expectations surrounding beauty and body size can have a profound impact on self-esteem, particularly on girls and young women. This in turn can and often does lead to things like eating disorders and anxieties about matters involving sex. The South Carolina Department of Mental Health estimates that 8 million Americans (seven million women and one million men) suffer from an eating disorder, one in 200 American women suffers from anorexia, and roughly two to three in 100 American women suffer from bulimia.
Of course, eating disorders are more about control and self-punishment than sexuality, but they often coincide with sexual maturity. According to Sharon H. Nathan (2001), eating disorders emphasize “the difficulties contemporary women have in integrating work, sexuality, and motherhood, and girls, too, face these challenges” (p. 243), and thus, they can be said to have a powerful impact upon female sexual development. This impact is made evident in all three films through the appearance of mirrors, a preoccupation with thinness, and explicit images of binging and purging.
TRAPPED IN THE LOOKING GLASS
Holly Blackford (2012) draws a link between Alice and Coraline, writing that “The ghosts of the other children behind the Carrollian looking-glass are instances of childhoods that teens leave behind as they grow” (p. 210). However, Talairach-Vielmas (2007) argues that the mirror imagery in Through The Looking Glass signals that “Alice has gone through the gendered looking-glass of propriety. The world of desire she has entered is a fleshly world where corporeal boundaries are unclear,” and that the “excessive body’s malleability and mutability in Wonderland, suggesting that anything might be transformed into anything else, is dangerous” (pp. 53-54).
THE SPECTER OF THINNESS
The sequence in Coraline in which the skeletal Other Mother imprisons Coraline inside of a mirror and refuses to let her out until she conforms to the Other Mother’s expectations can be read as an examination of female body issues; this sequence reflects the way that girls and young women can come to feel trapped by their own reflections as a result of societal pressures to conform to a certain ideal of beauty and body size. When the Other Mother first appears, she conforms to what could be considered an average body type, with wide hips and a full face (Fig. 21). As the film goes on, however, she grows increasingly thin, until she becomes a reflection of the body ideal often imposed upon girls and young women via media images (Fig. 22). This coincides with a shift in the Other Mother’s attitude; she goes from loving and doting to controlling and repressive. Thus, she comes to represent oppressive cultural and societal expectations regarding issues of weight and body size.
This is similar to the character of The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. The Pale Man is a horrifyingly gaunt ogre with flesh hanging off his bones, and he remains passive and nonthreatening until Ofelia takes a bite of food, at which point he begins stalking her. In this sequence, the Pale Man comes to embody Ofelia’s guilt over satisfying her appetite (which also represents her desire), and thus she is now being pursued by the specter of thinness as she makes her way between two different worlds (the worlds of childhood and adulthood). Thus, both figures come to represent the oppressive societal expectations regarding body image, because they ultimately harm or damage the heroines of each film.
BINGING, PURGING, AND THE POWER OF FOOD
In Alice in Wonderland, as in most Victorian writing, food functions as a “veiled metaphor for sexuality” (Talairach-Vielmas, 2007, p. 54). According to Carina Garland (2008), “the anxieties [Lewis] Carroll has surrounding female sexuality and agency…are expressed via representations of food and appetite within the text and the relationship of these to the feminine” (p. 22). This easily applies to each of the three films, all of which use images of binging and purging to explore the impact eating disorders have on the development of female sexuality.
For instance, in Spirited Away, Chihiro’s sexually mature parents binge on food that has been prepared for the spirits, and are turned into pigs for expressing unchecked desire. Chihiro, who is not yet sexually mature, is initially disgusted and disappointed by their behavior. As she matures throughout the film, however, Chihiro learns to come to grips with eating (and thus, with desire). Eventually, Chihiro learns how to take control of the power of food (desire) via the gift given to her by the river spirit, and this sets her on the path to taking control of both her sexuality and her sense of self. When combined with the purging imagery of No-Face vomiting up everything it has eaten throughout the film, and the image of Haku purging Zeniba’s enchantment, it becomes obvious that Spirited Away uses fantastic motifs to explore the idea of eating disorders, and how those in turn impact the development of female sexuality (Fig. 24).
Similarly, in Pan’s Labyrinth, the grotesque toad who lives beneath the fallopian tree represents a sort of unchecked desire. As Mike Perschon (2011) writes, the toad “has entered the tree out of lustful appetites” and is “slowly killing the tree through its ‘insatiable appetite’ for the pill bugs within” (online). However, this unchecked desire also leads to the toad’s downfall; after he ingests the magic stones that Ofelia tricks him into eating, the toad vomits up all of his insides, leaving nothing behind but a skinny, empty husk (Fig. 25).
Finally, in Coraline, the character of Mr. Bobinsky is portrayed as an engorged, oddly-proportioned caricature who constantly eats radishes. When Coraline attempts to retrieve the soul of the final ghost child from the other Mr. Bobinsky in the other world, he suddenly disgorges a horde of hideous rats (Fig. 26). If the other world represents a manifestation of Coraline’s sexual maturation, it could be argued that this purging imagery signals Coraline’s anxieties surrounding both her own body image and her encroaching sexuality.
If, as Karen Rowe (1979) writes, fairy tale heroines do indeed trade “one enchanted condition for another” and are “subjected in adolescence to anticipatory dreams of rescue and in womanhood to expectations of continuing masculine protection,” then these films become important within a wider societal and cultural context (p. 250). The films are not advocating the type of masculine submission usually found in the climax of traditional fairy tales, nor are they arguing that the heroines must seek “separation from the original mother, a stepmother’s persecutions, the father’s desertion, adolescent waiting and dreaming, and a final awakening by the prince” (Rowe, 1979, p. 250). Rather, when looked at together, these three films present messages that empower girls and young women to take charge of their own sexuality, identity, and agency. This in turn will allow them to forge more meaningful relationships with their own parents and other adults. Furthermore, the heroines of each film are simultaneously liberating themselves from the anxieties over body issues that can impact their sense of self and sexuality. Thus, these films present fairy tales that are better suited to our modern times.
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