This combination is pretty rare. There are a number of good girl characters in literature, but the ones who get to go on adventures tend to be either very very perfect (Nancy Drew, the original Mary Sue) and/or accompanied by boys (Meg, in the A Wrinkle In Time series). I’m not going to spoil Coraline for those who haven’t read the book and/or are waiting for the movie. The story follows the classic pattern of a quest story, with plenty of interesting and imaginative twists on the genre. But it’s the character of Coraline I want to talk about, and to do that I don’t need to reveal what happens.
Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home. She’s not gifted at solving mysteries or riding horses or playing with dolphins. She doesn’t have any outstanding personality traits, like shyness, insecurity or extraordinary kindness. She’s just a kid who happens to be female, whose curiosity leads her to an adventure, the consequences of which demand heroics from her. She makes mistakes, and she also has flashes of brilliance, as people generally do.
The hero’s journey – or any sort of heroic quest containing any of its elements – was developed for men. Its whole purpose was to show cultures how great men distinguish themselves from ordinary men.Those cultures didn’t want to believe women could find greatness through the same journey, and neither did Joseph Campbell, who taught lots of female students at Sarah Lawrence how going on the hero’s journey would make them “pseudo-male.” We could debate for days where this fear of women doing “men’s work” comes from, but my guess would be it’s rooted in the belief that the way men get sex from women is to beat off male competitors (at which point the woman automatically grants sex as a reward), so if women become competitors with men, how on earth does the social order work then? It sounds silly now – tons of individuals now realize that women who don’t need male partners frequently still want them. And yet echoes of the old way of thinking, of the negation of female drives to achieve and desires for sex, show up every time a TV show or book reminds us that Career Woman still isn’t complete without a man. We’re a long way from being truly past all that crap.
A book like Coraline, aimed at children, can actually have significant impact on the culture (who doesn’t remember a book from childhood that shaped our world view?). It normalizes the idea of a girl on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest. This girl does.