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This weekend, I watched Coraline, the new stop-animation film that gives the Nightmare Before Christmas treatment to Neil Gaiman‘s book about a discontented girl who finds a portal to another world. Coraline has some pretty serious mommy issues in her first life:
Mom neglects her daughter in favor of her laptop, won’t buy Coraline new gloves for school, and worst of all, she doesn’t cook. After enduring another of her father’s mushy vegetable concoctions, Coraline asks her mother why she can’t cook for once. It’s just not in their shared-parenting arrangement, it seems: Coraline’s father cooks; her mother cleans. Later in the film, Coraline’s mother’s lack of cooking skills borders on the criminal. At one point, she peers in the refridgerator and asks Coraline if she’d like a “ketchup mustard salsa wrap” for lunch. Coraline’s father is also a distracted, frustrated figure, but he takes the time to be sweet to Coraline and makes it clear he’s just taking orders from “the boss”—-mommy.
In Coraline’s alternate universe, which she accesses through a Malkovich-esque tiny door-leading-to-wonky-tunnel, her mother—-known as her “Other Mother”—-is much improved on the original. She cooks chicken! She cooks cupcakes! Gravy comes around the table on a choo-choo gravy train! She has well-proportioned hips! But even though this mother seems perfect—-she cooks!—-it turns out that she’s just an anemic spider lady who wants to run Coraline’s “Other Father” into the ground, replace Coraline’s eyes with buttons, and collect children’s ghosts in her dungeon. Also, her elaborate meals are simply practice for when she inevitably consumes Coraline’s soul.
So Coraline’s got two mommies, and they’re both bitches. It’s a bummer, especially because both bad mommies seem to buck up against some very outdated images of motherhood. In both worlds, good motherhood is defined by a) cooking well; b) not choosing work over parenting; and c) not acting as the dominant parent. In the end, Coraline ends up grateful for the mother she has—-mom even buys her the gloves she wanted! Let’s hope she can learn to get used to her father in the kitchen, too.