The Mothering Father and Onscreen Violence
Like Chicken Little, many stories begin with a dead mother, but Finding Nemo raises the stakes by having the mother violently killed on screen. She is eaten by a barracuda before the opening credits, as if to clear the stage for the father-son drama. At the beginning of the scene, Marlin and Chloe, a pair of clown fish, inspect their new home, a sea anemone, discuss what to name their 400 unhatched children and generally demonstrate that they are a loving, heteronormative couple adhering to traditional gender roles. He boasts about his prowess in finding them a good home: ‘Did your man deliver, or did your man deliver’. She bolsters his ego: ‘You did good, and the neighbourhood is awesome’. In the midst of this idyll, a barracuda turns up, hovering menacingly only a few feet away. After about ten seconds of mounting tension, during which Marlin tells her to get ‘inside the house’, Coral dives to save the eggs.6 With a roar, the barracuda attacks and eats her.7 It is the only scene in the film in which a good character dies. The question is why Coral is removed with such cruelty and violence.
The reason for Coral’s death being so violent might lie in Marlin’s lack of overt masculinity. Marlin is smaller than most animated fathers, such as Buck Cluck or Tim Lockwood, or Stoick the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon (DreamWorks 2010). Drawing on R. W. Connell and J. W. Messerschmidt’s concept of hegemonic masculinity (2005), I have previously discussed how Buck and Tim embody masculine power (Astrom 2015a). This is particularly noticeable when compared with their weak and powerless sons. Tim and Buck, human and rooster, are big, bulky males who tower over their sons. Marlin, on the other hand is not particularly large. He is, for example, smaller than Dory, the female who accompanies him on his quest to find Nemo, and not much bigger than Coral. In short, Marlin is not one of the ‘exemplars of masculinity’ Connell and Messerschimidt discuss (2005, 846). Hegemonic masculinity is thus not encoded in his body. Although Pixar offer ‘ostensibly ironic inversions of power’ in their films, they are still relying on the recognition of a hierarchy in which superior size and strength is taken to mean superiority in all other matters (Wooden and Gillan 2014, 34). It could be argued that Marlin’s lack of physical power, lack of hegemonic masculinity, is part of the reason for Coral’s very violent death. For his take-over as postfeminist father to be believable, Coral must be well and truly dead, with no possibility of coming back. It is telling that unlike Chloe and Fran, Coral is never mentioned again in the film, by any character. She is completely erased.
Suzan Brydon notes that before Coral’s death, Marlin exhibits ‘traditional and heteronormative’ traits, seeking validation from his partner as breadwinner and sexual partner, distancing himself from the future children (2009, 138). This validation Coral gives, but in a maternal, condescending way, rolling her eyes at his enthusiasm, suggesting that he is boisterously immature. Even though the eggs have not hatched yet, she is very much the primary parent, suggesting an unequal power relationship between them. When Marlin tries to assert his authority by ordering her to take cover in the anemone - ‘Just get inside! You! Right now!’ - she disobeys him. Her death, which creates Marlin as a postfeminist father, could thus also be construed as a punishment for not according Marlin the respect a patriarch is due.
Once she is dead, Marlin can become a postfeminist father. Before becoming a widower, Marlin worries that the children will not love him. But once Coral is dead, he is presented as heavily invested in his son’s emotional well-being, and engages with him physically, fussing over him, holding his fin when they swim across the reef’s equivalent of a busy street.8 Although overprotective, which some viewers interpret as a sign of post-traumatic stress,9 he is able to care for his son in a way he appeared not to before Coral’s death.