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Alice: A Feminist In Wonderland?

Alice in Wonderland opens this weekend, and we were lucky enough to tag along to the Irish premiere. Since we came out of the cinema, we kinda suspected that this would be a polarising film – as the Rotten Tomatoes score seems to demonstrate. However, taking a moment to step back and appreciate the breadth and depth of the critical response, is it possible that we’ve all completely missed the point? Rather than being a fantastically realised gothic fantasy that strays just a little bit closer to The Lord of the Rings rather than its own source material, has Tim Burton produced a uniquely feminist fantasy film?

Should feminists be up in arms?

Being honest, it has been rightly observed that Alice, as originally imagined by Lewis Carroll, certainly wasn’t a weak lead in the style of you average Disney princess or female supporting character from Tolkein:

Unabashedly inquisitive, she’s not afraid to stamp her foot and demand rational responses from authority figures. And when she doesn’t get them, she doesn’t quiet down. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” she scoffs at an approaching army at the end of the book. No waiting for Prince Philip-esque kisses for this broad. It’s unsurprising, then, that many feminists have chosen Alice for their champion. Eager to repudiate matriarchal roles (by rejecting the Pigeon’s eggs and by abandoning the pig-child), Alice, like the contemporary 25-year-old yuppie, simply doesn’t have time to deal with children; she has a world to explore and a sense of self to confirm (or deny, which tends to happen a lot when it comes to conversations with the Caterpillar).

Alice can be stubborn and selfish, but she’s certainly not reactive. She spends the whole of the book propelled by her own quest for knowledge and plan to find a way out of Wonderland. She’s certainly no one’s tool – she isn’t running assassination jobs for like Dorothy did for the Wizard (depending on how much revisionism you buy), for example. While I’m not so sure this statement holds true for the movie, it is worth noting that Wonderland is populated by female authority figures:

Tim Burton’s Wonderland is a female dominated world. In another movie, they’d be content to have a woman as the bad guy. In movies, women in power often end up like the Red Queen: vain, petty, heartless things obsessed with their own egos. Except here she’s balanced by Anne Hathaway’s delightful performance as the Red Queen’s opposite and equal, the kindhearted and wise White Queen who inspires loyalty with a strange combination of graceful, timid femininity and fierce, unwavering determination. But most of all, there’s Alice.

And it’s true. Most of the male characters, aside from maybe the Mad Hatter and – at a push – the Cheshire Cat, are completely useless. There’s the opium-smoking caterpiller, the coweredly rabit, the impotent knave (unable to assert his own authority or take responsibility for his own actions), but the real power lies with women, much like in the novel.

Understandably even the stars of the film are latching on to this feminist element of the story, with Anne Hathaway agreeing:

Hathaway, who wore a sequinned brown dress, agreed the film provided a feminist take on the famous story.

She said: “This is Alice 10 years later… when she goes to Wonderland she’s experiencing a return to self and I think it’s a wonderful take on it.”

Being honest, I’m not entirely sold on this ‘Tim Burton presents Alice as a feminist icon’ school of thought. I can appreciate what the movie was trying to do. It recast Alice as a soldier and a warrior, a traditional fantasy role reserved for men like Aragon. In fact, the strongest female character in The Lord of the Rings had completed her most badass act in the first film by simply ferrying Frodo across a river – though it is a big step up from Arwen’s role in the books, which is basically pining for her lover. I think it’s fair to say that women have got a bit of a harsh run of it in fantasy.

Ellen Ripley is a science-fiction icon who was way ahead of her time – though apparently early drafts of the script had the only survivor as a typical male character. Where is the counterpart in the twin genre of fantasy? The Disney princesses certainly can’t compete, nor can supporting characters in eighties fantasy like Legend or Willow. The Wizard of Oz has been severely deconstructed as Dorothy being reduced to doing the Wizard’s dirty work.

In recent years we’ve had an attempt to subvert this passive portrayal of leading female fantasy characters. There was Mulan, the Disney film about the female Chinese general, but the movie makes it very clear that she is playing by the rules of men. Fiona in Shrek toys with the notion of a princess who isn’t just eye candy, but her ultimate function is merely to serve as the basis of conflict between the male hero and the male villain of the piece – when Shrek goes on a quest in Shrek III, she stays at home (albeit she ends up under seige, but still).

It isn’t exactly bursting over with strong role models or iconic female leads. So I can understand the thrill of seeing Alice don the armour and take a sword, amidst the battles between the Queen of Hearts and the White Queen. To launch into battle with the best male examples of the genre, her gender not serving to exclude her from mortal combat.

Still, Burton’s narrative robs Alice of some of her earlier potency. The key point of Lewis Carroll’s original story was that Alice was wondering from place-to-place, getting herself into and out of trouble almost randomly. She was very much captain of her own ship, for better and for worse (and, being young, she didn’t always have the best way of dealing with things). Wonderland represented absolute liberty, freedom from the restrictive and – as Carroll acknowledged – ridiculous social traditions of the time. It was a liberty that Alice, as a free-thinking young lady, fully embraced. The movie robs Alice of that. There’s no whimsy or randomness. There’s no hint of the liberation that comes from Wonderland.

In fact, Alice’s destiny is foretold. She isn’t really free of the social expectations we see in the outside world at the start (pressure to conform, to keep her mouth shut, to marry young), but instead she gets an even greater weight of expectation crammed upon her shoulders (to kill the Jabberwocky). We are supposed to cheer as she does it, because she carries a sword - and chicks with swords must be liberated, right? It’s no coincidence that, with the exception of the doormouse, the vast majority of the characters present on the reading of the scroll are male. Men, reading her destiny.

Sure, there’s a happy ending where Alice shows the same vision of her father, and pitches an audacious plan to his business partner. The partner recognises the idea as absolutely brilliantly insane and seizes upon it. Of course, he makes her an offer – to join the company. However, he suggests the relationship will be purely subordinate. There is no hint that they will be equals, as he was with her father. Yes, she is young, but we all know young people who run companies.

I’m slow to embrace the notion of Alice in Wonderland as a feminist masterpiece, just because I’ve read the original book. And more than just seeming more real than the version presented to us on screen, that Alice felt empowered and liberated, even among the craziness of this wonderful imaginary world. Instead, the person we see on screen is trapped – trapped by a destiny of slaying a beast in armour and carrying a sword, but trapped nonetheless.

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3 Responses

  1. Excellent post, but I’ve not seen the film as yet so I can’t say if I agree. I love the shotout to Arwen (one of the better revisions for the films). I really like that scene in The Fellowship.

    • Yep. It’s great that they found a way to involve her, but I think the swords-and-sorcery subgenre really needs a Ripley. Just a strong female character. It was nice to see Alice in the armour with the sword, but I can’t help think about the unfortunate undertones of the whole “her future is mapped out for her” thing (which would seem to be her problem at the start).

      Being honest, I wouldn’t call the film a must-see, particularly if you’ve held off this long. It’s grand, but not great. Am I nuts or did you mention that you were a Burton fan? (I might be completely wrong, but I think I read it on your blog.) If you are, it seems a strange one to miss.

  2. Yeah, I’m a Burton fan (not quite a fanatic). The only reason I’ve not seen it is because it’s not released over here as yet.

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