Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alice's Gender Journey in Wonderland


Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 3-D is a beautiful, fantastical journey that may lack somewhat in emotional resonance but that traces the title character through an interesting journey of gendered empowerment. Alas, if only the final five minutes of the film did not recapture Alice from the anarchic, imaginative (if sometimes ambivalent) possibilities of Wonderland into forward-looking, white, bourgeois womanhood in the service of capital and empire.

The Film

The film is marked by the sort of bleak, quirky beauty that one would expect from Burton taking Lewis Carroll's world out for a spin. The new 3-D technology is still novel enough that I remain easily wowed by it, which I suspect is true of a lot of people. The previously little-known Mia Wasikowska, who plays "Alice," is excellent, as are the many big names whose acting and voice talents are used in the film (most visibly Johnny Depp's "Mad Hatter" and Helena Bonham Carter's "Red Queen.") I'm still not sure how I feel about the way Anne Hathaway played the "White Queen," but I suspect I may be reacting not to the performance but to the character, which I think is meant to be a bit unsettling.

The story, as has often been true of film versions of Lewis Carroll's work, is an amalgam of characters, imagery, and scenes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass along with the film maker's own additions. In this case, Alice is destined to save Wonderland by wielding the Vorpal Sword against the Jabberwocky, thus defeating the Red Queen and providing an opening for her oppressed subjects to rise up against her and declare her much nicer younger sister, the White Queen, the ruler of Wonderland. Alice initially resists this destiny but her sympathy for those she meets along the way and the adventures she has eventually lead her to embrace it.

My partner pointed out that despite the magnificent spectacle of the film, it is never all that effective at drawing the viewer emotionally into the story or into identifying with the characters. I did not feel that as strongly as her, but I did feel it. There are definitely places where things just happen, and it is not clear why -- and not in the fine spirit of Wonderlandian absurdity, but rather following the time-honoured imperative of needing to move a movie plot along and hoping the audience doesn't notice there was no good reason. There is also not a whole lot of effort in creating an emotional logic to carry the viewer through. That said, what the film does do well is more than enough to make it worth seeing, and to encourage most viewers to suspend sufficient disbelief to be carried along for the ride.

Alice's Journey

A readily available frame for analyzing Alice's journey in this film is through her evolving relationship to patriarchal gender relations. Aside from one brief initial scene set 13 years earlier, the film begins with Alice at a social event that demonstrates the intensity of the regulation she experiences as a 19 year-old white bourgeois woman whose father died years before; her misery and apparently limited space to rebel in the face of it; and the importance of this moment for the shape that the rest of her life will take.

The occasion is a massive party at Lord Ascot's manor. Alice discovers, minutes before it is to happen, that the entire point of the event is so that the Lord's unpleasant, unattractive son can propose to her. The constraints of privileged Victorian femininity are clearly shown: she must marry or end up like her mad, miserable Aunt Imogen. There are no other options apparent. As she is told, her looks won't last forever, and despite the fact that her mother is wealthy from just having sold the successful company that her father had built, her looks are all she really has if she is to be a genuine and true white bourgeois Victorian woman. She must look and act appropriately --- she covertly rebels by refusing to wear a corset or stockings but to the outside world she appears to conform. Her powerful imagination, her flights of fancy, leak out at inopportune moments and meet regulatory responses from her mother, her possible future fiance, and his mother. Beyond that, her mother commends her beauty and orders her to smile; her possible mother-in-law advises her on marital conformity; her potential husband tells her, "When in doubt, remain silent." She keeps seeing a white rabbit wearing clothes and at the crucial moment -- boorish suitor on bended knee before the entire assemblage -- she rhymes off the list of forces pushing her towards "Yes," looks miserable and uncertain, sees the rabbit, and takes of in pursuit. She ends up falling down the rabbit hole.

Even the most trite and simple narratives of women's empowerment aren't exactly in generous supply in North American mass culture in the early 21st century. Nonetheless, one way that they can appear without meeting too much resistance is to try and render that empowerment nonthreatening. And one way this can be done is to show empowerment in the face of patriarchy in one of its earlier guises rather than in a current form. Of course there still is plenty of patriarchal gender (and other) regulation that limits the life possibilities of women (particularly poor and racialized women, but in some ways all women), but by emphasizing a form of limitation that still exists but in weakened form compared to an earlier era or by setting the entire story in an earlier era, storytellers can play along with the dominant illusion that things used to be like that but are no longer. This allows capital to generate profit by appropriating real and important victories against gender oppression through deploying girl-power-like symbols but doing so in ways that are calibrated to invoke feminist sympathies where they exist in viewers but not be threatening to viewers who lack any sympathy for contemporary feminist struggle, except perhaps the most conservative guardians of gendered power. So Alice, based as it is in rebellion against constraints that seem quaint and awful even to modern eyes that see no constraints in the present, is not groundbreaking. Nonetheless, there are elements of how the film shows this journey that I think are kind of neat, so I'm writing about it.

Regaining "Muchness"

For instance, the paralyzing constraints that arrive at a crisis point just before Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole are not shown as givens; rather, it is possible to read the story to understand them as being actively imposed at a particular stage of life. You see, the film is premised on the idea that Alice was in Wonderland before. As a little girl, she came to Wonderland and saved the day. Upon her return as a 19 year-old, however, she is very tentative and remembers nothing about her earlier visit, except fragments that have echoed through her nightmares over the years which make her think that this, too, is a dream. She has no desire whatsoever to save the day, which she is repeatedly told she must do because it has been foretold that she and only she can do so, and she just wants to wake up.

There is recurring dialogue with the Wonderland characters about whether she is the "real Alice." A mouse declares her the "wrong Alice." A flower comments, "She doesn't look anything like herself," while another calls her an "imposter."

In interacting with the blue, hookah-smoking caterpillar, Alice is asked, "Who are you?"

She replies, "Alice!"

"We shall see," the caterpillar responds.

"What do you mean by that? I ought to know who I am!" Alice retorts angrily.

The caterpillar answers, "Yes, you ought. Stupid girl."

A little later, after a couple more iterations (with different characters) of the discussion of who Alice is and whether she is the right or real Alice, and more denials by Alice that she can or will do anything to save Wonderland, the Mad Hatter declares that in her original visit, "You were much more muchier... You have lost your muchness!"

I read all of this as a reference to real dynamics faced by girls/women in their lives. I'm sure there is plenty of variation and that there are plenty of women whose experiences are shaped quite differently, but from things I have read -- sorry, it's long enough ago that I can't provide references -- and from the stories of some women that I know, many women experience a dramatic qualitative change and a wratcheting up in intensity of regulation and oppression by patriarchal social relations when they reach puberty. I'm sure there are sources out there that can talk about the mechanisms by which this happen a lot more knowledgeably than I can, but from what I understand it has a lot to do with sexuality. That is, it is partly about the increased danger and everyday violence that comes with being perceived as heterosexually available (at least for the eyes of peers and older men) in a patriarchal culture. It is partly about the ways that supposed protections are mobilized in supposed response to that danger that are really just different ways of patriarchal constraints being imposed. It is partly about young women experiencing sexual awakening themselves and wanting to figure that out and explore it, and having to do so in the context of danger and, most likely, in the context of a lack of empowering, feminist, sex-positive models by which to do it. It is partly less about sexuality too, or rather it is partly that body changes signal the importance to authority figures of heightened pressure to make decisions, both sexual and otherwise, that will lead to a later life that adheres to dominant, oppressive norms. It is these pressures that come to a head for Alice just before her fall down the rabbit hole.

Anyway, I could easily be getting details wrong here, but to put it a bit simplistically, it is a transition that is starting out as a confident, rambunctious child with skinned knees and quirky enthusiasms, and being buffeted by patriarchy in ways that for some girls/young women can take a serious toll on spirit and confidence and "muchness." Like I said, I'm sure experiences vary widely, but it is my understanding that this is a real thing for many women.

In the movie, Alice has experienced this and has lost her "muchness." The story is the story of her regaining her "muchness."

Symbols of the Journey -- Size

In the film, Alice's physical body is used to signal her progress along the journey.

When she plunges down the rabbit hole she arrives in a room with multiple doors, all of which are locked -- a pretty obvious representation of the state of things that she left in the real world. She finds a key to a tiny door and a potion to turn her tiny and, after a couple of fluctuations in size, opens the door and goes through as tiny!Alice. As tiny!Alice, she is resistant to any suggestion that she might save the day, and she is, as discussed above, the target of a great deal of skepticism about her authenticity.

As those of you familiar with the book will remember, there is also a cake which causes Alice to grow. She briefly experiments with this when she first arrives, just to establish that it is exists, but she only becomes giant!Alice for a prolonged period once she has begun to exert some agency. The Hatter has saved her by allowing himself to be captured, and in a conversation the next morning with a dog named Bayard, he insists that she must be the real Alice because the Hatter would not sacrifice himself for a fake. Alice does not agree but insists that she must rescue the Hatter, her first real decision to act since entering Wonderland. Bayard insists she must prepare to meet the Jabberwocky, which is what has been foretold for her, and she should instead go to the palace of the White Queen.

Alice objects, "From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole, I've been told who I will be and what I will do."

Bayard is dubious, and says, "If you diverge from the the path..."

"I make the path," she replies. Shortly after, as she leaps from corpse to corpse in the Red Queen's moat, on her way to sneak into the castle through a crack in the wall, she says defiantly to herself, "Lost my muchness, have I?"

She becomes giant!Alice shortly after she sneaks in -- that is, shortly after she really begins to act to "make the path." In her giant!Alice phase, she is more prone to exerting agency, but it is still made clear that her size is not really who she is. Partly this is through the Red Queen (approvingly) understanding Alice's enormity as a deformity. A bit later, the Hatter asks, "Why is it that you are always too small or too tall?"

It is only once she has retrieved the Vorpal Sword from the Red Queen's castle and returned to the White Queen's castle that Alice is shifted to her normal size. Interestingly, in the lead up to the transition back to being Alice-sized, one of her many exertions of agency is to forcefully reject the unwelcome sexual advances of the evil Knave, perhaps a symbolic defeat of the actual or threatened sexual violence that can be such a central attack on young women/girls in their adolescent efforts to grow, thrive, and maintain "muchness." In any case, being Alice-sized is contextualized as the perfect situation for her to be exerting agency, as she decides on what her role in the combat against the Red Queen's forces and the Jabberwocky will be. When Alice reunites with the Hatter at the White Queen's castle, he happily notes, "Now that you're you. And the proper size."

Symbols of the Journey -- Gender Presentation

Size is not the only way shifts along the journey are signalled. It is also signalled in the ways in which quite subtle aspects of gender presentation and even sexuality are projected by Alice over the course of the film. It seems clear to me, though I'm sure other readings are possible, that this is showing her resistance to or release (in the context of Wonderland) from the confining strictures of Victorian femininity. It is not about her becoming more "manlike," especially in any simplistic or essentialist understanding, but her being shown as no longer quite so bound by the gender binary.

At the very beginning, before the plunge into Wonderland, Alice is dressed in very sober, conservative Victorian attire appropriate to a class-privileged young woman. She has resisted somewhat the constraints of femininity by her refusal to wear a corset and stockings, but in all external manifestations she conforms to the oppressive norm. Yet even here, the destabilization of the binary is foreshadowed when Alice has a moment of amusement at the party, which she explains by saying, "I had a sudden vision of all the ladies wearing trousers and the men in dresses."

In Wonderland, as tiny!Alice and then giant!Alice, she wears a series of dresses. It is probably possible to derive some meaning from the sequence of dresses, but I have not been able to. The best I can come up with is that all of them are freer and aesthetically quirkier than would be allowed by Victorian femininity, representing some journeying along the way from the constraints of the beginning. Late in the film, in the palace of the White Queen when she is Alice-sized once more, she initially wears a kind of long tunic over pants -- garb that a squire might wear, perhaps. This is the first time she is shown wearing pants. At the same time, the tailoring of the tunic demonstrates more clearly than any previous outfit that she has breasts. This outfit, then, is a sign that Alice-with-agency, Alice who is escaping/resisting patriarchal gender regulation, is more clearly and strongly exhibiting aspects of self traditionally associated with masculinity and aspects of self traditionally associated with femininity.

This subtle blurring of the gender binary is echoed in three instances in the film when the Hatter refers to her, I think perhaps particularly to the "true" her that will fight the Jabberwocky, as "him." One instance is when the Hatter recites part of the poem about the Jabberwocky that appeared in Through the Looking-Glass, and there was also once at the tea party and once later at the Red Queen's court. These did not give me the sense of them wanting her to be a man or of signalling a journey from one half of the binary to the other, both of which could be troubling denigrations of the possibility for feminine agency, but through their very incidentalness they were kind of a subversion of it.

The final step in this shift was when Alice put on the armour and took up the Vorpal Sword in order to fight the Jabberwocky. The White Queen obviously desperately wants Alice to become the champion and fight the Jabberwocky, but she just as obviously is not going to do what all of the realworld characters and pretty much all of the rest of the Wonderland characters have done and pressure her to be who she is not. She says, "Alice, you cannot live your life to please others. The choice must be yours because when you step out to face that creature, you will step out alone." (Perhaps a nod to the ways in which explicitly going against patriarchal femininity in the real world, especially in that era, was an act of exposing onesself to enormous risk? But I'll get back to the real world in a minute...)

Then Alice has another interaction with the blue caterpillar in which she finally accepts that Wonderland is real and she firmly claims her identity as Alice, the Alice that she wants to be. She is next shown wearing the armour. The armour, and the role of magical sword-wielding knight, is Alice seizing a traditionally masculine role. At the same time, the way the armour is designed makes her womanness very clear -- a little bit of that is through a nod to skirts via a bit of chain mail dangling down, but...I don't know. Maybe I just find sword-wielding women with transgressive gender practices hot, but it felt like for the first time in the film, armoured!Alice was not a pretty young woman with whatever sexuality she experienced buried under tons of Victorian constraint but was a clearly sexual woman. Not sexualized, in the ways that term means a character is turned into a crude sexual object for male consumption, but a person exhibiting agency that she has spent an entire film earning who also happens to exude sexuality.

And the final part of this which I find interesting is the particular sexuality that she seems to be exhibiting. Now, this is very lightly done -- this is just based on the particular tone and manner of interactions between characters, not even on dialogue but on how the actors act in different scenes. It is susceptible to many other readings, and is done lightly enough that if you weren't open to seeing this, there is no reason you would. But it seemed pretty clear to me that the Hatter, particularly in the last few scenes in Wonderland, wanted Alice. There is even a moment where you think he is going to kiss her, though he does not. It is also clear that she, as incredibly fond as she is of him, is not interested. However, based on their interactions when the White Queen is brewing the shrinking potion and based on their interactions just before Alice leaves Wonderland, it seems to me that Alice and the White Queen are interested in each other. (Earlier in the movie, the Red Queen had complained that her sister the White Queen "can make anyone fall in love with her. Men. Women. Even the furniture.") Part of Alice's release from Victorian patriarchal regulation appears to have included liberation from compulsory heterosexuality, at least for a brief moment.

Back to the Real World

There is more to say about Wonderland. It is a place of contradictions, ruled by monarchs but bursting at the seams with the anarchy of absurdity and imagination and self-realization. The way Burton put it together has some other problems, including the way things like racialization (in a partial way) and patriarchal standards of beauty (in a very troubling, explicit way) map onto a very binary "good versus evil." But this post is long enough, and I want to get to the punch line.

Alice is given the choice of staying in Wonderland or returning to the real world, and she chooses the latter. She reappears on the grounds of the estate in Victorian England and tells everyone what for. She has very clearly learned a lesson in Wonderland about refusing to be ruled by, refusing to internalize, patriarchal gender regulation. The film is not at all clear about the fact that she would likely face serious consequences for her defiance in the real world (unlike Wonderland), and is only able to escape her constraints in any significant way because of her wealth. Anyway, she says no to her suitor, rejects being ruled by her older sister and mother, speaks truth to her miserable maiden aunt, obliquely rejects her not-mother-in-law's squelching of imagination, and seizes the opportunity of her considerable wealth and the imaginative spunk that her not-father-in-law had earlier admired to declare her intent to go into business with him. But not just any business. The very first scene of the movie shows Alice's father proposing some sort of business venture involving mention of Rangoon, Bangkok, and Jakarta. It is clear that the mere act of proposing these locations is understood as daring, even foolish, acts of imagination on his part. But in the intervening years, his imaginative leaps proved lucrative. In the film's final scenes, Alice says to her not-father-in-law (who, remember, bought her father's former business from her mother) that her father had wanted to go also to Sumatra and Borneo, but she is so bold as to suggest, "Why not go all the way to China. It's vast, the culture is rich, and we have a foothold in Hong Kong." Her not-father-in-law accepts her offer, and the movie closes with her loved ones standing on a dock and waving goodbye as Alice (once again in clothes suitable for a well-to-do Victorian woman) sets forth on a ship for, presumably, China.

So what we have here is the liberatory lessons of a contradictory but imagination-driven and anarchic Wonderland applied to the real life of a white woman who is a subject of the greatest empire the world had ever known and an owner of capital. She transgresses the norms of femininity by not marrying a man she can't stand and doing little of interest for the rest of her life, and instead embraces a model of capitalist femininity that is much ahead of its time. (Her discussion with her possible mother-in-law before the rabbit hole involved the mother-in-law saying, "You know what I've always dreaded?" and Alice replying, "The decline of the aristocracy?") And in so doing, she pitches herself enthusiastically into the projects of empire and capital, happily contributing to the oppression and exploitation of racialized people around the globe (and probably some white working-class folks back in England for good measure) in the process. This is, according to the film, liberation.

So here's what I suggest. I suggest that, in watching the film, we enjoy Alice's journey in Wonderland, her progressive rejection of the ways in which patriarchy has constrained her and the ever-so-subtle queering of her character. I suggest as well that we take hold our noses and watch the last five minutes of the film, and take them as a good lesson in why liberation should be understood not as individual journeys but as collective ones, and should not be seen as isolated to one or two axes but should be approached with attention to the full, messy, complicated range of intersection that we know are present for each and every one of us.



SR said...

Ok, now I have to go and see it again.

Scott Neigh said...

Made a few minor edits.

Scott Neigh said...

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