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Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is Almost a Great Feminist Fairytale

March 21, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland/

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I went to see Alice in Wonderland. My two go-to sources for movie reviews, the Washington Post and Jezebel, offered very different opinions on the film. In the Post, Ann Hornaday praised Alice as a feminist movie. That got my attention, though I assumed she meant feminist movie as in “movie that features a (ever-ambiguously defined) Strong Female Character,” and not necessarily a movie with a plot driven by feminist themes.  Jezebel’s reviewer Hortense was disappointed with the film, though she attributed this feeling largely to a general sense of Burton/Johnny Depp burnout.

I wanted to see for myself why Hornaday deemed this movie feminist, and I’m a newcomer to the world of Tim Burton after seeing three of his films for the first time in the past couple years, so I went to the theater with high hopes but tempered expectations.

My personal verdict: As a Disney movie, as a story for young adults, and as a fantasy/adventure film, Alice is a groundbreaking narrative. As a student of literature, I’ve often thought about the lack of feminist themes in the classic tales Americans use to entertain and acculturate their children, and I’ve wondered what a feminist fairytale would look like. I’m very happy that Burton has created one, although it’s not quite as amazing or progressive as it could be.

Just considering it as a film without the feminist lens for a moment, Alice does have some major flaws. It’s derivative, borrowing not only from Lewis Carroll’s book but also other stories and films as many reviewers have pointed out; the plot pacing is off and relies too much on telling over showing at some points; the supposedly epic battle scene could have been a little more epic (yes, NPR, sometimes women enjoy action scenes too).

Warning: spoilers abound from this point forward, proceed with caution.

Returning to the feminist lens, there are a couple ways in which the film is disappointingly mired in the status quo of Disney films. Most obviously, as an adaptation of a story rooted in upper-class Victorian culture, the film lacks the racial and class consciousness a truly great feminist narrative would need. Burton bucks the Disney trend with his treatment of gender roles here, but he wasn’t ambitious enough to be revisionist with race and class issues (and Disney has shown its willingness to rewrite the history of these issues with last year’s The Princess and the Frog).  Even more tellingly, there are shades of imperialism and colonialism in the film. Secondly, this film uses the familiar Disney plot device of a deceased parent. I liked the glimpse of Alice’s strong relationship with her father, but it did seem to come at the expense of devaluing her relationship with her mother. Though occasionally female characters in Disney movies have good relationships with their mothers (again The Princess and the Frog comes to mind), usually mothers are absent or replaced by evil stepmother figures. At some point it would be nice to see a strong mentor relationship between female protagonists and their mothers or mother figures.

Despite all this I was pleased with the way Alice uniquely handles some feminist themes, chief among those being:

Choosing a path that deviates from traditional gender roles, and choosing to seize one’s own power, is often a daunting challenge. The movie includes two brilliant mirror scenes: one where Alice stands in front of a crowd and is pressured to respond to a marriage proposal, and one where she stands in front of a crowd and is asked to decide whether she will go to battle. Alice’s knee-jerk reaction to each decision she must make is identical. Some have said that they think Alice is essentially forced to take up the sword and thus isn’t really empowered by her warrior role. I saw different nuances to the situation. Throughout the film Alice insists to others that she can’t possibly fight, but she never gives an explanation why. When she does decide to fight, it is after a conversation with one of her mentors who prods her to consider her identity. To me this moment signified Alice’s understanding that she can decide who she is; she doesn’t have to depend on gender roles and expectations to determine what she can and can’t do.

Strength and femininity are not antithetical. When I saw the posters for Alice awhile back, it was clear Burton’s choice for his lead actor would not challenge America’s narrowly defined beauty ideals. With her long blond hair, slim figure, and delicate features, actor Mia Wasikowska epitomizes stereotypical femininity as Alice. However, visions of Victorian and modern femininity are challenged in the film using changes in Alice’s appearance. When we meet the adult Alice in the real world she looks more wan and sickly than beautiful. When she enters Wonderland her appearance subtly shifts—color returns to her face and her hair hangs loose, even as she goes into battle. As Alice begins to feel stronger she starts to look healthier, and she doesn’t have to trade her femininity for physical strength. It’s a common girl-power theme but we rarely see it explored with a female character wearing a full suit of armor.

Women can serve as mythic heroes… and their victories don’t have to include marriage. I have to admit, I felt happily overwhelmed at the end of the movie after seeing a woman character travel on an epic adventure and go sailing off into the sunset (ahem, literally), and all without a love interest in tow. As far as I can tell it is extremely unusual for a female character’s story to end happily without a new love interest presented as her crowning achievement (especially in Disney movies).

All in all I found a lot to like in Alice. I’m a fan of adventure and action films, and watching one with a female protagonist was a breath of fresh air. After seeing Avatar and recently re-watching The Matrix and Lord of the Rings (yes, geeky, I know), it irked me anew how so many films in these genres feature Strong Female Characters who are important to the plot, yet they are still second-string players in the story whose primary purposes are to serve as love interests for the male heroes. If the previews I saw before the start of Alice are any indication, this status quo won’t be changing anytime soon.

So if you’ve seen Alice in Wonderland, what did you think of it? What are your thoughts on female characters in film generally? Are there other adventure/action/fantasy films out there featuring a female protagonist that I may be overlooking? Share your thoughts below!

  1. cht permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:21 am

    I picked up a bit of romantic tension between Alice and the Mad Hatter- first when he gets a look at her when she infiltrates the Red Queen’s castle and tells her, “First you were too small. And now you’re too tall.” and well, too small/too tall for WHAT? to mac on? “Too small” could only have referred to her being a child when she first visited Wonderland, and for it to be implied that he felt an attraction to her at that point, to have thought to himself “She’s too ‘small,’ too young” I thought was disturbing. It may be a reference to Charles Dodgson’s own attraction to Alice Liddell, but even so. I thought further signs that the Mad Hatter was intended to be a love interest (though, yes, I’m glad they didn’t actually end up together) was him shown in a flashback sequence with the White Queen looking decidedly less mad than he does presently (like, he’s gone mad because of the rule of the Red Queen, and his twitchiness and unkemptness will be reversed once she’s gone) and at the end, when he says pleadingly to Alice, “You can stay in Wonderland.” and also, that he is of typical leading-man human proportions. unlike the squat older MH from the animated film. because there is a general trend that in order to be main love interests one has to be conventionally attractive and proportioned.

    I thought the movie focussed too much on ugliness/beauty to portray bad/good. The Red Queen complains of their parents/others favoring her sister because of her beauty.. there are running jokes about the Red Queen’s big head. Maybe as a kid the Red Queen was unlikable and that’s why their parents showed favoritism, but we don’t know that.

    I really thought that at the end the Red Queen would be accepted back into the fold, just with a watchful eye, and that forgiveness would be in order. I guess it didn’t fit with the darker themes of Wonderland Burton was exploring though.

    and yeah. that little bit at the end glossing over imperialism/colonialism. “Yes! What ambition, Alice! Your proposition that we should expand into Asia is a good one, especially considering that we already have a foothold in Hong Kong!” yes. what a very good thing it is that Hong Kong was forcefully rendered into British possession after the Chinese tried to stop British sales of opium to China and lost.

  2. Helen permalink
    March 21, 2010 10:59 pm

    I was not expecting great things from Burton’s adaptation of Alice. This was probably in part due to my childhood love of Lewis Carroll’s book and worry that, like many movie adaptations, it would ruin everything!

    I was pleasantly surprised. I did like the portrayal of Alice, and the sense of finding an identity that depended on no one but herself.

    I agree with cht that it was overdependent on familiar tropes of beauty/ugliness (and relatedly: good/evil). i expect it will take Disney a while longer to realise this isn’t always the best message.

    I don’t think that there was a romantic link with Alice and the Hatter. Just like the book, I think many of the characters in Wonderland were exagerated forms of ‘real life’ people in Alice’s life. And I very strongly saw the Mad Hatter as a father figure to Alice… hence his unswerving belief in her, and th sadness of ‘losing’ him again when she leaves Wonderland.

    Just my opinion! Definately enjoyed it more than I expected too!

  3. March 22, 2010 12:33 am

    Great review. I agree. It loved the film for its feminist leanings. My niece loved it as well. My sister is gay and pointed me to this review which has similar feelings as yours, at Autostraddle – Alice in Lesboland: A Wonderland for Feminists, Revolutionaries & Your Mom!

    First pleasant surprise I’ve had in the movies in a long while.

    Really enjoyed this too Thanks.

  4. March 27, 2010 4:57 pm

    I actually thought there might be 2 themes running through the movie; 1 of feminism and the other slightly anti-capitalist.

    It was the second that I associated with the Red Queen’s large head – greed, selfishness and anger are traits all associated with capitalism whilst tolerance and forgiveness (the white queens traits) are not. I thought perhaps Burton was trying to say that capitalism is ugly and unnatural but yet we all try to fit in with it (ie the fake noses, large chins etc) but actually we are just disguising who we really are so as not to be hurt (or beheaded) by the the capitalist system. I thought this was also highlighted (or enhanced) through the obsession with size (which would be growth in capitalism) and also the scene where the queen is excessivey angry about the loss of her tarts.

  5. Mike Schmidt permalink
    March 31, 2010 7:23 pm

    Colonialist overtones? I’m glad that Alice had the gumption to turn down her pre-fixed suitor, but really, in the end I wonder if she wasn’t going to go to China to become her own Red Queen. The purpose of feminine empowerment is the economic exploitation of foreigners! Great! Typical Disney in that sense–Walt always was for free enterprise.

  6. Tracey permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:34 pm

    I missed the colonialist overtones – till I read it here. Yes, very classist, but good to at least see Disney finally show a real feminist role models. I wrote this one earlier myself, and then just came across your article. Any comments more than welcome:

  7. May 1, 2010 6:12 am

    Hi Erin

    I came across your great blog post researching this issue for a blog post of my own. We touch on many of the same things, but you went into greater detail on some others I missed. Nice work!

  8. Lora permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:40 pm

    As I walked out of the film, I said to my 10 year old son, “this movie was about feminism.” I work in an establishment where the “good ole boys club” is alive and very much in control. I found this movie very uplifting, and it inspired me to go back to work in the fall and fight my Jabberwocks. It was obvious as well, that Alice did not want the life of her sister (cheating husband and all-oh how close to home for me), but to play a leadership role that is usually for a man. LOVED IT! LOVED IT! LOVED IT! I am Alice.

  9. Lora permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:44 pm

    And just one more comment…we must remember that in literature, the sword is a phallic symbol. Hmmm….just saying. (-:

  10. Jeff Stumpf permalink
    July 8, 2010 9:20 am

    Are there other adventure/action/fantasy films out there featuring a female protagonist that I may be overlooking?

    How about Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Her character was called to action (heroic) even if only for self survival. All the men failed to act, or to survive.

    Maybe some else pointed this out, I don’t know.


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