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!