Tim Burton’s version of 19-year-old Alice on the cusp of womanhood is full of empowering messages for today’s young women. Set during the Victorian Era in England, somewhere around 1830s -1900′s, he offers us a soft-spoken yet feisty Alice that is a unique and seemingly distracted embodiment of the young women of her time. I say seemingly because the sweet and demure look of her is in contrast with her candid criticisms of societal norms that insist young women wear stockings and corsets, and marry distasteful men of wealth so as not to become destitute, spinsters (that were alienated by society and looked upon as odd creatures), or burdens to their aged parents.
The movie opens with her surprise engagement party, for she is the only one in attendance that does not know the grotesque and arrogant but wealthy young man is about to propose to her. Loyal to the Victorian norms that everyone expects her to adhere to, Burton exemplifies the three paths offered to Alice, and to any young girl without the protection and financial support of a father that has passed away: 1) she can marry a detestable but wealthy man that is openly critical of her imagination and individuality; 2) she can become like her aunt, a spinster, an outcast, who sits alone and talks to herself while onlookers cast her uncomfortable glances; or 3) she can be like her older sister who marries a man that cheats on her. With these three dismal choices, but realistic and accurate for girls during this time period, it’s no wonder that she abandons the boy on his knees and the audience of her peers that expect her to say ‘yes,’ to follow the rabbit in coattails for a moment to consider her options.
She peers into the rabbit hole a bit too long and a bit too far, loses her balance, and plummets into a strange and imaginative world of Red and White Queens, mad hatters, and Jabberwockies. She falls, but her fall leads her on a necessary journey of self-discovery. And in this world full of strange creatures, some endearing, some evil, and others quite mad, Alice discovers that she is a young woman of courage that is capable of making up her own mind about her life. In the underworld the question is, is she the Alice that will champion the crown of the White and good Queen by slaying the Red Queen’s vicious dragon, the Jabberwocky?In the real world above, the question is, will she adhere to the wishes of her mother, society, and Victorian conventions by surrendering her own will and desires to marry a man she cares not for solely because everyone expects her to?
What I found quite beautiful and symbolic about the film was Alice’s wardrobe. I am not a fashion connoisseur, nor do I know how to shop around the fashion of the day. I still wear clothes and shoes from ten years ago because I just don’t care about those things. But I still could not help taking notice of the outfits that seemed to fit and adjust to the change in the girl that wore them. She begins in a dress that befits her society’s expectations for young girls, but she is defiantly remiss to wear a corset and stockings, which shocks her mother, but also shows us that Alice may look like the rest of the girls in her society, but underneath she is a renegade that dares defy conventions she does not agree with. Once she falls into the hole and shrinks, she is in her undergarments, which are loose and flimsy on her to adapt to her changes – physically and internally. The mad hatter makes a dress for her to fit her size, which is pretty, fashionable, and chic, to emphasize her youth and innocence, for she does not yet know who she is, or better yet, how strong she is. She knows that she is Alice, but she does not know if she is the Alice destined to kill the dragon, and symbolically, the Alice courageous enough to reject a life that has been chosen for her, and strong enough to live life by her own means.
When at the Red Queen’s castle, she is adorned in bright red colors made out of coarse fabric, for she is there to deceive the Queen, rescue the mad hatter, and find the sword that will help her defeat the Queen. Red colors show that she is on the verge of change, a transformation from youth to maturity, from indecision to assertiveness, from timid to outright powerful. When she finds herself at the White Queen’s castle, she is shown the armor that is destined for her, shiny, metallic, masculine, and indestructible, but she is not ready for it yet. Instead she wears white pants with a long dress-like robe that attaches only at the waist with one clasp, leaving the top part open to show her femininity and the bottom part spanned out so as to expose the pants: she is half-woman, half-man; part-woman, part-child. In this outfit she does a great deal of pacing and thinking, trying to decide the course of her destiny. This behavior is masculine and an anachronism in the Victorian era, for in those days, men did the thinking, the pacing, the fighting – not women. She is on the verge of great resolve, suspended between action and inaction, plateauing between Alice defined by society and the desires of others and Alice defined by her own wants and will.
And when she chooses to don the steel armor and sword, she comes barreling down the dusty path, not on a horse, but on a ferocious and fanged creature that is half-dog, half-bear, straddling him instead of sitting on him sideways as was the custom for lady-like and conventional women riding horses in those days. With one fist grasping the creature’s hair for support and the other holding the mighty sword in the air, Alice takes her place beside the Queen, prepared to fight as her champion, as a knight fought for his honor and the honor of his King during the Middle Ages. And after she slays the dragon and goes back to her own world, Alice makes her own choices. In the closing scene of the movie, she is wearing a tie, her loose blond curls billowing in the wind like majestic sails unfurled, standing at the helm of a ship destined for foreign lands and new experiences, without a husband, mother, or father by her side.
This movie is about choices, and in the end, Alice chooses to define the rules of her own destiny. This is an empowering movie with an empowering message for young women to resist definition by others and by society’s rules and conventions. A call for young girls to find themselves at all costs and to make decisions that fit their dreams and desires, and no one else’s.
Copyright© 2016 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.
3 thoughts on “A Feminist Gaze on Alice in Wonderland”
Nice…I was particularly drawn to her strong female role in this film.
An absolutely beautiful feminist gaze on a beautiful on a wonderful movie. Thorough enjoyed reading this!