So let’s talk about the new film directed by Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland. I saw it last weekend, and the Alice character surprised me in her multi-dimensionality and courageousness. It’s rare to see female characters portrayed so evenly. Herein I make my case.
You can read a synopsis of the film elsewhere, but here are my top 6 reasons why Alice (played by Mia Wasikowska) is a very good role model for girls and women.
Reason #1: Girlfriend is scared to death, but overcomes her fear and kills the Jabberwocky anyway. It may be written that she’s fated to kill the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous day (calooh callay!), but she can’t believe it (“I don’t slay,” she says). After the delightful, caring White Queen (Anne Hathaway is hilarious as a floaty girly-girl) asks her to be her “champion”, Alice puts on her armor and picks up the sword. Though she’s shaking in her boots, she reminds herself of what her father used to say: “I believe six impossible things before breakfast.” She names off six impossible things (“There is a place called Wonderland…”) as she goes to face the Jabberwocky. And you’d better believe she is victorious.
How refreshing is it that she feels the fear and does it anyway? We really don’t hear much about great women feeling scared to go for what they want, but most gutsy women know that it’s part of their apparent courage. We may appear fearless, but we work very hard to overcome the fear first, and we sure do give ourselves little pep talks in the process. Little and big girls would do well to take note.
Reason #2: Alice has a mind for business. The dull guy may be asking Alice’s hand in marriage in front of 100 or more guests at the garden party, but when Alice returns from Underland, she (nicely) turns him down and tells his father — who owns her dead father’s business — that they “have business to discuss”. She goes off propose a brilliant strategy and becomes a business partner. Score one for the ladies! — or smart people who happen to be ladies.
Reason #3: She doesn’t have to be pretty. Being a “beautiful heroine” is not part of Alice’s character, and it’s not her main job in this film. Instead, she has sallow skin and dark circles around her eyes, and a mostly flat chest. This Alice is plain, and it’s her strengths that shine through.
But I’m a little bit irritated by the review of this film in the New York Times. Manohla Dargis wrote: “Alice… every inch a Tim Burton Goth Girl, from her corpselike pallor to her enervated presence, presents a more convincing vision of death than of sex.” Clearly Alice was supposed to be hot, and that would only expected of a female character. Sexism alert!
Reason #4: Alice fights to keep her spirit intact. The Mad Hatter accuses 19-year-old Alice of losing her “muchness” since she was last in Wonderland at age 6, and Alice spends quite a bit of energy proving that she has not lost her muchness.
This speaks to an actual phenomenon a lot of us go through as young women. We ask ourselves, “Am I as confident or strong as I was when I was a little girl, or am I losing that? How can I get it back?” And it acknowledges the well-documented decline of girls’ self-esteem around age 12.
Reason #5: This girl is no one’s pawn. Alice states multiple times in the film that her purpose is to be herself — not to marry someone she doesn’t love or even to slay the Jabberwocky. And she seems to have a pretty clear sense of who “herself” really is. She stands up for herself so she doesn’t end up in a loveless, stifling marriage, and she refuses to wear a corset in Victorian England. What more could a woman’s studies major want?
Reason #6: She’s kind, too. In all her strength, Alice doesn’t need to act “like a boy” or be self-absorbed — not by a long shot. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is absolutely insane, completely not useful at all to Alice’s future goals. But he helped her escape the Red Queen’s henchmen and the Bandersnatch early on, so she is loyal to this guileless man. When he’s taken by the Red Queen, she courageously goes to her castle to save him, nearly sacrificing herself in the process.
But given these reasons, should we call this character “feminist”, as John Boot of Pajama Media did? Should we call Alice in Wonderland a “feminist movie”? I think not. Much has been written about whether “feminism” is the next f-word and whether young women even identify with that word anymore. Not everything a girl does that’s strong or courageous makes her a feminist. I would like us to think, collectively, as a culture, “It just happens that the hero of this film is a woman.”
And the truth is, women who identify as feminists want and expect female characters to be given the same full, brave roles as male characters. In Alice, we finally have a character who is equal to male protagonists, and then some. Thank you, Tim Burton.