What is it about a girl named Alice, who goes on an adventure, that inspires our collective imagination?
Alice! A childish story take, /And, with a gentle hand, /Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band, / Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers / Pluck’d in a far-off land. (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.8)
To name just a few cultural echoes of Lewis Carroll’s heroine’s namesake:
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) celebrates a “return” of a mature, stronger Alice, who takes on the (traditionally masculine) role of the knight in shining armor to lead the White Queen’s army and slays the dragon Jabberwocky, who tames the wild beast Bandersnatch, who defeats the Red Queen and her army, who rescues the Hatter, and who refuses to marry and goes on a journey (on a ship called “Wonder”) instead.
Tim Burton’s empowering retelling of the familiar fairy tale is addressed to a new generation of girls and women, who battle their own, post-modern Jabberwockies every day. For many years, feminists (bell hooks, for example) have been calling for inspiring role models in pop culture for young girls and women to relate to. Pop culture finally answered!
Identity and gender identifications and distinctions are, as we know, (and as Judith Butler taught us) fluid, and for the most part, almost irrelevant. Alice changes sizes and outfits; but rather than rejecting femininity and adopting masculine traits of chivalry, virility and belligerence, Alice is a woman who does not want to slay the dragon and (self-reflexively) questions the pre-determination of the story’s motifs and the masculinist rationale of slaying. Whether grown over-size or shrunk to fit inside a teapot, she retains, above all, her individuality and a sense of self, despite the fact that everyone she encounters questions whether she is THE (actual) Alice.
In Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is puzzled by her own sense of identity, after undergoing so many size changes, she asks, “But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’” (2000, p.23). Anyone who has ever heard of Carroll’s work knows that it is easy to lose track of one’s self in a place like Wonderland.
This question was rephrased in a song, first in 1972 by the Australian vocal harmony trio New World, then in 1976 re-vamped as a world-wide hit by the English band Smokie, and finally re-released in 1995 by the Dutch band Gompie, putting it very bluntly, “Who the fuck is Alice?” This question continues to fascinate us to this day.
Martin Scorsese attempted to answer this question in 1974, with his film Alice doesn’t live here anymore. The story of a widowed young mother, who travels through the American Southwest with her preteen son in search of a better life, leaving behind useless boyfriends and life-less jobs, until she meets a man who lets her live her life and pursue her goals, and have a happy relationship at the same time, rather than making her choose between one or the other.
Already in 1972, Claire Johnston, a feminist film theorist pointed out that, “if women’s cinema is going to emerge, it should not only concern itself with substituting positive female protagonists, focusing on women’s problems, etc. it has to go much further than this if it is to impinge on consciousness. It requires a revolutionary strategy which can only be based on an analysis of how film operates as a medium within a specific cultural system.” (Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema” in Notes on Women’s Cinema, 1972, p.25).
“You take the blue pill,” Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix (1999), “and the story ends… You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
So, down the theoretical rabbit hole we went…
In 1984, Teresa de Laurentis published her feminist film theory classic, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. In the preface she addresses the title of her book:
On or very near my desk, in whatever city I happened to be during that time, there was always this sign: “Wed. Oct. 29, 1975. Alice doesn’t!” I’d picked it up at a demonstration or a meeting – I don’t remember exactly – and have kept it with me ever since. It seems appropriate to name the book after it, for not only is the book intended in the same sense as the placard, but both are signs of the same struggle, both are texts of the women’s movement. The images or references suggested by the name “Alice” are many and will probably vary with each reader. [...] For me it is important to acknowledge, in this title, the unqualified opposition of feminism to existing social relations, its refusal of given definitions and cultural values; and at the same time to affirm the political and personal ties of shared experience that join women in the movement and are the condition of feminist work, theory and practice.
In the collection of essays, she proceeds to de-construct the constructedness and objectification of femininity in cinema and culture, in order to single out “woman” as a subject among all the “feminine” signifiers that patriarchy assigned to femininity. In her conclusion, de Laurentis explains:
We have learned that one becomes a woman in the very practice of signs by which we live, write, speak, see…. For it seems to me that only by knowingly enacting and re-presenting them, by knowing us to be both woman and women, does a woman today become a subject. In this 1984, it is the signifier who plays and wins before Alice does, even when she’ aware of it. But to what end, if Alice doesn’t? (p.186)
De Laurentis compares feminist critical journey with Alice’s beyond the looking-glass (p.3), using Virginia Woolf’s metaphor of woman as the looking-glass held up to man (“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size”), and connecting it to Laura Mulvey’s film-theoretical metaphor of woman as image and bearer of the look, questioning the implications for female spectators. What happens, she asks, when woman serves as the looking-glass held up to women? (p.6)
Alice to the Caterpillar: “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” “I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar (Lewis Carroll, p.47).
What cultural analysts, like bell hooks and others have taught us, is that feminism, like democracy and other core values, has to be born anew in each generation. After decades of watching and reading feminist role models, who are we?
Alice to the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where –“ said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat (Lewis Carroll, p.65).
“Once,” said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, “I was a real Turtle” (Lewis Carroll, p.96).
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, / Waiting in a hot tureen! / Who for such dainties would not stoop? / Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup? (Lewis Carroll, p.108)
In 1998, Montreal’s own Concordia creative writing professor, Stephanie Bolster published a collection of poems, entitled White Stone – The Alice Poems. After the first meeting with Alice Liddell, who lent her name to the adventurous girl in Wonderland, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) wrote in his diary on 25 April 1856, “I mark this day with a white stone.” The expression originates in Catullus’ “Lapide candidiore diem notare” (Poem 68, line 148) which translates as “to mark with an especially white stone the (lucky) day.” The English version was quite commonly used in Victorian times.
In her poem “The poet as nine portraits of Alice,” Bolster writes:
That mirror at the end / of a long hallway still frightens me. / Why Alice and not Cinderella? / a man asks me, over coffee / I asked him out for.
I think about pumpkins turned / to coaches, how small her feet were. / I answer that Alice is still / Alice even when she thinks / she’s Mabel and she finds her own / way in and out of Wonderland. / He nods his head. I run my finger / up and down his hand.
If I had a daughter, I would like / to name her Alice, but I would not.
The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, “You may rest a little now.” Alice looked around her in great surprise. “Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!” “Of course it is,” said the Queen. “What would you have it?” “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.” “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, p. 165)
Finally, in 2010, the collection of essays, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy (ed. by Richard Brian Davis) was published, just in time with the release of Tim Burton’s 3D extravaganza. In the first essay, Megan S. Lloyd examines the unruly Alice as a feminist heroine, stating that, “Alice, unlike other fairy-tale heroines, requires no fairy god-mother, huntsman, or good fairy – just her own wits and ingenuity – to navigate through Wonderland successfully, keeping her head intact” (p.8).
In another essay, entitled, “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today: on procrastination, hiking and… the Spice Girls?,” Mark D. White recounts the Alice story in Through the Looking-Glass, when the White Queen offers Alice a job as her “lady’s maid,” with a compensation package of “twopence a week, and a jam every other day.” Alice protests that she doesn’t care for jam, and in any case doesn’t want any jam today. The Queen clarifies, “You couldn’t have it if you did want it. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day” (p.20).
White points out what Wonderland’s logic is not as paradoxical as it may seem. We often structure our lives with far-off future goals in mind, often denying ourselves “jam” today in the hope for some “jam” reward tomorrow (or in the near future). This usually results in procrastination. He explains: “When the later or overall good can only be seen at the edges of one’s peripheral vision – in the ways that jam-yesterday-jam-tomorrow goods typically are seen – motivation turns out to be relatively loosely tied to it. So it’s precisely because there is no jam today – and we really want jam today – that we procrastinate when it comes to doing things that only bring jam in the fuzzy, distant future” (p.28).
The solution to our jam-less existence, White explains, is that in order “to prevent procrastination with respect to jam-yesterday-jam-tomorrow goods, you have to provide some sort of “jam today,” a temporary, short-term goal, to motivate timely action” (p.30).
So, why is Alice such a captivating figure in Western imagination? For children and for adults? Why do we keep retelling Alice’s story in so many different ways, narratives, images, theories? Alice provides us with a wonderful narrative of adventure and escape into a curious world (Wonderland), in which she manages, despite serious challenges, to bring and retain some reason and order. This premise is so appealing because it allows us to construct a sense of self-confidence in our own daily chaos. It allows us to dream up our own strong identities, which aren’t mere reflections of authoritative prototypes, it allows us to slay our daily dragons all by ourselves, and to create our daily jam.
… And what was your jam today?