Today marks the 182nd birthday of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or as he is more commonly known, Lewis Carroll. Being huge fans of Alice in Wonderland, this is the perfect excuse for us to
rant about our love of Alice do a highly academic study of how Alice has changed over the years. Because, let’s face it… We’re all mad here.
Alice in Wonderland has been adapted several times throughout the past 149 years. Each adaptation has it’s own unique take on Carroll’s fantastical, nonsensical world. Many of the earlier adaptations, including Disney’s famous cartoon, depict Alice much like she is in the original work – a young girl whose insatiable curiosity lands her in her dream world that turns out to be far darker than she anticipated.
While modern adaptations of Alice are arguably even darker than the source material, there are several huge differences; Alice is no longer a child, and no longer a mostly passive character. Instead, she is the savior, the chosen one, and more importantly, quite the badass.
The Fall Down the Rabbit Hole
Carroll’s original Alice functions as an Eve figure, albeit one that is far more innocent than the femme fatale stereotypes. After all, Alice’s tale literally starts with a Fall. Cue SYMBOLISM in ten foot tall letters.
For the young Alice, Wonderland functions as an anti-Eden. While it’s bizarre nature represents everything ideal to her young imagination, she cannot be a part of this world since she has already “fallen”. Alice is too ensconced in the Victorian culture she comes from. Though Alice wants to reject the Victorian world, she is too indoctrinated in its ways to ever truly escape it—she has too much knowledge to live in the post-Edenic Wonderland, thus for her “paradise” is no paradise at all.
In spite of her innocence, Alice is a very typical Eve figure. She embraces all things feminine (just think of the way she fusses with her hair and dress in the Disney film) and spends far more time being a passive observer in the world of Wonderland than actually participating in it. She relies on her oftentimes male guides such as the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the Chesire Cat to direct her through this strange land, just as Eve was prompted to act through outside forces.
Kicking Butt in a Petticoat
In recent years, there has been a trend of taking classic fairytales and adapting them for a modern female audience, a trend that recent versions of Alice have been at the center of. Alice is no longer a helpless little girl overwhelmed by the land she accidentally stumbles upon–in fact, it is Wonderland that needs Alice.
Sophie Lowe’s Alice in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland certainly knows how to hold her own in Wonderland. Even though she often relies on the help of her friends, it’s made clear that she’s also capable of taking care of herself. In spite of still being a distinctly feminine character, she does not fall into all of the usual gender stereotypes surrounding women. This Alice knows how to fight both with her fists and with a sword, all while wearing a dress.
Taking a look at a less literal Alice interpretation, Gena Showalter’s first two installments of the White Rabbit Chronicles, Alice in Zombieland and Through the Zombie Glass depict an Alice that is not only capable of fighting for herself (again, with some training and a little help from her friends), but also is hinted to be the one who will help destroy the zombies forever. She has already been shown to have special powers including being able to see glimpses of the future. In fact, if the hints throughout the books and Ali’s own assertions are true, she is willing to die for her cause. This implies an Alice that is decidedly not an Eve figure, but instead leaning towards – gasp – a savior figure.
Perhaps the greatest example of this newly transformed Alice, however, occurs in Tim Burton’s 2010 film. While the general word on the street was that people were disappointed that Burton chose to make the film a continuation of the classic tale rather than a direct adaptation, in this film Alice’s complete transformation is depicted.
The film centers around a prophecy that states Alice will be the savior of Underland (what Alice mistakenly refers to as ‘Wonderland’ in her youth), the only person who will be able to defeat the Jabberwocky on the legendary Frabjous Day. In a plot that parallels those that we often see from male heroes but rarely from heroines, Alice goes through all the steps of becoming a ‘chosen one’. She experiences the call to action but initially refuses it, denying that she could possibly be the one in the prophecy. Though she begins as a passive figure wandering through Underland, she finds herself forming friendships with its bizarre inhabitants. She encounters several smaller trials, finds a mentor, and eventually is faced with the decision to live up to everyone’s expectations or let her own fears hold her back.
It’s ultimately the motivation of the friendships she has formed that allow her to overcome her doubts and slay the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day. Alice is successfully transformed from passive Eve figure to active – dare I say it – Jesus figure.
The process of this transformation makes for wonderful commentary on gender identity. The re-gendering of the savior figure makes a statement on what femininity is, and what it means to be a woman; more importantly, it portrays femininity in an active role, though the protagonist takes on some stereotypically masculine qualities in order to do so. From the beginning, Alice rebels against the Victorian ideals of femininity. She refuses to wear a corset. She allows herself to be curious and explore, even as an adult woman. Though her time in Underland is largely spent in hyper-feminized dresses, these are exchanged in the end for a suit of armor and a sword. Notable, however, is the inclusion of a skirt silhouette with the armor. Alice is a girl, but she is not bound by society’s ideas of gender roles. She embraces masculine qualities without sacrificing her feminity.
Because girls can be badasses too.
Alice the Trendsetter
Recent years has seen many traditional fairy tales receive this same damsel-in-distress-turned-badass trope. None of them have managed to do it so completely as Alice and with such great implications on gender roles. The fairytale heroine is no longer the girl that needs saving from her one true love, but the girl who saves her love. The girl who, oftentimes, saves everyone.
In a world where femininity is still correlated with weakness and where strong women are measured by how masculine they are, it’s comforting to see a shift in our media, even a subtle one.