Julia Berkelhammer Professor Dan Anderson

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Julia Berkelhammer
Professor Dan Anderson
English 150
28 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland: How Societal Development Affects Depiction of Women

It seems rare if not impossible that a work of children’s nonsense fiction should become so popular across many generations and decades. However, Alice in Wonderland appears to be an exception. This is because the book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has something to offer almost everyone. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, created the story and a sequel for the purpose of entertaining his young friend Alice. When Carroll finally published the book, he unknowingly created one of the first pieces of literary nonsense. His creative incorporation of logical puzzles, puns and common idioms made the text equally thrilling for adults. Due to its popularity, the tale of Alice in Wonderland has since been adapted into countless other mediums and interpretations. That being said, a much anticipated take on the story is playing in theaters now. Renowned director Tim Burton has created a unique version of the plot where a 19 year old Alice revisits wonderland. Certain differences between the two versions are shaped by the culture and time period in which they were created. By analyzing both, it is evident that society’s treatment of women impacted how each version was carried out. The expectations of women in the Victorian Era of the United Kingdom were very different from what we expect of women today in the United States, and it obviously shows in the characterization of Alice, the queens and a few others.

Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1865 which falls in the midst of the Victorian Era. Women had essentially no rights and were expected to marry and become housewives. They were not viewed as equals and this is apparent in Carroll’s creation of a majority of the characters. Because this began as a nonsense tale, Carroll made many characters fantasy creatures and silly animals but they were still portrayed as male. Even though it was unnecessary to designate genders to the made up creatures, they still had male names and were dressed in male attire in the illustrations. Animals and made up creatures can easily be gender neutral. The few female characters that are present make a strong statement of the roles and general attitude toward women during this era. The first female character that Alice encounters in wonderland is the duchess and her cook. The duchess is described as a very ugly woman who was taking care of a baby while her female cook made them food. These are two quintessential roles for women of that time period and Carroll did not disguise them as animals or bizarre creatures. After Alice’s encounter with them, the only other female was the notorious Queen of Hearts. She is often remembered for her fondness for beheading anyone and everyone. At first glance, it might seem that Carroll is giving women more power by having an authoritative queen in wonderland. However, the real reason for having women with power in the stories is because of the woman’s role in playing cards and chess. Carroll had no intentions of depicting the queen in a positive fashion. Instead, Carroll in his own words claimed the queen was “a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless fury” (Gardner 109). The negative representation of women is similar in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The red and white queens, intended to be chess pieces, also lacked any positive attributes whatsoever. Carroll stated that he created the red queen with qualities to give her “the concentrated essence of all governesses” (Gardner 206). This is another typical role for women of the time. Carroll’s description of the white queen was even also degrading to females. She was intended to be “gentle, stupid, fat and pale; helpless as an infant” (Gardner 245). This unflattering description again fails to characterize females Alice meets with any positive attributes.

As for the character of Alice, her actions also do not make a constructive statement about the role of women in society. From the minute she falls into the rabbit hole, she simply wanders about with no goal or purpose while letting everyone tell her what to do. In one encounter with the white rabbit, he calls Alice by the wrong name and orders her to go bring him his gloves and fan. Alice is insulted that he mistook her for a housemaid. Even though she is angry he was condescending toward her, she obediently does what he tells her to. Although this is technically her dream, she lacks any control in every situation and lets everyone else define the rules of wonderland. She even admits it is odd that she should be running errands for a rabbit but Alice is always compliant and follows directions without question (Gardner 56). It is also unusual that a child of such a young age should be so obedient when young children are commonly testing their limits and pushing boundaries. However, Alice is the ideal image of a young lady who does what she is told. Additionally, neither women nor little girls were allowed to be bold, courageous or strong willed. Instead, Alice is the epitome of a Victorian girl. She is described as being timid countless times when encountering any new person or creature. The word timid is actually used when she interacts with the white rabbit, the caterpillar, a frog doorman, the duchess and the Cheshire cat. However, it is important to note that being timid and obedient are not the most demeaning qualities for someone to possess, but in this context they propagate specific gender roles assigned to females.

Conversely, Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland film breaks the stereotypical roles for women in numerous ways. The screenplay writer, Linda Woolverton, admitted that this was her intention in the script. She stated that she did a lot of research about the mores and behaviors of girls in the Victorian era and “did the opposite” (Rohter). As mentioned before, Alice in the newest movie version is 19 years old and is returning to wonderland rather than visiting it for the first time. Despite these plot differences, Alice’s actions and characteristics break the assigned gender norms of women in the Victorian Era. Although women in this era had virtually no rights, that did not stop Alice from standing up to the characters in Underland. Unlike Carroll’s character, older Alice is strong willed and sticks up for herself. In the books little Alice can barely speak to someone without being nervous and worried about offending them. Burton’s Alice is brave and determined. When running away from a ferocious beast, Alice stops and looks it straight in the eye. Also, she refuses other people’s orders time after time. The mad hatter keeps trying to tell Alice to leave him behind when he gets captured but she has a mind of her own and refuses to let her friend stay kidnapped. Additionally, when Alice first arrives in Underland, she does not immediately slay the Jabberwocky just because someone told her to. Not only is she brave, Alice becomes the voice of reason in the world of nonsense. Alice in the book was puzzled and confused by nearly everyone she talked to while older Alice holds on to her sense of reality. She fools the queen into thinking she is not the Alice the queen wants to kill. Alice also proves to be more emotionally stable by calming down the hatter when he gets caught up in fits of anger. Logic and emotional restraint are traits that were once thought to only be possessed by men. Lastly, she conveys a more modern view of women by displaying physical strength while still retaining feminine qualities. Sheer physical strength was also a quality that was generally associated with men until more modern times. Alice proves that society has accepted the fact that women can be strong as well as beautiful. She can wear dresses but also exhibit the physical strength to fight the Jabberwocky. Her task in Underland to fight the Jabberwocky is one of the most obvious ways in which she exposes society’s view of equality between the genders. In the film, Alice defeats the giant Jabberwocky beast with only a sword. The scenario of Alice fighting a beast would have never occurred in the Victorian era.

The beginning of the film spends more time with Alice outside of Underland where she also exhibits strong will and independence. From the first minute of the movie, Alice is rebelling against her mother by refusing to wear a corset and stockings. She sarcastically points out that these gender norms are silly. She then challenges her mother by asking if it was custom to wear a cod fish on her head would she follow that as well. Here, Alice is verbalizing some of the first feminist views. She proves that custom is not a logical reason for forcing women to act in certain ways. This conversation occurs on their way to a ritzy party, which to Alice’s surprise is her engagement party. While there, Alice cannot help but daydream of other things and is called odd for not focusing on the social aspects of the party. Her disinterest in dancing with a boy is odd for the time but in today’s society it is not unusual for 19 year old girls to be focusing on things other than marriage. When the time came for Alice’s suitor to propose, she became worried she could not accept the life of a simple housewife. She runs off before answering and follows a white rabbit to Underland. It is her experience there that confirms her notion that she does not have to accept that type of lifestyle. She returns from Underland and says no to the proposal which is the ultimate rejection of the expectations for women. Alice’s determination to live up to her potential continues when she accepts a position in her father’s business and puts marriage and family on the backburner. In her real world, Alice is the ultimate feminist by not letting the expectations of society or her mother stop her.

Lastly, the two queens in Underland in the film also show the changes in society’s attitude. The white queen and the red queen are fighting over the right to rule Underland. This version shows how women today can be independent and in charge without the presence of a man. Both the red and white queens have been rulers of Underland without needing a king. This shows that women do not need a man to take care of them and they can put work first. The red queen even admits that it is better to be feared than to be loved. Lastly, an important feature of the movie is the presence of a female other than Alice with positive qualities. The white queen is tolerant, loving and rules fairly unlike her totalitarian sister, the red queen. In today’s society, women play many roles and are not portrayed in such a condensing manner as they were in the Victorian era.

Although the book and the film are drastically different in many ways, it is obvious to see how the world around affects the changes that take place in popular stories. The original book has both entertainment and deeper meaning but it also provides insight into the sexist world Carroll lived in. Because Burton changes Alice into a role model and a hero, it is evident our society has made strides toward gender equality. It is pointless to compare the two and judge which is better, but it is enlightening to compare character descriptions and plot choices and see how far society has come.

Works Cited

Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1970. Print.
Rohter, Larry Drinking Blood: New Wonder's of Alice's World. The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2010 .

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