Can Male Hatters be feminists?
Five things that critics got wrong about Alice in Wonderland,
and one critic who is on the right track.
This piece is actually a critique of the critiques of the movie Alice in Wonderland, book by Lewis Carroll, screenplay by Linda Woolverton, and direction by Tim Burton. Overall, I thought the movie was enjoyable, imaginative and enlightening. I was also surprised to find some moments of heartfelt feminism.
In looking over the reviews of the movie on line, I found a surprising lack of understanding, and some dismissive negativity, about the movie. Much—but not all—of the response was related to the issue of feminism in the film.
Here are five things that most critics got wrong about the Linda Woolverton and Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland: (Note, this piece is heavy on plot-spoilers. Don’t read it if you want to watch the movie and be surprised.)
- The litmus test for feminism is not the female star.
It is amazing, that when calculating if Alice in Wonderland was feminist or not, nearly all critics focused solely on the character and adventures of the female protagonist/hero. A somewhat right-wing and didactic critique at Decent Films writes, “Alice embodies the gender feminist narrative of vibrant young girls losing their mojo as they come of age in patriarchal society.” The woman’s magazine, Jezebel, while praising the movie as “refreshingly feminist” seemed to notice only that the hero who fights against the forces of evil is a woman. Jezebel mentions other characters, but does not take the time to catalogue their relationship to feminism. In an Associated Content piece by Adriana Tanese-Nogueria which does, commendably, explore the feminist theme much more richly than many other reviews, still, the main focus is on Alice’s journey of feminist liberation.
Feminism is much deeper than a bunch of strong-willed, empowered women taking on roles usually reserved for men. Feminism includes creating a society that is less patriarchal–that is, less sexist, less top-down, and more compassionate. Feminism means working for a world where neither men nor women are forced into stringent gender roles. Celebrated feminist bell hooks has written about the deeper meanings of feminism. hooks says, “Feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression”. And, hooks explores how “Feminist liberation is linked to a vision of social change which challenged class elitism.” [Both quotations from the article “Feminist men: friends or foes?”]
So, in order to decide if this movie is feminist or not, critics should be looking at a wide variety of measures: Are the women characters forced into certain gender roles? Are the men characters forced into certain gender roles? What are the quality of the relationships between the sexes? Is there sexist oppression in the narrative? Does the movie critique sexist oppression? How is class oppression addressed (or ignored) throughout the movie? Most critics ignored all of these questions except the first and most obvious one.
- 2. Despite her girl power, Alice is not the most feminist character in the movie. The most feminist character in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is the Mad Hatter.
There is a big controversy in feminist literature over whether a man can be “a feminist” or not. I would like to sidestep that discussion to some degree, since The Mad Hatter has no reason to assert that he is a feminist.
I think that it may be easier to see, that in order to have a feminist society, men will have to act differently than they do in a patriarchal society. For that reason, when looking at any work of fiction, determining if it is feminist should include evaluating if there are any male characters who model the kind of behavior towards women that feminists would value. And, in this measure, I think that the Mad Hatter fits the bill, as a non-sexist, woman-supportive, feminist-minded, male character.
The Mad Hatter is a positive force for a feminist society for a variety of reasons. He is kind to Alice, who is both female and a young person. He is supportive of women in leadership roles: He is a supporter of the White Queen (a woman leader, and the better royal in the movie) and a supporter of Alice. In addition, The Mad Hatter models feminist and non-coercive support for Alice, because he does not demand that Alice battles the Jabberwocky, but asks reflective questions and offers her support as she decides what to do.
Furthermore, The Mad Hatter does not judge people based solely on gender. He is as willing to dislike the Red Queen, with her bad character and her bad behavior, as he is to admire Alice and The White Queen.
I know that Johnny Depps’ portrayal of The Mad Hatter has depth, because my husband and I both came to entirely different conclusions about who he represented. Though, both conclusions showed how positive The Mad Hatter was for Alice. My husband thought that The Mad Hatter was an idealized version of a mate for Alice who would be better, kinder, and more supportive than that of the Lord who had proposed to her. I thought that the Mad Hatter represented the ghost of her father, offering her guidance and support.
Besides his relationship to women specifically, The Mad Hatter also expresses a move towards a feminist society because he is an agent of social revolution. He does not approve of actions of the Red Queen that demean others. And, he recognizes the pandering of the courtiers to the Red Queen (and later exposes it.)
- 3. Contrary to some critics, Alice’s naming of the new place “Underland” is not superficial or a mistake.
Some critics were horribly off-base in their criticism of the way that the name of Wonderland was changed in the movie. In the Woolverton/Burton production, Alice is said to be visiting “Underland” instead of “Wonderland”. The writer for the Boston Globe says dismissively, “…to reign once more over Underland (not Wonderland: apparently the young Alice was hard of hearing).”
In fact, Underland is a reference to the original title of Lewis Carroll’s manuscript, and a reflection of one of the deeper themes of this new movie, as well as Carroll’s broader work. The first manuscript of Alice in Wonderland was actually titled, “Alice’s Adventures Underground”. [Wikipedia]
In addition, referring to the place Alice visits as “Underland” brings up references to the underworld, and people who have gone under the ground. Death and rebirth is an important theme in Lewis Carroll’s Alice series. [Gradesaver] And, in the Woolverton/Burton version of Alice, there are hints that the adventure to Underland might be a visitation with Alice’s father in the form of the Mad Hatter. Also in the movie, there are other allusions to death and rebirth, including the Blue Caterpillar making a cocoon to die in, and then becoming a butterfly.
- 4. The bravest and most grown-up thing Alice did was not killing the Jabberwocky.
I have to say, I am still not thrilled that the grand finale in this movie is when Alice kills the Jabberwocky. As a devotee of Gandhi, nonviolence, and Nonviolent Communication, I always believe that there is a compassionate way to solve a problem without force. Though, I do understand that there is a way to interpret Alice’s slaying of the Jabberwocky as slaying something totally non-human, representing only the slaying of her fears. [Associated Content] And, that interpretation fits more into the empowered female and feminist threads of the movie.
Still, I was very excited by the way Alice defeated the first, vicious creature, the Bandersnatch. In what is a truly feminist mini-narrative, Alice realizes that her and the Bandersnatch are both among the oppressed, and that they are both creatures deserving of empathy. So, instead of fighting the Bandersnatch –who is only a pawn of the Red Queen–Alice instead performs an act of kindness to the monster that begins to liberate the monster from its own role of angry, oppressed creature carrying out violent orders of the one who truly holds the power. I wish that Alice’s conquering of the Bandersnatch was the ending, or that she somehow applied this new strategy to conquer the Jabberwocky. But, that was not the case in the movie.
Many reviews noted Alice’s personal and career leap of taking over her father’s business and sailing on to travel routes around the world as her bravest act. And, I do believe that these decisions she makes show her courage, empowerment, and willingness to take risks for personal growth. This scenario is part of the credit Burton and Woolverton’s movie is getting for “girl power”.
Though, I believe that the bravest thing Alice did was to make the decision she did about her brother-in-law, who was married to her sister. Before Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, Alice observes her brother-in-law being romantic in the garden with someone not his wife. How Alice will confront this situation presents one of the various life crises she faces on that day in the garden. Before her trip down the rabbit hole, Alice seems to make decisions by avoiding things, or by reacting to things. Though, afterwards, all of her decisions show her willing to take a strategic, leadership position. So, after her adventure, Alice makes a powerful decision. Instead of ignoring her brother-in-law’s misbehavior, or reacting to it by reporting it directly to her sister, Alice tells him pointedly that she will keep an eye on him. Now, she has given herself a duty, and committed to being in the position of guide and watchperson.
- 5. Linda Woolverton is not to be dismissed.
One would expect that the worse violators of dismissing or attacking any woman writer, and especially a woman writer who dares to use feminist themes, would be folks on the right. And, indeed, I think that the most pointed criticism I found of Woolverton was from “Decent Movies”. The attack words about Woolverton from Decent Films sound like something Karl Rove might have written about John Kerry:
“Who, you ask, could possibly think it a good idea to trick out Alice in Wonderland in such aggrieved feminist didacticism? The answer, apparently, is screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who contributed to the similarly schoolmarmish, politically correct Arctic Tale, and was one of a great many writers on Mulan, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.”
(I checked, yes, Woolverton was only part of a team in writers for those other movies, but on Beauty and the Beast, she did get top billing as the only “Writer, Animation Screenplay.”)
I found though, that even feminist reviews gave more credit–even for storyline–to the “man-at-the-top”, who in this case was Tim Burton, rather than focus on Woolverton. In fact, Woolverton came up with the concept for the movie before Tim Burton was even in on the project. (See the story at the Writer’s Guild of America, West interview with Linda Woolverton.) The Associated Content review by Tanese-Nogueira and the Jezebel review both begin with compliments to Tim Burton. The Jezebel review does not even mention the woman screenwriter at all.
And, mainstream media was not kind to Woolverton, either. In their ignorance combined with patriarchy, “The A.V. Club” took a swipe at Woolverton by being dismissive of the idea to call the place Alice visits “Underland” (Recall, as noted above, that Underland is a profound and appropriate name on a variety of levels.) The A.V. Club review states, “…Burton’s Alice borrows characters and settings from Carroll, but otherwise trashes Wonderland (or, “Underland,” as Disney veteran Linda Woolverton would have it in her screenplay).” Salon trivializes Woolverton’s efforts to create genuine characters and genuine feminist overtones, by stating, “…Wasikowska plays Alice as bright and unassuming, and watching her is never a chore, even when the story devolves into a “Girls can do cool stuff, too!” empowerment tale.” Entertainment Weekly states, “…written by the girl-power specialist Linda Woolverton…”
I also admired a real-world example of Linda Woolverton’s feminism which I ran across. Woolverton was humble enough, and cooperative enough, to point out in her WGA, West interview that the very feminist character of The Mad Hatter evolved largely in collaboration with actor Johnny Depp. If Woolverton can credit the actor for the character she created, perhaps more people could acknowledge Woolverton—and not just Burton—for the story line the screenwriter created.
I would hope that feminists would look more deeply at this movie to find potential future allies. Linda Woolverton may someday do a non-Disney work. Perhaps if feminist publications could acknowledge and support the valuable layers of her work now, Woolverton might be won over to a more socially aware studio, or try to create an independent film with feminist themes. I would also point out that through his portrayal of The Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp may be revealing a certain sympathy with feminist causes that could be further encouraged. And, a careful study of who is in this movie, and why they might be in it, reveals that Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series) may also be a candidate for feminist movies and/or causes. Harry Potter is a book written by a powerful woman, J.K. Rowling. And, Rickman also played a role in a movie, The Barchester Chronicles (1982) with some very feminist (and very un-feminist) characters, and which examined problems with patriarchy and hierarchy inside The Church of England in the 1800’s. In order to appreciate that The Barchester Chronicles, and enact its anti-feminist comedy of manners, an actor would have to have some awareness of feminist themes such as sexism, classism, elitism and patriarchy.
Besides using this film to identify potential allies, another good use of this film for feminists and other activists for social change would be to use it as a starting point for allegories and media about a better world. Instead of the usual review and critique, it would be interesting to see articles which expand upon the ideas of feminism presented in the film. It might be helpful to do a play-by-play of political situations, and show how each specific character could represent a current political figure, or a problematic situation in our current culture.
The critic I stumbled upon who came the closest to understanding the feminist aspects of this script is Erin Rickard at “Gender Across Borders: A Global Feminist Blog”. (Though, even Erin Rickard focused on the character and adventures of the female protagonist Alice as the test for feminism.) Rickard examined the movie for deeper feminist themes: class consciousness, racial consciousness, imperialism, colonialism, and relationships among women.
I agree with Rickard’s assessment of the movie overall. Rickard writes:
“My personal verdict: As a Disney movie, as a story for young adults, and as a fantasy/adventure film, Alice is a groundbreaking narrative. As a student of literature, I’ve often thought about the lack of feminist themes in the classic tales Americans use to entertain and acculturate their children, and I’ve wondered what a feminist narrative would look like. I’m very happy that Burton has created one, although it’s not quite as amazing or progressive as it could be.”
Because I am not a fan of mega-media conglomerations or large corporations, I don’t think I would recommend that people go to the theater to see this latest Disney movie. (Oh, me. I must apologize to the spirits of feminism and local economy for paying to see a Disney movie. Mia Wasikowska will be playing Jane Eyre next, and my curiosity about her acting dissolved my anti-Disney resolve.) A better plan to experiencing this movie in authentic, feminist fashion, would be to wait until it comes out on video and take it out from your local library. Or, simply read the reviews, and use the community discussion as your own launching pad for discussion. Also, please note that the John Tenniel illustrations of the Alice in Wonderland story are in the public domain due to their age. So, there are many ways to find our own sources and meditations for discussion on the characters in Alice in Wonderland and their relationship to feminism.
National Catholic Register. Reprinted at Decent Films. “Alice in Wonderland (2010)”. Steven D. Greydanus. http://www.decentfilms.com/reviews/aliceinwonderland2010
Jezebel. “Alice In Wonderland: ‘Refreshingly Feminist,’ Lacks Heart”. (The Jezebel review also provided a list of other sources for reviews. It was very helpful in preparing this piece.) http://jezebel.com/5486801/alice-in-wonderland-refreshingly-feminist-lacks-heart
Associated Content. “Alice in Wonderland: The 2010 Movie. A Feminist Psychological Review”. Adriana Tanese-Nogueira. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2772104/alice_in_wonderland_the_2010_movie.html?cat=40
The Scavenger. “Feminist men: friends or foes?” by Rosalie Scolari. (Used for bell hooks quotations.) http://www.thescavenger.net/feminism-a-pop-culture/feminist-men-friend-or-foe-83456.html
Whitman Pioneer. “Male Feminism: common ground even in controversy”. C. J. Wisler. (I did not quote directly from this piece, though it gave me excellent insight about the male feminist controversy. A worthwhile piece of reading.) http://whitmanpioneer.com/feature/2009/03/05/male-feminism-common-ground-even-in-controversy/
The Boston Globe. Movie review of Alice in Wonderland. “Nonsense doesn’t live here anymore: Burton’s 3-D ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is entertaining but not nearly twisted enough”. Ty Burr.
Gradesaver. “Alice in Wonderland Study Guide”. http://www.gradesaver.com/alice-in-wonderland/study-guide/major-themes/
Writers Guild of America, West. “Wonder Woman”. Dylan Callaghan. http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=4004
A.V. Club. “Alice in Wonderland”. Keith Phipps. http://www.avclub.com/articles/alice-in-wonderland,38818/
Entertainment Weekly. “Alice in Wonderland (2010)”. Owen Gleiberman. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20348226,00.html
Gender Across Borders: A Global Feminist Blog. “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is Almost a Great Feminist Fairytale”. Erin Rickard. http://genderacrossborders.com/2010/03/21/tim-burtons-alice-in-wonderland-is-almost-a-great-feminist-fairytale/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter