On Friday, March 5th an old tale was yet again returned to the media landscape in order to generate capital, and institute cultural markers via entertainment. In a review of Alice in Wonderland The Times Online makes an astute observation, showing how markets and the careful construction of images play a crucial role in how stories are told (retold):
Commercial considerations have also made Alice 19 years old, for the all-important teen market. Burton lets her break the Victorian mould and become an empowering, feminist figure as she puts on some Joan of Arc armour, grabs the vorpal sword and roars “off with your head” at the Jabberwock. In all, a fantastic film that gets curiouser and curiouser.
But, rather than following through with some sort of deeper analysis the reviewer’s deconstruction only focuses on alterations for market-value and entertainment purposes. What of the rest of the film? Initializing her act of ‘ultimate empowerment’ Alice rejects her forced lover’s hand in marriage and proceeds to (rather hokily) tell each of the wedding guests everything a ‘modern’ audience would presumably want to say to a group of Victorian era aristocrats. Though this scene certainly deserves an excursion into modern attitudes channelled via film, the following events in the film are of greater interest to us: with a bold initiative characteristic of her late father, Alice (working with a former business partner of his) essentially takes control of his trading business. As she explicitly states her goal of moving into China via a network of trading routes/posts, for anyone historically minded the timing (Victorian Era) and initiators (British) of Alice’s endeavor clearly evoke the Opium Wars and the breaking of China.
There are a number of interesting aspects in regards to this turn of events in the end of the film. Firstly, the nonchalant atmosphere behind Alice’s proposal and it’s acceptance casts an air of normalcy to her project. What’s more, the event also commands a certain boldness which ostensibly is to be seen as growing out of Alice’s experiences in Wonderland – most notably her slaying of the Jabberwocky. Practical questions also come into play: what could a nineteen year old 18th century girl from the British aristocracy possibly know about China (let alone shipping, trade routes and trading posts)? Are we to see Wonderland as a substitute for China – a place that is ‘radically different’ in peoples, customs, plants, etc. whose most challenging obstacles were defeated by the young Alice?
In short, the underlying ideological twist embedded in Disney’s new adaptation is the transmutation of Alice’s final project from an imperialist venture into an innocuous adventure; one where mutual benefit through trade (rather than empire building via geostrategic and resource control) is the true goal.
But, is there is a deeper problem here? If Alice is to be empowered via her experiences in Wonderland, how should this empowerment manifest itself in her ‘real life’ (post rabbit-hole)? In a sense, the path of ’empowerment’ in the 18th century is defined by the paths designated by the power structure of the time: patriarchy, imperialism and aristocracy. So, when film or any other popular medium tells the story of someone slightly outside of the powerful (in this case Alice hindered by her gender) what new spaces can be created for these characters within their time periods which correspond to a sense of just and meaningful empowerment within our present society? For ultimately, if reinterpretations of the past (and even presentations of the present, and visions of the future) are to be the workspace of the Disney’s of our media landscape, these questions must be given serious due diligence.