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bechdel taser: alice in bechdeland

I love a bit of nonsense. I love it when things are absurd, surreal or strange. I love anything that upsets a “natural order”. But how the goddamn hell does one ascribe it gender politics? I’ll give it a go, it’s what I’m here for.

It’s the total conviction in benign logical fallacies that gets me. In real life, some people believe in quite malignant logical fallacies, like that clothes can be “provocative” or that anyone can be asking to be assaulted. If something is outwardly nonsensical, even patriarchal bullshit being unknowingly replicated in a fantasy world is actually shown to be nonsense itself.

This is what you find in one scene of Disney’s 1951 take on Alice in Wonderland, which showed recently at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Most of the anthropomorphised beings in Wonderland are male, but Alice comes upon a group of female flowers. ‘Of course we talk, if there’s anyone worth talking to’, one says, with another chiming in ‘or about.’ Mm, gossip. It’s one of the less inspiring scenes in the film. After having a sing, they start judging Alice’s appearance. They criticise her. Women criticising a woman. They send her away after declaring her a weed. I don’t remember this scene in Carroll’s book, and wouldn’t be surprised if it were written specifically for the film. There are other stereotypes in the film, like the pomp and authority of upper class male characters like Walrus and Dodo. Their humour comes from a place of supposed truth – a replication of something outside the story. However, those characters are put in more bizarre or allegorical situations, while the flowers are quite direct. But this can be reclaimed – whether intentional or not, putting those characters in a situation so forcefully nonsensical shows how nonsensical it is for women to judge each others’ appearance according to ourselves and our standards. As the Cheshire Cat says, ‘Most everyone’s mad here.’ The characters expressing those opinions are mad. Nice.

Compared to other, especially early, Disney films, Alice is a great heroine. She negotiates a world to which there is no logic, is brave in confronting insane strangers and adventurous in going down the rabbit hole in the first place. And it’s all a dream. Awful plot device, but it does mean that every fantastical, creative thing that happens is a product of her imagination. Where others dream of Princes, Alice dreams of riddles, poems and a royal court led by a female tyrant.

Alice does get a bit annoying. She’s whiny and cries a lot and just wants to go home. She’s rarely the most interesting and even less often the funniest character in a scene. Alice gets annoying, too – while the images of the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and March Hare offered here became those we associate with the characters, they don’t all work. As a book, Alice works because you can pick it up and put it down when you feel like a serve of nonsense, but for it to work as a coherent 75-minute film, it needs better structured chaos and more attention paid to how many grating caricatures are played in succession. Alice lacks the dynamics which would make the spectacles pop.

Oh, and it’s a bit shit that despite the Queen being such a despot she keeps being undermined by her otherwise ineffectual husband whose biggest strain of madness seems to be his relationship with her, and is otherwise sane. But none of the inhabitants of Wonderland are painted flatteringly. I mean, I quite like the Lizard and the Dormouse, but isolating the potential negs of the fewer female characters strikes me as mostly redundant. I’m quite happy to call Alice something other than a tool of the patriarchy. It’s nonsense. I like nonsense.

Mind you, it’s nonsense that passes the Bechdel Test in its first scene. Cool.

Gosh, wasn’t Alice in Wonderland more fun before you read this? Sorry, it was this or Total Recall, and the first thing to emerge from my companions mouth as the credits rolled on that were ‘Did we ever find out [the Jessica Biel character’s] name?’ I don’t think so, but the credits called her Melina.

Have I mentioned my Twitter lately? @sarinaisshaft

(Image credit)

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