agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 4 minutes

It’s hard to believe that contemporary pop culture has much in common with the Victorians. And yet a story that was written to entertain a young girl on a boat trip continues to send ripples across the creative community over 150 years later. Originally written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll,
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the story of a little girl who chases a rabbit down a hole, where fantastical creatures and strange happenings replace logic, and nothing is quite as it seems.

Its compelling plot and vivid characters leave a lot to the imagination. That is why, despite the seismic societal shifts of the past century and a half, the story continues to generate infinite interpretations. From attitudes to gender roles and mental health to issues of identity, the different readings capture the zeitgeist of key moments in recent history. Its relevance shows no signs of waning.

While researching this piece, I fell down my own rabbit hole on YouTube, where I met everyone from Avril Lavigne, who questioned, “Is this real? Is this pretend?” to Tom Petty as the Mad Hatter singing “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. The song’s title actually came from Stevie Nicks, who is said to have uttered the phrase after a brief romantic encounter with the song’s producer, David A. Stewart of Eurythmics.Curiously, Nicks wrote her own Alice-inspired song a few years later. In Alice, she sees aspects of herself in the protagonist reflected back at her. In what was a transitional moment in her life, she sings:

“Like Alice through the Looking Glass

She used to know who she was”

Caught up in the ‘wonderland’ of drugs, fame and toxic relationships, she wants to return home “to the other side of the mirror”, to more innocent times. Through Alice, she seeks to regain control of her situation and find her place in the world again.

For Thom Yorke, wonderland is also a nightmarish place where he is confronted by his demons. In a 2001 MTV interview, he said:”Revolving Doors for example, is something that happened in my brain where… Like, Alice in Wonderland. Where she walks down the corridor and there are lots of different doors. I was sort of in that corridor, mentally for 6 months. And that was an extremely central part, for me, what I was writing. ‘Cos every door I opened, it was like, dreading opening it. ‘Cos I didn’t know what was gonna happen next.”

Listening to these songs, it’s hard to see wonderland as anything but a dark, sinister place in which bad things happen. Yet today’s audiences see the story in a more positive light. If you’ve watched some of the best TV series in the last few years, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. 50 years after its release, it is the track of choice for TV series wanting to communicate a message of liberation and empowerment.

Originally written in the late 60s at the height of psychedelia, it became an instant anthem for the hippie counterculture, free love and feminism of the era. Born out of singer Grace Slick’s “long-standing love affair with Alice in Wonderland” (and a fair bit of acid), the song is packed with references to the book, from Alice’s changes in size to the hookah-smoking caterpillar. But Slick maintains that it is not just a metaphor for drugs, but about “following your curiosity”.

In Stranger Things, Slick’s screeching vocals and that foreboding bassline play out as Eleven escapes from the grips of her father and his team of evil scientists. The song crescendos triumphantly as she gets a taste of freedom. The theme of escapism is also explored in The Handmaid’s Tale. In a scene dripping with tension and suspense, in which our heroine June (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped in the company of her Commander, the song underlines her determination and resilience as she tries to regain control of her situation.

Of course, there is another possible interpretation, if you’re Pete Doherty. For the Babyshambles singer, “going down the rabbit hole” takes on an altogether more sexual sense.

The current drive to foster independence and strong will in girls from a young age has elevated Alice into a poster girl for female empowerment. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova considers it “one of the foundational feminist texts in literary history” for its treatment of the perennial themes of agency, integrity and critical thinking. Indeed, it could be said that when Alice joins the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, she literally takes a seat at the table (a phrase coined by Sheryl Sandberg to describe women asserting themselves in male-dominated environments). For the 2010 Tim Burton film production, screenwriter Linda Woolverton researched being a young girl in Victorian times, then did exactly the opposite. “I was thinking more in terms of an action-adventure film with a female protagonist,” she says.

This is markedly different from historic depictions of Alice. The original 1865 edition contains illustrations by John Tenniel that reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time. This was the “children should be seen and not heard” era, when children were expected to behave like mini adults in a proper and polite manner devoid of any emotion. In the drawings, Alice is mainly expressionless, with a disproportionately large head. The Alice of the 1951 Walt Disney animation is the happy, friendly dream daughter of post-war America. With a new focus on the family unit during the boom years, innocence, affection and playfulness were promoted as essential qualities to foster in a child.

There is no one way to read this story. It is a riddle with no answer, and yet in many ways it is easier to understand than the reality that surrounds us. After all, let’s not forget; we’re all mad here. As the Cheshire cat says, “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come.”

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