I am a modern professional woman and a mother of daughters. As such, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time determining the exact right exposure to Disney princess paraphernalia to give my kids appreciation of classic animated film without turning them into mute, man-pleasing marriage-chasers.
Is it two parts Belle’s book-smarts and one part Merida’s marksmanship to a teaspoon of Ariel’s naiveté and a smidgen of Snow White’s, um, proficiency in housework? I’m sensible enough to assume my girls might take more from my example than the Little Mermaid’s — a VHS I wore out circa 1988, and subsequently managed not to abandon my family in a quest for a cute guy I’d met just once. (And, frankly, I wouldn’t mind if my girls went about housework with mute enthusiasm in my house once in a while, but I digress.)
But Disney is well aware of this dilemma in modern moms, going to great pains to create princesses who defy the expectations of princesses past. Mulan and Merida are warriors, Pocahantas confident, Tiana clever. The drama of Anna and Elsa is wrought in filial love, not romantic.
A short trailer on the Disney princess website features the traditional adventures of princesses spliced with ostentatiously fierce modern girls diving and skateboarding with the tag line, “Dream Big, Princess.”
But the same site reveals Disney has ignored its greatest girl-power asset, leaving an independent, adventurous, assertive classic character out of the pantheon of princesses: Alice in Wonderland. I know what you’re thinking. She’s not royalty. But neither is Mulan, and Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”), Cinderella, and Tiana (“The Princess and the Frog”) only become royalty by marriage, taking the commoner-Kate pathway to princessdom.
1. Alice is adventurous.
Alice gets a ticket to Wonderland when she abandons a staid Victorian-era school lesson given by her sister to chase an anthropomorphic white rabbit. She doesn’t ask for permission, she doesn’t need a partner in crime, and she seems unafraid, even reckless, in her pursuit. YOLO, girl.
Her quest has nothing to do with romantic love, setting her apart from most of the princess pantheon, though that’s in part due to her age. Disney’s Alice was drawn from live-screen tests with 12-year-old British actress Kathryn Beaumont, who also voiced the character. The Alice of Lewis Carroll’s famous novels was only about 7.
2. She’s a faithful adaptation of a truly great book.
Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” is remarkably faithful to the Alice books, written by British author and logician Lewis Carroll (a pen name for Charles Dodgson) in the 1860s for a family friend’s daughters, one of whom inspired the tale by asking for a story on a rowing trip. The books are in the canon for a reason, full of skillful literary nonsense and word play and iconic characters.
3. She’s a self-assured, creative thinker.
It only takes one song to establish that Alice is the kind of girl who disrupts the status quo — like the Uber of Disney princesses. “In a World of My Own” is exactly what it sounds like: Alice’s vision of a world in which she makes the rules and “Cats and rabbits/ Would reside in fancy little houses/ And be dressed in shoes and hats and trousers.”
The signature songs of other heroines of her era were much more passive. Cinderella sang “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and Aurora of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Once Upon a Dream.” Snow White crooned simply, in 1937, “I’m Wishing.”
4. She’s assertive, even in the face of bullying.
Although Alice puts an emphasis on good manners, she is no pushover. When faced with aggression, she pushes back and goes on her way. In the garden, the flowers declare small Alice a weed and chase her out, dousing her with water.
“I’m not a weed!…If I were my right size, I could pick every one of you if I wanted to,” she threatens before wringing out her dress and huffing, “Seems to me they could learn a few things about manners.”
She is also undaunted by the Caterpillar’s bluster, giving as good as she gets in an existential debate with the bug, even when he yells at her.
5. She’s sensitive to those with mental illness or addiction, but has appropriate boundaries.
Alice is open to the new custom of an Unbirthday Party, but when the frenetic pace and circular illogic of the Mad Hatter and March Hare take their toll, she refuses to be manipulated.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I just haven’t the time,” she says. “This is the stupidest Tea Party I’ve ever been to in all my life.”
6. She’s competitive even when the power structure demands she fold.
When Alice is forced to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, she is competitive even in the face of the queen’s well-known decapitatory tendencies. She’s openly frustrated with her flamingo/mallet and gopher/ball and the queen’s playing cards, who sabotage her and throw the match to appease the queen.
7. She fights for due process.
Alice’s sense of fair play is on display once again in the queen’s courtroom, when she’s charged with “teasing, tormenting, and otherwise annoying…thereby causing the queen to lose her temper.”
When the queen attempts to impose a sentence, Alice retorts: “Sentence? But there must be a verdict first.”
Once again standing up for herself, Alice declares the queen “a fat, pompous, bad-tempered old tyrant” triggering the movie’s culminating chase scene.
8. She passes the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel test is a feminist rubric for evaluating filmmaking for gender bias. To pass the test, a movie must feature two female characters, with names, who speak to each other about something other than a man. There are plenty of arguments this test is overly simplistic or flawed, but it’s worth pointing out Alice easily passes it thanks to her interactions with the queen. (She also speaks with the flowers, though it’s unclear whether “rose” and “tiger lily” count as names enough to officially defy the patriarchy.)
9. She has a full range of emotions.
For all the criticism of the sometimes one-dimensional Disney princesses, most characters in the early films lack much emotional range. The seven dwarves literally have one emotion each. But Alice is different. She’s at turns proud, playful, polite, confident, and insolent. We see her lose her temper and we see her despair. We see her question herself and stick to her guns. “I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it,” is a heartbreaking and relatable lament.
This little heroine is a queen among princesses. If I got to choose, I’d want my kids to do less “wishing” and more building a “world of their own.” I hate to see Alice overlooked because her dress isn’t sparkly enough.