Downton Abbey is a recent television show which illustrates Andrew Higson’s hypothesis that the heritage narrative both engages in a critique of the dominant ideologies of the era and fetishises the aristocratic setting at the level of mise-en-scene.
Teenage Alice is set up in opposition to her mother through her espousing of feminist values within the confined space of the carriage.
Alice’s mother is shocked at her daughter’s refusal to wear stockings
Lord Hamish attempts to correct Alice’s wayward femininity during a dance, the success of which depends on adherence to strict gender roles.
Elizabeth Swann is suffocated by the prospect of a life without adventure and marriage to a man she does not love, here signified through the over-tight lacing of a corset.
Costume changes in the fantastical space allow the young women more physical and spatial mobility and thus can be read as aiding in their feminist empowerment.
Alice occupies a state of melancholy, haunted by her lost object ‘Wonderland’ which is both her destiny and past, the source of her liberating potential and personal liberation.
The presentation of Alice in the film is similar to the heroin chic aesthetic popularised in the nineties through models such as Kate Moss.
Alice has been haunted by dreams of Wonderland since her first visit as a small child and yet is unaware of what has been lost or how it can be found.
Alice’s memories. Time is running out for Alice to take up arms and cement her place in Wonderland’s mythology.
Elizabeth protects Will’s identity by removing his pirate medallion. The act operates as a precursor for her future role as a protector of the pirate way of life.
Elizabeth dreams of her first encounter with piracy as her marriage to Commodore Norrington looms ...
... and flirts with the prospect of an alternate identity that could result in a more empowered self
Titanic’s Rose is coded as racially liminal at the level of the body, her (deathly) white skin offset here by vibrant red hair and green jewellery signifying her future liberation via an encounter with the ‘Emerald Isle.’
Alice suffers a fall from the old world and subsequently a fall from aristocratic white femininity.
Elizabeth’s corset robs her of breath resulting in her fall to the ocean below and first encounter with the pirate Jack Sparrow.
The elusive Jack Sparrow and his fellow pirates pose a sexual and economic threat to the inhabitants of Port Royal.
The Navy fears for Elizabeth’s virtue after Sparrow rescues and rids her of the confining corset.
Lustful pirates gather beneath the floorboards in a bid to see up Elizabeth’s dress.
Buffoonish pirates Pintel and Rigetti are mirrored by the Navy’s Murtogg and Mullroy, destabilising the binary construction of Self and Other.
Elizabeth learns that aristocratic white femininity is a performance and attempts to strategically utilize it in the pirate world in order to achieve her goals.
Johnny Depp’s rock star pirate provides the ‘colour’ of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
The rock’n’roll element of the films alludes to how ethnic Otherness can be performed in order to create an air of transgressive mystique. Here Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones appears as Jack’s father.
The urgency of the cause for pirate liberation is shown through the opening scene of a pirate hanging in At World’s End.
Alice gazes at Underland with wonder upon her return to the fantastical space ...
...where it is revealed through the Oraculum that it is her destiny to slay the jabberwocky and return the rightful ruler to the throne.
When we first meet the female protagonists of Pirates and Alice,they are clearly unhappy with their respective domestic arrangements. The camera wedges itself between Alice Kingsleigh and her mother, capturing the former’s bored expression as she travels in a carriage to attend what unbeknownst to her is her engagement party. Their opposed values are almost immediately set up when Alice tells her mother she does not agree with the clothing choices required of young women, saying furtively that she is against stockings and later commenting that a “corset is like a codfish.” After she has to dance with Hamish, the man who plans to propose to her, Alice giggles when she reveals her vision of men in dresses and ladies in trousers and then wonders what it would be like to fly. Hamish, visibly baffled by her chatter, attempts to groom Alice for her future position as passive wife by telling her that if ever in doubt about what to say then she should remain silent.
When we meet the adult Elizabeth Swann in Pirates, she is similarly preparing to attend a lavish ceremony that may double as an engagement celebration. James Norrington (Jack Davenport), about to be promoted to the rank of Commodore, is expected to honor the occasion by proposing. Although Elizabeth can see that Norrington is “a fine man, what any woman should dream of marrying,” she clearly loves the blacksmith Will Turner, a state of affairs noticed by her maid. Like Alice, Elizabeth’s entrapment is signified through the clothing she must wear for the occasion. As she changes into a corset brought back from London by her father, Elizabeth gasps and exclaims,
The corset here denies female corporeality, while Alice’s stockings work to hide her body in a manner fitting for a young woman who cannot incite the desire of one not her betrothed. Costume here works in accordance with the idealized function of white womanhood. Additionally, the oppression of women in both films is primarily linked to costume and bodily constriction. In the fantastical space, costume changes have an added significance. When women can wear trousers and thus run, jump and most importantly fight, the costume change automatically is read as empowering because it shows the protagonists have been able to transcend the bodily limitations imposed on her in the primary space.
Elizabeth and Alice both dream of being able to choose their destinies but cannot due to a patriarchal system that sees them as objects to be looked at and exchanged. They will attend the ceremony in all their finery in wait for the moment that will cement their futures as wives of high-ranking gentlemen. Nevertheless their dreams of freedom are given certain validity, a certain possibility, because the fantastical space that will liberate them in the course of the narrative is already present in their subconscious. The heroines cannot fit into the society in which they were raised not only because they find the feminine role constricting but because they are haunted by the possibility of another realm that may offer them something different.
Sigmund Freud (1917) in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia” aims to differentiate between these two states of grief by hypothesizing that while the mourner eventually overcomes his/her grief as the libido is withdrawn from the lost object, in the melancholic the libido becomes withdrawn into the ego and is not transferred to a new object. As such, the ego identifies with the lost object, the loss of the object equating to a loss in the ego. Freud observes that the typical melancholic appears self-reproaching while displaying a lack of interest in the surrounding world and an inability to love.
Therefore, Elizabeth and Alice’s melancholy state, the presence of Underland and the pirate world in the psyche, corresponds to their lack of “life,” i.e. their white death. As protagonists, they have the task to free themselves of the tyranny of the lost object by discovering its meaning. As Freud notes, people suffering from melancholy often do not know consciously what has been lost or the significance of what has been lost. The re-entry into the fantastical space marks the beginning of an urgent struggle of the ego against the intruding object. In the films, the heroines Elizabeth and Alice triumph when they conquer the object and simultaneously realize the significance of the space as integral to their liberation from the stifling white feminine position.
Complaining about Alice’s visual presentation in the film, News of the World critic Robbie Collin stated that she “is not a heroine – she looks like she’s ON heroin.” Indeed, Alice’s thin build, chalky white skin, and darkly rimmed eyes coupled with a sulky melancholy demeanor is strongly reminiscent of the 1990s “heroin chic” aesthetic popularized in the fashion world by designers such as Calvin Klein and models like Kate Moss. Tin Burton, it should be noted, frequently employs such a look in order to convey his characters’ lonely outsider status. They often appear almost as ghosts, sleepwalking in societies that demand performances from them that they cannot quite deliver.
Alice’s appearance in the film seemingly comes from her troubled sleep patterns. She cannot get a good night’s sleep because ever since she was a small child she has been plagued by the same dream. This repetitive dream is the familiar Carroll story where Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has to navigate her way through Wonderland. In making these observations of Alice here – namely that she is bored, melancholy, and reminiscent of the “heroin chic” trend – I am reminded of Angela McRobbie’s analysis of the popular fashion image. McRobbie notes that models in these images are commonly stick thin and offer a limited range of facial expressions from boredom to disdain and most often exhibit “an air of indifference and melancholia” (2009, p. 100). She states that while the fashion photograph offers a fantasy of freedom and escape from gender subordination, this is offset not only by reminders of phallic power in the image but also the exhaustion and melancholia written on the faces of the models. McRobbie hypothesizes that the object of loss in these images is feminism, which according to her must now be disavowed, with the fashion shot articulating an
Alice recognizes femininity as a performance, which is shown primarily through her disdain for typically feminine clothing. Although the clothing, like femininity, could potentially be taken on and off, nevertheless society expects Alice to embrace the fashions that everybody else does. Her engagement party is supposed to be a celebratory occasion but it also takes place as a means to ensure that she is set on the right path. Prior to Hamish’s proposal, various guests set out to scare Alice into complying with the proposal by reminding her that beauty doesn’t last and that she could end up mad and alone like her aunt. Alice perceives her performance as at odds with who she wants to be but cannot express her dissatisfaction in a way which will result in a positive outcome. So it is that Alice has an air of indifference and melancholia.
Her dreams of Wonderland however provide her with a clue as to how to go about her emancipation. Wonderland is Alice’s lost object and the source of her melancholia. It is a metaphorical symbol for feminism in that it signifies the means through which Alice can gain liberation from the stifling feminine position. However, although Wonderland exists as Alice’s subconscious, the story also fully realizes it as an exotic nation complete with its own government and cultural identity. If she uses Wonderland as a tool for feminist gains, on her journey, Alice also has a mission to fix and know the Other.
A melancholy that exhibits itself in a similar way haunts Elizabeth Swann in Pirates. The film opens with a young Elizabeth accompanying her father Captain Swann (Jonathan Pryce), Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), and Commodore Norrington on a sailing mission. While journeying, the group come across a flaming ship and rescue a young boy clinging to debris amidst the water. Elizabeth discovers that the boy, Will Turner, is wearing a pirate medallion and removes it from his possession to allow him a better chance of being taken in and cared for by her family. Although young Elizabeth professes that it “would be rather exciting to meet a pirate,” the others on board do not share her opinion, with Norrington informing her that pirates are “vile, dissolute creatures” who should all be hanged. The script immediately sets up Elizabeth as having markedly different views from most British inhabitants of Port Royal because she views pirates as exciting and interesting rather than dangerous, and because she protects Will who very likely is a pirate’s child.
We first are introduced to adult Elizabeth on the morning of Commodore Norrington’s promotion ceremony. The camera trains on her face in close up as she awakens, startled from a dream that we take to be the above scene from her past. We also discover that she keeps Will’s pirate medallion in a small drawer by her bedside and so come to know it as an object of special significance. Like Alice, Elizabeth dreams of the possibility of another world briefly encountered as a small child, and also like Alice she’s desperately unhappy performing the femininity required of her in the real world. Her brief encounter with piracy hints at the possibility of a romantic future with Will, but also of a romantic entanglement with racial otherness which could liberate her not only from oppressive gender norms but also from the oppressive whiteness that governs these norms.
A model for Elizabeth and Alice might come from the film Titanic, whose female character Rose connotes this struggle over aristocratic white femininity and its pitfalls through her corporeal presentation. Rose’s skin is porcelain, death-like, but this is offset by a mane of vibrant, unnaturally red hair. Red hair, as Amanda Third argues, operates as a powerful visual signifier in Anglo cultures. An ambivalent figure, the red-headed woman is fiery, hot-tempered and headstrong but can also be cool, calculated and cold-blooded. Red-headed women are objects of desire but are also to be treated with caution as they
However, red-headedness is also a racial signifier associated with those of Celtic origin, primarily Irishness. Third points out that the red hair of the Irish was singled out by the English as evidence of their “otherness” in the absence of a difference in skin color. It marked the Celts out as inferior and so justified colonization by the English (p. 221). Red-heads, concludes Third, are ambivalent figures not only because they threaten the boundaries of appropriate female behavior but also because they threaten colonial order.
Therefore, Rose’s hair color signifies on two levels. It represents her passionate, fiery nature which opposes imminent white death (signaled by her skin tone) brought on by the feminine role society requires she play, and it represents her connection with Irishness, the ethnic group which will aid in her liberation from oppression. Rose is not ideally feminine or ideally white. It is important to stress however that although Rose’s hair suggests she is biologically (read authentically) Irish, both Elizabeth and Alice are at the level of the body coded as “pristinely” white. They have a special connection with a magical ethnicity that eventually allows them to be accepted by another group without compromising the privileges that come from being white, a matter which I will now go on to explore.
Representing the magical world
Neither Elizabeth nor Alice enter the magical world on purpose, rather they fall into it. This fall, a metaphorical tumble from the old world’s confinement occurs in different ways albeit with a similar result. Alice, just as she did as a small child, chases a white rabbit and falls down a rabbit hole. As she plummets down, the objects around her seem to float in a way that commands her to look at and affix meaning to them. Alice herself is also defying gravity and as such has already begun, although not in an active way, to defy the clearcut rules which defined her previous existence. Elizabeth is about to receive her proposal from Commodore Norrington when the constricting corset she is wearing causes her to faint and plummet over the cliff’s edge, miraculously missing the rocks on the way down. It is noteworthy that the corset, symbol of white aristocratic femininity, has the capacity to cause death. This marks Elizabeth’s first encounter with Captain Jack Sparrow, who has to dive into the ocean to save her and who automatically knows the corset caused the problem. Elizabeth returns to Port Royal, but later she is kidnapped by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew who need her pirate medallion, which is really a piece of Aztec gold, in order to lift a curse on them.
The representation of the pirate as ethnicized other in Pirates of the Caribbean is not simple, with a clearly delineated boundary dividing them from the British Navy. In fact the meanings and stakes attached to these representations shift from film to film within the franchise. Because of their lives in the sun and poor hygiene habits that leave their skin covered in grime, the pirates are visually much darker than the Port Royal residents despite being predominantly “white.” Also, the pirates live a nomadic, rootless lifestyle that alludes to that of the Romani gypsies. Although the pirates do not have a fixed ethnicity, they are nevertheless grouped together and coded by the British in the film as Other via the mobilization of a number of familiar stereotypes. The British consider the pirates to pose both a sexual and economic threat to white civilization, a fact which Jack Sparrow displays awareness of when he informs Navy representatives of his plans to “rape, pillage and pilfer my weasly black guts out.” Although Jack knowingly reflects back at its creators their characterization of his kind, from what we see of the pirates in the first film these stereotypes hold a high degree of accuracy. They are individualistic, greedy squabblers who for the most part are unable to unite to achieve a sense of purpose. That fact along with their circulatory confusing banter works to render them harmless and ineffectual, hardly the threat the British Navy fears.
This characterization as squabbling, having a me-first mentality, and being unable to share also works to render the pirates as child-like, a way of representing the “savage” commonly employed to justify a people’s subjection to colonization. The pirate crews seem to operate at the intersection of two stereotypes that Donald Bogle found available for black males in Hollywood cinema – the coon, or buffoon, and the buck. Bogle points out that the harmless and ineffectual (simple and child-like) buffoon quelled the white fear of black males, while the brutal buck heightened and played on this fear through his representation as
In the film, the English fear of miscegenation is clearly seen when Elizabeth’s lifeless body is pulled ashore by Jack after he has saved her from drowning. Jack leans over Elizabeth to rid her of her corset, an act misread by the Royal Navy who immediately draw their swords. In fact, this scene echoes one in Titanic. Rose, attempting to commit suicide, is pulled from over the ship’s railing by Jack and as a result collapses beneath him on the deck. Rose’s scream alerts her first class companions who come running to her rescue. They misread the scene before them as a sexual attack by Jack, who according to the “old money” whites is suspect both in terms of class and implicitly in terms of ethnicity as he predominantly associates with Irish and Italian migrants (Redmond, 2004).
In Pirates of the Caribbean, much is made in the films of the pirates’ lust for the travelling white woman Elizabeth. When Captain Barbossa kidnaps her, the most buffoonish of the pirates, Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook), tell her that if she does not dine with the captain then she will have to dine with the crew naked. In another scene she stands over a grate while the pirates queue beneath attempting to see up her dress. These scenes are knowing ones, played for laughs with the pirates usually portrayed as comedic rather than menacing. Additionally, Pintel and Rigetti have an equally ridiculous mirror image pair in the Royal Navy, Murtogg (Giles New) and Mullroy (Angus Barnett). Although that pair are not lustful, they are inept and ineffectual, so that their characterization functions to question the validity of the divisions between self and Other that the Navy has worked so hard to construct.
Additionally, in the pirate world Elizabeth is revealed to be a clever strategist, brave and able to take care of herself. She becomes aware of how her society requires damsel-in-distress white femininity as a performance and thus how it has no basis in reality. Knowing that, she attempts to faint on a couple of occasions in order to attract attention away from other happenings. This distancing from the old kind of performance, now allowed by the magical world, serves to destabilize the social constructions of whiteness so adhered to in Port Royal and works to prove unfounded white male fears for her safety and preservation of virtue. It is worth noting a contrast in characterization here, for while Elizabeth can utilize her previously imposed identity in games of strategy, this is not so easy for the majority of pirates who are never allowed this gap between self and mask.
Rock’n’roll itself is highly reliant on its rhythm and blues influence and star bands like the Stones continually appropriated music from different ethnic groups in order to keep their music fresh. It was also the era of the Stones, the 60s and 70s, that saw performers begin to play with gender roles and bisexual performance. Mick Jagger, with his pouting and flamboyant stage moves, incorporated feminine bodily signifiers into his act while those involved in the glam rock movement played with androgyny through make-up, glittering costumes and lyrics that often suggested an ambiguous sexuality. Jack Sparrow, with his eyeliner, mincing walk and pouty demeanor is thoroughly queered even though the films take every opportunity to portray him as a womanizer. Sparrow then, while an ethnic threat is also of ambiguous sexuality, and all of this is mediated through the lens of rock’n’roll performance.
This rock’n’roll element is a device that elevates Jack as a “star” of the seas while perhaps operating as a distancing device in that we never know when Jack is performing and when he is not, or whose side he is on. Will and Elizabeth are intermediary characters, able to go between the English and the pirates because they hold currency in both worlds. Jack is less able to do so but differs from most of the other pirates in his self-awareness. He needs piracy in order to fuel his own image and continue his star story. As such he over performs piracy, evidenced in his telling of outlandish stories involving escape from an abandoned island on roped together sea turtles. Jack can use the negative stereotypes circulating about his kind as a source of empowerment. But he also alludes to how Otherness can be appropriated in order to create an intriguing air of transgressive mystique so integral to successful rock’n’roll celebrity.
Jack Sparrow then functions as a liminal figure in many ways. The character lends a campy, ironic and playful tone to The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that certainly does not take itself too seriously. In contrast, the third film At World’s End opens with the mass hanging of a group of pirates, including children, an indication that the stakes have been raised considerably.
The representation of the otherworldly characters in Alice in Wonderland is markedly different. The inhabitants of the fantastical space do not represent even a remote threat through their ethnicity or way of life. The realm exists as completely distinct from Alice’s world rather than intermingling with it as is the case in Pirates, but also the characters in their dependence and desperation are remarkably passive. When Alice first wanders into Wonderland she has shrunk to a fraction of her normal size and gazes at her new surroundings with “wonder.” Yet as the wise caterpillar informs her, the nation is not actually called Wonderland but rather Underland. The former term was just a word the young Alice chose to represent her feeling for the place. When Alice enters Underland, it is clear the characters have been awaiting her arrival for some time. They rush up to her excitedly and reverently, enquiring if she is in fact the real Alice. She is not a little girl who has to navigate her way through a nonsensical world but rather someone who in her absence has gained fame as a person of future great importance to the nation.
Although Wonderland is a dreamscape with some of its characters acting as doubles for people whom Alice knows in real life, it is also a country and a crumbling one at that. Burton’s Underland is a barren and unproductive third world nation whose inhabitants suffer a poor quality of life at the hands of a tyrannical dictatorial regime. It is a country where danger lurks at every turn, where inhabitants could be eaten by ferocious creatures such as the bandersnatch one day or hauled before the Red Queen’s court on trumped up charges the next. The Red Queen is much like a spoiled child, which works to constitute Underland itself as immature and in need of growth, a problem that Alice must rectify as she experiences her own personal development. Small in stature and speaking with an occasional lisp, the Red Queen spends her days playing backyard games, eating tarts and ordering things to keep her amused. “Dwink!” she calls as she leaps on to her throne. She, it is revealed, is effectively re-living out her childhood since the first time around she was neglected by her parents in favor of her more ideally beautiful sister. Her inability to free herself from the tyranny of gender norms now manifests itself in the poor social control of others.
Underland is a place without a recognizable regime of law and order, and as such it makes no sense to Alice and in turn fails its subjects. The madness of the Hatter (Johnny Depp) in this film can be directly attributed to anger and dismay at his social situation and the bloody tactics of the Red Queen. Once a happy servant of the White Queen, Hatter was forced to witness a murderous coup where the jabberwocky was employed to rid his mistress of her court and send her into hiding. As a result, Hatter spends his days holding pseudo tea parties in the woods. When Alice returns and travels on the brim of his hat, the Hatter descends into an intense monologue delivered in a Scottish accent, growling phrases like “down with the bloody big head” and “the entire world is falling to ruin.” As it transpires, Alice has arrived to slay the jabberwocky and thus return the White Queen to power, restoring law and order and a habitable environment for the creatures. This is something that the residents of Underland cannot achieve themselves and so Alice becomes the embodiment of a global super power whose knowledge of the correct ways of doing things is indispensable to an ailing nation like Underland. This story is one of feminist liberation, but Alice is only able to achieve these ends through invading and conquering Underland, a plotline strongly dependent on an invocation of colonial discourse.
Furthermore the nation’s inhabitants completely welcome this act, as it will bring only benefit to them as well as to Alice, who has no unsavory motives and only gains in terms of personal growth. Colonialism, the white promise of a civilizing and stabilizing force to the unruly untamed world, brings no pain to the fantastical space. The characters there approve of it wholeheartedly as necessary and in fact as destiny. When Alice achieves her goal, it is implied, the country could be known as Wonderland again rather than Underland, a dark, dreary and dangerous underbelly. Problematically, Alice can exercise power and might upon a smaller nation because it is her destiny, her God-given right to do so, a mythic rationale commonly given for war by larger nations intent on expanding their land and resources.