Tiny and Strange: Reinterpreting Alice

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Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”

In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.

Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.

Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.

This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.

In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.

Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

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I became a vegetarian when I was 14 years old for a variety of reasons, not all of them necessarily admirable or based on ethics. I was concerned for animal welfare but vegetarianism was also an easier way of hiding my brief and painful eating disorder from my parents and friends, a way to assert my 14-year-old self into a particular brand of neo-hippie fashion, and a way to manufacture an identity at a time when I wanted to stand out and be heard. Also, somewhere deep down inside me, beneath the ornament and artifice, I truly felt that eating animals was wrong.

I returned to meat when I was in college, partially because vegetarianism had suddenly gone out of fashion, replaced with higher protein diets that emphasized the importance of meat, and partially as a means of overcoming my obsession with monitoring and controlling the amount of food I ate. I am more important than a chicken or a cow, I told myself and slowly but surely weaned myself back to enjoying the pleasure of food I had once forsaken. Relearning to eat meat, for me, was an exercise in self empowerment- not self empowerment the way that many books and TV shows in America advertise or market it as a product, but empowerment in the truest sense. This was about survival. If Darwin was right and only the fittest are meant to survive on this planet, then I was going to be the fittest. I relished the feeling of eating meat, of enjoying my place in the food chain (high up there). It was a good decision. I grew healthier and stronger, and I vowed to never look back. On Yom Kippur, whem my entire family was fasting, I refused. I didn’t want to fixate and focus on my eating, even in the name of God or self reflection. In my mind, this kind of reflection, of consideration for my body’s wants and needs, was sentimental and weak, a reflection of a struggle between and among myself, my belief system and the world at large, and I had emerged the victor.

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us to do just this kind of reflection. Many reviews of Eating Animals focus on the more practical concerns and issues that Foer raises about factory farming-how our farm animals are overcrowded, over medicated and sick and the implications of this for us, the people eating the animals. For Foer, these issues are important in that they reinforce the urgency with which we must recognize the horrors of factory farming, while showing us that there is nothing natural about the process of eating meat today at all.

While Foer’s patient and inventive way of chronicling the way eating factory-farmed meat impacts us is educational, there is nothing necessarily new about this knowledge that you couldn’t find in any number of mainstream books and magazines advocating a vegetarian lifestyle. It is also not his main argument. To Foer, our ideal method for reevaluating the way we view the food we eat is through the lens of compassion. At the start of his book, Foer insists that “A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing but that is not what I have written here.” and he is right. Eating Animals is, in many ways, a book about reflection and that means asking questions, rather than always providing answers.

The question that ultimately propels this book is whether or not in today’s world, eating meat is necessary and natural, and why we, as powerful and compassionate creatures, aware of suffering, continue to allow it. Foer acknowledges that there are many potential answers to this question, not all of which include vegetarianism. He admires the few (too few in fact) family farms, that still exist in the US, and leaves himself open to the possibility that a more humane manner of raising meat is possible. For someone who presents such a thorough and devastating account of the worst of human food production, Foer is an optimist. He believes that individual choices matter and that we have the power to make these choices daily. The decision to eat or not eat factory farmed meat (which is 99% of the meat available in supermarkets in the US today) is a moral one. He says, “It might sound naïve to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.”

It is precisely these kind of sentiments that make Eating Animals polarizing, and, in some ways controversial. The world is full of too many problems, some readers and critics say, and animals are not important enough to be first on the agenda for moral thought and reflection. But Foer is not asserting that we should abandon all other causes in the interest of adopting a lifestyle which includes humane treatment for animals, merely that we extend that kind of thought to them.

It is a reasonable argument, and it’s a wonder that many take personal offense to the suggestion that the way we are eating is wrong. In contrast to theorists like Peter Singer, who make the accusatory arguement that the way we treat animals is a form of “speciesism,” Foer provides, for readers who choose to contemplate these issues, a remarkably gentle assault of information. He agrees that the food we eat, including meat, is more than just sustenance, a concept he explores by explaining the way his Grandmother, a woman who survived Nazi Europe, obsesses about food. “Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love.”

Eating Animals is a sensitive and brave book and as such will always be met by certain criticisms reserved for things which are sensitive and brave. People will argue that the text is interesting, but naive and idealistic, which is true I think, only if you believe that most people are not sensitive and brave. Foer, however, is optimistic, urging the importance of stories themselves, but also, and more importantly, the retelling of stories, the tremendous power and privilege of being human, of reflecting on the past and being willing to change and make ourselves better people in the future.

Not everyone will share this type of introspection. Many of us haven’t spent periods of our life thinking about the food we eat, where it comes from and why we eat it and for those people, the effectiveness on this text will hinge on how effectively Foer is able to demonstrate the importance of thinking about the meat industry at all. For me, Eating Animals was an opportunity to re investigate two of my earliest convictions – the decision to stop eating meat and the decision to start again. Whatever I decide to do next will be entirely the same, and also an entirely different story.