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I held out on watching the television show Once Upon a Time for quite some time. I read a couple of fairytale blogs and they talked about it a lot, but it felt a bit too silly for my tastes. And indeed, there are a lot of aspects to this show that make me wince, most of all the writing surrounding the beat-you-over-the-head theme of “true love solves all”. It’s more than a little saccharine at times. The special effects feel outdated, and the acting is largely mediocre.
However. Three things kept me interested. First was the excellent Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin (especially when he was being his most evil, he is delicious, although to my dismay it seemed his Scottish accent weakened a little over the course of the season). Second was the intertwining of this-world and other-world, which resonates with me personally. And third was the reason I finally decided to sit down and give it a chance in the first place: it seemed like it might be a Girls Underground story. And I think it is.
Emma Swan, abandoned as a baby and alone as an adult, is one day approached by the son she gave up for adoption years ago. He tells her that she is the only person who can break a curse over his entire town, one originally set in place by his adoptive mother, who is in reality an evil queen of a magical world – a world where every person in the town comes from, although none of them remember. Of course Emma doesn’t believe any of this (although we know it is true, and are given frequent flashbacks to that otherworld to see how this all came to be), but she brings the child – Henry – home and quickly becomes entangled in the local community.
Emma’s primary goal is to rescue Henry from his adoptive mother (even though she doesn’t believe in the fairytale story, the woman is still clearly a bad person), which is a common plotline for adult Girls Underground. She has companions in this, friends she makes in the town (one of whom betrays her, as often happens). The adversary – the evil queen/mayor – has her own minions, townsfolk who are in her pocket and help her try to defeat Emma. (There is also a secondary evil character, Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, who has hidden motives of his own. He owns a pawn shop that functions nicely as the GU “junk shop” archetype.) However, the most important goal is to break the curse on the town, for which Emma will have to believe in the fairytale reality, and that takes a lot of work.
Interestingly, at the end of the first season, when it all comes to a head, Emma ends up working with her adversary, when the wicked queen’s apple poisons not Emma but Henry. Saving him simultaneously breaks the curse, and temporarily defeats the queen. It also gives Emma certain knowledge of the otherworld and their shared history, revealing her to truly be what Henry claimed all along – the savior of the whole fairytale world.
What happens next remains to be seen.
As I mentioned in my original Wizard of Oz post, the Tin Man tv miniseries is more than just a film version of the story, and really deserves its own post. It takes the basic characters and ideas of the story and makes something fresh and new that is nonetheless still a Girls Underground example.
The girl Dorothy from the books has become a young woman, DG, who lives with her parents in Kansas but feels out of place, and frequently dreams of a mysterious woman who warns her that a storm is coming. When the storm carries her to a strange land, she eventually realizes that it matches the place her parents always reminisced about, and it is in fact the land of her birth, where she truly belongs. But her parents are not her true parents, so for a period she is adrift like a typical orphaned Girl Underground.
DG quickly acquires companions – the muddled-brained Glitch (scarecrow), former lawman Cain (tin man), and empathic Raw (lion). Together with them, she seeks her true mother (the woman in her dreams), but faces resistance from the adversary, the sorceress Azkadellia (the wicked witch) and her minions. She makes the typical GU visit back “home,” albeit an illusory one (making it also an instance of the “forgetting herself” trope), and also consults the wizard, who has forgotten himself quite some time ago.
Things get interesting when DG’s real identity is revealed, as well as her relationship with her adversary and the history behind Azkadellia’s descent into madness. DG must tap into her own hidden powers, and the heritage of her family (descended from the original Dorothy Gale), to rescue the woman who has become her adversary and thereby also save the land. At least in this version, she doesn’t go back to Kansas in the end!
“Does it ever bother you, Amy, that your life doesn’t make any sense?”
“Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.”
While the whole series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (let’s forget the original movie for now, since the television show is so much better) could be seen as an extended Girls Underground plot, I think the first season in particular exemplifies it best.
Buffy is 16 when she moves to the Hellmouth (a gateway to demon dimensions that exists – where else – underground, beneath the city of Sunnydale). Her mother is distant due to Buffy’s violent past in her previous school, and her father is absent entirely. She soon meets two companions, Willow and Xander, as well as her guide and Watcher, Giles. Together they battle the forces of darkness, led initially by the Master, an ancient vampire hoping to open the gates of the Hellmouth, and his many vampire minions. Buffy faces her adversary alone and is even initially killed, but is revived and eventually victorious.
Later seasons follow similar patterns, with a new adversary each time. An important element of the show is that Buffy is destined to be the Slayer; she is special and must save the world again and again.
In addition to all the varied and interesting Alice in Wonderland movies, Alice has shown up in many television shows over the years.
One of the most famous is the “Shore Leave” episode of the original Star Trek, where the crew lands on a planet and starts seeing things that come from their own minds, and I guess one of them has Alice on the brain:
Would love to hear about more of these, as I’m sure there are many.
Alright, this one may seem a bit silly, but it fits. In Season Two of Punky Brewster, originally aired in 1985, there was a bizarre two-part Halloween episode called “The Perils of Punky.” (You can usually find this broken up into several parts on Youtube.)
While you don’t have to be familiar with the tv show to appreciate the episode for its Girls Underground qualities, it does help to know that Punky is an orphan (like many other protagonists) and that she has three regular companions/friends, plus her dog (again, in keeping with the archetype).
In this episode, Punky and her friends go on a camping trip. Her dog Brandon chases a rabbit away and they follow, eventually getting lost and coming to a cave. As they explore the cave (underground!), her friends begin to disappear, one by one, and she must rescue them, and fight the Spirit that is her adversary (whose minions include a giant spider with glowing red eyes that gave me nightmares as a kid). She is also helped by a spirit guide who is the ghost of an Indian princess (please ignore the terrible representation of Native Americans, it was an 80′s children’s program after all), who just happens to also look exactly like Punky. In the end, she defeats the evil spirit with love and goodness – which may seem overly sappy, but actually shows up in a number of Girls Underground stories.
This episode was bizarrely disturbing and dark and stuck with me over the years, which is why I remembered it when thinking of potential Girls Underground examples. When I watched it again, the things that scared me as a child didn’t seem so bad anymore, but instead other elements became much more noticeable, like the scene where she finds her friends dismembered and embedded into the rock of the cave, all still alive. Truly horrifying in a way that only kids programs seem to accomplish.
`Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
When I mention the Girls Underground concept to people, they often immediately make the connection with Alice in Wonderland. This book and its sequel, over 100 years old, are probably the most widely-known examples of the storyline. And yet, in some ways it does not precisely fit the plot points, falling somewhere between the earlier fairytale examples and modern fiction and film. (Although, interestingly, Lewis Carroll’s first version of the story was actually called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, emphasizing the journey down the rabbit hole.)
Alice is seven years old, pretty much the youngest age on the spectrum. Her parents do not come into play in the story at all, and her sister doesn’t watch her closely enough to keep her from following the white rabbit into the otherworld on a whim. While aided (and thwarted, harrassed, threatened, etc.) by various creatures along her way, Alice doesn’t really have any companions as such, which is a key element of the Girls Underground archetype. She is pretty starkly alone in that world. And while there is an adversary (female, as is usually the case in young-protagonist versions), it is not the main tension of the story. Rather, the focus is on Alice’s journey and all the strange things and beings she encounters.
However, there are several important plot points present: She spends time forgetting herself in the wood of forgotten names, as well as having drug-like experiences with the cakes and mushroom which make her change size and lead to a tenuous grip on reality and her own self-awareness. She has a showdown with the Red Queen, revealing that all of her court are merely a pack of cards. There is the episode in the sheep shop, which echoes many “junk store” vignettes from other examples. And in the second book, she becomes greater than she once was, a queen of that world.
I think, however, what fascinates me most about the Alice stories (and I am quite the fan) is what has happened since Carroll wrote them, how they have captured people’s imaginations in so many varied ways. Some people seem to see them as quaint, silly stories, while others note the drug imagery and darkness hinted at throughout. This is most explicit when looking at the myriad film and television versions of Alice that have been produced in the past century (a list of those I’ve seen, with comments, can be found here). Everything from cartoons to stop-motion animation to live action to opera to stage theatre to even a porno can be found in the Alice genre, ranging from dark and terrifying to light family-oriented entertainment. Personally, I prefer the darker versions, but that may say more about me than it does about Alice.
Each year, I celebrate all of these films and many other manifestations of the Alice books with a holiday I created called Alice Days. With thematic decorations, food, costumes, intoxicants, music, movies, games and activities, it is a surreal and terribly fun event that has only gotten better with time. I encourage others to pick this up and tailor it to their own view of Alice.
Alice is indeed a literal girl underground, descending into the earth in pursuit of the white rabbit and finding much more than she bargained for. Little fazes her. She accepts the strangeness she finds and enjoys it. Which may sometimes be the only way to deal with such a journey.
Some interesting Alice books:
Alice’s Journey Beyond the Moon by R.J. Carter
The Art of Alice in Wonderland by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel
The Annotated Alice edited by Martin Gardner
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Pop-Up by Robert Sabuda
Wonderland by Tommy Kovac
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Greg Hildebrandt
All Things Alice by Linda Sunshine
Lewis Carroll in Wonderland by Stephanie Lovett Stoffel