The Muchness of a YA Heroine

Confession time. I’ve watched Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland at least a dozen times. How could you not love Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and Lewis Carroll. Ok, I know. It could’ve been another Sleepy Hollow, but it wasn’t.  Burton made one of the most iconic child literary figures into a strong YA heroine.

One of my favorite lines in the new Alice is said by the Mad Hatter when he and Alice are fleeing the Knave: “You used to be much more...’muchier.’ You've lost your muchness.” The last time the Hatter saw Alice she was a fearless child. (She was six in the original Alice in Wonderland and seven and half in Through the Looking Glass.) Now, in the Burton’s movie, Alice is 19, and she’s running away not only from the Knave but also from a marriage proposal and the prospect of a lifetime of being a bird in a gilded cage.  She denies being the right Alice. The right Alice—the one Wonderland needs—is supposed to slay the Jabberwocky on Frabjous day and defeat the big-headed Red Queen. This Alice has convinced herself that her original adventures were nothing more than a recurrent bad dream that she’s tamped down inside of her—much as she’s done with her muchness.

That’s what society expected from her.  Muchness may have been tolerated in a precocious six-year-old or even encouraged by a doting father brimming full of muchness himself. However, Victorian society expected her to smother her own curiosity and verve and wanderlust, to marry well, and pop out the next generation of lordlings. Alice couldn’t completely smother her muchness, though. That’s why she ran when Hamish proposed marriage in front of all of the upper crusty society. That, and because she saw the White Rabbit.

She followed the rabbit back down into Wonderland, back down into the scene of her childhood adventures. There, she’s once more shrunk, stretched, scratched, stuffed into a teapot, stretched and shrunk some more until she ultimately reclaims her muchness. She remembers her childhood self, that she is the right Alice, and acts to save Wonderland.   “How's *this* for muchness?” Alice cries as she lops off the head of the Jabberwocky.  She defeats the Red Queen and restores Wonderland to its own former muchness.

Alice could have stayed there in the court of the White Queen. The Hatter certainly wanted her to, but Alice knew she needed to face her real-world life. She returns to the surface, muchness still intact, to tell Hamish and everyone assembled thanks but no thanks. Everyone, that is, except her late father’s business partner, whom she convinces to do business with China. In the last scene, Alice—in a lovely Alice blue suit, perfect for adventuring—sets sail for China.

Losing or forgetting one’s muchness isn’t just a product of corseted Victorian society. The time-period lends itself to telling these kinds of tales because of how circumscribed women’s roles were in that society. (Screenwriter, Linda Wolverton, said she researched how young girls were supposed to behave in Victorian society and made Alice do just the opposite.) The corsets are gone now, and girls can grow up to be whatever they want—practically.

But, we still lose our childhood muchness some time after 12 or so, it seems. We may lose our sense of wonder, our openness to experience, and our innate belief in ourselves. I think this is what fascinates me about YA/MG literature. It’s the time when we’re expected to start growing into our roles in society. The roles may be more loosely defined now, but the definitions are still there. Women are expected to look a certain way. (Men, too, but not to the same extent.) We’re all expected to do the school-work-family thing. We may spend our teen years rebelling against and/or embracing those looming roles.  And, sometimes we lose part of ourselves.  So, we need heroines like Alice to remind us not to lose our muchness in the process of growing up. 

Who are your favorite YA/MG heroines?  And yes, I know Kirkus just put out their list of Toughest YA SF/F Heroines. It's what got me thinking about Burton's Alice again.  Do you agree with their list?  Who would you add? And does tough necessarily equal strong?


Elizabeth Holloway said...

I have to agree with much of her list.
Katsa from Graceling is my favorite. She's tough, yet vulnerable, frightening, yet terrified and she is bursting with muchness.

Mandy P.S. said...

When I was a young, my favorite heroine was Meg Murray, mostly because she was so real. Here was a girl who didn't quite fit in with life and really sort of expected everyone else to swoop in and save the day (whether that be Calvin, Charles Wallace, or her father), but in the end no one else could save the day. It had to be her. And I really connected to that, because I knew that feeling. I wanted my dad to be able to fix everything, but he couldn't. I had to.

Nowadays I have a hard time having a favorite heroine, mainly because so many books do confuse tough with strong. Most girls I know aren't "tough" but they certainly are strong women.

K.V. Briar said...

I love Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Alice was awesome!

My absolute favorite is Scarlett from Gone With the Wind. Not a YA book, but she's 16 when the book starts. She's so strong, nothing keeps her down. At times she isn't nice but I can't help but root for her. I also love Clary, Katniss, and Rose from Vampire Academy. They're all strong in different ways.

I need to read more books from that list! I really want to pick up Graceling.

Tere Kirkland said...

One of my favorites when I was little was Elionwy from the Prydain books. She may have been a princess, but she wasn't afraid to go on an adventure and get dirty.

The heroine I'm writing now is very much a Meg Murry. She thinks she's ordinary, nothing special, but she's about to embark on a huge adventure.

Thanks for linking to the list. I'll have to check it out.

Catherine Denton said...

Wow, this post is full of muchness! I would say Lucy from Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite. She believes when no one else will. And Hermione who remains true to who she is.
My Blog

Angie Smibert said...

You guys came up with some great muchier heroines. I'd also add Lyra from Golden Compass and Lina from the Ember series.

Melody said...

Great post. I completely agree.
*like* :)

Kristen said...

I would add all of Tamora Pierce's female characters, especially the one that I feel started it all - Alanna. Also I agree that Lyra from Golden Compass should join these ranks.

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' though I thought it far from his best work. But the line about 'muchness' is something I think about often.

As for my favourite character with much muchiness, it has to be Anne Shirley as, even though she grows to be accepted in society, she does it on her own terms and only when she's ready for it.

Julia @ That Hapa Chick said...

Without a doubt my favorite YA heroine is Katniss from The Hunger Games. She's tough and willing to risk it all for those she loves. She does things on her terms. And thats what I love about her. She rocks. :)