ImageSexT: A Roundtable on Lost Girls
Down the Rabbit Hole
In 1933, A. M. E. Goldschmidt published an essay called "Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed." Likening Alice's fall down the rabbit hole to the act of coitus, Goldschmidt claims that Lewis Carroll's fantasy is an unconscious distortion of the author's desire for little girls. Despite evidence that the essay was a parody of Freudian analysis rather than an earnest exercise in such, the notion that Alice gave expression to Carroll's repressed pedophilia quickly took root. At the same time, an idealized portrait of Carroll persisted alongside the pop-Freudian one. In his recent book on Lewis Carroll in literary and popular culture, Will Brooker traces the history and consequences of these two strains, the "Saint Lewis" theory (1) and the pop-Freudian one, which formed two sides of the mythic coin. "In the first discourse," writes Brooker, "Carroll is a sainted innocent, his books are joyous nonsense and Alice is his muse. In the other, Carroll is a pedophile, his books are dark allegories, and Alice is his obsession" (xv). If Brooker's scheme is, well, too schematic, it's true that the interplay of "bad" and "good" Carroll has given rise and form to a staggering number of Alice adulterations, among them pornographic films, cross-dressing websites, the Wonderland Club (a ring of child pornographers) and perhaps most famously, the video game American McGee's Alice.
Enter Lost Girls, the perverse brainchild of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. As Charles Hatfield notes in his review, comic book adulterations of Alice are a dime a dozen, but even so, Lost Girls offers provocative engagement not just with Carroll's famous text but also two other classic children's books that are also now the stuff of popular culture, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Moore and Gebbie don't so much corrupt these three classics as expose them as always already adult, through what Chris Eklund aptly calls a "magical realism of the fuck." Moore and Gebbie have great fun with their material. They rework key elements and themes to clever, often poignant effect, especially the shared preoccupation with innocence, desire and the problem of growing up. At one point they even liken pornography to "secret gardens" (III, 22:8), long a metaphor for children's books. Lost Girls succeeds not because it deviates from the originals but because it is perversely faithful to them – to their ambivalent themes and plots, to the peculiarities of their composition, and to their oft-sordid afterlives. And whereas television and film versions of Alice eschew the pedophilia thesis, as Brooker notes, Lost Girls aggressively courts it. Lost Girls capitalizes upon and in turn extends the hypercanonicity of Alice, playing up both its literary qualities and its seedier associations.
Volume 1 opens with the grown-up Alice, aka Lady Fairchild, relocating from Pretoria, South Africa, to a Swiss hotel near the Austrian border. She is soon joined there by the also grown-up but younger Dorothy, straight outta Kansas, and by one Mrs. Potter, formerly Wendy Darling. They get on famously, having sex with one another and trading stories of innocence lost, stories featuring a lively cast of characters, among them Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, and "Uncle" Henry (really Dad), as well as the Darling brothers, assorted farmhands, even a cyclone. It is the eve of WWI, and for a short while, the women are safe to frolic and dream, to reclaim the girls they once were and the polymorphous sexuality that is rightfully theirs. They find comfort in each other because their stories, so individually strange, have strong resemblances to one another. Like all such idylls, their time together comes to an end by the third volume, as war breaks out and all flee before the German advance.
Lost Girls embraces bad Carroll but leaves behind the discourse of repression, showing Carroll actually molesting Alice (so much for the shy voyeur). With this signal difference, Lost Girls continues the perversion thesis, playing off of but also against the contemporary hysteria concerning child abuse and child sexuality. Alice is psychologically wounded yet sexually empowered. Lost Girls both attests to trauma and celebrates erotic power, in keeping with contemporary sensibilities. And it's not just Carroll who's a pervert and active seducer in Lost Girls – so too is Alice. Still curious, Alice is the ringleader of the group. She initiates their sex and their storytelling. Like her namesake, she is trapped in a mirror world, and cannot escape the image so familiar yet so alienating. Everything is topsy-turvy, turned inside-out; as in Carroll's text, Alice turns "evidence" against the absurdity of the so-called real-world, in a spirit variously childlike and adult, depending upon the moment. At times she is young and simple, at times, philosophical and jaded. "Desire's a strange land one discovers as a child," she notes in the second volume, "where nothing makes the slightest sense" (II, 6: 3). Wendy and Dorothy likewise stay much in character in Lost Girls. Moore and Gebbie also pay homage to the 1939 MGM film of Oz, which has displaced Baum's novel as the original story (becoming one of the most-watched films of all time); Dorothy's time in Kansas is drawn in black and white, in sharp contrast to Technicolor Oz. Nor is this all a simple matter of faith to character and plot. Some of the stranger inventions point all the more insistently to what lies beneath: Tinkerbell, for instance, becomes Annabel, Peter's sister, and Peter and Annabel have an incestuous relationship, which underscores Peter's comic indifference to female desire in Barrie's work. If some of the allusions seem a tad crass – e.g. the chapter title "Peter Breaks Through" – well, this is an obscene as well as literary text.
But why these particular books? All three belong to the so-called "golden age" of Anglo-American children's literature, an age primarily of fantasy and adventure with at least a touch of imperialist nostalgia. Carroll's text is widely seen as ushering in a shift from didactic to more playful and imaginative writing, and Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, for all their differences, are firmly situated in that context. Certainly all three imagine an alternative to and escape from the real world. About and ostensibly for children, all three are self-evidently adult in composition and even tone; the narrator in Peter Pan mocks mothers rather nastily at one point. All three were among the first children's books to be adapted into visual mass media. Alice was in fact the first, made into a ten-minute film by Cecil Hepworth in 1903, just five years after Carroll's death. Lost Girls perhaps pays homage to the visual as well as the literary Alice and thereby positions itself as a classic or foundational text in its own right.
Meredith Collins suggests in her review that Lost Girls is "both Victorian and modern in its overall pornographic nature." The three classics that Lost Girls invokes are themselves both Victorian and modern, uneasy monuments to historical child-loving and its contemporary discontents. Lost Girls makes the most of the legacy of Carroll as child photographer and not-so-secret pervert. By contrast, the man-boy dynamics that animate Peter Pan are less central to Lost Girls. Few people today know that Barrie, too, was a photographer, and that the story of Peter Pan found first articulation in a photo book featuring the Llewellyn-Davies boys and called The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Like Carroll, Barrie told stories to win over particular children, and a discourse of pedophilia also surrounds his life and work. In Lost Girls, the character of Hook is constructed as a generic pedophile rather than a boy-lover per se, whereas in Barrie's tale, Hook is obsessed with Peter. Lost Girls doesn't introduce Barrie as a character at all (perhaps because Hook is his double?). I'm not saying that Lost Girls shies away from man-boy love – there's at least one father-son sexual encounter (part of a family orgy) – but Barrie is not the focus, and the Peter of Lost Girls is independent of Hook, and indeed much more sexually mature and assertive than Barrie's boy. One of the more interesting aspects of Lost Girls, incidentally, is the simultaneous focus on extra-familial perverts like Hook and on the various perversions of/within the bourgeois family. As the hotel manager so eloquently opines, "'I thank God for the institution of the Family, founded on nothing save for fucking and its endless consequences'" (III, 22: 7).
If this all seems rather crassly Freudian, that's because the metatextual plot of Lost Girls extends to Freud and Freudianism. Thanks to Freud, we all lost our innocence, the story goes. Moore and Gebbie pay their respects to Freud quite explicitly. After Wendy tells of her childhood encounter with Peter in Volume 1, she expresses concern that she sounds deranged, to which Alice replies "'Fiddlesticks! Why, there is a notable professor of the mind currently practising not far from here, in Vienna. He would find your image of flight perfectly acceptable and indeed appropriate. I have no doubt you are as sane as I" (I, 8: 8). "Of course," she adds, "I did spend a number of years in a sanatorium" (1, 8, 8). Alice, of course, predates Freud, whereas Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz were written in Freud's lifetime. Barrie's description of the Neverland seems rather akin to Freud's notion of the unconscious, and literary critic Jacqueline Rose has pointed to other such echoes in her study The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. The Wizard of Oz appeared the same year as The Interpretation of Dreams, and of course the 1939 film – released the year of Freud's death – turns Baum's novel into an elaborate dream-work. The popular reception and adaptation of psychoanalysis, then, helps account for the staying power of these three classics – and perhaps vice versa. It's not just that Lost Girls draws from pop-Freudianism; it is pop-Freudianism.
Peter Pan, Alice, and Dorothy now also serve as poster children for queer theory, which builds upon psychoanalysis. Writing with Alice, Peter Pan, and Alcott's Jo March in mind, Karin Quimby proposes that "the literary children who have the greatest hold on the Anglo-American imagination seem to be those whose erotic aims remain, in some fashion, ungoverned by social and gender rules" (13). In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler describes homosexuality as a land of "never-never" injunction, calling up images of Peter and the Lost Boys. The recent collection Curioser: On the Queer Lives of Children, without engaging the subject of children's literature, takes its title from Alice and features a cover illustration of Alice with butterfly wings and a spiky snail tail (is that what little girls are made of?). Lost Girls likewise calls forth the queer histories and tendencies of these classics.
In Pictures of Innocence, Anne Higonnet holds that both Romantic childhood and early photography carried with them the seeds of their own revision if not destruction. The innocent or Romantic child – an eighteenth-century invention – made possible, even demanded what she calls the Knowing Child of our own century, even as photography, which promises accuracy and fidelity, made possible and even demanded Art, or representational manipulation/distortion. Is not Alice a curious if not Knowing Child, whose desire for entertaining pictures leads to her plunge down the rabbit hole? "'[A]nd what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations.'" What indeed?
The graphic novel is at once a contradiction in terms and a redundancy, insofar as the novel is both allied with and removed from the merely or crudely explicit. Historically, the novel was pornography's double (associated with freethinking, democratic access, and voyeuristic pleasure), but has since been made more respectable. While the graphic novel is ostensibly more literary than the comic (in terms of both subject material and specifics of circulation and consumption), a pornographic specter lingers, as perhaps with most image-texts, which makes the graphic novel one of our most compelling forms, one that often takes up the subject of taste and "'brow" negotiation. An accomplished example of the genre, Lost Girls moves at once toward the pornographic and toward the literary, echoing more highbrow forms of pornography (erotica) and engaging the productive tensions in yet another unsettling (if not impossible) genre, children's literature. If Lewis Carroll were alive today he might well prefer the graphic novel to more traditional forms of narrative, even if he would find Lost Girls shocking. Certainly there are links between his decidedly visual imagination and adaptations such as Lost Girls.
Hatfield asserts that the book "ends up just barely skirting a kind of middlebrow earnestness" in its affirmation of both the imagination and sexuality. I agree, and found myself more bored than titillated in the long run. Even so, Lost Girls will likely enjoy literary-academic prestige and be of particular interest to scholars of children's literature as well as comics (as Hatfield also predicts). Lost Girls partakes of a Knowing tradition of childhood and its forms, not so much an adulteration of children's literature but rather an evolved genre of such. I hasten to add that it isn't "for" children exactly, but neither is much of what passes for children's literature, and in any case, what's "for" children isn't so self-evident. The "I know it when I see it" approach is too often taken with children's literature as well as pornography, and at the very least, Lost Girls forces us to look twice.
Brooker, Will. Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Bruhm, Steven, and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curioser: On the Queer Lives of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Goldschmidt, A. M. E. "Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analysed." In R. Phillips, ed., Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen Through the Critics' Looking-Glasses. New York: Vintage, 1971. 280-1.
Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Quimby, Karin. "The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10.1 (2003): 1-22.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.