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Fantasy: Escaping Cultural Constraints

Fantasy, by allowing the audience to escape room into their imagination, discards the boundaries that society regulates and breaks away from the tedious uniformity of day-to-day life. Fantasy allows the onlooker to be seduced into a reality where anything is possible and such constraints as gender and race are not always an issue. Fantasy characteristically takes that which is lacking in life and transforms it into something more desirable, creating it into a more attractive and superior element of ‘reality’.

The film Alice in Wonderland (1999) follows the story of a young girl, Alice, who would do anything to avoid performing in front of ‘a group of strangers,’ so she ventures away from her parents house to find ‘the perfect place to hide.’ This search leads Alice to the magical realm of Wonderland, where she discovers a beautiful garden, what follows is the adventure to find a way into the garden so she can hide until her parent’s guests leave.

Alice is given the clear impression that if she does not perform for her parent’s guests, her parents will ‘be very disappointed in her.’ This remark only makes Alice more concerned about her performance, making her feel that she is being judged only for her singing merits, not any of other characteristics.

Alice makes a statement in running away, in the hopes that it will show her parents that the pressures, or constraints, that they have placed on her are too restricting. Alice believes that it is too hare for her to keep up with the expectations and standards of others. By escaping to Wonderland, Alice is able to hide from her responsibilities to her parents, her stage fright and those who don’t seem to care about her feelings and views. Alice soon realizes that Wonderland is full of mad, crazy performers who, although listen to her views still want her to perform.

These bizarre characters have a striking resemblance to the ‘strangers’ she has been trying so hard to runaway from or take on the role of personalities from games or rhymes, such as the Queen of Hearts and White Knight or Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. These characters attempt to convince Alice that it is perfectly natural to have stage fright before a first performance, a view that is not explained to her by her music teacher, or anyone else around her, to help calm her nerves.

It is interesting to note that whenever Alice view a place she believes is more interesting and desirable, the place in question becomes brighter, more colourful and inviting. The place she is already in becomes dull, lifeless and undesirable. For example, when Alice first enters Wonderland and spies the ‘beautiful garden’ the colours are extremely brighter than that of her own home or when she first enters the realm of the White Knight the place is dull and uninviting.

This is important to take note of because while Alice believes that these brighter, more inviting places is where she really desires to be, they soon become apparent that the places are really not as desirable as she first thought because of the views and actions of the characters within them, like that of the ‘beautiful garden’ with the Queen of Hearts and her subjects. While the seemingly duller, lifeless places (like the home of White Knight) is where she meets with characters that she befriends and learns off.

In the end, Alice learns the lesson that there is no need to fear her performance as the people that love her will not care if she stumbles along the way. With this new found confidence, Alice feels that she can now perform for her parents guests – without worrying about their judging her. Alice realizes that her parents will love her whether she sings for them or not, no matter if she disappoints them or not.

The Labyrinth (1986) is another film that shows fantasy as an escape from the undesirable realities of society. The story follows a teenage girl, Sarah, who lives within a dream world of magic and legends, myths and enchantments, who is unable to comprehend some of the realities of life. Sarah believes that her parents have no respect for her or the things she holds dear, forever trapping her to baby-sit her half-brother Toby, like a maiden in a fairytale. Sarah lives with the hope and belief that the Goblin King, Jareth, will hear of her plight and save her from a reality that threatens to destroy her fragile world.

After, what she believes is another of her stepmothers’ spiteful tricks, Sarah, fed up with her crying brother, utters the words “I wish the goblins would really take you away, right now!” These words are found to be the key to getting Jareth to listen to her. The goblins and their King take the baby, Toby, away to their own realm to turn him into a goblin. Realizing that what she has done is wrong, Sarah is given thirteen hours to find her way through the nightmarish labyrinth and reach the castle within its centre to save her brother.

Whilst on her quest to solve the labyrinth, Sarah meets strange creatures that are willing to help on her journey. These creatures bear resemblance to many of Sarah’s toys that are kept within her room and even her pet dog. Along the way, Sarah discovers that the labyrinth is full of tricks and false pathways that are never the same as what they were before, for example a dead end turning into an exit. It is these falsehoods that lead Sarah to constantly complain, “It’s not fair.”

It is through her contact with her newly found friends that Sarah discovers that even when some things in life are not particularly ‘fair,’ it is the way things are. It is this new revelation that sparks a small change in Sara’s own character, which gives her a new insight into how the labyrinth can be solved. The ‘friends’ around Sarah also give her the courage to move through the labyrinth, encouraging her to move on. Half-way through her quest, Sarah finds herself back in her bedroom believing that all that has happened was just a dream, it isn’t until she looks at her closest ‘treasures’ that Sarah realizes that all she has held dear is not worth the life of her young brother.

With the newly acquired knowledge, Sarah begins to realize that the way she has been living has not been fair on those that she has been around. She becomes more determined to save her brother from the clutches of Jareth and his goblin subjects. In the final scenes Sarah discovers that she can live within her dream worlds and call upon the occupants within these realms for help, she must understand that is only what it is, a dream world not reality. It is with this realization she learns that Jareth and the other characters have “no power over her.” They cannot keep her there, or command her. This realization allows Sarah to save her brother and return to her own world, only this time with the knowledge that she can live within the constraints of the society that she once felt isolated from.

It is important that the characters from Alice in Wonderland resemble personalities from games and rhymes and the ‘strangers’ that she is running from and the characters in Labyrinth resemble Sarah’s toys. This is because it shows that these mystical worlds of Wonderland and the Goblin realm are closely related to our own world and society. It clearly shows that these dream worlds represent the society in which both Alice and Sarah live; only they have characteristics that these tow girls believe is needed for them to fit in and be accepted. Alice and Sarah quickly discover that these worlds are really not what they desired, they really just needed some reassurance that they are acceptable being themselves, not someone else.

It is clearly shown through these films that fantasy attempts to compensate for what seems to be lacking from these girls’, or what they believe is lacking. The constraints put upon them are clearly explored through their points of view and what they desire, leads to final realization that all they need is support and guidance from those around them that they are free to be themselves and have their dreams, as long as they can differentiate between their fantasies and reality.

Fantasy characteristically attempts to compensate for a lack resulting from cultural constraints. It has been seen through the examples above that although the fantasy genre is represented differently through the view of the writers of such fiction, the restraints put upon different people vary. People don’t always suffer the same hardships and problems as those around them, so people ‘escape’ to ‘realities’ that are suited to them. There are not always lessons to be learnt through these ‘escapes from reality’ but the experiences felt throughout the films, novels or any other medium tend to help those who feel that they are constricted in a stage of their life. It is the desire to experience that which we cannot always see that leads to the escape created within the fantasy genre.

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