Alice, Peter, and Dorothy: Fantasies of Equity
Inclusive Fantasy Worlds
Alice, Peter, and Dorothy draws inspiration from three classic children’s books: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (British, 1865), J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (British, 1911), and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (American, 1900). For centuries, fantasy has embraced disability in ways the realist world lacks. All “portal fantasies.” these three books model matter-of-fact acceptance. Falling down a rabbit hole, flying out a nursery window, and whirling in a cyclone, three capable, sensible girls land in realms where short-statured or brittle citizens govern themselves, neurodivergent boys chase adventures, and, as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy accept curious creatures, outrageous nonsense, and extravagant bodily transformations without surprise, the way we do in dreams and early childhood. Although Dorothy’s Oz friends think they each have a piece missing and long to replace it, she says simply, “I have always liked you as you were.” In Peter Pan, Neverland is not only a place but a map of a child’s mind and, as such, a fundamentally neurodivergent country. J.M. Barrie imagines doctors mapping brains: “catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”
The dancers of Alice, Peter, and Dorothy begin by literally tracing the maps of Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz on the floor, inviting the audience into these alternate worlds of thought. “Perspectives,” the second chapter of the dance, evokes Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass with mirroring and reversals of movement. The nondisabled world often acts as if people with disabilities were alien, misfortunate Others. Here, by contrast, wheelchair and standing performers are the same—or as Lewis Carroll would say, “much of a muchness.” It is only a matter of time before a standing dancer starts falling, caught and held by a wheeling companion, both subject to the laws of time and gravity that govern all beings. “Curious Creatures” also plays with sameness, blending the mad March Hare of Wonderland with the already-hybrid winged monkeys of Oz, then melding three beings into one creature. (Perhaps it is a muchness.)
In “The Cyclone,” dancers lift each other up, reflecting the emergency mutual aid of disability communities. The group of friends traversing Oz becomes a mutual aid society: each supplies what the other lacks. The Scarecrow needs a hand to keep from stumbling. Dorothy oils the Tin Woodman’s joints to prevent rust. When Dorothy succumbs to the narcotic sleep of the poppies, the immune Scarecrow and Tin Man make a chair of their hands and carry her out of danger. Whirling through “The Cyclone,” dancers with and without wheelchairs take turns flying on each other’s feet. Full Radius artistic director and choreographer Douglas Scott calls this reciprocity “physical equity.” Alice, Peter, and Dorothy reaches into classic fantasy lands to perform the acceptance, interdependence, and kinship across lines of ability and disability we would find in a fully integrated world.
Identifying With the Villain
Granted, fantasy stories also read evil into disabilities. For instance, villains’ lacking body parts become terrifying weapons. The Wicked Witch of the West uses her lone eye as a powerful telescope to hunt down her victims, and Captain Hook’s pirates sing a sea chantey honoring his fearsome iron prosthetic:
Avast, belay, when I appear,
By fear they’re overtook;
Naught’s left upon your bones when you
Have shaken claws with Hook.
Whether it is the extra curve of a nose or spine, a prosthetic, or an unfamiliar height, fantasy has hijacked the physical features of disabilities. The general public gawks at people with those characteristics as if they were fearsome fairytale creatures instead of ordinary humans trying to buy coffee or find a parking place. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “The sight of living people with unusual bodies invites us to remap fantastic stories of giants, dwarfs, and monsters onto those people. People who look like dwarfs, giants, and monsters draw stares because they are unfamiliar as flesh and too familiar as narrative.” Fantasy mental maps can colonize the meanings of disability, or alternatively, invent liberated zones.
Despite the need to separate fantasy’s approprations of disability from our literal disabled lives, we also need to see ourselves in stories. What have marginalized people done throughout time when narratives reflect them back only in grotesque, distorted forms? They identify with the villains. The witch and the pirate transgress boundaries of gender and bodymind diversity to unearth new possibilities.
The Wicked Witch of the West looks in Dorothy’s eyes and glimpses her innocent soul: “So the Wicked Witch laughed to herself, and thought, ‘I can still make her my slave, for she does not know how to use her power.” Witches flout the rules of feminine decency. The witch of European folklore is the flipped mirror image and opposite of a good housewife: her magic pollutes the household order and transgresses the boundaries of the home. Often depicted as ugly and aging, she serves as jealous foil to the lovely and innocent young heroine. The narrator of Alice, Peter, and Dorothy reminds us, however, that the witches are the only ones with real power in the land of Oz: not the humbug Wizard. Oz witches use their power for either bad or good; some want to harm the heroine, and some want to help her. L. Frank Baum’s wonder at the power and capability of women and girls echoes his support of the feminists in his own family. “The Witches of Oz,” Chapter 4 of Alice, Peter, and Dorothy, flips the mirror image of witches back to the beauty and inherent rightness of women’s power. The three dancers embody grace and order, flowing together in elegant groupings like the classical Three Graces.
Peter Pan’s nemesis Captain Hook crosses gender borders, too. “In his dark nature there was a touch of the feminine, as in all the great pirates, and it sometimes gave him intuitions.” Legends of pirate queerness go back centuries in Britain, as evidenced by the Sebastian-loving captain Antonio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (c. 1601). Hook is the prototype for generations of Disney villains: the classic British fop. He wears the long black curls and sumptuous satin and lace favored by 17th century King Charles II. His upper-class airs and graces include “the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing,” his prowess on the harpsichord, and his worry about the rules of good form in battle learned at gentlemen’s boarding school. The 2022 television series Our Flag Means Death brings pirate queerness up from the subtext into nonbinary characters and same-sex kisses. Pirate captain Stede Bonnet is Captain Hook with fluffier ruffles and shinier coats and queer desires out of the closet.
Mermaids and Misfitting
Disability depends on context: if your environment fits you, you can belong and live well, impairments and all. If not, you misfit.  The real-world psychological states dubbed Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and Peter Pan Syndrome are disabilities of misfitting. In Neverland, Peter Pan is the fearless commander-in-chief. In London, Peter is a developmentally delayed misfit who can’t tell truth from make-believe. Alice keeps finding herself too large or too small for Wonderland spaces. Attempting to exit the rabbit hole through a door fifteen inches high, she cries, “Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope!” Although she consumes an array of potions and substances in efforts to shrink or grow, she always seems to be the wrong size.
Mermaids are creatures of fitting and misfitting. Like their fellow aquatic mammals such as seals, sea lions, and walruses, mermaids move awkwardly on land but fluidly in the ocean. As many people with physical disabilities know, water is a great equalizer, lifting the burden of gravity. A mermaid may long to trade in her flippers for legs and feet so she can walk on land, as Ariel sings with pining internalized ableism in “Part of Your World” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Or mermaids can bask in their undersea abilities, as they do in Chapter 6 of Alice, Peter, and Dorothy, “The Mermaids’ Lagoon.” Although the dancers remain on the dry boards of the stage, they use their legs and feet like flippers. Green and blue lights submerge them underwater, while yellow spotlights penetrate the water’s surface here and there like rays of sun. The music ripples, and echoes like whale song. Freed from land, the mermaids spin, float, flip, roll, somersault, and swim languidly. Peter Pan’s description of the mermaids’ lagoon is extraordinarily lovely. “The bubbles of many colours made in rainbow water they treat as balls, hitting them gaily from one to another with their tails, and trying to keep them in the rainbow till they burst.” Using horizontal dancing to convey undersea frolics, Douglas Scott’s choreography has kinships with the floordancing of performance artist Petra Kuppers, who choreographs in water as well. In Kuppers’ and Neil Marcus’s book Cripple Poetics: A Love Story, a mobility-impaired couple erases the line between air and water to dance in realms where disabled love and movement gracefully fit.
The air in this place is heavy…like water
We glide and float
For our otter bodies
You and I twirl in this ether of darkness and light.
Bubbles of Freedom in Fantasy Worlds
“How do you know I’m mad?” Alice asks the Cheshire Cat. He replies, “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.” Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz all make sense according to their own internal illogical logics. Each fantasy world is a rainbow bubble of acceptance. Alice, Peter, and Dorothy ends with the dancers swinging in lyrical circles. May the rainbow never burst.
DR. ELIZABETH A. WHEELER, LITERARY CONSULTANT
PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND DISABILITY STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
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________________________, Staring: How We Look. Oxford, 2009.
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 Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Interpretations. Routledge, 1996, 97-8.
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 Barrie, 61.
 Barrie, 61.
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 David Jenkins, creator. Our Flag Means Death. HBO Max, 2022.
 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Misfitting: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept.” Hypatia 26.3 (Summer 2011): 591-609, 597.
 Barrie, 76.
 Carroll, 11.
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 Barrie, 92.
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 Bure featuring Ruth B., “Neverland.” In My Feelings, 2018.