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  • Writer's pictureSusannah Powers Stengel

Magic Male Gaze Rabbit Hole

Good Trouble with Alice on Syfy’s The Magicians


RAVE/RANT

Spoilers For: I casually sift through the entire book/television series.

And for my next trick: I wrestle opposites.

Bookish, buxom, bitchy, badass, callous, loving Alice, played by Olivia Taylor Dudley.

Image Credit: Flickr


Spells. Drugs. Boobs. Pain.


The Magicians, a punchy, epic genre-bender based on Lev Grossman’s fantasy trilogy by the same name, came to a splashy conclusion this April on Syfy. After five seasons, several demonic possessions, a major death, and a dozen re-couplings, my initial resistance (as a diehard purist lover of the books) crumbled. I wondered at the dynamic supernatural structure of The Magicians universe (lovingly adapted by Sera Gamble and John McNamara) and grew to fall head over heels for all but one member of its vibrant ensemble cast. And yet, however charming I found the show, I still bristled, even in its final moments, with a simple question about one of the series’ main characters--do I hate Alice? I offer this article to you as a Magicians micro exploration of the failed macro feminism inside of my twisted heart.


Why do I, self-proclaimed "intersectional feminist with a massive heart", always decide to find the Alices of the world so goddamn annoying on screen?

Played in nimble layers but often, entirely without finesse, by the busty, cerebral Olivia Taylor Dudley, Alice is a high-achieving, high anxiety spell caster with a natural talent and a history of trauma. As I consumed the books in my early twenties, I adored Alice’s intrinsic intelligence and even her many emotional roadblocks. The book series kills Alice at the end of book one of three (well, mostly kills her), but Syfy’s Alice only dies for about a half a season. Therefore, Dudley was handed an unreasonably tricky task--give birth to the version of Alice who got to keep on living.


Turns out, that Alice sucks. She's whiny and destructively selfish (like when she destroys the seven keys at the end of Season 3 because she decides that she alone should be in charge of the decision to end magic forever). Alice withholds. Alice mutters rude side jabs. Alice resists loving Quentin. Alice regrets loving Quentin. Alice blames Quentin for loving her. Alice judges. Alice slut shames. Alice fails to recognize her own arrogance.


Olivia Taylor Dudley (especially in seasons 1-3) is all furrowed brow, a consternated expression that leaves her looking constipated and perennially confused--an awkward outcome for the girl who should be the smartest in the class. When Dudley isn’t overacting with her stultified eyebrows, she is overreacting with her sharp, jutting chin, arching it aggressively forward as she walks and talks. An aggro-submissive overacting aftertaste lingers in her wake.


Alice in the books is not a bombshell. She is little, quick, nerdy, captivating. And so, when this Magicians book lover first saw Syfy’s Alice, the only thought that came to mind (in an oppressive internal avalanche of emotion) was . . . BOOBS. Boobs. Boobs. Boobs. Throughout the entire series, Olivia Taylor Dudley’s incredible rack was hidden beneath entirely Alice-appropriate sweater sets, cardigans, and t-shirts. And yet, AND YET, her ta-tas followed me everywhere. Entrancing. Beautiful. I found myself unable to look away, and I found my love for boobs fighting and awkwardly fusing with my inability to fully appreciate Olivia Taylor Dudley’s work as Alice. Horrible feminist failures abounded inside myself. A horny gaze (granted to me subliminally and consistently through my own learned misogyny in a patriarchal world) sized up Dudley’s bounty. A distracted harumph resulted when I felt Alice’s performance of insecurity was at odds with Dudley’s biological, audaciously beautiful reality.


Why do I love boobs so much? Why do they get in the way of my ability to see and understand media and character clearly? The Double Gaze Double Bind is the worst magic trick of them all.

As a girl who has lost and gained weight throughout my life, my boobs have come and gone and come and gone again. I have Doubled D’ed, C’ed, and now rest happily at a juicy B. But am I happy? Does looking at women in media who have so much more, and so much more obviously, stir up my demented self-hatred made manifest in internalized bombshell bashing? The short answer is duh. Yes. Absolutely it does.


When you love a character in a book, you might think you own them, insomuch as your inner interpretive lens gives birth to them in your own mind. This adaptational prison we build for our favorite written heroes often traps and confines these characters. Horny, judgmental, and missing a few pounds of my own dieted-away boob meat, I imprisoned Olivia Taylor Dudley to my vision of Alice. And I call myself one of the good guys. But dammit, I love to prove myself wrong. The bookish, vitriolic lens I brought to the Syfy table fractured again and again, and finally, it shattered. By seasons 4 and 5, I found my snarky attitudinizing about Alice had largely muted itself. I found little treasures in her voice’s pitchy rhythms. I saw way less of a reliance on forehead and jawline acting. I came to see, in her character’s grief over the loss of Quentin in season 5, a vulnerable, aching nucleus to Dudley’s Alice. An emotive engine--awkward, ambitious, never done failing, trying, and failing again. A new Alice.


I did hate Alice. And I loved her. Olivia Taylor Dudley, well done. You built a bomb inside of an unexpected bombshell.


Now, everybody, go (re)watch The Magicians.


Image Credit:


Tell us about your favorite Magicians character below. Also a safe magic space to rant about your own interpretive lens failures.

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