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Cross Post: “Oz the Great and Powerful” Rekindles the Notion That Women Are Wicked

Cross Post: "Oz the Great and Powerful" Rekindles the Notion That Women Are Wicked

Dorothy Gale–the girl who went to
Oz–has been called the first true feminist hero in American children’s
literature. Indeed, she was condemned by many readers, including children’s
librarians, for daring to have opinions and act on them.

My grandmother introduced me to the Oz
as a child, and I have always seen her as a real-life Dorothy
of sorts. Born in 1908, she loved travel and speaking her mind and–gasp–she preferred
to read and write poetry than do dishes and cook. As a young woman, she did not
take like a duck to the water of motherhood, and indeed seemed not to have
liked it at all. To this day, she is referred to by the wider family as “abandoning”
her two sons in favor of books and travel, though in fact her only abandonment
was that of the traditional domestic role.

My grandmother was, in some ways,
the “anti-mother” or “wicked witch” detailed so brilliantly
in Crafting the Witch: Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early
Modern England.
That book, written by California State
University at San Marcos’ associate professor of literature and writing Heidi
Breuer, explores how magical, positive female figures such as Morgan
le Fey
morphed into the Wicked Witches that now dominate depictions
of magical, powerful women–including those in the current film Oz the
Great and Powerful

The new Oz film does not
include the brave and self-reliant Dorothy, nor any other character that I
would identify as having my grandmother’s feminist spirit. The film speaks
neither to the many strong female characters that populated L. Frank Baum’s
books nor to the feminist, progressive leanings of its author.
Instead, it trades in the notion that women are indeed wicked–especially those
women not “tamed” by a male love interest or father figure, as well
as (horror of horrors!) those women who lack nurturing, motherly

In the film, Oscar
is the one who journeys to Oz, not Dorothy, and this provides
the basis for a much more traditional, or should I say regressive, story.
Rather than, as in the original Oz book, having a female save many men and
prove the male leader to be an ineffectual fraud, this time around we have an
oafish male functioning as the love interest for various characters,
transforming from ineffectual Oscar to the great and powerful Wizard and leader
of Oz.

At the outset of the film, Oscar is
a circus con-man/magician, readily admitting he is not a good man. Though he is
framed as an unscrupulous, womanizing cad, he is also depicted as truly sweet
and likeable underneath–a sort of prince disguised as a beast. When Annie
(Michelle Williams) tells him she is going to marry another man, the audience
is meant to feel for poor Oscar–because Annie is framed as his “real love.”
But by the close of the movie they are happily reunited, not as Oscar and Annie
but as Oz the Wizard and Glinda the Good Witch. (This ending, by the way, and
the romance threaded throughout the film, breaks a sacred belief of Baum’s that
romance should not be featured in children’s tales.)

Baum’s continued insistence, both in
his real life and his writing, that females are strong, capable, courageous and
intelligent–and that tolerance, understanding and courage should guide one
along life’s journey–are scuttled in favor of a movie heavy on special effects
and light on character development, let alone any feminist or progressive

In contrast, the Oz books are full
of intelligent, enterprising, courageous and self-reliant females. There are
benevolent female rulers, such as Ozma
and Lurline, as well as both good and bad witches. As
noted at Bitch Flicks,

Dorothy, Ozma and Glinda serve
significant leadership positions in Oz. Princess Ozma is the true hereditary
ruler of Oz–her position having been usurped by The Wizard. Glinda is by far
the most powerful sorceress in Oz, and both Dorothy and Ozma often defer to her
wisdom. Dorothy, of course, is the plucky orphan outsider who combines
resourcefulness and bravery.

Indeed, the books would pass the Bechdel test
with flying colors. Strong friendships between women, as well as women helping
other women (and various and sundry other creatures, men included), run through
the 14 original books. (Some current readings posit these relationships as more
than friendship, as with the queer readings of the Dorothy/Ozma relationship, but
that’s another story.) There are wicked women, but they are not wicked to the
extent they are in the film iterations, the current one included, nor are the
wicked/bad characters very powerful. In fact, the Wicked Witch of the first Oz
book fears the Cowardly Lion and the dark, and is destroyed by an angry Dorothy
with a bucket of water. Before dying she concedes, “I have been wicked in
my day, but I never thought a little girl like you would be able to melt me and
end my wicked deeds.” The Wicked Witch in Baum’s book did not have green
skin or wear an imposing outfit; instead she is a rather funny-looking figure
with one eye, three braids and a raincoat.

In Baum’s version of Oz, females
were allowed to have power and show anger without being castigated–something
rare in books from Baum’s era. Also rare were female protagonists in children’s
books, which is why, according to one scholar, “The Wizard of Oz is
now almost universally acknowledged to be the earliest truly feminist American
children’s book, because of spunky and tenacious Dorothy.” Baum’s
work even hinted at  the instability of gender–as when Ozma is first
introduced as a boy named Tip. Traditionally masculine in many respects after
her turn to female, Ozma’s gender is thus represented as not only about
physical characteristics or appearance, but as far more complicated. Quite
postmodern and queer for a children’s book from the early 1900s!

In addition to these feminist
characters and depictions of gender, the books also consistently celebrate
tolerance and diversity and maintain what Alison
Lurie calls
an “anti-colonial attitude.” This is no
coincidence; rather, as documented in the BBC’s The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The True Story
, “When L Frank Baum
wrote the Wonderful Wizard of Oz book, his choice of heroine was heavily
influenced by the battle for women’s rights.” He was married to Maud Gage,
the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, the pioneering
feminist and co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

While some still question feminism’s
influence on Baum (as here), and it is often wrongly claimed that he
and his feminist mother-in-law did not get along (as in The
Dreamer of Oz
), Baum’s faith in feminism never wavered. He
supported feminism both within his own home (Maud ran the finances and his
mother-in-law stayed with them six months out of every year) and in his
writings (not only in the Oz books but in his journalistic work). Moreover, Baum
men who did not support feminist aspirations were “selfish,
opinionated, conceited or unjust–and perhaps all four combined,” and he
argued that, “The tender husband, the considerate father, the loving
brother, will be found invariably championing the cause of women.” (One
wonders what he would make of director Sam Raimi and his decidedly un-feminist
new depiction of Oz!)

Baum’s feminist biography aside,
many aspects of the books stand on their own as fictional feminist tracts. For
example, the second book of the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, features
a fictional suffrage movement led by Jinjur, the female general of an all-girl
army (their key weapon is knitting needles). At one point, Jinjur offers the
rallying cry, “Friends, fellow-citizens and girls … we are about to begin
our great Revolt against the men of Oz!” As a New York Times‘ reviewer
quipped, it is too bad this female army “didn’t storm Disney next.”

In contrast to the consistently
anti-feminist Disney, Baum’s books can be viewed as children’s stories with
distinctly feminist and progressive messages. Given that they were akin to the Harry
books of their day in terms of popularity and sales, this is hugely
significant. Today, however, the books’ undercurrents of feminism and
progressive politics have been overshadowed by the less-feminist 1939
film, The Wizard of Oz, and the many
subsequent de-politicized adaptations.

In Oz the Great and Powerful,
perhaps the most anti-feminist adaptation, Dorothy–the plucky and powerful girl
from Kansas–is supplanted by a series of Oscar’s romantic interests, and this
focus does not shift after a mighty storm transplants us from Kansas to Oz.
There, Oscar quickly meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of the prophecy
that he is destined be the leader of Oz. However, she warns him, “You only
become king after you defeat the Wicked Witch.” Metaphorically, for men
like Oscar to achieve greatness they need to destroy powerful women. And,
significantly, in order to destroy the witch Oscar must not kill her but
destroy her wand–in other words, destroy her (phallic) power, destroy what
makes her “like a man.” (I imagine Baum turning over in his grave).

Oscar, like the audience, does not
yet know who this Wicked Witch is–a mystery that the film’s publicists went to
pains to protect before it was released. This mystery suggests any female
could be the Wicked Witch or, more broadly, that all women are or have
the potential to be wicked.

When Oscar first meets Theodora, the
audience is encouraged to view her as kind, helpful and beautiful. She, like
the women from Kansas, seems taken by his charms. In contrast, her sister
Evanora refers to Oscar as a “a weak, selfish and egotistical fibber.”
Evanora’s fury, as well as her witchy get-up, encourages the audience to think she
is the Wicked Witch. When Theodora insists Oscar is the wizard, Evanora’s
caustic response–“‘The wizard, or so he says. He may be an imposter. Sent
here to kill us”–furthers the suspicion.

Then, when Evanora says “‘Maybe
it’s you I’ve underestimated. Have you finally joined her side, sister?”
the audience is once again encouraged to question who the “her” is.
Theodora protests, “I am on no one’s side. I simply want peace. He’s a
good man,” suggesting she is not on the Wicked Witch’s side. But Evanora
retorts, “‘Deep down you are wicked!’

Theodora then throws a ball of fire
across the room, prompting the audience to once again question who the real
Wicked Witch is. The mystery continues when Oz, his monkey sidekick Finley and
the China Girl (a porcelain doll) spy a witchy-looking figure in the dark
forest. But the scary figure turns out to be Glinda, who is quickly identified
as a “good witch” not only through the ensuing dialogue but via her
blonde hair and white dress.

This delaying of the true identity
of the Wicked Witch and the suggestion that even good women can be, or at least
appear to be, wicked, goes along with the fear of female wickedness that shaped
not only the Renaissance era and its infamous witch hunts but  continues
to be a key trope in our own times. Sadly, the new film reifies messages
contained in so many stories of the witch–that females not tied to or
interested in men/family are jealous, duplicitous, vengeful and must be
destroyed (or domesticated). The good females in the film function as a
mother/daughter pair, both of whom, by film’s end, are tied to Oz as their

The film can also be read as yet
another story about how men are destined to lead while women are destined to
mother. This goes directly against the original author’s beliefs; as his
grand-daughter notes
, “He was a big supporter of women getting
out into the marketplace and men connecting with the children and spending time
at home.” In direct contrast, the film punishes female entrepreneurial
spirit and pluck and never suggests that any of Oscar’s greatness comes from
his desire to spend time at home. Instead, he is ultimately rewarded by
becoming the “great and powerful” man the title refers to, and the
female characters are either punished for refusing the maternal role (Evanora
and Theodora) or rewarded for placing primacy on family (Glinda and the China

As wonderfully put in the New
York Times
review of the film, Oz the Great and Powerful “has
such backward ideas about female characters that it makes the 1939 Wizard of
look like a suffragist classic.” While the 1939 film was decidedly
less feminist than the book on which it was based, it nevertheless was far more
feminist friendly than this current iteration.

That a book published in 1900 and a
film that came out in 1939 are each more feminist than a 2013 film is
troubling. The NPR review agrees, but then claims that what this
indicates is “that chivalry (or perhaps feminism) of the sort that Judy
Garland could count on is not only merely dead, it’s really most sincerely
dead.” Simplistic reading of chivalry aside, the suggestion that feminism
is dead has perhaps never been more wrong than it is now. Sure, we still have
our wicked witches to face (I am talking to you, Ann Coulter), but we also have
a plethora of Dorothys and Ozmas and Jinjuras—not to mention L. Frank Baums.

It is particularly disappointing
that films aimed at children and families continue to be not only un-feminist
but devoutly anti-feminist, and they do so by drawing on the
stereotypical witch figure of centuries ago–used, as Breuer puts it, to “frighten
women back into domestic roles.”

Alas, just as the 1939 film
reflected the economic realities of its time, turning Baum’s story into a call for women to return to the
(as in, “There’s no place like home”), so too does
this 2013 version speak to the current economic crisis. Times of economic
downturn are predictably accompanied by sexist backlash–a sort of knee-jerk “Let’s
blame it on the women that steal our jobs, refuse to do their duties
(mothering, cleaning, etc.) and threaten the stability of family, of church, of
the very nation.” Currently, this backlash is evident on many fronts–from
the attacks against women’s reproductive freedoms, to the vitriol aimed at
women who dare seek independence or even the right to report rape, to the
hyperfocus on romance, sexuality and appearance as the only things that truly
matter to women.

The message of the original book was
that possibilities for a liberated world of tolerance and female equality was
not merely a dream but a real place we could move to if we only had the courage
(and the heart and the brain). The message of the 1939 film was that women can
have some power, but home and family was still the best place for them
(and liberation was merely a dream caused by a bad bump on the head). The
message of Oz the Great and Powerful  is that only men can save
women and only men can save Oz; in other words, what we need to save us from
falling off the economic cliff is not Dorothy, not Glinda, not the China Girl,
but a gold-digging con man who is adept at smoke-and-mirrors politics but has
about as much substance or real conviction as, well, many of our current world
leaders. These frauds are apparently still better than any woman though–be she
good, wicked, or made of porcelain.


Natalie Wilson, PhD is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture.  Read more.

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