Oz Great and Powerful

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 books 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 characteristics.

In the film, Oscar Diggs 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 message.

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 thought 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 Potter 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.