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 patriarch.
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 Girl).
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 Oz 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 home (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.