07 March 2013

Of Witches and Women

At Film.com, Elisabeth Rappe offers an essay titled “Why ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Is a Major Step Back for Witches and Women.” It builds on the questions that Aisha Harris raised in Slate last fall, but Rappe has the advantage of having actually seen the movie.

Rappe makes some mistakes in describing L. Frank Baum’s work. She says, “He wrote 17 Oz books,” though the usual enumeration is fourteen Oz novels. We can get to seventeen by adding the Little Wizard Stories of Oz collection and the allied books Sea Fairies and Sky Island, but should we then also add Baum’s other non-Oz fantasies tied into the same magical region?

More problematic, the essay later lists Trot among the series’ male heroes, and says she, Cap’n Bill, and Ojo are “one-offs, never to return.” It would strengthen the essay’s argument about the importance of Baum’s female characters to note that Trot is a little girl, and she plays a major role in four of the seventeen books listed above as well as going along on two more adventures.

Later Rappe says Susan B. Anthony was a “frequent visitor” at Baum’s house. Anthony definitely visited his mother-in-law Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house in Fayetteville, New York, but I’m not sure she dropped in on the next generation. Again, Rappe’s underlying statement that Baum wrote from within the first wave of American feminism is accurate, but unreliable details undercut the essay’s authority.

The essay states:
Baum…made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They’re princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat. Perhaps most significantly, none of the characters—not Ozma, Glinda, Betsy or Dorothy—ever engage in romantic relationships. Baum made a point of avoiding such trappings as love interests, because he believed children would find passionate romance boring, and an emotional element which they wouldn’t truly understand.
All true, except that Baum included romantic subplots in Tik-Tok of Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz. He maintained Dorothy, Ozma, and his other main heroines as preadolescent, not ready for romance. In Baum’s books, only Glinda is eligible for a love interest, and she’s not interested in men.

Which brings us to Rappe’s critique of the new movie’s storyline:
In a bitter reversal of Baum’s stories, “Great and Powerful” casts the women as the sidekicks, standing by to aid the Wizard should he need it. No longer instigators of action, the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived (“Aren’t you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” asks Theodora, voice trembling. Actually, all the female dialogue seems to be on the wobbly verge of tears). Whereas Baum’s charlatan Wizard accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process, now we have one who has a place carved out for him, and is hailed as the man “who can set things right” . . .

Yes, Michelle Williams’ Glinda is smart enough to see through our hero’s lies and bluster, but otherwise she’s completely stripped of any real agency. “Great and Powerful” corrects Baum’s grievous abstinence, and reminds us all women must fall for a handsome traveler. The modern day Wizard now wins at least 2/3 of the onscreen hearts instead of being shamed as a liar.
Again, this overstates the case a bit. Baum’s books didn’t say the Wizard “accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process.” He carved out a witch-free zone in the center of the country, built the land’s major metropolis, and maintained a peaceful prosperity for his subjects for many years. Of course, it took Dorothy and Glinda to restore the proper Ozian order, but the humbug Wizard was actually a moderate success.

That sort of slant makes me wonder if Oz the Great and Powerful really shows its Wizard succeeding so easily, or whether most of the movie is his struggle to fill the role the witches expect of him when he arrives, reforming himself in the process? Is Glinda truly “stripped of any real agency,” or is she happy to let this new arrival bumble along as she protects her own realm and bides her time? I suspect Rappe is on target about the movie, but the essay’s little errors make room for doubt.

Gili Bar-Hillel, a scholar of fantasy literature who’s seen the movie already, responded to the critiques from Rappe and others by noting that Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: “(1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.” As a Hollywood picture made by men and titled for a male character, that’s not surprising. But considering the feminist source material, it’s a missed opportunity.


ilex said...

I plan to see the movie this weekend. I expect to see a big budget movie with lots of special effects, but I don't expect to see Oz. Not my Oz, anyway.
Oz seems to have evolved into Harry Potter's Mirror of Erised where everyone sees what they want to see. Apparently Oz need to be fixed, changed, updated, reinterpreted. No one ever brags about their fidelity to the original story.
I always saw Glinda as a kind of maternal high priestess of magic, so superior she had no male equal. As a little girl, I loved Oz for its powerful female role models. Glinda didn't have diapers and PTA to juggle. She was the ultimate power behind the throne.
I'll view Great And Powerful a movie, just as I do the 1939 MGM film. It's entertaining. I'm fond of it. But it's not Oz.

Mari Ness said...

This film completely fails the Bechdel Test, yes, and has several problematic elements.

But I would certainly not say that Glinda and the other witches lack agency or power in this film. In fact, the opposite -- which unfortunately leads to the huge plot hole of why, exactly, do they need a Wizard anyway?

J. L. Bell said...

Perhaps for the same reason that fish need bicycles?

Mari said...


I wouldn't say that the film is channeling Gloria Steinhem that much :)

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read snippets of the (poorly written) OzTGAP storybook in the children's section of a Berkeley bookstore and noted one thing I don't recall from watching the movie. I know it's not rare for the books based on a script to differ slightly from the movie as released, but maybe I just missed something?

In the storybook Glinda threatens the Wizard in order to get him to stay and stage the battle against the Wickeds. In the movie I got the impression the Wizard stayed to fight because he wanted to, although in the storybook there's no discussion of where Oscar could run to. But then I don't recall any mention of the Land of Oz being cut off from the outside world by a deadly desert either.

J. L. Bell said...

Because those movie storybooks have to be printed in Asia and shipped over by slow boat, they usually go to bed before the final edit of the movies that they represent. The Golden Compass storybook included scenes at the end that never made it into the movie as released in theaters, for example. So I'm not surprised that this book might deviate from the final cut.

However, threatening strikes me as antithetical to how the relationship between Glinda and Oz ended up in the movie. Of course, that relationship is antithetical to my understanding of every previous version of those characters.