26 March 2013

Gender Politics in the Latest Oz

I’ve noted a couple of feminist critiques of Oz the Great and Powerful, one from Aisha Harris based on early previews and another from Elisabeth Rappe based on seeing the whole movie. I thought those critics made good points about the irony of taking L. Frank Baum’s fairyland, where little girls overthrow humbug rulers and the most powerful person is a sorceress, and pulling out a story all about a man.

But I wasn’t convinced that the main female characters in the new movie—the three witches Theodora, Evanora, and Glinda—really went gaga over the humbug Oz. And did even Glinda lack all “agency,” or independent thought and action? Having now seen Oz the Great and Powerful, I think those critiques were a little overblown. But in the main they’re sound analyses of how the Hollywood moviemakers adapted Baum’s mythos to mainstream storytelling expectations.

From the start, much of this project’s attraction for producer Joe Roth was the man at its center, as he told Jim Hill: “During the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios, I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You’ve got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by.”

In fact, as the recent Jack and the Beanstalk movie shows, there are many fairy tales about young men, and adapting those for the big screen is no guarantee of box-office success. Still, Hollywood producers believe, and with some reason, that the key to an international blockbuster that can pay for a production budget of well over $100 million is to bring in lots of male moviegoers, and for that it helps to have a male protagonist.

Once the moviemakers put the man called Oz at the center of their tale, his desires and character development defined their plot, according to the tight storytelling approach that Hollywood usually uses. Other characters, male and female, work around him, talk about him, and react to his actions and desires. In that respect Oz the Great and Powerful is no different from Lincoln.

Within the fiction of Oz the Great and Powerful, the inhabitants of Oz are in the grips of a religious belief. Their king with magical powers has been killed, and they eagerly await his return or the arrival of his successor, also with magical powers, to put everything right. Folks who grew up in western civilization shouldn’t have a hard time recognizing the durability of this way of thinking. That milieu explains why, as Rappe says, “the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at [Oz’s] arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived.”

But of the three witches, only Theodora turns out to really believe in Oz’s magic and his amorous hints. Evanora pretends to share her sister’s faith, but views it and Oz as threats to her own power. Glinda is also happy to harness the popular belief in Oz to her own, more beneficent ends. So it’s inaccurate to say that all three witches, or even most of them, fall for Oz’s appeal. Two of the three quickly recognize him as a humbug.

I wasn’t surprised to find that Glinda sees through Oz but recognizes his potential to benefit the oppressed people. I was surprised, however, by the very late scene in the movie of Oz and Glinda sharing an amorous kiss. There’s no precedent for that in Baum’s novels or in the new movie’s real source material, the 1939 MGM film. It doesn’t seem to fit Glinda’s character even in this movie up until that point.

But evidently the moviemakers felt that a romantic pairing was necessary for a happy ending. Perhaps that’s because Oz’s seductions were an important element of the preceding plot, so that thread needed to be knotted off. But was it thought impossible for Glinda to have led on the foolish man, turn him aside, and yet remain Good? I’d have preferred Oz to realize that  Glinda had pushed him into growing as a man but he still had a way to go before he could win her, if ever.

TOMORROW: A strong female character?

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

Glinda in a romantic kiss? Ick. And besides, Glinda does not need romance, she is complete in herself. (I have a legal article at home about copyright issues concerning evolving established characters, but really, Glinda is not a character who requires evolving. She's already evolved.)