So, I don’t do this as often as I used to, but this one has really given me some food for thought. Eug and I went to see Oz: The Great and Powerful on Friday night. And while overall, I liked it, and thought it was a well-made movie, there were a few things about it that distressed me.
Elizabeth Rappe over at Jezebel already wrote quite a lovely article about this already, but I feel like while she set up the history and talked about Baum’s own political leanings, there’s a lot of individual points about this new movie itself that don’t find their way into her piece. Which is good: she’s working with a very specific thesis.
The short version: Baum was very much a feminist, his stories all focused on strong female characters and gender identity in a way that we would probably find revolutionary even today. Oz: The Great and Powerful ignores all of that to make a movie about a man coming into his own in typical hero’s journey fashion, in a quest that requires him to overpower women who are much more powerful than he is. It’s like the Grendel’s Mother of twee fantasy, here. The scariest monsters are always ladies, gentlemen.
I mean, now I’m getting off the trajectory of Ms. Rappe’s argument, but that’s fine. That was my point here.
So, let’s talk about OZ. And let’s talk about OZ in the context of modern children’s fantasy.
Modern children are more susceptible to gender-specific entertainment than children of the past.
Yup. I said it. We hear over and over again that little boys have difficulty identifying with female protagonists in books and movies– and even many adult men do. Little girls can read books with boy heroes, but little boys get bored reading about girls. Bookstores and publishers package books for children by gender. Disney itself has effectively split into two franchises: with Pixar making movies about cars and toy cowboys, and Disney making movies about princesses.
But that’s nothing new. We KNOW that’s how things are now. But the pathetic thing is that we’re supposed to be moving forward, and yet– when Baum was writing, in the early 1900s, his books that largely focused on heroines about a world largely ruled by women, were considered a huge critical and popular success across gender lines. No one questioned whether boys should read these books, or whether they would be bored because the main character was a girl (or transformed into a girl over the course of the story). I’ve seen lots of contemporary criticism of the Oz books, but never anything saying that boys wouldn’t read them because Dorothy or Ozma were girls.
The makers of Oz: The Great and Powerful cited excitement over finding a “fairy tale” with a male protagonist. I don’t fault them for this– I’ve heard little boys talk about their dismay over this very “problem.” It’s something that’s being demanded, and something we’ve socialized ourselves to believe is necessary. But it does point to a troubling evolution in what we (Americans in general) believe a children’s story should be, or believe our children need.
But even in that, the idea of a story about the Wizard piqued my interest. The Wizard, in the Oz books, is a fantastic character, and to be completely fair, James Franco does a phenomenal job in the movie, bringing that character to life as a young man. He’s inept, bumbling, a compulsive liar who preys on women. He can’t get himself out of even the smallest scrape. And yet, like in the books, we see that he genuinely means well– he’s just, well, not very good at it, and his mendacious nature often gets the best of him. He uses the same old tricks over and over again, even when he’s seen them fail.
That part of the movie, I loved. Great character, and certainly a character I enjoyed seeing learn and grow and try so very hard to come into his own in spite his own insecurities. He’s very much the kind of male character that frequently crops up in the Oz books, and in that regard is very faithful to the original.
(I feel it’s necessary to mention as an aside here that in spite of this one significant failure, I thought Oz: The Great and Powerful much more effectively reveled in the spirit of OZ and really understood the world from which the stories came than Wicked, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the absolute worst “reimaginings” of any fantasy world ever made. But I’m not talking about Wicked. Talking about Wicked would take several weeks.)
And for the most part, the makers of this movie got the world spot-on, and somehow were able to magically and seamlessly combine the nature of the original, book-based universe with the world created for the 1939 movie in a way that really impressed me. The introduction of the Munchkins, when Glinda is rallying her “troops,” is one of the best examples of this: are they the Munchkins from the books, or the Munchkins from the movie? Answer: a little of both. In a way that works. There’s some of the darkness that we’re used to from the books, and that made Return to Oz so perfectly chilling, but not so much that it overshadows the whimsy the way it does in Return to Oz. You can tell that the people who made this actually read the books. You can tell that they care about them.
But, somehow, within that, they missed a couple really crucial memos. And they’re things that would have troubled me in any movie, but are particularly troubling in the context of OZ.
So, we all know how OZ works when Dorothy arrives. You’ve got Glinda, and the two unnamed Wickeds. The Wizard has control of the Emerald City. If you’re a reader of the books, you know that the last member of the royal family has vanished and that Glinda has been searching for her. If you’ve only seen the movie, this doesn’t matter too much. All you need to know is that there are four rulers: three witches, and one wizard, and each control a certain piece of the map.
And these witches are POWERFUL. They’re so powerful that the Munchkins have been living in terror of East for a very long time. West has enslaved the Winkie Guards and the Monkeys. And for whatever reason, while Glinda and the Wizard have kept their own people safe, they haven’t done anything to remove the Wickeds themselves. (We eventually find out that the Wizard isn’t doing it because he’s, well, not a wizard. But there are loads of theories and questions as to why Glinda doesn’t, when she’s the most powerful witch of all. This movie actually comes up with a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why no one has killed the Wickeds: good citizens of Oz can’t kill.)
One other thing that I liked about this movie is that it actually sets up Wickedness as a state of being. It’s like a sickness– West is literally poisoned into Wickedness– and one of the reasons I appreciate this is that it removes the question of a moral dichotomy that is always so tricky in fairy tales and so many other stories for children. Pure evil is a tough thing to run with: we all know that the vast majority of people aren’t actually pure evil, so dealing with a villain who is is always a bit problematic. And in the case of OZ, trying to explain West’s Wickedness is probably the biggest failing of Wicked, because Gregory Maguire just doesn’t even bother– he just changes the facts, which is something I can’t get behind in an adaptation. If a character enslaves other characters, you can’t just decide that she didn’t enslave them for the purposes of your retelling. You’ve gotta come up with an explanation for why, if you want people to sympathize with her. So, for me, the idea that Wickedness is a state of broken-ness in Oz, is an absolutely fine and dandy quick and simple way to deal with a sticky question for the purposes of a two hour movie.
The place where I start to have problems with this is just how West arrives at this state of Wickedness. Because that’s where the movie doesn’t show much respect for the power and self-suffficiency of the women of Oz.
The Wizard meets West in the woods when he first arrives in Oz. And she is a fresh, young, confused little girl who has no experience with men. I actually liked this– it worked, in the same way Miranda works in The Tempest. It could have continued to work. The Wizard takes advantage of her very very stereotypical doe-eyed innocence while not entirely realizing that she is taking advantage of him in a way, too.
At this point, it’s still working for me. Although I do want to point out that Baum was adamantly opposed to romantic plots in Oz. And if my memory of being a child is correct, then I very much agree with his reasoning: kids get bored of romantic plots. In the words of Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, “They’re kissing again. Do we have to read the kissing parts?”
If you’re making a movie for adults, then, cool, keep the kissing parts. Whatever. But if you’re making a move for adults, don’t try to couch your choice to make a movie about Oz that is All About A Male Lead’s Personal Voyage of Discovery in any explanation about making a film for young boys. Protip: young boys don’t want to watch kissing parts. Especially not when the kissing parts become the crux of the entire plot.
Oh, yeah, they do.
So, let’s take a world ruled by women who have powers beyond your imagination. What’s going to reduce them to flesh-burning tears and an urge to destroy their lives? A doofy guy pretending to have magic powers, you say? Oh, right, that’ll do it. Especially a doofy guy they met yesterday. Because women, any women, no matter how powerful they are, are completely incapable of reason in the face of love. Err. Infatuation. That has taken place over the course of a DAY.
Do I need to say the part about A DAY again? Because I will. A day is this thing, it is twenty-four hours long. I have not even seen the most boy-crazy preteen fall into this kind of romantic woe over a boy she met a day ago. To see a bright, talented idealistic young woman (who, admittedly has some insecurities) become this utterly beside herself over a man she’s known for the space of twenty-four hours honestly made me feel a bit insulted as a woman. I was once a teenager with horrible crushes. I do not ever remember behaving this badly– or even feeling this badly– over someone I’d known for the space of a day. To believe that a single dance, a couple of kisses, a music box, and twenty-four hours in someone’s acquaintance might be the catalyst to transform someone from being an insecure but genuinely kind-hearted person to a literal embodiment of wickedness takes a LOT of suspension of disbelief. And it’s not really a suspension of disbelief that I’m comfortable with, because of what it says about young women.
East I could be more on board with. She’s manipulative and wants to rule Oz. She sort of reminds me of an Ozian Claudius: she poisons the previous Wizard and then pins it on Glinda (the previous Wizard’s daughter…okay, I know this is a major departure from real Ozian mythos, but it’s one of those “for the purposes of a movieverse” things that I’m willing to let slide). Her ambition, manipulation of her own sister– they’re all perfectly acceptable traits for villains of any gender. Does she let the Wizard think that she’s also in love with him? Sure. Does she do the same to her sister? Sure. But, hey, if you met this guy, I suspect the best way to handle him is to let him think you’re in love with him, regardless of what gender you are.
So, for the purposes of plot, I’m cool with East. Not so cool with the whole “oh I lost my power and losing my power also makes me ugly” bit that happens to her at the end, because of COURSE feminine power is tied to beauty, but that’s a tiny nitpick, and hey, they couldn’t seem to make up their minds over whether beauty is tied to feminine power or to goodness. Woe. Women are so complicated.
And then there’s Glinda. Glinda is one of those amazing characters, in Oz, you know the ones, the one who has pretty much limitless power and often acts as a deus ex machina but also is a fascinating character in her own right? That’s Glinda.
This Glinda has a lot in common with that Glinda. Personality-wise, she is very much on target. She goes into hiding rather than confronting East when East takes over the kingdom. It turns out the bubbles she flies around in are just for show. She is extraordinarily powerful yet reluctant to use it to harm anyone. She immediately sees through the Wizard’s ruse.
But she’s also his love interest? This smacks of one of those “man is rewarded with love of woman who is way out of his league for learning how to be an almost-halfway-decent human being” plots that show up in romantic comedies. And it definitely doesn’t belong in Oz. This one takes a leap I’m really not willing to try to figure out or forgive. In the first place, we never see any sort of suggestion of a romance between these characters in any canonical manifestation of Oz. Glinda is Glinda the Good. She’s eons older, incredibly powerful, and even in this movie universe, sees through the Wizard so completely that it simply doesn’t seem believable that she’d fall for him. The human manifestation of goodness in the universe doesn’t do romantic love for a specific individual– she’s full of unconditional love for everyone. I suppose that it’s also too easy to read Glinda as a sexless mother figure, so I’m glad they didn’t go in that direction with her, but honestly, Glinda’s too busy being a sorceress and doesn’t need some dude who can’t get his act together.
I would have been a lot more forgiving of that movie if they’d just left out the kissing at the end. It seemed so forced and perfunctory, to say “oh, I need a present for Glinda…”
YEAH, I CAN TELL YOU YOU’RE NOT A GOOD ENOUGH PRESENT, WIZARD.
Mirrored from Antagonia.net.