When I was five years old, my family gathered around the T.V. on a snowy Sunday night and watched a special presentation of The Wizard of Oz. Shortly thereafter, I picked up L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  and was hooked. I read every Oz book that I could find at the public library. Nearly twenty years later, I picked up The Wonderful Wizard of Oz again and found a subtle depth which I did not expect, especially through the feminist lens. Both the book and the film are well-suited for a feminist critique because of Dorothy, the female heroine, and other important female characters. While Baum’s novel presents a relatively progressive view of women, the 1939 MGM adaptation of the book portrays women as weak and best suited for domestic life through the weakening of Dorothy as a character, the emphasis of Dorothy’s desire to get home, the dream motif, and the elimination of important female characters.
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The Wizard of Oz is one of the most important cultural texts of the twentieth century. “MGM’s movie was an instant hit: and, afterward, thanks to annual prime time television showings, more people have seen it than any other motion picture ever made” (McClelland 13). The Library of Congress even included The Wizard of Oz with 24 other films that it declared to be “national treasures” (Rahn 109). Even with the immense popularity, the film was not met with universal critical acclaim when it was released. Raylyn Moore documents that many critics gave the film scathing reviews. She adds her own assessment: “Throughout, the production seesaws alarmingly between the sentimental and the grotesque, the very pitfalls Baum so scrupulously avoided in his first Oz book” (Moor 90). Like the film, Baum’s novel has received its fair share of criticism. Suzanne Rahn chronicles the history of the books reception throughout the century following its publishing.
Most people wouldn’t hesitate to call [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] a classic of American children’s literature. Yet if a children’s classic can be defined as a book that is admired by critics and loved by children, then [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] belongs in a peculiar category of its own. Enthusiastically received by the first reviewers, the Oz books fell into such disfavor with children’s librarians 30 years later that they were systematically purged from library collections. [. . .] Then, in the 1970s, the pendulum swung again. The last 20 years have seen a renewed acceptance and appreciation of the Oz books, accompanied by critical analyses from the full gamut of perspectives-political, economic, spiritual, feminist, and psychological. The MGM film version of The Wizard, too, has received careful study and increasing respect. Yet reservations are still expressed; while no one today would deny the cultural importance of The Wizard, its quality as literature remains somewhat in doubt. (12)
As Rahn illustrates, even works that have dubious literary merit often merit scholarly analysis. Arguably, the diversity of critical perspectives applied to the study of the text and film in the scholarly community speak to the value of the works as art forms. Regardless of any particular reader’s or viewer’s personal response to the film or the text, both have shown sufficient cultural influence to deserve closer scrutiny.
Both the novel and the film lend themselves extremely well to a feminist examination of the texts. While it may seem odd to apply feminist theory to children’s literature, gender issues are often blatantly represented. As Lizbeth Goodman writes, If we take a [. . .] look at some of the most popular children’s story books, we can quickly see that gender inequalities are represented there” (16). Goodman also notes that our first experiences with language often come through the medium of children’s books and that these books can have a powerful impact on how we conceptualize the world around us (16). Additionally, the life of Frank Baum strongly suggests the appropriateness of a feminist reading. Baum was a vigorous political supporter of the women’s suffrage movement (Dighe 6). His wife also came from a family of women’s rights activists. Her mother even wrote a book about the history of the suffrage movement (Moore 50). It is apparent in Baum’s Oz books that he consciously deals with gender roles. Baum’s sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a blatant satire of certain strands of the women’s suffrage movement (Huebel 35). S.J. Sackett “examines [Oz’s] value system and detail and sees there respect for individual freedom and nonconformity, the absence of militarism, equality of the sexes, [etc.]” (Rahn 20). But perhaps the most compelling reason to look at feminism in both the book and the film is the preeminence of female characters (Moore 119).
While both the novel and the film have many of the same important female characters, the film systematically portrays a more oppressive and sexist vision of women than Baum does in the original text. This is evidenced, most obviously, through the portrayal of Dorothy. In the novel, Dorothy is portrayed as a very strong, brave, resourceful six-year-old. Moore gives the following description:
To the Wizard’s thundering “I am Oz the Great and Terrible . . ,” she firmly replies, “I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek . . ,” but she is not really meek any more than the Wizard is really terrible. Faced with getting back home to Kansas, she sets about it with implacable determination. And when the Wizard makes it a condition of his helping her that she destroy the second witch, she sets out immediately to do it, even though she does not want to destroy anyone or anything. (154)
Dorothy is also very independent. She meets adults like the Good Witch of the North and the Munchkins who cannot help her, but she continues on her journey. In the book, it is her idea to wear the shoes (silver, not ruby-red) as she travels because she figures that they do not run the risk of wearing out (Rahn 58-59). Additionally, Rahn illustrates how Dorothy serves as an Everyman for children to follow:
[. . .] Dorothy is not merely an Everyman but a model for children to emulate. [. . .] She is sensible, friendly, helpful, brave without being foolhardy, deeply attached to her friends and family, and resolute in pursuing her goals. She does not change dramatically in the course of the journey, for this is not the course of someone who badly needs to change (like Bilbo in The Hobbit or Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden) but a story of self discovery, in which Dorothy comes to realize her own potential by the journey’s end. In this interpretation, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion represent not only the friends we all need to help us on our way but also the qualities Baum felt were most essential for the traveler-qualities that Dorothy is to find within herself. (57)
Dorothy is the true heroine in the novel. She is the one who holds the band of travelers together. She is a very strong female character throughout the text, notwithstanding periodic moments of weakness.
In the MGM adaptation, however, Dorothy is portrayed as a weaker character with moments of strength. Arthur Freed, who worked on the film, had a lot to say in the conscientious decision to weaken Dorothy’s character. Michael Hearn writes in his introduction to the screenplay:
But the chief weakness so far, according to Freed, was the lack of “a solid and dramatic drive of Dorothy’s adventures and purposes that will keep the audience rooting for her” throughout her trip to Oz. Freed [. . .] demanded that Dorothy have a deep-rooted psychological need back home that would justify her actions in Oz. [. . .] There she is motivated by her generosity to help everyone first before her little orphan heart cries out for what she wants most of all (the love of Aunt Em)-“which represents to her the love of a mother she never knew.” [. . .] Consequently Dorothy in the film became far more weepy than Baum’s practical, determined girl from Kansas. (12)
Judy Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy is considerably more helpless than Baum’s character. In the film, Dorothy is held a helpless prisoner by the Wicked Witch of the West. She can do nothing for herself until her male friends, the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Woodman come to save her as she sobs. When Dorothy defeats the witch, it is because she accidentally douses her with water while trying to splash Scarecrow. The book portrays a much stronger and proactive heroine. Baum has the Scarecrow helplessly scattered across the land, the Tin Woodman dashed to the bottom of a rocky ravine, and the Lion helplessly harnessed in her courtyard. Dorothy engineers her own escape by purposefully throwing water onto the witch. While Dorothy did not know this would kill the witch, her subsequent actions show her as a brave heroine. Moore helps to interpret Dorothy’s actions.
In a struggle over Dorothy’s magic shoes, of which the wicked sorceress knows the worth while Dorothy does not, [. . .] that water is spilled over the girl’s enemy, who is at the time also her captress. The witch promptly melts away “Like Brown sugar before her very eyes.”
But practical, self-reliant Dorothy is not one to waste time in pointless hysteria. “. . . The Witch fell down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth and put it on her foot again.” (154)
Dorothy then proceeds to free the Lion and orchestrate the rescue of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman (109-111). Dorothy is unequivocally the hero in Baum’s novel.
Additionally, Dorothy is further weakened as the dominant female character in the film by her exaggerated desire to return home. While the book contains this same motivation and even includes the phrase, “There’s no place like home,” this becomes a dominant motif in the movie. As Harmetz explains:
Dorothy’s urgent desire to get home was a part of L. Frank Baum’s book. (Understandably, since in the book, unlike the movie, the cyclone that picked her up was not fulfilling any wish on her part.) But the movie, by design, inscribed that theme with a hatchet. “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” was a truism and a moral lesson on which L.B. Mayer, Mervyn LeRoy, and Arthur Freed wholeheartedly agreed. (298)
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Because the movie purposefully portrays Dorothy as trying to escape her Kansas farm, her insistence that she return home as soon as possible sends an even stronger message: women leaving the home is a mistake, and while it may lead to colorful adventures, women are happiest when they are at home. This message is hammered in at the end of the film when Glinda explains to Dorothy why she didn’t tell her about the shoes at the beginning. “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.” At this point, the Tin Man asks, “What have you learned, Dorothy?” Dorothy’s response is revealing. “Well, I . . .think that it . . . that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em . . . and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?” Glinda replies, “That’s all it is” (Hearn 128). The reason that Glinda didn’t help Dorothy in the first place is because Dorothy didn’t yet understand that her place is in the home. The film sends the clear message that true happiness for women lies in the domestic realm. Baum in his books, however, creates a place for Dorothy both in Kansas and in repeated visits to the Land of Oz. Additionally, the good witch at the beginning of the book doesn’t tell Dorothy about the charm of the shoes because she, herself, does not realize the charm; she does not intend to teach Dorothy a lesson.
The biggest change made in the film adaptation from the book also serves to entrench this anti-feminist mindset. In the book, Dorothy’s trip to Oz is very real. The house is actually carried away. When Dorothy returns, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are surprised to see her. They have already built the new farm house to replace the old one (154). This realness of Dorothy’s experience in a different world is what makes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a fantasy. The film effectively eliminates the elements of fantasy from their text, changing the fantastical experience, instead, to a psychological dream. The writers reasoned that, “you cannot put fantastic people in strange places in front of an audience unless they have seen them as human beings first” (Harmetz cit. in Rahn 124). This decision invalidates Dorothy’s entire experience in Oz. Rahn describes the critical response, saying:
Most critics-and nearly every child who sees the movie-agree that the worst mistake was to explain away Dorothy’s adventures and Oz itself as a dream. “As art,” says Harmetz, “The movie is flawed by its sentimentality, by its cheerful insistence that ‘east, west, home is best,’ and by the decision to void Dorothy’s experience by making it into a dream” (229). [. . .] Whatever the film may have suggested about the power of dreams and aspirations, the journey through life, or the discovery of one’s own potential is effectively invalidated by this ending. (124)
In a sense, Dorothy’s journey and watered down accomplishments become a counterfeit. The viewer has no reason to believe that Dorothy could survive outside of Kansas in the real world.
Additionally, the dream viewed as an expression of Dorothy’s psyche presents an even more damning view to the potential of women to be strong and solve their problems. Nathanson suggests that a psychoanalytic approach is appropriate in dealing with The Wizard of Oz. “It seems clear that The Wizard’s dream sequence can be interpreted psychoanalytically in terms of growing up” (78). When we look at the dream from this perspective, it is clear that the central conflict shifts from Oz in Baum’s novel to Kansas in the film. Dorothy is not really struggling against witches, flying monkeys, and an incompetent wizard. She is struggling against Mrs. Gulch who wants to take her dog and her desire to escape the dreariness of the Kansas farm. Hence, fight for her independence and the fight for Toto become the two main conflicts in the film. In regards to the first, her dream serves to convince her to stay at home in the domestic role prepared for her by Aunt Em who even tries to keep her from coming near the pig pen, let alone the outside world. In her struggle with Mrs. Gulch, Dorothy’s victory is fleeting. While the movie ends with Dorothy in possession of Toto, Mrs. Gulch still has the sheriff’s order and legal recourse to have Toto put to sleep. In this sense, Dorothy’s subconscious desire to stay in the domestic confines of the farm is so great that she sacrifices her love for Toto. Where Dorothy is unquestionably victorious in the book and gains strength and wisdom, the film’s portrayal of her experience as a dream leaves her “the ideal woman”: a more submissive, ineffectual version of herself.
Finally, the film’s elimination of important female characters from the book devalues the contributions of women in Oz. In the book, there are initially four witches: two good and two bad. The movie condenses the characters of the two good witches into one good witch Glinda. In the book, there is a queen of the mice who plays a critical role in helping the travelers achieve their goals. She is completely omitted from the film. Finally, there is a female stork who rescues Scarecrow from a river. Dighe contends that the stork is symbolic for Baum’s support of the women’s suffrage movement (74). While the elimination of these important female characters arguably gives the film needed directionality, it severely limits the number of major female characters, shifting the balance of power towards the men in the film. The three remaining female main characters all paint an anti-feminist picture. Dorothy, as discussed, is a weakened heroine who sacrifices her dreams and battles for domestic life. The Wicked Witch of the West is the only female character who is powerful in the movie and in the real world of Kansas. Ironically, she is portrayed as the stereotypical strong woman: unnatural and evil. Glinda, the one good witch, is the only major character who does not represent an actual person from Kansas. The implication is that women who are powerful and good are imaginary; they do not exist in reality.
While the popularity of The Wizard of Oz both in text and film amongst readers and viewers of all ages is almost uncontested, the quality of each of works of art remains debatable. It is clear, however, that gender issues permeate both the novel and the film. While L. Frank Baum’s book is not the model of feminist equality judged by modern standards, it portrays a world in which good and powerful women exist and where determined and resourceful little girls can accomplish extraordinary things. He illustrates that there is a place for women in both the world of the home and in the world outside the home, just as there are for men. Even though the film was released 39 years after the publication of the novel, its adaptation represents a regressive approach to gender equality through its portrayal of Dorothy, its glorification of domestic life for women, its representation of Oz as a dream, and its elimination of key women from the novel. Which raises the question: why, in our society, so “progressive” concerning gender and gender roles, are we still so drawn to MGM’s backward film?
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