Mar 24, 2013

Thoughts, Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful has been out for two weeks now, and the mediocre reviews have been rolling in that whole time, so I’m not going to pile on. I would, however, like to talk about the sexism in this film, because boy oh boy is this a sexist, mediocre retelling (pre-telling?) of a beloved children’s classic.

The main human characters in Oz fall into one of two categories: witches and wizards, the determining characteristic being what they’ve got going on in their bikini areas. Women are witches, men are wizards, and that’s about all you need to know. (And the helpful flying monkeys come with bellhop uniforms because, as we've already discussed, people with jobs are not people at all.)   

Witches are further divided into two categories: good and wicked. Wicked witches are physically unattractive (except when they’re tricking you into thinking they’re not) sexually aggressive, and manipulative as hell. They show their cleavage, put their hair up, and sometimes wear pants. Oh, and even though they are shown to be capable of running an entire country, they will destroy said country if they can’t get a man to marry them.*

Good witches, on the other hand, are pretty and chaste. They do not wear pants or show cleavage, and their (blonde) hair is always tumbling down around their (fully covered) shoulders. They, too, are capable of running entire nations, but they dream of the day when they can hand such responsibilities over to a man.

And that is the plot of Oz the Great and Powerful. Three very powerful women, who have presumably all been trained since birth to run the land of Oz (they are the daughters of the original wizard) and have actually been doing so for quite some time, sit around waiting for a man to come take things over.

And let’s talk about that man. He has a penis and is therefore a wizard, even though his only magic is his ability to deceive people. But where that same trait has put Rachel Weisz squarely in the ‘wicked’ category, it makes James Franco loveable and conflicted. There is even a scene where he must pass through a magic barrier that filters out the impure of heart. There is some wobbling, even a moment when we think he won’t make it, but ultimately he slips through because, like most people, he has both goodness and wickedness in him.

Most male people, I mean. Women have to pick a side.

There are a few non-witchy women in the film. One is made of porcelain and cries in every scene. The others sew and have no lines other than, “we can sew.” For real, every other woman in the land of Oz is either –very literally – a fragile doll, or is shown seated at a sewing machine. There is a class of peasants known as Tinkers, the people who build the steampunk contraptions that give the wizard his powers, but the Tinkers are men, every last one of them. Because if a woman were to look at a set of blueprints, she’d just see a confusing mess of jumbled lines and dancing numbers.
What makes this adaptation even stranger is the fact that L. Frank Baum was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, and his work is filled with feminist themes. (He was also a vocal supporter of the wholesale extermination of the Native Americans, but nobody’s perfect.) There are discussions in the Oz books of gender equality, episodes about the unfairness of considering household chores to be “women’s work,” capable female leaders who are not witches, and a central female protagonist who goes around saving her male friends. It’s one thing for the latent misogyny of fairytales to persist in modern tellings; it’s another thing entirely to shoehorn those ideas into an adaptation a feminist (for its day) text.

To be fair to the filmmakers here, most of Baum’s pro-equality themes did not make it into to the 1939 film adaptation, which many might consider the true source material. But The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and it has been reimagined and transformed by its share of storytellers. I don’t think you can argue that, in the same year that Wicked will celebrate  its 10th anniversary on Broadway, the makers of Oz the Great and Powerful had to be particularly beholden to Judy Garland.

*Wickedness is also, apparently, a side effect of eating cursed apples. About which, let me just say: ugh. Yes, we are a culture whose most prominent creation myth involves a sentient phallic symbol tricking a woman into committing the sin of learning. That does not mean we have to keep putting lazy references to that myth in all of our movies.

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