Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Part 2: Characters, Delight, and Imperialism

Brains, Heart, and Courage

Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion all have the same problem. They think they need something they already possess. Scarecrow insists he needs brains even though he's resourceful and shows common sense throughout the story. Tin Woodman says he doesn't have emotions, yet he is always crying. Seriously, he cries all the time, especially when Cowardly Lion says he is going to hunt down an animal for his dinner. Cowardly Lion supposedly has no courage, but we see he does when he protects Dorothy from the Winkies before being captured by flying monkeys.

When the Wizard gives Scarecrow what he asks for, it gets embarrassing. First he removes the straw from Scarecrow's head, then fills it with bran, and needles and pins. It's a big contrast from the MGM film where you feel like Scarecrow really did get a good deal from the Wizard when he gets the diploma. The illustration of Scarecrow with needles bulging out of his head creeped me out. I felt like something horrible happened to a childhood friend.

Tin Woodman and Lion's meetings with the Wizard are cuter. The Wizard cuts a hole in Tin Woodman's chest, and hangs a heart made of silk stuffed with sawdust inside. He instructs Lion to drink a green liquid that will become courage once it is inside him because "courage is always inside one." It's a cute lesson for kids, and, honestly, it was a good reminder for me.

I wonder why Baum didn't have them discover they had been the people they wanted to be all along. They've already discovered the Wizard is a fraud, yet insist he must still have the power to give them brains, heart, and courage. Baum might have just done it for comedy and symmetry (they had already each met with the Wizard individually when he told them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West).

Dorothy

Dorothy is not the selfless, sympathetic character she is in the movie. She rarely encourages her friends, and at one point narrates that she doesn't care whether or not her friends receive help from Oz so long as she gets to go home.

"...she decided if she could only get back to Kansas and Aunt Em it did not matter so much whether the Woodman had no brains and the Scarecrow no heart, or each got what he wanted."
~Chapter 5, The Rescue of the Tin Woodman

She has a child's blunt manner. In an earlier chapter when Scarecrow does not understand her desire to leave beautiful Oz for gray Kansas. Dorothy replies, "That is because you have no brains." You can see her disdain coming through in the accompanying illustration.


The original bitchface. This image makes me laugh every time I see it. Dorothy just looks like she's thinking, Ugh, Scarecrow you are so DUMB.

Dorothy is an odd main character for a book written to please children. In the movie, Dorothy expresses desire to escape somewhere over the rainbow, but realizes her mistake. In the book, she never talks about leaving Kansas, and wants to return as soon as she arrives in Oz. Neither the book nor the movie allow Dorothy to enjoy being in a magical land, telling us we are wrong to entertain our fantasies.

This problem isn't limited to Oz. Many portal fantasies literature television and even video games feature characters who want to go home as soon as they discover a land of magic even when they are tormented in the real world. Characters who want to stay in the fantasy worlds are often corrupted.

Dorothy is so focused on getting home she never explores the power she might have in Oz. I wouldn't want her to explore how she could rule the Munchkins if she chose, but it does show she has a one track mind. Though she is not a foretold Chosen One, Dorothy is still a foreign savior the people of Munchkinland praise and accept.

In her essay "Surrender (to) Dorothy: Imperialism and the subaltern of Oz of past, present, and future" Leow Hui Min Annabeth writes:

Baum's Wizard contains many tropes of the colonialist narrative. Dorothy, the young Kansas girl lifted by a tornado into the fantastical land of Oz, is the explorer/interloper, mapping territories that are "new" only insofar as they are new to her, yet permanently redefining the environment with her impression upon the local politics and culture. The simple minded citizens of Oz both require and celebrate the interference of Dorothy and her companions, imploring her to free them from the reign of their native rulers, and delighting in the eventual death-by-house of the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy's intrusion upon Oz is portrayed as ultimately desirable so much so that by the end of the story, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion have all been made its kings.

~Bitch Magazine, Issue 53, p. 36

As Leow says, the citizens of Oz require Dorothy's intrusion. Without it, they would have remained under the power of the witch, never trying to find their own way out of her grip. This is a common trope in stories that other people of color and native people. The people in need of a white savior are too peaceful to fight back, making it their fault they are enslaved. The Munchkins are slightly different, as they don't seem enslaved at all. Dorothy's unintentional slaughter of the Wicked Witch of the East is followed by Munchkins bowing to Dorothy as she passes their homes, inviting her to stay the night and partake in their feasts. Baum portrays life under tyrannical rule as becoming happy and carefree instantly once the tyrant is removed. Crops are plentiful in Munchkindland. It looks as though nothing was really wrong before Dorothy showed up--they just didn't like their ruler.

The Munchkins ignore Dorothy when she insists killing the witch was an accident, and reward her with the silver shoes. When Dorothy weeps because she does not want to stay in Munchkinland, the Munchkins weep with her. They cater to her whims, having no personalities of their own.

Later on in the story, Dorothy frees the Winkies when she melts the Wicked Witch of the West. Here the colonial narrative Leow writes of is even clearer. The Winkies have actually been enslaved and forced to do the witch's bidding for who knows how long. Baum blames their enslavement on the Winkies being cowards by nature. Once they are freed, rather than create a country without a monarchy or elect a government from their own countrymen, they invite Tin Woodman to rule them. I always find my head shaking at this part. They endure slavery only to make a stranger their ruler? A woodcutter who has no idea how the rule a country? The solution is plenty ridiculous, not delightful.

And doesn't Tin Woodman want to find his bride-to-be after he gets his heart back? I'm sad he never mentions finding her when he thinks she still lives with the awful woman who prevented their marriage.

What does Oz have to please children?

Okay, I've put Oz down enough for this post. I actually like this book, remember?

In the Introduction to Wonderful Wizard, Baum writes that the book "was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."

Baum must have intended everything in his book to entertain children. Seeing the Tin Woodman become king probably is fun for children who grow attached to him. He has a gentle heart, and will perhaps be a benevolent ruler.

The existence of a magical land is itself a pleasure for children. Dorothy is every child reading the book, and so every child is loved and admired, not bullied or forced to forego education (thinking historically, here). Good people are beautiful (the witches of the South and North) and bad people are ugly (wicked witches). Life is black and white in Oz. It is a pleasant escape for children, a group of people who undoubtedly find the world complicated. Dorothy survives on her own for a bit, venturing out of Munchkinland without an Ozian to guide her. She's self-sufficient and offers relief to children who can't imagine navigating the world without an adult to care for them.

The conflict with the Wizard is resolved at the end of the second act. After he flies away in a hot-air balloon, Dorothy and friends must make another journey to see Glinda the Good Witch of the South in hopes she can get Dorothy back to Kansas. What follows is a series of encounters with the strange people of Oz, including the famous trees that throw fruit, and a lesser known city made of porcelain people. There is also a group of men called Hammer-Heads who have elastic necks. They're like jack-in-the-boxes with legs.
You said you left the nightmares out, Baum.


Baum obviously succeeded in delighting children with this book. Hundreds of children wrote to him asking for a sequel, which he delivered in 1904. More than one hundred years later movies are being made based on his books, and (what I'm most excited for) the anthology Oz Reimagined is set to come out at the end of February.

I still keep coming back to Dorothy not wanting to stay in Oz. I hear Dorothy moves to Oz in later books so it sounds like he fixed the problem. We'll see! One thing I'm sure of when it comes to pleasing the audience is that weird is entertaining, and Oz has plenty of weird.

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