Girl Power in Oz

Joe Roth, the producer of Oz the Great and Powerful, has gone on record as saying he liked the story because “a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by.” Obviously, this has raised the question as to how many fairy tales Roth has actually read, as well as why he’d take to a series that that largely focused on female protagonists. L. Frank Baum was known for supporting women’s suffrage, and in Oz he created a land ruled by women. In The Marvelous Land of Oz, we see the Emerald City taken over by Jinjur‘s army of girls obsessed with candy and jewelry. Sounds kind of anti-feminist, doesn’t it? The twist here, however, is that they’re conquered by another all-female army under the command of a strong woman, and a girl is installed as ruler of Oz. It’s like Baum was giving readers an illustration of what they feared from female leaders, then assured them it didn’t have to be like that. From this point on, Ozma and Glinda remain the most powerful people in the country, and Dorothy also returns as an honorary princess.

That’s not to say Oz is devoid of male protagonists. The character Roth saw as a leading man was the Wizard, who reappears in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. While Dorothy is usually our viewpoint character in this book, it’s the Wizard who solves most of the problems and is the unofficial leader of the party. Much the same can be said about Magic, which also makes the Wizard one of its main heroes. That book also gives another common pair, Trot and Cap’n Bill, in which the girl usually relies on the adult man. That’s not to say Trot is a passive character, just that it’s usually the Cap’n who takes charge on their adventures. So, yes, there are interesting male protagonists, but they don’t come across as the characters readers are supposed to be identifying with. While Dorothy going off in the company of a homeless man in Road comes across as pretty creepy to a modern mind, the Shaggy Man, like Cap’n Bill and the Wizard in books after the first one, is a character who hangs around with children not because of an ulterior motive but because they’re genuinely concerned with and respectful of them. They’re also all bachelors. Baum never specifically tells us that the Wizard was never a womanizer like he is in Great and Powerful, but it doesn’t come up in the stories.

Ruth Plumly Thompson was more conservative than Baum in several ways, and her books do give us more male heroes, often princes trying to restore their kingdoms in a traditional fairy tale vein. Her new visitors from the United States were all boys, and you could probably consider it telling that her Gnome King has a boy named Peter Brown saving Ozma’s court by beaning Ruggedo in the head with a pitch he learned from playing baseball.

That said, it’s not like she disregarded the female characters entirely, and when she did put Ozma and Glinda aside it seemed to be more to give other characters time in the spotlight than because she couldn’t abide strong females. I’ve seen arguments that Ozma is a wimp in the Thompson books, but I never bought it. When she does show up, she’s pretty formidable, and sometimes tougher in certain ways than in Baum. This isn’t always consistent, though, and sometimes she comes across as rather ineffectual. It does strike me as somewhat out of character, for instance for both Ozma and Betsy Bobbin to stand out of the way “[c]linging anxiously together” during Prince Evered’s fight in Hungry Tiger. Regardless, Ozma always remained in charge of the land during Thompson’s additions to the series. I have to wonder why filmmakers are so afraid of her when she was such an important presence in the books. Is it just because she was a boy at one point? You’ll notice that they left this element out of Return to Oz, along with Jinjur’s revolution and Glinda’s victory over Jinjur. I guess my overall point here is that I don’t have a problem with a story focusing on the Wizard or another male Oz character, but I have to wonder how you can look at the books and think they’re an exception to fairy tales featuring girls.

This entry was posted in Characters, Fairy Tales, Feminism, L. Frank Baum, Oz, Oz Authors, Ruth Plumly Thompson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Girl Power in Oz

  1. ozaline says:

    I do think Cis-sexism (that is hostility directed toward transsexual people) is a factor in Ozma getting the shaft, while she was dropped all together from Journey Back to Oz an early draft of the script has Tip becoming King, a conceit I’ve seen used on other occasion in a text based game (The Meglin Kiddies Land of Oz also features Tip but not Ozma). On other occasions like Thanksgiving in Oz or Dorothy Meets Ozma of Oz we meet her later so they can just ignore that part of the story; even the Shirley Temple version softens it by not having her grow up a boy but just spending some time as one after having a mind-wipe.

    I’m pretty sure fear of angering the Christian right is a big part of why she’s seldom used, even when equally, or more, obscure characters are trotted out.

  2. marbpl2 says:

    The Shirley Temple version leaves out the whole Jinjur element altogether.

    Ozma into Tip does figure into various dramatizations of MARVELOUS LAND, none of them particularly well-known: WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ (1969), the 1981 Minneapolis Childrens Theatre version, and the Japanese and Russian cartoons. But I doubt that the fear of the “Christian Right” is such a factor (public values in 1904 weren’t exactly transgender-friendly either). More likely, it’s the desire of producers to keep returning to Dorothy and Glinda as the (already better known) female characters. Most likely, producers don’t feel that Ozma is all that interesting.

    • Nathan says:

      I often get the idea that they don’t feel ANY of the characters beyond the first book are all that interesting. I mean, Great and Powerful focused pretty much entirely on characters we’d seen before.

    • ozaline says:

      Yep the Russian and Japanese cartoons play it straight, but they’re a lot less uptight about these thing than the US is… the Children’s theatre one is good but that’s a bit different than a major film and Wonderful Land, well the less said about that the better.

      Anyway films like Journey Back to Oz and Return to Oz kinda shoot a whole into the idea that producers are dropping her simply because she’s not interesting… in 1904 most people didn’t know about gender variant individuals now-a-days it’s more a hot button issue… and most producers probably don’t want to rock the boat.

  3. Darrell says:

    I have to agree. The man has probably never read an Oz book.
    I feel like Oz was a new frontier for Americans and when they arrived they found that gender didn’t mean what it did here.
    Dorothy, Betsy and Trot were all on equal if not better footing with Ojo, Button Bright, Woot and Zeb, all four of whom I thought were rather weak male characters. (Inga was possibly one of the better male characters, if he counts).
    Oz often seems to be ahead of it’s time on matters like that, and will probably be ahead of it’s time a hundred years from now.
    Glinda, while sometimes cold and mysterious in the books was always such a reassuring figure to me, more than the male leaders.

    As for Ozma, I’ve always thought she was one of the most interesting characters in the books, not some damsel in distress.
    She faced the Nome King when she had nothing to gain from it, she’s faced giant spiders, witches, giants and by Tin Woodsman of Oz was pretty darn powerful.
    Sure, she still had her moments of weakness throughout the series, but so do all of the others.

    • Nathan says:

      Baum’s boy characters really don’t tend to be stereotypically masculine, or to be heroes. Ojo is weepy, Button-Bright largely oblivious, and Woot mild-mannered and polite. How much the author thought this through, I wouldn’t know. I recall reading some essay where they were described as “girls’ boys.”

  4. Melody G Keller says:

    Yes, some producers turn chicken when it comes to sex-change transformations. But in theory, those would be much simpler to perform than human-to-animal transformations.

    One thing about RPT that’s annoying is that she bought into Beautiful character = Good and Ugly character = Evil even more completely than L. Frank Baum did. So much so that she changes the very wrinkled old lady Witch of the North into a beautiful princess. Dave Hardenbrook didn’t like it, either, and he brought the GWN back via the Switcheroo Transformation like I did Tip.

    • Nathan says:

      But in theory, those would be much simpler to perform than human-to-animal transformations.

      You’d think so, but then again, you might also think transformation of a monkey back into a boy would be easier than that of a goat back into a prince.

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