The Pink Saving the Blue

I had suggested back in this post, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, that L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island could count as a white savior narrative, as the white American travelers save the island (or at least the Blue Country) from a ruthless ruler they hate but do nothing to oppose. When I recently brought up the idea again, it led to some interesting discussion on Facebook. The general conclusion is that it isn’t, but it still has some unfortunate implications, and there are even more in other Oz-related books. I still hold that the series was relatively progressive for its time, but I might be biased in this respect.

The white savior narrative is something that’s come up pretty often recently. I’m not sure I would have noticed it on my own; but once it was pointed out to me, I’m seeing it everywhere. It’s often lumped together with whitewashing, but while they’re certainly related problems, they’re not exactly the same. Whitewashing is when a visual adaptation (it’s mostly used in the context of movies, at least from what I’ve seen) makes a person of color white, or has a white actor play them.

With white savior stories, a white person basically shows up to help non-white people out of a difficulty they couldn’t conquer on their own, and sometimes goes well beyond that. It’s different from whitewashing in that the character is either original or based on someone who actually was white, so there’s no change in race, but in both cases it’s often an excuse to insert white actors where there isn’t much reason for them to be other than the profit motive. I know practically nothing about the movie, but I remember seeing commercials for Gods of Egypt in which a white guy (played by an Australian actor, I think) is told that he’s the only one who can save Egypt. I guess the native Egyptians just can’t handle such things, or something. More recently, The Great Wall has Matt Damon playing a great archer who is instrumental in saving China.

And I think there was something similar with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.

Books are different from movies in that…well, there aren’t any actors. Still, I think there’s a similarity in that authors want the protagonists in adventure stories to be familiar. In some of my favorite fantasy series, the main characters are people from our world who save a magical one. These people are Us in the sense that the natives of the other world might not be. As such, white authors writing for predominantly white audiences would frequently use white people from their own nation as heroes. I don’t think it was intentionally discriminatory, at least not most of the time; that’s just what the writers were familiar with and expected their readers to be as well. That really isn’t so much the case anymore now that communities tend to be more integrated and people tend to be more acquainted with cultures other than their own. Why can’t the Chinese, Japanese or Egyptians count as Us? People from all these groups watch movies, after all. Otherwise you’re alienating people, whether you mean to or not. Of course, fantasy is still different because the cultures that members of Us are visiting don’t actually exist, although sometimes they can stand in for real ones.

So what does this mean for Sky Island? Well, there are two main cultures on the island, distinguished by skin color and body type as well as where they live.

Trot, Cap’n Bill, and Button-Bright accidentally stumble upon the Blue Country and end up overthrowing its dictatorial leader, the Boolooroo.

The Pink Country, meanwhile, has a law that the the person there with the lightest skin becomes their ruler.

That can certainly be seen as problematic, although I really do get the impression Baum just intended it to be whimsical. How communities choose their leaders is a recurring theme in his work, and it’s often done in odd ways. And since everyone living in the Pink Country has pink skin (at least as far as we know), it’s not actively discriminating against those of other skin colors. It does seem like power might be centered around a few families with the genes for lighter skin, but we don’t really know how Pinkie genetics work. Besides, no one wants to be ruler, because even though they have a good deal of power, they’re required to live in poverty. At least, they are until the end of the story when Trot alters the law, although even then they’re not allowed to have more than anyone else. And even though the American visitors conquer the Blue Country, there isn’t any indication that this is due to any kind of inherent superiority on their part. The Blues have some quaint customs and a terrible ruler, but they’re intelligent and sophisticated. The arrival of the strangers just helps to shake things up enough to get things sorted out. The Boolooroo had actually overextended his term in office based on his country’s own laws (he counted on them all forgetting when his reign started), and Trot leaves the nation in the hands of the man who was supposed to succeed him anyway. It’s not like there’s any colonization going on, even though Trot remains honorary ruler of both countries.

It did come up in the Facebook thread that Ozma can be rather condescending to people she officially rules due to inheriting all of Oz, but whose loyalty she hadn’t previously made any attempt to secure. In some cases, they flat-out haven’t heard of her. In Glinda of Oz, she steps in to prevent a war between the Flatheads and Skeezers, two peoples on the outskirts of Oz she didn’t even know about before. Ruth Plumly Thompson expands on this idea of manifest destiny by having Captain Salt, with Ozma’s permission, claim lands outside Oz for the crown. And even in the Baum books, while she didn’t conquer the Nome Kingdom, she did exert a large amount of control over it during and after her mission to rescue the royal family of Ev from the Nome King. You can certainly argue that most of Ozma’s attempts to interfere are for humanitarian reasons, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to pull rank, which is sometimes the wrong approach to take.

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1 Response to The Pink Saving the Blue

  1. James says:

    Here is a major issue with Ozma “claiming” lands outside of Oz-the enchantment of the Magic Barrier to prevent Oz from invasion. In Book II, currently writing chapter 26, Ix suffered greatly for 85 years because the invading army at the end of The Emerald City, was sent back and they regained their memories. So, by the year 2030, Ix has only known 20 years of true peace.

    Book II
    Lunch with Zixi and Andromeda, Ozma and Dorothy
    Zixi: “What will you do, Ozma? For 120 years, you had Oz cut off from the rest of the surrounding lands. We were left to fend for ourselves. Shall we all now just fall down and bow the knee to you? Will you send armies of spells to make us just like your own subjects. Jonathan said change had come, and even the animals of Ix can smell the difference in those who have been affected by him and David. It’s changing oh so slowly, but it is happening and there is no going back. The Magic Barrier is gone, the very instrument of what might have been your own horrific destruction is now just a tower of shattered glass. The Magic Belt, used for what it had been truly created for, is but dust.”
    Ozma had been pondering her answer ever since Jonathan and the Ix Expedition returned back. Her and Dorothy have spent hours in their heart-language and in the special time that hearting allows.
    Ozma: “Zixi, as you have Andromeda as your Chosen Confidant, so have I have Dorothy as my Chosen Companion, and now (she looks at Dorothy with love), my co-ruler.”
    She continues: “David told me the story about The Great Lawgiver to mankind being told by his own father-in-law that he could not do everything. Here, Dorothy is truly my co-ruler, and now…my equal. We share the responsibilities, because I truly cannot do everything. We saved Oz by becoming one. Neither one of us could have done it separately.”
    Zixi: “What do you propose then, Ozma?”
    Ozma: “I have no more right to tell you how to run your kingdom than you do for mine. I have learned that there is evil and evil creatures that wish to do us harm. Zixi, I cannot do it alone. We need…we need to work together…not as subservient…but as equals. Each kingdom being an equal, keeping what makes it unique and special–not bound to become like the other. I propose, Queen Zixi, a Confederation of Kingdoms.”

    Ozma: “But there is more. As my first act in this Confederation, I acknowledge that my actions of so long ago caused untold pain to you and your people. My Beloved and Chosen Companion and I have discussed this at length. Queen Zixi, I offer one-fourth of the Royal Treasury of Oz to you as reparations.”

    Zixi: (Genuinely taken back) “Oh Ozma, that is most generous…”

    Ozma: “I also offer a transfer of the knowledge that Jonathan and David have, including what they call computers, servers, and tablets.”

    Zixi: “Ozma, I indeed accept that but only on one condition-the knowledge of their fearful nuclear weapons-may there be ways to detect if they are ever made.”

    Ozma: “I shall work with Glinda the Good, and you, and Dorothy, to find such a way.”

    Zixi: “I shall have our airship go back to Ix and bring technicians and engineers here. We will build what Jonathan calls a ‘data center’ so that my people can learn from him, and Captain Tara and her sisters. We will make it secure, yet allow knowledge to freely flow. We will learn what we wish to learn.”

    Ozma: “Let it be so, that on this day, the Confederation of Kingdoms was born!”

    Zixa takes her hand and Andromeda’s and joins Ozma and Dorothy in a circle.

    “Equals…free to be what we chose to be…mutual trust and respect…to learn but to not lord…this Confederation of Kingdoms!”

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