Mar. 15th, 2013

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Of 20th century stories, The Wizard of Oz is the most female-empowered story ever written. A young girl squares off against an evil witch, reflecting the good and evil faces of the feminine persona, and battle it out for the fate of an entire kingdom. Further, the male protagonists in this story are shown to be incapable of managing their own problems without an infusion of feminine insight (brain, heart, and courage, respectively) and when the symbol of patriarchal power (the wizard) appears, he turns out to be an illusion, as his power is in fact immaterial. When Dorothy pulls back the curtain to reveal the wizard for what he truly is, she shows us that patriarchal authority is a ruse, a trick, a complete fabrication that exists only through the conscious participation of those around him. Considering that Dorothy's motivation is not to earn a husband (like Snow White which also features a female protagonist and antagonist) The Wizard of Oz takes the top honors in the range of feminist narratives, standing tall with the Book of Judith and the Maid of Orleans (Joan of Arc) as sublime classics of female power in the Western literary tradition.

Since the Oz novels fell into the public domain, a number of spin-off franchises have emerged with varying levels of success. Chief among them, Wicked retains the importance of women in this quintessential narrative while also providing something new to the emerging mythology by shifting the story's focus from Dorothy to the wicked witches. This was most appropriate, and other adaptations of female-centered narratives similarly upheld the spirit of the story. Trivializing Dorothy and the witches would simply not be the Oz story, just as an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland without Alice would not be the Through Looking Glass story or The Lord of the Rings without hobbits, dwarves, orcs and elves would not be The Lord of the Rings.

Homage versus Appropriation

The latest spin off of the Oz franchise is a quaintly misinformed story about the wizard called Oz, the Great and Powerful. It does uphold the mythology, as the witches seem to do all the real work in the film, but the new male protagonist that was previously designated for the best metaphor for the patriarchal fallacy ever suddenly goes on a heroic journey to emerge as the true orchestrator of Oz's salvation, supplanting Dorothy and the witches as the central agent in the plot.

Now, I no longer qualify myself as feminist. Life has taught me that I can get sucked into a male-centric point of view fairly easily. I happily eat up almost every book Tanith Lee or Ursula K. Le Guin ever write, but I seldom enjoy the writing of Anne McCafferty or Margret Atwood. In essence, I have my particular tastes, and they aren't really informed by the gender of the author or protagonist, though I wish more narratives about non-male or even non-human protagonists existed so I could read them (I am looking at you, J.K. Rowling!). But I know the difference between an homage, like Wicked, and appropriation, like Oz the Great and Powerful. There is a big difference between when an author adapts a story for their own use but honors the original narrative and when an author abandons the original but uses the association for marketing purposes. The later can be quite odious. How crappy would it be if someone rewrote the book of Judith wherein Judith ends up a prisoner of the Assyrians and a man steps in and to save her and the nation of Judah? It simply would not be the same story.

There are plenty of appropriations that do this to favor an under-represented agent in literature, women included. These tend to be more interesting mainstream appropriations because some classic stories suffer from extreme historic bias, so destroying that bias is seen as less of a marketing technique, and more of a re-invention of a classic story without a horrible element. For example, Wide Sargasso Sea appropriates the story of Jane Eyre, transforming it from a story of a young woman finding love with a reformed man (Rochester) to a tragic tale of prejudice and exploitation culminating in the ruin of an independent, smart woman. This utterly destroys the original romantic content of Jane Eyre, and I know several fans of the original took umbrage with the remake.

You can take Misogyny out of the Mainstream, but not the Mainstream out of Misogyny

Incidentally, I am a long-time admirer of pulp stories. Most of them are masculine narratives featuring some brute of a man as the hero. In how stories treat women, Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Superman, and Doc Savage rank among the most objectifying stories there are. In fact, that is why spin offs like Red Sonja and Wonder Woman (for all their own versions of misogyny) gained popularity. There was a clear market for more feminine version of the tales, and in the pulp market, appropriation is just good business. My point is that many stories are told from the male perspective and are fine being just that, assuming we can all recognize their sophomoric treatments of gender and rightly criticize them for it.

The recent Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters film grossly objectifies women (see Escape to the Movies rip it a new one) with the female protagonist getting saved twice by the male protagonist and running an ongoing gag wherein different witches get punched in the face by different men. We can all agree on this fact, and if it were a less asinine film (like, say, The Avengers) it would be enjoyable despite its flaws. I won't afford this exception to Oz, the Great and Powerful because it not only has flaws, but blatantly rips off the shining example of feminist narratives, gutting the beautiful metaphor of the wizard as a complete falsehood. This movie is akin to forcing a male mentor into Joan of Arc's life to train her in martial arts, only to later end up saving France himself because she is a frail woman and can't do it on her own. I call foul on Oz, and I think I am justified in that.

-F. F. White

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F.F. White

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