Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mind, Heart, and Guts of Her Own: Why The Wizard of Oz is the Citizen Kane of Children's Movies

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz, but I distinctly recall when I was about 12 years old and watched it every day for a week. I also remember that going to the Museum of American History in Washington DC. and seeing Dorothy’s ruby slippers was like being in the presence of the Hope Diamond. It was that cool.

Since its release the movie has inspired countless remakes including The Wiz, Return to Oz (to date the creepiest “children’s movie” I have ever seen…I still argue with my mother about why in the world she let me watch this nightmare masquerading as whimsical cinema) and the book/musical franchise Wicked. The story obviously resonates with a lot of people, both young and old. What is it about Dorothy’s adventures that entertain us so much?

It may be because it is still the only widely-viewed children’s movie ever made with an honest-to-goodness female heroine. I am talking about a real heroine; not one who relies on a prince to save her and/or marry her. Even in Mulan, a movie that prided itself on having a spirited female warrior as its lead, that same spirited female inevitably marries the well-meaning general at the movie‘s conclusion. Something tells me she’ll have to be a little less spirited from now on.

Dorothy's character is revolutionary because she breaks this mold. As Susan J. Douglas says in Where the Girls Are, “Finally, here’s a girl who has an adventure and doesn’t get married in the end…Throughout the movie, Dorothy is caring, thoughtful, nurturing, and empathetic, but she’s also adventuresome, determined, and courageous.”

Dorothy gets dumped in a strange land, befriends some freaky outcasts, then teaches them all self-worth while defeating a wicked witch in the process. Not an easy task, and no man or wizard to save her; in fact, my favorite part of the movie is when she finds out the wizard is a fraud and gives him a good talking to. In hindsight I realize this is a scenario that women have to grow pretty accustomed to (ex. after 8 months of dating you pull back the curtain to find out he’s married). As both children and adults we admire Dorothy for her gumption. She saves her male companions multiple times and in the end returns home minus a man. How shockingly original.

Other children’s movies with a female lead send the message that to truly prevail you have to marry the macho prince you barely know (Disney is a big offender here). Great message to present to young girls who are dreaming of growing up to be doctors, teachers, and artists. Oh yes, that’s fine Sally…just make sure you marry an MBA first. I love a happy ending as much as anybody, but where is the happy ending that doesn’t include a man “saving” the girl from a little more time as a single woman? A little variety wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Not to mention these are children which is why Douglas emphasizes the fact that Dorothy is a GIRL. Most of the Disney princesses are 15-16. I bet a lot of fathers would not let their 15 year-old daughter run away with the prince no matter how charming he was. Romantic love is hard enough, do we really need to stuff the idea of its all-encompassing importance down girls’ throats at such a young age? Kids should just be kids for a little while. I would rather encourage my daughter to dream about living an exciting life vs. dreaming about how a man can make her life exciting.

We need more movies made for children that depict a brave female that respects and is mutually respected by the other characters, both male and female. This happens all the time with male leads. Where is the female version of Harry Potter?

In the meantime I will take comfort in the fact that no matter how many princess movies Disney churns out, Dorothy will forever be taking names in the land of Oz.

Suggested Reading: Where the Girls Are by Susan J. Douglas
Targeted at an older audience but still an excellent examination of how mass media influences female identity.

1 comment:

  1. One of the things that hardly anyone ever realizes -unless they've read into the history of the Wizard of Oz- is that Dorothy was a prototype feminist. At least the inspiration for her was.
    Frank Baum, the author of the entire Oz series (I think there were close to twenty books), had based Dorothy on early feminist ideology.
    Dorothy was pretty much a characterization of early feminism. Baum did so because his mother-in-law was one of the major early feminists and Baum greatly respected her. So when writing the series, a lot of the major important characters (whether good or bad) were mostly female characters. (I know this because I happened to visit the Wizard of Oz museum in Wamego, KS while traveling west)
    But honestly you hit the proverbial nail on the head with a blindfold on. I bet you'd enjoy a visit to the Oz museum. If you have a chance someday, go for it. And if you do, you'll see old, old film reels of the Oz stories (back when they were only silent films) and THEN you'll see what truly rates as a "creepy children's movie."