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Opinion: Queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz

Alex Gabriel encourages us to take a closer look at the hidden messages in an iconic film – not all of them positive.

In LGBT culture, The Wizard of Oz is practically scripture. From celebrating gay men as ‘friends of Dorothy’ to idolising Judy Garland, from associating pride flags with ‘Over the Rainbow’ to referencing the dialogue in modern works – Alexander’s ‘Fly, my pretties!’ in Queer as Folk is a personal favourite – the reverence we show it at times seems almost religious. So it’s with some trepidation that I’m about to commit blasphemy, and criticise the bigotry and repression I see in this film.

It’s important to say that I understand why The Wizard means what it does to so many people; aspects of it bear tremendous queer resonance. If you’ve spent any significant time closeted, dividing time between straight roleplaying and your ‘real’ self, you can’t fail to appreciate the duality of the characters’ lives. As a country boy, I identify too with the desperate urge to escape Aunt Em’s ranch and go over the rainbow to somewhere freer.

It’s certainly true that Dorothy’s lonely, authoritarian and heteronormative home in Kansas, where Toto is her only companion and her guardians dismiss her concern for him, is symbolised perfectly by monochrome film – and that the rainbow appearance of Technicolor Oz, where she escapes oppressive norms, performs song-and-dance numbers and encounters fantastic creatures, stands for excitement, transgression and positive difference. It’s obvious why closeted viewers might see Oz as an anarchic queer playground, much like a thriving metropolitan gaybourhood – both are distant, fantasised places where no one will stop you breaking normal rules, and both are symbolised by rainbows.

But here’s the thing: the moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous ‘lions and tigers and bears’, she faces narcotic poppies – a clear drug reference – and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Especially in the case of the green-skinned witch, the colour which stands for rebellious, permissive Oz also stands for terror. Recall the scene in which Aunt Em appears in a crystal ball to comfort Dorothy, still in orderly, Kansan black and white, only to be replaced by the witch’s unnaturally-coloured face – it’s the moment in the film which frightened me most as a child, and the message is clear: go over the rainbow, away from Mum and Dad’s watchful eyes, and you’ll end up terrorised by freakish deviants. ‘If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,’ says Dorothy, ‘I won’t look any further than my own back yard.’ Needless to say the film reverts to monochrome for its ‘happy’ ending.

The land of Oz and its inhabitants are shown as distorted parodies of their Kansas counterparts: visually in the case of the witch and physically in the case of the half-human flying monkeys and the Munchkins. Obviously I’m not saying the actors who played the Munchkins are distorted versions of average-height people, but that the film implies that – and that seven years after Freaks, a singing, dancing chorus of people three to four feet tall has questionable associations. I’d argue, too, that some characters in Oz, especially the witch, distort Kansan norms of sexuality and gender.

Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, one prominent queer journey back to Oz (and like The Wizard, more iconic than the book which inspired it) dares to ask what’s so evil about the witch. Pursuing the ruby slippers makes her an antagonist, but only because we’re on Dorothy’s side; she’s willing to use spells against her enemies, but so is Glinda; she has no qualms about killing, but judging by her response to both witches’ deaths, neither does Dorothy. Exactly why is this woman described as wicked?

In fairytales, witches are the only independent women; their powers are innate, not gained by being a king’s daughter or by marrying a prince. Hence witches are traditionally ugly spinsters – if you don’t have to survive by being heteronormative, why bother looking pretty?

As shown in The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch embodies this tradition. The film’s producers cast Margaret Hamilton, an actor with a history of spinster roles, when their first choice Gale Sondergaard refused to play an ugly green-skinned witch. Unlike in the original book, the Wicked Witch of the East became the villain’s sister, another nod to the classic spinster-witch, and despite owning half the county according to Aunt Em, her Kansan alter ego is the clearly husbandless Miss Gulch.

While good witch Glinda is also unmarried as far as we know, her face is beautified and her attire positively bridal. The Wicked Witch’s crime is that she’s unfuckable – and still more threateningly, that this doesn’t hold her back.

At the height of the sexually McCarthyite Hays Code, which explicitly banned Hollywood from ‘any inference of sex perversion’, could the witch’s pointed spinsterdom emblematise an even worse trait? With her ungroomed appearance and plain mode of dress, her now-immortal ‘My pretty’ can be read both as predatory sexual leering and jealousy of Dorothy’s more ‘femme’ appearance – is the wicked witch, as Wicked once again hints, a caricatured lesbian? ‘It’s so kind of you’, she says, ‘to want to visit me in my loneliness.’

Certainly, the cowardly lion’s admission he’s ‘a sissy’ has queer connotations – the same term, as detailed in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, identified the comic archetype of the effeminate male in 1920s film. If the word’s appearance in The Wizard marks a tacit homophobia it’s unsurprising, since reactionary politics in thirties Hollywood had stigmatised these characters and forced many gay actors into retirement. (This would make The Wizard of Oz, supposedly a gay classic, part of the heterosexist backlash which triggered some of the first U.S. gay activism pre-Stonewall.)

If the land of Oz still means transgression and queer liberation, then the witch, not Dorothy, should be our blessed lady. And if the LGBT community wants to cling on to this film, it needs to answer some serious charges.

Comments

comments

38 Comments

  1. JohnMullen1

    19 Jul 2012 at 11:06

    Or not.

  2. Andy

    19 Jul 2012 at 11:14

    Aeappraisal of WOO

  3. Andy

    19 Jul 2012 at 11:16

    An interesting re-appraisal of TWOO. I’d seen the obvious queer references, but the deeper imagery is quite believable too. I’ll be cheering the green one next time I watch.

  4. JerryB

    19 Jul 2012 at 12:21

    No disrespect to the writer of the above but this is nonsense. To cite one line, the poppies are not there as “a clear drug reference” (!)  – like the 80% of the film, they are there because that’s what L. Frank Baum wrote in his original book, an escapist adventure story for children. If he had any agenda other than to entertain, it was to make money – check out his life.  
     
    I would argue it’s that same escapist, fantastical element that kids love, plus the colourful nature of the Oz tales in all their iterations that gives them their queer appeal – see also Doctor Who and its vast gay following.

  5. james

    19 Jul 2012 at 16:01

    yeah definitely the best way to read ‘the wizard of oz’ is as a really heteronormative film. Definitely, that’s how its been used by gay men, to further their own oppression. the wizard is oz is SO SECRETLY STRAIGHT. LOL!
     
    (check out Munoz  ‘disidentifications’, the wealth of literature on star studies re. judy garland and gay men, etc.)
     

  6. MrAlexGabriel

    19 Jul 2012 at 23:14

    Many thanks @owenblacker and @caspararemi :)

    • owenblacker

      19 Jul 2012 at 23:18

      @MrAlexGabriel You’re welcome. It was an interesting piece on a topic I’d not previously considered. Well argued and with suggestions for…

    • owenblacker

      19 Jul 2012 at 23:19

      @MrAlexGabriel …further reading. What more could a boy want from intellectual entertainment? :-)

      • MrAlexGabriel

        19 Jul 2012 at 23:20

        @owenblacker There was stuff that didn’t make it in too. In the original book the flying monkeys are conquered/controlled by the witch…

      • MrAlexGabriel

        19 Jul 2012 at 23:21

        @owenblacker …meaning some people see them as an allegory for native Americans. Questionable that the filmmakers cut out that backstory…

      • MrAlexGabriel

        19 Jul 2012 at 23:21

        @owenblacker …making the Native American characters naturally evil/monstrous.

        • owenblacker

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:36

          @MrAlexGabriel Oh wow, I didn’t know that. That’s terrible! :-)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:38

          @owenblacker Think it might become a talk I give if any LGBT groups invite me to speak at anything.

        • owenblacker

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:40

          @MrAlexGabriel Yeah, it sounds like it’d be a fascinating talk. Howcome stuff didn’t make it in? Are you restricted by length on SSG pieces?

        • MrAlexGabriel

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:45

          @owenblacker Yeah, 1000 is the limit. Would have been completely fleshed out at 1200, but I could give a spoken version for at least 30mins.

        • owenblacker

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:46

          @MrAlexGabriel How odd. After all, digital isn’t limited by paper dimensions. (One of the policies of Wikipedia, indeed.)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:49

          @owenblacker Yeah, but then I can’t blame SSG if I’m less comfy with the various strictures. I come from a freelance blogging background.

        • MrAlexGabriel

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:49

          @owenblacker So not used to word limits/style guides that aren’t mine/saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ etc.

        • owenblacker

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:50

          @MrAlexGabriel Fair points. Though I’m not quite sure I can process the combination of freelance + blogging :o)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:56

          @owenblacker Well as in, I blog at SSG but also independently at http://t.co/ob4jON5E. (Also at http://t.co/BQ42UWmZ, which I set up)

        • owenblacker

          19 Jul 2012 at 23:57

          @MrAlexGabriel Ah, I see. I guess that makes sense. Just the concept of labelling it freelance feels odd, I guess :o)

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 00:01

          @MrAlexGabriel Love the piece “What old-fashioned activist types can learn from Grindr” too :o)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 00:11

          @owenblacker Have you read the interview with Tyler? It’s not your typical showbiz interview.

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 00:12

          @MrAlexGabriel I will go seek it out :o)

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:46

          @MrAlexGabriel I’m struggling to find the interview you’re talking about. Could you throw me a direct link when you get a chance, please?

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:53

          @owenblacker Sure. http://t.co/2FD6NlKM

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:55

          @MrAlexGabriel Awesome; I’ll go read when I next take a cigarette break :o)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:55

          @owenblacker From working at an ad agency? I’m all silly and unemployed. #Envy

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:57

          @MrAlexGabriel Yeah. Got some time-critical server maintenance that needs doing. I’m not usually in the office at 2am ;o)

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:57

          @MrAlexGabriel And you seem to have at least a few freelance writing gigs going; don’t know them :o)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:57

          @owenblacker :/ still, job-having=good.

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:58

          @owenblacker Yeah, not generally paid though! Stuck in the undergraduate self-improvement-through-unwaged-labour rut.

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 01:58

          @MrAlexGabriel Indeed.

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 02:00

          @MrAlexGabriel Ah. I don’t really have much advice there; I was lucky to graduate into the dotcom bubble, not a double-dip recession :o(

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 02:54

          @MrAlexGabriel Great interview, but I definitely suffered from not knowing the context. I’ve seen none of Glee Project & no Glee s3 (yet?)

        • MrAlexGabriel

          20 Jul 2012 at 02:59

          @owenblacker Ohhhh bad form.

        • owenblacker

          20 Jul 2012 at 03:00

          @MrAlexGabriel Sorry — everyone was slating s3, so we never quite got round to it. And TGP never really appealed, tbh

  7. symbosimbo

    27 Jul 2012 at 12:51

    @SoSoGay what a load of old tosh! Trying to be intelligent about a children’s fantasy book is immature in itself. It’s just fun!

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