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.