originally published September 16, 2014
When digging one’s mental spoon into the lumpy broth of film studies, there are three things one must remember:
- A disturbing number of gender-based analyses will reveal that most cinematic conflict is based upon the male fear of castration.
- With a little imagination, you can build a political or social allegory out of almost anything.
- No, seriously, it’s all about castration. Whether it’s Woody from Toy Story, Andy Dufresne or Han Solo, it’s all about castration.
Turning our attention to point #2, it should come as no surprise that a humongous heap of thread-pulling has been devoted to perhaps the most widely-revered and universally beloved of 20th century fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows it, and the characters within are so bold and unprecedented, drawing a line from them to some aspect of modern society is a natural academic pursuit.
It helps that the heart of the movie can be found in a series of books, written by a man who was very much aware and engaged with the politics of his era. This adds a measure of validity to any political dissections of the literary world of Oz – though it should be restated that, like most conjecture and analysis, this is a wide portal of interpretation. This isn’t fact, but it’s a friendly maybe.
L. Frank Baum has gone on the record as describing his Oz books as modern fairy tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, only without the romance and heavy-handed moralism. He was also seen as a political activist in his day. So who’s to say L. Frank wasn’t looking to poke a few of his own ideas about 1890’s politics into the flesh of his story?
Certainly not New York-based teacher Henry Littlefield, who in 1964 put together an extensive theory that links the characters of the 1900 book and 1939 film to the goings-on in Baum’s time. Littlefield also incorporated into his analysis some elements of the 1901 Broadway musical based on Baum’s first Oz novel, as Baum himself had written it. Of course, the stage version contained direct references to people like Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller by name, so that was an easy connection.
There have been many academic attempts to pick the nits of Baum’s masterpiece, though some of the interpretations are quite universal. Dorothy, the hero to which we are clearly meant to relate, is the ‘everyman’. She is the young and naïve innocent who is led astray and must find her way home. The Wizard quite often takes the form of the scheming politician who deceives the public into believing he has wisdom and power.
Oh, I suppose before I incite the demonic wrath of the internet that I should mention this article may contain spoilers. But if you haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz by now, how are you even alive?
The cyclone in the story has a solid basis in political analogy; in the 1890s it was used – often in political cartoons – as a metaphor for the sort of political revolution or political upheaval that would change the country completely. The optimists depicted the after-effects as a land of color and prosperity.
In The Wizard of Oz, you’ve got a road of gold which leads to the Emerald City – the color of money. Or in the case of the story, money that only pretends to have value. In the 1890s there was a political movement called the Silverite movement, which aimed to have silver accepted as a monetary standard alongside gold. This becomes particularly eyebrow-raising when you recall that Dorothy’s magical ruby slippers were in fact silver slippers in the original novel.
The Wicked Witch of the East represents the calculating industrial complex (all headquartered in the eastern United States) that controls and manipulates the people (Munchkins). The Wicked Witch of the West might represent the American West, and by extension the flying monkeys could be seen as Native Americans – once a free people (as the King tells Dorothy) and now enslaved.
L. Frank Baum had made his opinion known about America’s native population in a pair of essays he’d written as a journalist back in 1890. In those pieces he promoted the outright genocidal annihilation of all Indian peoples. Most historians believe he was using satire to make his point. At least we hope so.
How about the Scarecrow as a representation of troubled American farmers? The Tin Man signifying the steel industry’s struggles to keep up with international competition? The Cowardly Lion representing either America’s military in the Spanish-American war or Populist presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan (who strongly supported the silver movement)? In the 1896 election, Bryan had triumphed in northern and southern states, while William McKinley won the presidency based on his uncontestable victory along the east and west coasts. Could this be the basis for the wicked witches claiming the lateral points of the compass while the good witch hails from the north?
As much as my eyes would strain from over-rolling throughout some of my film classes as people plucked their interpretive guesswork from some remote corners of a film’s frames and backed them up with essentially nothing, I can see the validity in these claims. If Baum truly took his inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, then why wouldn’t there be a message behind the story? Surely he couldn’t have intended everything to add up to the “home is downright awesome” message the MGM movie crams down our throat. Why wouldn’t each character represent something more grand and elaborate?
Some folks have crammed their shovels deep into their imaginations until the truly weird came spurting up. A theosophical approach suggests that Glinda, the supposed “good witch” simply used Dorothy as a patsy to overthrow both her rival witches of the east and west and the Wizard, leaving her as the supreme ruler of all of Oz. Think about it – she could have simply told Dorothy to use the damn slippers from the start, but why send away a naïve Kansas bumpkin who might be able to take down her rivals?
And so we are left with a series of books and a film (we’ll leave 1985’s Return To Oz and most definitely The Wiz out of it) that practically beg for insight and interpretation. Or, for most of us, they are works of child-friendly art that stand solidly upon good storytelling and quirky, fantastic characters to deliver some fun. It’s all a question of how deeply you want to dig for a good grade.