Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Guest Post: Girls Gone Wicked

Girls Gone Wicked: What Oz the Great and Powerful taught me about being a feminist
by Charmaine

Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz has been lambasted for containing misogynistic themes. But does it?
It certainly is a far cry from L. Frank Baum’s ode to girl power, The Wizard of Oz. With his pockets full of music boxes and glue, the con-man blunders through Oz, winning hearts, until he meets The One. It’s every man’s fantasy: little to no competition, and women so starved of male affection and attention that they become instantly besotted.

According to the bitingly insightful review by the New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis, it will “drag you back to the same dreary, heavily trod destination, to the same exhausted formulas, gender stereotypes [and] general idiocy.” On the bright side, as Alex Cranz of FemPop notes, perhaps the most obvious redeeming factor of the film is that it is a prequel, hence, “the already excellent Wizard of Oz becomes, not a film about Dorothy stopping an evil witch, but about Dorothy re-establishing the matriarchy.”

Why do we set such high standards for the fictional characters we see on the silver screen? Why do we care about how women are portrayed in movies, even ones as clearly fantastical as Oz?

Feminist critics of the movie have a point. The histrionic women flitting around a shabby commitment-phobic conjuror aren’t exactly perfect examples of female autonomy. But at a deeper level, by turning the struggle between good and evil into a magical catfight over a mortal con-artist from Kansas, the screenwriters inadvertently tap into insecurities that most women have struggled with at some point in their lives.

For starters, take the candid and somewhat embarrassing brashness of the rash, young Theodora as she throws herself at a stranger she barely knows, followed by her soul-consuming heartbreak when he ran off with someone “better”.

Most of us have been there (before The Rules came along and taught us to strategize our way into a healthy relationship, of course). It’s the old-school Wizard of Oz version of the obsessive texting, cyber-stalking infatuation with that one cute guy. It’s normal and natural to get a little obsessed, but to see someone go all the way’s almost painful, isn’t it?

Seemingly cold and pragmatic, Evanora appears to manipulate Oscar for her own purposes, but loses it all the instant she lets her guard down. After dashing her sister’s romantic hopes, tempting and trapping Oscar with the promise of immense riches, and coming close to achieving total domination of the kingdom, all her efforts come to naught. Despite her ruthlessness and intelligence, she pays dearly for a moment of rage and passion, losing both her beauty and dominion over Oz.

Does this sound familiar? How many times have we heard this from our fathers, our mothers, our mentors and career advisors? Control your emotions, or the intelligent, competent woman that you have worked so hard to become will become a sniveling, vulnerable wretch, labeled as “unprofessional” and doomed to flounder in a sea of mediocrity. Forever.

Glinda is the epitome of “wife material”, and the girl that all exes love to hate. Infinitely tolerant, wise to his foibles yet willing to tolerate his bullshit, she magicks him into a close approximation of a successful man. She has an impressive Rolodex of loyal subjects, and she uses them to nudge a clearly unworthy man to the top of society. She risks her life to defend him against his two crazy exes. She travels in a cloud of happiness, rainbows, and purity.

In her glowy white dress, complete with soap bubbles of goodness and an unwavering faith in the virtue of her two-bit hero, she also manages to resist the temptation of his pouty lips and deadbeat charm until she has successfully placed him on her throne and made him worthy of her affections. And then only with the most demure of lip-locks, complete with an adorable foot-pop. Ugh.

As much as we tout feminine solidarity and a rah-rah, “us-sisters-gotta-stick-together” attitude, how much of this actually translates into congratulating a woman for finding the love of her life? Most of the action centers on the “wicked” witches hurling vitriol at Glinda out of sheer spite and jealousy. Who doesn’t love a rollicking hate-fest when our exes get with someone new?

Would the strong, confident feminist I wish I was behave like this? Of course not. As feminists, and at an even deeper level, as women, we fall short of the ideals we set for ourselves. We say we want to support one another, but it’s so terribly hard not to envy each other’s (seemingly) perfect hair, skin, relationship, job, you name it, we can find a way to hate each other for having it.

The witches are not role models, and I doubt producers meant for them to be seen that way. Yet we can all relate to them. I can see myself giggling over this movie (now) with some girlfriends, whilst feeling a twinge of guilt as I recall the times I’ve resented a woman for the very things that make her incredible and inspiring.

Oz is yet another uncomfortable reminder of how we fail each other repeatedly. We are rarely the women we aspire to be. We can only love the women that we are, and keep an eye on the wicked witches within us. Can we forgive ourselves for that?

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