On the 100th Anniversary of the Woman’s Suffrage March on Washington, Disney’s “Oz, the Great and Powerful” Sets the Women’s Movement back beyond a century.

Posted: March 11, 2013 by extremehistory in Uncategorized
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Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” takes one of the significant literary stepping stones of the Women’s Movement and turns it upside down. When L. Frank Baum wrote the 16 books that make up the stories of the land of Oz (a land named for Queen Ozma), he was creating strong and powerful female characters to encourage and empower young women. Unfortunately Disney’s take on this is a disturbing reminder of how quickly women can lose the ground we’ve achieved over the last century.

The story follows the journey of the two-bit magician Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmauel Ambroise Diggs (note the anagram Oz Pinhead), known as Oz to his friends, as he escapes a jealous circus strongman and finds himself swept away in a balloon to a strange and beautiful land. He is greeted by a witch and learns of two more witches in the land, one whom is evil. Though endowed with true powers, the witches have been waiting for a prophesied man whose name is Oz and would come and save them from the evil witch. This Oz, not even a good magician, let alone a Wizard, is a charlatan and lothario of the first making and shows his power only through his inherent maleness as his eye for the ladies spurns a jealous rage in the witch Theodora (note the name’s play on “Dorothy” or dora the) and turns her into the iconic green image we know from the 1939 iconic MGM spectacle.

The witches, played by Oscar-winner Rachael Weisz, Oscar-winner Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis, all seem subservient in Oscar’s presence, often quivering on the verge of tears. Yet when real power needs to be displayed, they bring it on with Glinda producing protective bubbles, Theodora hurling fireballs and Evanora sparking jolts of electricity. Could someone explain to me why these women need this Oz Pinhead?

The sexist message couldn’t be more clear and powerful in this film, directed at young people. It says that however smart and powerful women become, they will never be more powerful than even the most dim-witted male pinhead. The fact that it was released on the anniversary of the Woman’s Suffrage March on Washington (March 3, 1913) is an even more powerful blow. Was the timing of this film intentional? The connection is uncanny seeing that L. Fran Baum, the writer of the Oz series was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage.

When L. Frank Baum penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899, women were no more than chattel property in a man’s household. Their servitude was prolonged by both the legal and social denial of divorce along with the absence of any opportunity for self-support. The themes of this state of inequality are profound in the works of Baum, an early supporter of women’s rights.

Baum married into a powerful feminist family which would have profound influence on his writing. His wife Maud Gage and her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage were major players in the early women’s movement. Matilda Gage, an abolitionist and feminist, Co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 and published its newsletter in the 1870s and 80s. Later she founded the Woman’s National Liberal Union to advance the cause of the separation of church and state. Gage was concerned with the rising power of the Christian church in contemporary politics and wrote passionately about it in her book “Woman, Church and State” published in 1893. (available as a free pdf here: http://aren.org/prison/documents/women/4/4.pdf ) Freedom for all humankind was at the core of her work as she states during the civil war, “Until liberty is attained–the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all – not one set alone, one clique alone, but for men and women, black and white, Irish, Germans, Americans, and Negroes, there can be no permanent peace.” http://www.nyhistory.com/gagepage/gagebio.htm Gage Co-Authored the three-volume History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. http://www.teosofiskakompaniet.net/LFrankBaumTheosophist.htm

It comes as no surprise, then that Gage was also a Theosophist. The primary belief of brotherhood and equality in Theosophical tenets would surely have drawn her to this philosophy. These beliefs would also inform her work opposing the political power of the Christian church, whose oppression she had fought against in both her work as an abolitionist and suffragist. Theosophy was brought to the United States by Helen P. Blavatsky who introduced eastern philosophical ideas of Buddhism and Hinduism to the West.

Blavatsky was also a practicing psychic and spiritualist which gave her notoriety at a time when women had little power. The spiritualist movement at the turn of the 20th century was a way in which women could gain a certain amount of empowerment. Chris Parizo notes in “Spiritualism and the Rise of the feminist Movement.“Primarily, most spiritualists were women. Their role as medium offered an escape from the persistent indignities of domestic life. Spiritualism gave women a platform, one that came with certain degrees of power, freedom and equality absent in contemporary society.” http://www.thecontrarianmedia.com/2011/07/spiritualism-and-the-rise-of-the-feminist-movement/. Spiritualism became closely aligned with the Women’s Rights and Abolitionist movements because it gave a level of power and individualism to communities whose oppression was the result of Christian doctrine. (Braude, Ann. “The Meaning of Medumship” in Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomingotn: Indiana University Press, 2001.”)

Baum, as Gage’s son-in-law, also took up the banner of human rights. He campaigned for women’s suffrage alongside his wife and mother-in-law and served as the secretary for Abereen’s (South Dakota) Suffragist Club. He was also a member of the Populist Party which supported women’s rights. As the editor for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, he wrote frequently urging voters to support women’s suffrage.

Baum was heavily influenced by his powerful-mother-in-law and began writing children’s literature at her urging. He also joined the Theosophy Society, along with his wife in 1892. http://www.teosofiskakompaniet.net/LFrankBaumTheosophist.htm He wrote about the perceived challenge posed by Theosophy to the Christian Church in an editorial on January 25, 1890 where he wrote “Theosophy is not a religion. Its followers are simply “searchers after the Truth.” Not for the ignorant are the tenets they hold, neither for the worldly in any sense. Enrolled within their ranks are some of the grandest intellects of the Eastern and Western worlds.” http://www.teosofiskakompaniet.net/LFrankBaumTheosophist.htm Baum also wrote about spiritualism and mediumship in later editorials, which were heavily influenced by the teachings of Blavatsky, Theosophy’s founder.

These ideas, then, were invested in Baum’s consciousness when he penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899. In this work as well as his subsequent other 15 works situated in the same imaginary land, Baum creates a world where women hold power and seek power while men play minor roles as companions (Tin Man, lion, Scarecrow) or bureaucrats (the charlatan Wizard – which Baum claimed to have patterned after himself). Into this imagined world comes a strong, homespun, mid-western American girl seeking her own power in her homeland (remember how Dorothy wasn’t allowed to help out on the farm and was laughed away by her uncle and the farmhands?) in Oz (named for the princess turned queen, Ozma) she seeks the power of equal intelligence (symbolized by the Scarecrow’s brain), equal compassion (the Tin Man’s heart) and equal strength and courage (symbolized by the lion). The fact that these symbols are all carried by male characters shows that she is seeking equality to men. She negotiates a political landscape where two women control all the power: Glinda, the Good Witch of the North and The Wicked Witch of the west. The witches here offer magical powers not unlike the powers of the spiritualists with which Baum was familiar in his Theosophist circles. When Dorothy and her companions confront the Wizard, who has been proven to be a fake and a charlatan (symbolizing male hegemony), he tells her that she has had the power all along and sends her home with the knowledge that she is equal and empowered.

The success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz encouraged Baum to continue writing about this imaginative land and he produced almost a book a year, referring to himself as “The Royal Historian of Oz.” In his later books he continued his strongly female dominated characters such as the plucky Oklahoma girl, Betsy Bobbin who displays strength and courage in the book Tik Tok and the Princess Ozma who is introduced as a young boy in The Marvelous Land of Oz whose journey uncovers a spell which had turned the princess to a boy and is later restored to her female self expressing a strong feminist undercurrent.

Through these books, Baum has created a truly American mythological landscape, not unlike J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Following similar themes of the hard won power of the oppressed gained through the perilous journey to confront the “great and powerful.” Here the oppressed are clearly the young women seeking empowerment at a time when the tide towards women’s equality was turning. As such, this body of literature was adopted not only by women but also by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. Judy Garland became a gay icon playing the plucky Kansas famrgirl fighting the great powers of injustice in the 1939 film adaptation of the book. These works make up an iconic lexicon devoted to the empowerment of the oppressed and their threat to the establishment is seen in the fact that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has frequented the list of banned and challenged books throughout its history.

Disney’s attempt to usurp and reframe this important piece of American feminist mythology is disheartening in an age when the primary rights that our mothers and grandmothers fought so hard for are under threat. Is this the reason this piece of sexist propaganda was released on such an important anniversary as the Woman’s Suffrage March in 1913? The evidence is building. Save your money from this film and buy your daughter a set of Baum’s amazing works about the wonderful world of Oz. They will inspire and empower her more than this blatantly sexist film.

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