Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Land of Oz: revolutionary and feminist, or sexist and stereotypical?

I shouldn't waste much time explaining why I was reading The Land Of Oz, since it is a children's book and not a legal treatise and I really should be reading more of the latter, but suffice it to say that I recently rewatched Return to Oz, the movie, and was interested in seeing how similar it was to the books it was based upon. In my reading, I was struck by the feminist theories the book espoused, and in some places made fun of, and, happily, ended up getting more out of the book as an adult than I had as a child, similar to my rereadings of the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis.

The Land Of Oz was written, as the first seven Oz books were, by L. Frank Baum. It was published in 1904. The basic plot is that an army of women, led by a woman, General Jinjur, is taking over the Emerald City where previously the Scarecrow reigned as king. The book is rife with reasons for the takeover: "the Emerald City has been ruled by men long enough," explains Jinjur (p. 78) Additionally, the women want the emerald gems for necklaces and the money in the King's treasury so they can buy "a dozen new gowns" each. The fact that the city has been ruled by men long enough seems like a very feminist theory: men have ruled too long too poorly and we women would like to try our hand at it, because we believe we could be much better. But followed so closely by the comment about the necklaces and gowns, Baum seems to trivialize the matter and show that the women have silly reasons for wanting to rule (and thus will be no better, and maybe worse, than the men?).

However, as the dialogue continues, we see Baum's interpretation of the difference between women and men -- and it is a good one. "This war will be pleasant," explains the General on page 79. "What man would oppose a girl, or dare to harm her?" And thus the war goes, and the girls take over the city with no bloodshed and no violence, due to their gentle ways. Is Baum proposing that the very differences between men and women would make women better leaders, because of their kindness and gentility? But again, Baum's theorizing that women have value in a man's position is undercut by the ridiculousness of the entry into the Emerald City, for the women take it over by jabbing their knitting needles at people. Moreover, the takeover is easy for the women because the Scarecrow really doesn't have an army to fight back with. The army is one lone man with long whiskers, whose gun is left unloaded. Therefore, the question of whether an all-woman army could conquer a city or province out here in the non-Oz "real world" is not addressed, so it's unclear whether Baum really believes that an army of women could take over a real place outside of his fantasy world.

The work progresses as the Scarecrow's gang (all men) come to the City to retake it. They are surrounded by the girls yet escape by letting go of ten mice who scare the girls so much that they scatter, amidst girlish screaming. The Scarecrow's gang is far outnumbered, but due to this stereotype that women are afraid of harmless things like mice and spiders, the gang wins the day.

The gang finally goes to Glinda the Good Witch for help, and here women get a good rap after all. The witch is kind and good and her army, also all women, seem like they wouldn't run away from mice or be so concerned with buying new gowns, as Jinjur's army is. And the ending of the book -- careful here if you want to read it, because this is a spoiler -- ends with the discovery that the rightful ruler of Oz was a girl transformed magically into a boy so noone would find her and let her rule. The boy is transformed back into his true form as a girl and takes her throne as the Princess of Oz. Therefore, one of the Scarecrow's gang turns out to be the true ruler of Oz: Ozma of Oz. Thus, the true ruler of Oz is a little girl: a pleasant concept for Baum's readers, most of them being much younger than I, thinking that they too could rule a land. So Oz is ruled by a female, not a male. Thus, despite the previous jabs at womanhood as concerned with only shallow things and knowing nothing more than knitting, a woman reigns in Oz at the end of the book.

There is a humorous scene at the end of the book that deserves some review here as well. The men have had to take over the womens' work after Jinjur takes over the city. They had to wear aprons and cook meals. At the end of the book, they are allowed to take over their old jobs again and not cook anymore, which humorously, the women are happy about, since the men were such terrible cooks. This part of the book seems to imply that not only is women's work truly work, it is too hard for men to do. On the other hand, it reinforces stereotypes as to who is supposed to do what work, saying that women should stay in their place at the home, cooking for the family.

So is the book feminist or sexist? Are we women so weak that we have to rely on our beauty to take over a city? Are we so shallow that all we care about is necklaces and gowns? Or are we strong in our own way, the men have gotten to rule long enough with poor enough results, and even a little girl turns out to rule better than a grown man? It's up to you to decide whether women are portrayed sympathetically in The Land of Oz. I hope you will read it yourself, and make your own decision: it is an interesting piece of literature and for its time, quite open-minded and feminist after all. Long live Ozma the ruling princess of Oz! ;)

For more on the book, click here.

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