Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Oz the Great and Unfortunately Gender Politicked

After making an unsuccessful attempt to combat sleep and watch Oz the Great and Powerful last night, I managed to finish it this evening, and it left me with enough thoughts to dust off this blog and write a quick thing or two about it.

Oz is nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be, in spite all of the comparisons previously made between it and Tim Burton's abysmal Alice in Wonderland. While Alice couldn't even be bothered to make something coherent out of its zany Burtonalia and pseudopsychedelia, Oz has a fairly straight-forward, conventional story. Many of its hat-tips to the original Wizard of Oz are fun and well-considered, and the beginning chapters' black-and-white cinematography and Academy ratio are a nice, if slightly forced, homage. I could have done without a lot of the hyper-stylized visuals that accompany soon-to-be Wizard Oscar's (James Franco) time in Oz, not least because they have the effect—often encountered in overly-CGI-heavy films—of making everything seem unreal, weightless, and nonexistent to the point of taking the viewer out of the film. However, the China Girl (Joey King) character is an incredible visual effect, and whenever the film eschewed CGI vistas for small, intimate, emotional moments, I felt far more positively toward it. As with so many films, it's baggy and roughly 30 minutes too long, but it's certainly not a drudge like many others of its kind. It's a passable family entertainment, though one that doesn't quite make up for its flaws or even give itself much reason to exist.

That being said, there is one rather galling thing about the film: its take on gender politics. If you intend to watch it at some point, be advised: SPOILERS BELOW

In the Kansas-set prologue chapters, Oscar is a two-bit carnival charlatan who, it is implied, is a womanizer and rake. He seduces May (Abigail Spencer), another in an assumed long line of assistants he's loved and left, and the trouble this seduction causes is the inciting event that leads to his departure by balloon and eventual crash-landing in Oz. The motivation for his serial seductions seems to be connected to his self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy. When the pure, kind Annie (Michelle Williams), his former flame and putative ideal woman, visits him, she encourages him to find the goodness within himself—which is basically Screenwriting 101 signposting for "He will find his inner goodness." But his unwillingness to perceive it at this stage causes him to push her off onto a more forthright suitor just before he flees the carnival and lands in Oz.

The underlying message here is that the pursuit of intimacy outside the confines of a chaste, pure relationship, can only stem from deep character flaws, and that, if only Oscar could love himself more, he could wind up happy and monogamous with his archetypically-virginal lady-wife.

After Oscar reaches Oz, he meets the beguiling witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of a prophecy whereby a great wizard will fall from the sky, defeat the Wicked Witch, and save Oz. Theodora is presented as a naive, passionate, but decent woman, concerned with the welfare of her land but obviously attracted to Oscar and the power and position he potentially brings to the table. She quickly insinuates herself as his Queen-to-be, and brings him home to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) in the Emerald City. While Theodora pines after Oscar and talks up his greatness, Evanora appears more skeptical and practical. Oscar, for his part, remains commitment-shy (though hardly unwilling to flirt with both sisters and flatter his vanity) and more interested in the trappings of greatness and the promise of wealth and power. He has no interest in a long-term thing with either sister, though he would never have the guts to tell Theodora.

Unbeknownst to her sister, however, Evanora is a secret Wicked Witch, who has been feigning goodness and tricking a great portion of Oz into believing that Glinda the Good Witch (also Michelle Williams) is really the wicked one. She sends Oscar off to kill Glinda, but when he instead joins forces with the saintly, virginal Good Witch, Evanora uses Theodora's passion against her. She manipulates Theodora, first into believing that she too had been intimate with Oscar, then into thinking Oscar had betrayed them both for Glinda's charms. Evanora then convinces the forlorn, forsaken Theodora to eat a charmed apple—the oldest literary symbol of forbidden knowledge and feminine weakness—which reveals the truth of her sister's wickedness, but also hardens her heart and transforms her into The Wicked Witch of the West. From this point on, she plays the scorned lover, and joins with Evanora to punish Oscar for his betrayal.

This is fairly obvious stuff, and it does make sense to have simple motivations in a children's fantasy tale. However, it does the original a great disservice to retcon its antagonist into nothing more than a bitter, jilted lover. Similarly, the gender politics of punishing Theodora for her desires and marking her passion as a pathway towards evil seem a bit regressive and anti-woman, at best. As soon as she eats the apple, she transforms from the gorgeous Mila Kunis into the green-skinned, wart-nosed hag we know from the original Wizard. And, later in the film, the evil Evanora's magic fails, and she too is revealed to be a repulsive crone. It's easy to read this as some kind of shaming, of saying that wanting things for yourself (love, power) will turn you into a monster—at least if you're a woman—while selflessness and chastity will leave you as fair and angelic as Glinda.

But perhaps this is unfair: passion and ambition are dangerous traits in all sorts of stories. If the cowardly, greedy, ambitious Oscar were similarly punished, this might not be so bad.

SPOILER: He isn't.

Oscar instead undertakes the standard journey from rakish rascal to incorrigible-but-benevolent leader. This change is telegraphed, obviously, by having the same actress play his dream girl Annie and the infinitely good Glinda, both of whom believe he can be the kind of good man he longs to be in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Through Glinda's faith and the goodwill of the kindly citizens of Oz, Oscar creates a brilliant strategy to defeat the wicked sisters and restore order to the kingdom. His interest in money is abandoned. His lust for power is replaced with theatrics and benevolence. Despite his history of breaking others hearts while lusting in his own, he is never made to suffer. His arc is strictly one of learning to care for others and believe in himself. Only then can he share a modest kiss with Glinda, with whom he previously had little chemistry.

This all implies that what is shameful and permanently scarring for a woman is nothing more than a flaw to be smoothed over for a man. "Goodness" and "Wickedness" are somewhat mutable things, given Theodora's transformation and an "If you ever find goodness in yourself again..." speech from Oscar, though Theodora's rejection might indicate that there's no coming back from the dark side. But "great" and "powerful" though he may be, Oscar is never saddled with judgmental labels like "Good" or "Wicked." Is goodness only an essential trait for a woman? Are there viable paths by which Evanora or Theodora could learn the "proper" virtues and become more like Glinda? The movie seems to portray them as cautionary tales rather than redeemable antiheroes like Oscar. It's hard not to see this as a gendered thing.

Assuming kids and teens are this film's target audience, what kind of message does this imbalance provide? On the one hand, it's a fairy tale, and fairy tales always have a simple morality that idolizes the pure and stigmatizes the impure. But on the other hand, this virgin/whore dichotomy is one of the chief tools by which women are repressed in society. Was there no other story that could have been told, here? No other moral than "Be selfless, modest, and chaste or you'll wind up a bitter, twisted hag?" The film is meant to be a trifle, a piece of eye candy, and (as I've said) is not terrible or unrewarding in its way, but once I got past the candy's sweet shell, its lazy perpetuation of a toxic gender paradigm unfortunately left me with a sour taste in my mouth.


  1. Dear, sir,
    I wish all my movie reviews came through you. That was great (and powerful... eh? eh?). I've been on the fence about watching this one and, I dare say, you've knocked me off the fence. I'll find better things to do with my time. :)

    1. Thanks, Maggie! While I usually encourage people to see for themselves, in this case you've probably made the right choice. You might, given your interests, see something different than I do in the effects and technical stuff, but there are probably better movies with comparable effects on which you could more safely spend your limited time. :)