We’ve all watched the MGM film The Wizard of Oz from 1939. But did you know that the original novel, written fully 39 years earlier, contained ideas about femininity that were quite progressive at that time and still are today?
The feminist tendencies of his novels do not come as such a big surprise if we look at L. Frank Baum‘s biography. The seventh out of nine children born to a barrel maker and his wife in Chittenango, New York State, Lyman Frank was an imaginative and dreamy, but sickly child with a defective heart; at the year of 14, after two years at military school, he had a heart attack. Throughout his young adult and mature life, he never settled with any one profession that would make a stable living, but he pursued various interests: he edited newspapers, tried to kick off an acting career, worked both as a clerk and a farmer (with a particular interest in poultry), took part in his family’s oil business, owned a novelty store, became the secretary for a local baseball team and a traveling salesman for a China wholesale company, was a gifted photographer and established himself as a writer, although his writing success never provided him with a stable living, either.
An important source for Baum’s writing creativity was his family. He was introduced to his future wife Maud Gage, the youngest daughter of woman suffrage leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, at a small party hosted by his sister. When they decided to marry, headstrong Maud did not care about her mother’s objections and finally persuaded her to consent. L. Frank Baum actually shared most of Matilda Joslyn Gage’s views on feminist issues of those days, the most important being woman suffrage. He was also a real family man. Maud and Frank had four children, all boys, and Baum would invent stories to tell and read to them – stories he then published for other children to enjoy in Mother Goose in Prose and Father Goose, His Book. Baum was 43 years old at that time. His biggest hit, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published shortly after, in 1900.
Although it remained popular over the years, critics have not always been well-disposed towards this classic American children’s novel. The points of criticism have spanned allegations of an alleged surplus of sentimentality, poor anthropomorphism (i.e., in this case, the way animals are shown as characters with human characteristics), a communist undercurrent, bad writing style, and also Baum’s unconventional take on gender roles. The novel, along with all its sequels, was actually banned from the children’s sections of the Washington D.C. public library system in the 1920s and was not allowed to return until as late as 1966.
Let’s look at these unconventionally gendered characters – not only the female, but the male characters as well. Of course there are quite a few animals in the story that should be included, since they have human characteristics – like the lion who is in search for courage – and are assigned either the pronoun “he” or the pronoun “she”, so they might be worth a closer look. On the other hand, it should be noted that there is another class of animals in the story, like the wildcat or the giant spider, who are considered evil and assigned the pronoun “it”. Although this might seem strange at first, it is actually one of the traditional fairy tale elements that show in various parts of the plot. By the way, the only gendered animal without obvious human characteristics throughout the novel is Toto!
To start off with the most important character, Baum’s Dorothy is not in fact a teenager like in the MGM film, but a little girl of estimated five or six years, judging from the illustrations in the book.
The whole story is strikingly devoid of the mere concept of family, so it may not come as a surprise that Dorothy is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She hardly seems overwhelmed by anything, she is self-reliant and, what’s probably most important, she takes her own equality for granted. She does not only defy the role of the helpless female who needs to be saved by a strong male, but she is quite the opposite: She saves the Scarecrow and the Tinman (both male!) from their states of confinement, and when she herself is captured by the Wicked Witch of the West, she finds a means to defeat her enemy and sets a whole people free as a side effect – if that’s not the story of a true heroine, I don’t know what is. Still, while being strong and self-reliant, Dorothy is also patient, helping to those in need, and rather peaceful in general, which makes her appear feminine despite the aforementioned aspects. Her desires are modest and realistic because after all, she is only searching for a way back where she came from, while the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion have desires that seem very much out of reach.
The Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion all defy male stereotypes as well. The Scarecrow acts as the group’s “brains” since he comes up with clever solutions in various situations, but he also takes on the task of gathering fruits and nuts for Dorothy to eat and seems to have a rather gentle, soft character. The Tin Woodman does have qualities traditionally associated with manliness, like the skills of a craftsman along with physical strength, and he is also the group’s “killing machine”, chopping off several heads as the story develops. However, he also has a very obvious “soft core” as he frequently starts crying out of empathy for others. The Lion obviously suffers from his assumed failure to achieve courage, an attribute considered very masculine. When he attempts to attack Toto – obviously overcompensating for his anxieties – he is even intimidated by Dorothy when she scolds him. On top of all this, all these three male characters are in need of help not just at one, but at several points of the story.
The witches, on the other hand, are more traditional fairy tale characters. Although the Good Witch of the North assures Dorothy of the incorrectness of the medieval witch image, the Wicked Witch of the West fits the typical traditional evil crone archetype. (Mind that I’m exclusively talking about the Baum novel here.) Active, selfish, manipulative, merciless, old and ugly, she is contrasted by another traditional female archetype, namely the passive, selfless, supportive, merciful, young and beautiful Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. In terms of gender relations, these characters seem to be a setback from the feminist ways of little Dorothy. However, it should also be noted that the witches are the ones who hold real power in Oz, and that they provide Dorothy with a solution to her search for home. The only male character who could be expected to help Dorothy fails miserably.
The Wizard is a character most heavily laden with expectations from the beginning. He appears to be the ultimate powerful presence, the only man with real power throughout the story, but he disappoints Dorothy and the reader greatly. Morally extremely ambiguous, the cunning “Wizard” has the people work for him under false premises, orders a killing, and likes to present himself as “Oz, the Great and Terrible” without even the slightest impulse of regret. In his self-serving, manipulating attitude, he seems little better than the wicked witches. On the other hand, he proves helpful in achieving the group’s goals in the end, and willingly does everything in his might to give them what they want. The goodwill that he shows after being unveiled proves him not so bad after all; he merely uses his intelligence and inventiveness, with a psychotherapist tendency, to do whatever is best in his regard in the respective circumstances. He possesses some power, although this power is not magical, but rather stems from great mental ability. The Wizard possesses neither physical strength nor pride, so the traditional male gender role does not really apply here. Although he has some qualities that could be considered evil, he is not depicted as an evil character. He seems just a little bit too complex to deserve such an assessment.
Most of the minor characters are not very interesting in terms of gender roles. However one backstory character, introduced when the king of the Winged Monkeys tells the story of how he and his people were enslaved, is of interest: Gayelette, a beautiful princess living in a ruby palace. She was good to her people and loved them. Although this story sounds like another version of one-dimensional Glinda at first, Gayelette surprises insofar that she was actively searching for a partner, and found a boy named Quelala who met her requirements, so she raised him to be her husband. Gayelette is not only a kind-hearted, but also a very active female character. On top of that, she has one particular flaw, and that is her temper: When the ancestor of the monkey king pulled a harmless trick on Quelala, Gayelette got so angry that she put the spell on the golden cap and thereby enslaved the whole winged monkey people. For a character that merely appears in a backstory, Gayelette is surprisingly complex. Neither bad, nor perfectly good, actively pursuing her own ambitions, she could really be a feminist prototype.
Finally there are Dorothy’s uncle and aunt. They live in Kansas, AKA “the real world” and so, according to the strictly gendered division of labor at the turn of the century, Uncle Henry is “a farmer” working the fields, while Aunt Emily is “his wife” doing all the housework. We’ve all come a long way from Kansas, but until we arrive at Dorothy’s state of equality and self-reliance, we might still have some way to go!
Baum, L. Frank; Denslow, W. W.: The Annotated Wizard of Oz – Centennial Edition. Ed. Michael Patrick Hearn. New York: W. W. Norton. 1900 / 2000.
Earle, Neil: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in American Popular Culture. Uneasy in Eden. New York [et al.]: Edwin Mellen Press. 1993.
Rogers, Katherine M.: L. Frank Baum. Creator of Oz. A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2003.