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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

The Wizard of Oz: A Counter-Cultural Tale

by Susan Harris Howell

When our daughter and son were born, my husband and I tried to encourage gender equality through the books and TV programs to which they were exposed. While it was difficult at times, I was stunned when I realized that The Wizard of Oz runs counter to all of the gendered expectations other children’s stories seem to promote.

Think about it: every person in the Wizard of Oz who has any power at all is female.

1) Dorothy is the undisputed leader of an unlikely male trio: the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow.

2) The two witches have power respected by male and female characters alike: one used for good, one for evil.

3) While we are led to believe throughout that the Wizard (a male) has the power to grant their wishes, in the end we learn that he doesn’t have any power at all. Instead, Dorothy and her friends find within themselves the ability to accomplish their goals.

4) And speaking of their wishes, the lion and the scarecrow spend the better part of the story bemoaning their respective lack of courage and a brain, both characteristics considered a staple for manhood.

5) Even little Toto had his share of angst in trying to avoid the unreasonable (yet powerful!) Mrs. Gulch.

6) In addition, the objects which Dorothy utilized to get back to her Kansas home were the ruby slippers, certainly a culturally-defined feminine object.

When I first noticed the above, I was perplexed given that this movie was originally released in 1939, much earlier than one would expect to see a movie intent on breaking gender norms. Furthermore, L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from which the movie was based has an original publication date of 1899!

Could it be a mere coincidence that in this tale we have such complete reconfiguration of norms for leadership, courage, brains, and even wickedness? I had to know. So I did a little research and found the following:

L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law was Matilda Joslyn Gage, who made a name for herself in the late 1800’s for her work with the women’s suffragist movement and in co-founding the National Woman Suffrage Association. She and Baum shared some of the same beliefs about women’s rights (Hearn, 2000) and she encouraged him in his writing.

It seems anything but a coincidence then that his tale of Oz provides an alternate fairytale: one with strong females who have power, leadership, brains, and courage. And while a world with all power held by females certainly isn’t the goal (any more than one of witches, wizards, or talking scarecrows), having some balance in the world of children’s literature is refreshing.

What are some of your favorite children stories that break gender norms?

References Hearn, M. P. (2000). Introduction. The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Centennial Edition (Ed. Michael Patrick Hearn). Matilda Joslyn Gage Biography. bio.TrueStory. Retrieved 6/17/13. Family Parlor and Oz Room. The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. Retrieved 6/17/13.

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