To the surprise of precisely no one, Oz the Great and Powerful is a feminist nightmare
People assume that the Bechdel test is a direct progression from one point, two points, feminist cookie! But actually from a non-simplistic, non-reductionist viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of gender-wendery, feministy-weministy stuff.
For those of you who are not aware, the Bechdel Test is a set of rules first presented in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass, a piece of media must include 1) two or more named female characters who 2) speak to each other about 3) something other than a man. Since its inception, it has been misused and misunderstood. The Bechdel Test is not necessarily a litmus to determine if something is feminist or not; it is more useful as a diagnostic for the state of fiction in our culture. The problem is not that any one movie or book or TV show episode does not pass. The problem is that so incredibly few pass compared to the number of movies and books and episodes with two or more male characters who speak to each other about something other than a woman.
Another problem is that people seem to think that you can get partial credit by passing one or two Bechdel criteria. Surely, more female characters are better than none and it’s very nice if they get to talk to each other, but the concept of getting Bechdel “points” without passing the complete test is not as useful as one might think. In fact, I am of the opinion that media that passes the first two of the Bechdel criteria with flying colors while blatantly failing to pass the third is some of the least-feminist, most regressive of the lot.
And now we finally get to the point: Oz the Great and Powerful, aka A Bunch of Awesome Women Can’t Find Anything to Talk About Other Than Some Asshole Dude.
To be fair, I knew what I was getting into. In a world filled with so many fascinating female characters, the very concept of a Wizard of Oz origin story screams androcentrism. And I really wasn’t expecting much from a movie produced by a guy who said, “…a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by. But with the origin story of the Wizard of Oz, here was a fairy tale story with a natural male protagonist. Which is why I knew that this was an idea for a movie that was genuinely worth pursuing,” in all seriousness.
[There are spoilers beyond this point, but the movie is so mind-numbingly predictable that it renders the concept of spoilers obsolete.]
Silly girl, agency is for men
Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora are witches. Evanora killed Glinda’s father, the old wizard, and convinced the Emerald City that Glinda was to blame. Glinda was banished, and Evanora took the throne. Theodora lives in sheltered innocence, unaware of her sister’s trickery. Meanwhile, Glinda is organizing a resistance, hoping to one day clear her name and defeat her father’s murderer.
Holy crap. I would watch that movie. I would watch that movie ten times.
But, like a turd in a trifle, one little addition spoils the whole thing. Glinda’s father, you see, made a prophecy that a new wizard would one day arrive to defeat the wicked witch and claim the Emerald City throne. So these three interesting, varied, powerful, motivated women presumably sat on their duffs for years waiting for a douche to crash a blimp into a pond. And then when he arrives, even when he repeatedly proves himself to be selfish and useless, they fall over each other to cater to him and tell him how important he is.
I don’t blame Theodora. Her interest in the wizard is more girlish fantasy than strategic manipulation. Evanora, too – she was sitting pretty on the throne with her enemies on the run. Why should she do anything but enjoy her spoils and wait to see if some dupe of a wizard might show up and do her dirty work for her?
You want me to believe that she heard the prophecy and was like, “Whoops, I guess that means I can’t take responsibility for my people and lead any kind of significant resistance?” She’s smart, insightful, and understands the people of Oz. And yet, even when she knew that he had no magic and was kind of a terrible person, she left her own fate and the fate of everyone she cared about in the Wizard’s hands. Was she so bound by the prophecy that she dared not make a move until it was fulfilled, or did the powers that be not think that hard about it?
Basically, either the people who made this movie are misogynists or the people of Oz are. (Hint: it’s both.)
What female friendship?
God forbid a genre movie show two sisters, even villains, in a healthy sibling relationship. Theodora and Evanora’s interactions are all manipulative and poisonous. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal (there are lots of terrible sibling relationships in fiction and real life) if the basis of nearly all of their interactions in the movie did not revolve around the fricking Wizard. By making a romance subplot the center of everything they talk about, the movie genders their relationship. It’s not just about a cruel older sibling taking advantage of her naïve younger sibling. It’s about women using their sexualities as weapons against each other, and it’s gross.
The sad thing is, Theodora and Evanora could have been really interesting. There was a hint of something near the beginning of the movie where Evanora implies that Theodora is inherently wicked, despite her attempts to be good, and Theodora reacts violently. This could have been a fascinating exploration of the movie’s moral prescriptivism (with everyone divided into either good or wicked camps with no room for ambiguity), but instead it’s never brought up again, and that little exchange remains the closest the movie ever comes to passing that final Bechdel hurdle.
There was also something promising in the way Evanora implied that she wanted to rule Oz with Theodora – despite her wickedness, Evanora cared about her sister. She only burned the goodness out of her so that they would be able to work together with no secrets between them. And when Theodora became more wicked than Evanora ever expected or wanted, she was legitimately frightened and saddened. But almost all of this was left in subtext, to be conveyed by subtleties in the actresses’ performances. It is never explored in the text, and it is not given the consideration it deserves.
So there was no reason for the two of them to be so boring and regressive except that the powers that be deemed it so.
The Wicked Witch of the West
She is one of the greatest fictional villains of all time. Instantly recognizable, hugely popular, and resonant through a metric ton of our culture. Back-stories for villains like this can be loads of fun. Just look at Wicked.
But instead of taking a cue from Wicked and considering how the Witch might have a long and varied history which led her to take actions that she believes are right even though they go against the Wizard, in a move that is as insulting as it is hair-pullingly frustrating this movie decides to go with being jilted in love as her sole character motivation.
And even then, the Wizard treated her like such garbage before she turned wicked that I had a really hard time not rooting for her after the fact. Actually, screw that. I full-on rooted for her. All she wanted was to be a good witch and get married and live in peace, and she got used by the Wizard, manipulated by her sister, and cast out of her home.
And then the Wizard has the temerity to tell her that being wicked isn’t her fault, and that if she ever wants to apologize she’s welcome to come back? He can go eat a bag of dicks.
Good people are beautiful; evil people are ugly
There’s, um, not much to say about this. The movie played this trope unbelievably, depressingly straight.
Okay, there was the nice touch that Evanora covered her ugliness with a glamour while Theodora reveled in her new appearance. I love the idea of the Wicked Witch embracing her green skin, beady eyes, and pointed nose. Because who cares? Why should she spend a single iota of magic making herself look more like how other people would prefer her to look?
But then there was that line about how she didn’t want to hide her ugliness because she wanted the Wizard to see what he had done to her, and… okay, so you’re still basing choices about your appearance on a man. Awesome.
I’m just going to go lie in the corner over here.
But why should misogynists have all the fun?
There’s plenty of discrimination and shoddy representation to go around!
Of the six main characters in the closing scene, two were black and one was a little person. That seems like pretty good statistics, right? Hold up. Those two characters got less screen time combined than any of the others did alone, and their character development was basically nil. The head tinker came in at the end and was almost entirely a plot device. And while Nook did get a few good lines in, during all his scenes I got the uncomfortable, nagging suspicion that the movie was expecting me to laugh and go, “Awwww, look at the angry little black man!”
I wish he really had broken the Wizard’s nose…
I give up
You know what? This article was going to be about how this movie was really pretty and quite enjoyable, but betrayed by its own fatally flawed premise. I was going to talk about how the beginning scenes were cleverly done, with the action springing out of the confines of the reel and into widescreen. I was going to talk about the color and set design of Oz. I was going to talk about some of the genuinely touching moments.
But no. I’m done. This movie has broken me. I’m going to talk about plot holes instead.
During the final assault on the Emerald City, when the Wizard takes off as if it was his plan all along to ditch his friends and make off with the gold, why in the hell did the movie show the others clearly not having a clue what was going on? There’s no reason for him not to tell everyone what he’s really up to. And later, when the balloon crashes, it makes absolutely zero sense for them to be there at the ready with the projector to complete the plan if they thought he was serious about running away.
And then what was with the ending? After employing like a hundred tinkers to build him the projector that he will use to make people believe that he’s a ghostly face in a cloud of smoke instead of an asshole behind a curtain, he gathers five people into a room and they say, “Your secret’s safe with us!” Yeah, I’m sure all the people who built you a machine designed to make things look bigger and floating in the air won’t tell any of their friends now that your face is bigger and floating in the air.
Whew. Um. I think I’m really done now. I’m just going to go lie down and put a cold washcloth over my eyes.
Please don’t see this movie. Goodnight.