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How Sam Raimi made Oz into a sexist screed

March 8, 2013

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were charming and wonderful.  While they are not my favorite children’s books (that honor is reserved for Carroll’s Alice books) I still own several dozen Oz books, including hardcover copies of all fourteen Baum Oz books, about 30 later Oz books by other authors (including Martin Gardner’s Visitors from Oz), the 1904 comic strip, both the 1973 and 2000 issues of Michael Patrick Hearn’s Annotated Wizard of Oz, and a handful of volumes of criticism.

So, I am certainly going to make of point of not seeing Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful which one review describes as

a dispiriting, infuriating jumble of big money, small ideas and ugly visuals.

Oz is too much fun to have Sam Raimi spoil it.  In particular, it looks like Raimi has managed to completely eliminate the progressive ideas that L. Frank Baum originally included in the books:

The bigger bummer, though, is that the studio that has enchanted generations with Tinker Bell and at least a few plucky princesses has backed a movie that has such backward ideas about female characters that it makes the 1939 Wizard of Oz look like a suffragist classic. Which it was, in its charming way: L. Frank Baum, who wrote the 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 13 follow-ups, was the son-in-law of the pioneering feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and her influence permeates the Oz books, which take flight with a brave girl who saves her friends and their land. Baum’s second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, even features a parodic take on the suffrage movement, with a female general, Jinjur, leading an all-girl army equipped with knitting needles.

“Friends, fellow-citizens and girls,” Jinjur declares, “we are about to begin our great Revolt against the men of Oz!” Too bad they didn’t storm Disney next.

If they had, maybe they could have jabbed some sense into the director Sam Raimi, best known for the first Spider-Man movies, and his five male producers, and then used those needles to shred Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script. A little sisterly outrage would have been appropriate because, among other offenses, the filmmakers have thrown over Dorothy — one of the greatest heroines in children’s literature and Hollywood cinema — for prequel about a two-bit magician and Lothario with female troubles. In Baum’s first book and in the 1939 film the witches are powerful forces for good and wickedness in the Land of Oz. In Oz the Great and Powerful, a witch not only falls for the man Oz, she also turns green from envy when he cozies up to a pretty blonde. (Yeah, the baddie is a brunette.)

How insulting to L. Frank Baum’s (and Matilda Joslyn Gage’s) memory.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 10, 2013 1:01 am

    I just saw Wicked, a female friendly interpretation of Oz.

  2. March 17, 2013 9:41 pm

    Ugh, thanks for the warning, Theophrastus! I’d actually thought about going to see this. (I very, very rarely go to the movies, but this sounded like fun.) I think not.

  3. March 20, 2013 12:23 pm

    I actually liked the movie, and I’m also a big Oz fan. I don’t think it’s as sexist as the review portrays. It does pass the Bechdel test, for instance. I thought the visuals were beautiful and that the spirit of Oz comes through, even though the plot bears little resemblance to any of Baum’s books. Glinda is a great character, and the movie does a good job of integrating some of the MGM classic’s images without being an imitation.

    Yeah, the wizard is a Lothario and a con man– but the whole plot is about how he learns to become a better man and rescue the Emerald City in the process.

  4. March 22, 2013 1:27 pm

    Kristen, Thanks for your re-review here! Your comments are spot on. (I saw the movie twice, the second time in 3D but only because during the first – normal 2D – showing the projector in the theater failed before the end and the manager invited us to see the more spectacular version.) I don’t have anything more to add except to reiterate that indeed “the visuals were beautiful and that the spirit of Oz comes through [and ...] Glinda is a great character.”

    Usually Manohla Dargis’s reviews can be trusted (but not this one nor her review of the 2012 Les Miserables). And all might appreciate some irony in the fact that she or a NYT editor entitled one of her reviews “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Cute,” an indebtedness to the earlier Oz movie unacknowledged.

  5. March 22, 2013 3:58 pm

    I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot respond; however, I love the books so much (and some other reviews were mixed) so that I think I will forgo seeing the movie.

    I am glad you enjoyed it though, Kristen and J.K.

  6. Don permalink
    March 24, 2013 1:41 am

    I keep hearing people saying that the new movie would be an insult to Baum’s memory because of the sexism in the movie, but this makes no sense to me. If you actually read The Marvelous Land of Oz, it is extremely anti-feminist. It paints a terrible portrait of women and the women’s movement. The women who rise up against their oppressors are the villains of the book, led by General Jinjur, all motivated mainly by their desire for gorgeous gems and pretty dresses. They are consistently described as giggly and distracted and talkative. They enslave the men, and they steal all the city’s gems. When the army of women are finally defeated by the heroes, Baum writes:

    “At once the men of the Emerald City cast off their aprons. And it is said that the women were so tired eating of their husbands’ cooking that they all hailed the conquest of Jinjur with joy. Certain it is that, rushing one and all to the kitchens of their houses, the good wives prepared so delicious a feast for the weary men that harmony was immediately restored in every family.”

    In other words: order is restored when women remain in their kitchens. This is just one of many horrifying passages in the book that criticizes the women’s movement, and so I don’t understand why Baum is being hailed as someone with a progressive view on the subject–not just here but on other sites too. The new movie is indeed sexist, and it’s truly a shame, but it’s a mistake to think of Baum as being progressive.

  7. March 29, 2013 1:01 pm

    Don, I’m sure that Baum was sexist by today’s standards, and it’s certain he was mocking the women’s suffrage movement with Jinjur and her army. However, it’s interesting to note that in all the rest of the books after The Marvelous Land of Oz, the country’s rulers are Ozma and Glinda– and the Wizard (who returns with Dorothy in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz) becomes court magician to the Queen. Dorothy, Trot, and Betsy are the main characters of the series– all female children from America who come to Oz. The only boy who comes to Oz is Button-Bright, who is best known for his stupidity.

  8. March 29, 2013 4:11 pm

    The post, this conversation, and now this careful, thoughtful, and fair review are making me re-think some of my initial post-viewing conclusions about the film. (I was watching the film with my son, not either of my daughters, and I do wonder now if sitting through the movie with them might have helped me, and my family, be better critics. Our cinema going rituals – my son’s and mine – usually involve choices that we don’t have to take too seriously.)

  9. March 29, 2013 7:46 pm

    I’d really like to read that review, but your link isn’t working.

  10. March 30, 2013 2:23 am

    Yes, that one works. Thanks!

  11. April 3, 2013 10:28 pm

    I found the story extremely sexist.

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