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Why The Wizard of Oz Should be Rated NC-17

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Children should not be allowed to watch The Wizard of Oz. It’s not that it’s too scary, or too sweet, or that prolonged exposure to Judy Garland will turn little boys gay (well, maybe that last one…).

No, the reason Oz should carry an NC-17 rating is that it depicts a moral cesspool, where lying, hypocrisy and callous indifference to human life are all on full display. And who are the worst offenders? The “good” characters.

Take Glinda the Good. First of all, anyone who has to label themselves this way is definitely overcompensating.

Second, Glinda’s goodness is slippery. And here let me say that I know that the book and musical Wicked have already explored the moral ambiguities of both Oz witches by providing them with back stories. However, despite the hundreds of thousands of tween girls who have made this musical a long-running hit, the 1939 movie still has had a far broader cultural impact, so that’s where I’m focusing.

Glinda’s first questionable act is giving the ruby slippers to Dorothy, magically removing them from the feet of the recently crushed Wicked Witch of the East. (The image of those striped stocking-clad feet curling in on themselves is, for me, as iconic as any other image from this icon-filled movie). As Salman Rushdie points out in his BFI Classics treatise on this film, Glinda essentially steals/grave-robs the shoes from their rightful owner. The slippers belong, at least by accepted rules of inheritance, to her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West. But Glinda takes advantage of West’s late arrival to magically transfer ownership to Dorothy – the previous owner’s (accidental) killer. Cold.

A question no one ever seems to ask is “Why?” There are two possible explanations, and which one you choose depends on your reading of Glinda’s character:

  1. She’s a ditz who acts on the spur of the moment, never mind the consequences. In this reading, Glinda may not know exactly how the slippers work, but she knows enough to know that WWW should not get them. This is supported by her line, “Their magic must be very powerful or she wouldn’t want them so badly” – and Billie Burke’s reading carries just the right touch of panicked urgency.
  2. Glinda is not as dumb as she looks or sounds. This is, to me, a more plausible view, but it places Glinda in a harsher light. She knows the slippers need to be kept out of the feet, er, hands, of West. For whatever magical rule, she can’t wear them herself. (Perhaps they have to go to the previous owner’s killer, à la Harry Potter’s Wand of Destiny.) Dorothy is a convenient mobile shoe tree, and besides, she can probably take care of herself – after all, she’s already iced one Wicked Witch.

This reading is supported by Glinda’s parting words to Dot re: footwear. “Remember, never let those ruby slippers off your feet for a moment, or you will be at the mercy of the Wicked Witch.”

Of course, with the slippers Dorothy becomes West’s target for the bulk of the movie. Does Glinda know/care? Listen to her passive-aggressive read of the situation after West’s smoky departure: “I’m afraid you’ve made rather a bad enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West.”

Now if Dorothy were the actual teenager Judy Garland was, and not the innocent/gullible 10-year-old she was playing, her response would have been: “I’ve made her an enemy? You did it, you bitch! I didn’t ask for these shoes!”

(It is true that, had Dorothy remained in her farm clodhoppers, West might have killed her for revenge or just out of spite, so Glinda is at least protecting her pawn by going all Carrie Bradshaw on her. As I said, dumb like a fox.)

Can Glinda Be Trusted?

Whatever Glinda’s motives, she’s maddeningly evasive. Evil and murderous as West is, at least she’s direct. She doesn’t pretend to do or be anything she isn’t: hungry for power and frustrated into sarcasm. When she says later in the film that it’s kind of Dorothy to visit her in her loneliness, she knows she’s being nasty/scary. If Glinda said the same line, we couldn’t really be sure she wasn’t indulging in self-pity.

Glinda stokes the plot engine with her next move, sending Dorothy to Emerald City to ask for a ticket to ride back to Kansas from the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz. In the Glinda’s-a-well-meaning-cluck reading, she believes the Wizard is actually as powerful as he’s reputed to be. She’s done all she can, arming Dot with bewitching shoes of red, and is now passing her up the chain of command.

Or: Glinda knows (or at least suspects) that Oz is a fraud, so she sends Dorothy on ahead to find out. This also gets Dorothy out of Glinda’s hair for a while, allowing her to do some research on the ruby slippers that may be helpful later on. She does keep an eye on Dorothy’s progress, counteracting West’s deadly sleep of the poppies with a snowfall. (I’ve often thought this was about turning the poppies’ opium into heroin.)

Glinda as power player and Dorothy as pawn also provides a more plausible explanation for Glinda’s final insult, when she reveals that the shoes would have taken Dorothy home at any time. Her stated explanation – that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed this earlier on – has always stretched credibility. Really? It’s not even worth a try?

So Glinda just seems to be condescending to Dorothy in this next-to-last scene of the film. In actuality, she’s covering up – in her patented passive-aggressive way – her own previous ignorance of the slippers’ traveling power. Had Glinda known about the go-home magic, and had she somehow been able to convince Dorothy to use it, both she and the slippers would have been safely out of West’s homicidal clutches. Of course, the movie would have been 35 minutes long.

You Thought Voldemort Was Bad?

Glinda the morally dubious power player is a paragon of rectitude compared to the other “good” character, the Wizard. It’s helpful to remember that Oz’s Kansas counterpart is a con man, because just about everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie, and usually a dangerous one.

The Wizard has bamboozled the not-very-bright populace of Emerald City and Oz into thinking he is actually great and powerful. He uses technology and a scary persona to maintain this illusion, keeping himself in power.

(Frank Morgan’s other Oz personas – the gatekeeper, cab driver and sentimental palace guard – might all be Oz in disguise as well. This play-acting would allow the “Wizard” to keep tabs on the populace without giving himself away.)

The kindest reading of Oz’s behavior prior to Dorothy’s arrival is that he’s a survivor and an opportunist, but no worse than a lot of other rulers. (The people seem happy enough with his reign.) But Dorothy is, for him as for so many others in Oz, an agent of radical change. As Rushdie points out, her surname is “Gale” and the place is never the same after she blows through.

When confronted by a real threat, i.e. Dorothy and her companions’ requests for actual magic, does Oz confess his ordinariness and send them away disappointed? No. He sends them on the mission to retrieve West’s broomstick. As Tin Man quite logically points out, they will have to kill her to get it – so the Wizard is sending them off to an almost certain death.

This is the person who, after his unmasking, responds to Dorothy’s entirely accurate charge of “You’re a very bad man!” by saying, “No, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” As usual, a complete and total lie. He is a terrible, reprehensible man – but he is/was a moderately competent wizard.

Further evidence of his disregard for human life is the fact that, of all the dangerous missions Oz could have chosen, this particular one sends Dorothy directly into the path of her worst enemy. For the ruthless Oz, this solves his problems neatly. Should Dorothy and Co. be killed, he won’t be revealed as a fraud. If the quartet should somehow, miraculously, succeed, he rids himself of an actual threat while buying some time to think up other dangerous missions. Perhaps there’s a minefield that needs clearing somewhere.

(Presumably, Oz is unaware of the necessity of keeping the powerful crimson footwear away from West – remember, he is technological, not magical. So had West successfully dispatched of the foursome, it would have solved Oz’s Dorothy problem but magnified his Witch problem. He’s evil, but not as politically savvy as Glinda.)

Once a Con Man, Always a Con Man

You do have to give the old guy credit. After Toto pulls back the curtain, and without even so much as an “I’m sorry for sending you to an almost certain doom,” Oz immediately starts peddling the old snake oil again. The fact that his gifts satisfy their recipients says less about their quality and more about the fact that each has had what he sought all along: Scarecrow has been clever, Tin Man has felt emotions.

The Lion has been cowardly, it’s true, but he does come through in the attack on the Witch’s castle. And anyway, isn’t someone who feels fear – but who nevertheless does what’s necessary – actually more courageous than the classically “brave,” ice-water-in-the-veins James Bond type of unblinking hero?

Re: Oz’s gifts – I’ve always been troubled by his words to Tin Man: “Remember, my sentimental friend. A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

First of all, who goes around judging other people’s hearts? Yes, we might disapprove of someone who is cold and unfeeling (cough.**The Wizard.**cough.). We might wonder about someone who is a soft touch – the old phrase “bleeding-heart liberal” comes to mind. But these judgments are not based on the love aroused by others, but by the actions of the individual.

So if no one loves the Tin Man, his heart is no good? What does this say to children of unloving and/or undemonstrative parents? You’re “less than” because the people around you don’t love you? Well, what else would you expect from a sociopathic con man/politician? He thrives on other people’s love but has none to give himself.

Psychologically damaging maxims aside, by this point Oz does seem, at last, ready to make good on his promise to take Dorothy home. Right.

When the balloon ascends sans Dorothy and Toto, and she screams “Come back!”, Oz’s words are “I can’t come back. I don’t know how it works.” So had Dorothy actually gone with this murderous fraud, would they have wandered through the skies forever? In all likelihood, he would have thrown her out of the basket at his earliest opportunity. This “good” man is an unrepentant liar, a coward, and an attempted murderer.

By the way, keep your eyes open during this sequence and you’ll see Tin Man loosening the ropes anchoring the balloon to the podium. In his heart, he knows that Oz (the man) is bad, and that Oz (the country) is better off without him.

Dream On

Some people have complained that the movie doesn’t buy into the “reality” of the Oz books – namely, that Oz is an actual place. They object that unimaginative Hollywood demanded that Dorothy’s fantastical adventures be explained within a logical framework, the lazy writer’s “it was just a dream” gimmick. I used to agree, but after many many viewings am coming around to a different view. The disjunctions and fallacies I’ve outlined have the logic of a dream, where a journey can seem both endless and quick, and where people speak in riddles and nonsense that is accepted as good common sense.

But dreams are also where we find truths that are hidden in plain sight, just as Dorothy does. The biggest truth is one that would be adopted by a later generation: never trust anyone in a position of authority. They are either straightforwardly evil (West); seemingly good but with their own agendas (Glinda); or dangerous liars (Oz).

Just as the adults in the film’s “real” world fail Dorothy, quailing before Miss Gulch’s canine-hating power, so do the “adults” in Oz. Dorothy is the real power in both worlds, because she questions their authority. When her questions bring only bad answers, she takes action by running away.

I take back what I said at the beginning. Keep the G rating. Children should watch The Wizard of Oz as often as they like. Hopefully they will spot what frauds and fakers grownups are, well before they become compromised adults themselves.

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About Grinning Cat

  • Cary G.

    Interesting analysis, thought provoking, fun and humorous!

  • David Byrd

    Brilliant! Stunningly conceived and put forth. Kudos to you, Dear Boy

  • George VanDyke

    You probably slipped one into your mouth!