James Franco in a scene from Oz the Great and Powerful. (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises)
Glenn Kenny, a film critic friend of mine, notes at MSN Movies that the problem with this new Oz the Great and Powerful is that James Franco is grievously miscast as the Wizard of Oz. To me this was more or less clear from the trailer, Franco’s bumble-stoner presence an instant false note when placed in the same frame as the self-possession of Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. (I haven’t seen the movie yet.) But the disparity of talent there only mirrors the way the Oz story has been structured, from the moment L. Frank Baum set pen to paper. As underscored by spin-off work like Wicked, the fact is, Oz has always been matriarchal. Which is not, in this case at least, a feminist utopia in the sense of being a place where women nurture each other right into Scandinavian social-democratic bliss. Instead, in Oz, as Alison Lurie once put it in The New York Review of Books, “Women rule all the good societies and some of the bad ones.” For every Glinda, you get a Wicked Witch.
There is, of course, other proof of women’s power in Oz than the rule of the witches. Dorothy’s male companions, literary scholars point out, are all robots and scarecrows and stuffed antelope heads. The Wizard himself is a disappointment. Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, is at one point a boy, but it turns out to be a spell disguising her true gender. What’s more, on some level the books were self-conscious about their denigration of men. At the end of the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the denizens of the Emerald City remark that “there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” But the narrator observes, “And so far as they knew, they were quite right”—implying that not all stuffing is visible on the outside, if you catch his drift.
Given that these are all early-century books, the progressiveness of it might seem remarkable, but then Frank Baum was unusually well-connected to one of the more radical figures in early American feminism. He’d married a woman named Maud Gage, whose mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a feminist who worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But Matilda Gage was more than a simple suffragette or birth control activist; she was a philosopher and a theosophist as well as a historian. She believed in reincarnation, and developed an entire theory that “man” had suppressed traces of an earlier history of matriarchy, particularly among First Nations people: