No, ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ We Don’t Need More Male-Centric Fairy Tales

After seeing Oz the Great and Powerful, I was annoyed. And angry.

Everything in the film revolves around one dude: James Franco as Oscar Diggs aka Oz. Bleh. It’s a patriarchal dream come true.

Women in the film fawn over Oz, swoon over him, make googly eyes at him, get enraged by him and arguably wreck their lives because of him. Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) all repeat throughout the film that Oz is there to save them. Even after Glinda who’s wise to his shenanigans, knows he’s not really a wizard, she still perpetuates the façade that he’s a savior, the one person who will bring the land salvation. Oz literally puts a female character, the broken China Girl, back together. Oz catalyzes Theodora’s destructive transformation from naïve and sweet, albeit with a quick temper, to heartless and wicked. Oh and of course we get women pitted against each other. Just for funsies.

The film is boring and vapid. The tissue-thin characters lack depth, wasting the tremendous talents of Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis. Hideous gender stereotypes get tossed around. In her fantastic review, Natalie Wilson points out the film’s many weaknesses, including reinforcing the trope that women are wicked and erasing the feminism of the books.

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One of the reasons that made Wicked and The Wizard of Oz so special — they focus on the women for a change. As Bitch Flicks writer Myrna Waldron astutely points out, the Oz series boasts powerful women in leadership roles. The women aren’t princesses (aside from Princess Ozma in the books of course). The women are either “ordinary” or witches, dismantling the “all witches are evil” trope. The women in Oz lead, give advice, scheme, make decisions on their own, go on journeys, forge friendships. They may work cooperatively with men but they don’t sit around and wait for men to save them.

So how did this happen? How did a female-centric, feminist series devolve into male pandering? It comes down to an aspect of the film’s production that to the best of my knowledge I haven’t seen anyone else raise: the need for “a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist.”

Producer Joe Roth — who didn’t realize The Wizard of Oz was just the first in a series of 14 books, — shares what drew him to develop Oz the Great and Powerful:
“When [screenwriter] Mitchell [Kapner] starts talking about that man behind the curtain and how he got there, this storyline immediately strikes me as a great idea for a movie for a couple of reasons. One was because I love The Wizard of Oz. But this character is only in the last few minutes of that film and we have no idea who he is.

“And the second reason was — during the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios — I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You’ve got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But 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.”

So only films with a “natural male protagonist” are worth pursuing? Roth has also produced Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman and the upcoming Angelina Jolie film Maleficent – all female-centric fairy-tale films. So maybe he’s tired of all the ladies. And of course he can personally pursue any story he wants. But to take such an iconic series with a plucky female protagonist, full of complex female characters and a female ruler (Ozma) and then strip it of its female empowerment and nuance all to focus on a dude?? Stop. Just stop.
What’s great about Dorothy is she’s not a princess. She’s a “regular” girl on a quest and an emotional journey, something we too often see men and boys embark on. Now I understand if they didn’t want to rival the Judy Garland classic. But why not film one of the other books in the series? Or why not film the musical Wicked, a story revolving around the bonds of female friendship?
So what about Roth’s assertion, that it’s difficult to find male leads in fairy tale films? Nope, it’s really not that hard. Jack the Giant Slayer, Shrek, Aladdin, Mickey and the Beanstalk, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, Hercules, hell even Beauty and the Beast all feature male leads in fairy tale films.
As I’ve written before when I wrote about my excitement for Brave, too many children’s films, particularly animated films, don’t feature girls and women in leading roles. “Originally titled Rapunzel, Disney’s Tangled, the most recent animated film featuring a girl, was renamed a gender-neutral title to be less girl-centric. Its marketing didn’t just focus on Rapunzel but featured “bad-boy” thief Flynn Ryder in order to lure a male audience. Male characters dominate animated films.” Wreck-It Ralph, Ice Age, Rango, Kung Fu Panda and aside from Brave the entire pantheon of Pixar’s films (Toy Story, Up, Wall-E, etc.), put male roles front and center.
As of 2010, “family films exhibited a gender disparity as only 29% of speaking roles belonged to female characters in the top grossing films within the past few years.” Superhero films (Spiderman, Iron Man, Batman, The Avengers aside from Black Widow), and swashbuckling adventures (Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars) — all with huge audiences of children — also feature male protagonists. Most movies for kids are just sexism in training.
In fairy tale films, the female characters we do see are princesses (Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty). While there’s nothing wrong with having characters as princesses — and with Brave we got a huge step for female empowerment — as a collective they contribute to princess culture. Princess culture typically celebrates female objectification, reifying the stereotype that women’s and girls’ worth should be tied to their beauty. It also perpetuates the pressure of perfection — women and girls must be everything to everyone. And princess culture follows girls into womanhood with wedding obsessions and the fairy tale myth of finding Prince Charming.
In too many films for both children and adults, female characters’ fall into tropes of damsels in distress, femme fatales, and manic pixie dream girls. Their stories often revolve around men, just like in Oz. The women talk about men. They wax about finding love. They yearn to be rescued, looking to men to fix their lives.
With the pervasive lack of female protagonists, media implies that girls and women don’t matter. It teaches girls they should serve as supporting roles in real life, rather than lead themselves. In a film with three powerful sorceresses, the message shouldn’t be that a “good man” can save us all.
So no, we don’t need any more films, fairy-tale or otherwise, revolving around men.

 

This piece was originally posted on the Bitch Flicks site and it was cross-posted here with permission.
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  • Aaron G.

    I don’t think this movie purposefully tried to take away power from it’s female characters. It just had a bad writer who didn’t know how to use the characters well to tell a story that was actually interesting. Clearly the people involved in building the story didn’t know how to make a good movie even with using clichéd female characters, so i don’t know how they would have handled female characters that were actually interesting.

    Hollywood in general gears its movies towards a male audience so male centered movies are to be expected. Honestly, in the entertainment business, designers of video games, TV, and directors and producers in movies are mostly male. So when you have like 80% men making these products, its going to be stuff with hollow female characters that are over sexed and dumbed down because that is what appeals to them, and is what will sell easy to their target audiences. When more women get involved in the creation process of these things, that will change.