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Eighty Years of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

A young gay man reexamines the Judy Garland classic.

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TIMELESS TALE: L. Frank Baum’s children’s story speaks to the political turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II.

By Jeffry Faircloth

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the classic American film The Wizard of Oz. As a young gay man, I have loved this movie, and Judy Garland, since childhood. I remember my grandfather driving me to the video store, over and over, to rent it when I was four years old.

Even though I’ve probably seen the film a hundred times, viewing it more recently has revealed things I hadn’t noticed as a child. I guess getting older does that. However, I also think it is because this masterpiece of American cinema is similar to a fine wine that seems to get better with age. In recognition of this year’s milestone Oz anniversary, I share these insights as a tribute to a film that means so much to me, and has helped to shape my gay identity.

One thing that makes The Wizard of Oz perfect is its use of themes that touch on universal human experiences. This is most obvious in the song “Over the Rainbow,” considered one of the greatest American songs ever written. We can all relate to the human emotions it captures—the feelings of hope and the longing to achieve our dreams. It can even touch our deepest feelings about existence and life after death. 

What a lot of people don’t know is that the lyrics to this beloved American song were written by Yip Harburg, a liberal man who was considered a socialist. Such information provides context to the inspiration of the song and the entire film. The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 during the Great Depression and the turmoil caused by the rise of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II was only 2 years away. There was enormous fear and uncertainty about the future, and this simple song captured the fears and longings for a happier place where bluebirds fly in peace and rainbows fill the sky instead of military aircrafts that drop bombs on populations below.

Beyond this historical context to the song and the movie, such longings are universal. We all want a better world for ourselves and others in 2019 just as much as people did in 1939.

The economic angst of the Great Depression is reflected throughout the film. The Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City? Those are symbolic of economic systems. Since the film is based on American writer L. Frank Baum’s books, the economic system symbolized is capitalism. In this way, The Wizard of Oz is both critical and appreciative of the capitalist economic system.

The Wizard himself could be viewed as the leader of a corporation or business. He instructs Dorothy and her friends that if their wishes are to be fulfilled, they must first do his bidding. “Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,” he tells them. Only then will they be rewarded. Is this not like the employer/employee relationship? You do your job and then you get compensated.

But while the Wizard is the grantor of wishes and livelihoods, he isn’t everything. Dorothy and company do as they are told. They go to the castle of the Wicked Witch and acquire the broomstick, only to discover that sometimes the Wizard—symbolic of the economic elite—does not keep promises, and that sometimes the promises are an illusion the elite use to consolidate power by spinning a fantasy to the underclass.

Yet, these critiques of capitalism never go so far as to imply that it should be completely opposed. Ultimately, Dorothy and her companions appreciate the things the Wizard can do, while learning that they must find the power within themselves, individually and collectively, to rein in the unchecked excesses of those at the top. Power must be held accountable. As such, The Wizard of Oz embraces capitalism while warning that it must be regulated by “We the People,” who should oversee the economy and ensure it meets the needs of everyone and not just the privileged. This reflects the historical reality of the 1930s, when president Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his New Deal policies, reined in capitalism’s excesses that caused the Great Depression. Such symbolism still resonates just as much in 2019 in this uniquely American way.

Further symbolic lessons are illustrated by the characters of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. Specifically, I am reminded of an essay by Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in which he argues that there are three perspectives for interpreting history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical.

A monumental outlook on history is biased toward seeing the greatness of the past and is often intertwined with patriotism—for example, the concept of American exceptionalism and Ronald Reagan referring to America as the “shining city on a hill.” This monumental viewpoint is in contrast to the critical perspective. Not everything has been great, according to those with a critical outlook. For example, some may say America is an exceptional country, but to others America has done terrible things and must be criticized. Look no further than the history of American racism to grasp the critical perspective. Lastly, there is the antiquarian mindset. The antiquarians have soft spots for all history, good or bad. For antiquarians, tradition is everything.

According to Nietzsche, all three historical perspectives must be valued, but each has pitfalls when taken to the extreme. Those who lean antiquarian can get stuck in the past, unable to see the necessity of change; they may become history’s hoarders. If left unchecked, the critical perspective runs the risk of seeing only the negative in everything. While those with this outlook are future-facing, they may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Not everything in life is bad, and some things from the past are worth preserving. The monumental viewpoint, if it becomes extreme, can end up not being so monumental after all, causing important criticism to be discarded. The best thing to do is to incorporate all three historical perspectives holistically, creating a balanced view of history. Each one of us is drawn toward one of these perspectives over the others, but as collective human beings, our varying outlooks balance each other out.

Nietzsche’s three historical perspectives are manifested in the characters of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. The Lion symbolizes monumental history. He wants to be the great king of the forest, but he suffers from cowardice. On his own, he is unable to achieve his true greatness; a pursuit that is often motivated not by genuine bravery, but by fear. Consider those who today chant “Make America Great Again” and are led by a strongman leader. Is this a genuine pursuit of greatness or a fear of some unknown?

The Scarecrow is a metaphor for the critical perspective. He seeks brains and he is the one that keeps the group moving forward, particularly when Dorothy is whisked away by the flying monkeys to the Witch’s castle. Consider his problem: his head is made of straw. It is as if he gets lost in his own mind. Yet, the Scarecrow’s brains come to fruition when he is among the Lion and the Tin Man. When balanced with the others, he is at his sharpest. Of the three, the Scarecrow is the most emphasized in the film. Before leaving Oz, Dorothy states to everyone that she will miss Scarecrow most of all. Thus, the critical perspective carries us into the future.

Then there is the Tin Man. After Dorothy, he is my favorite character. The Tin Man likewise embodies the antiquarian outlook, the perspective I am the most aligned with. The Tin Man is a sentimental old soul. But look at what sometimes happens to him: he gets rusted solid and is unable to move, just like an antiquarian who can get so stuck in the past that the need for change goes unacknowledged.

It is only when all three characters meet each other down the Yellow Brick Road that the Scarecrow finds his brains, the Tin Man gets his heart, and the Lion acquires his courage. It takes all three: monumental (Lion), antiquarian (Tin Man) and critical (Scarecrow).

As the protagonist of the film, Dorothy exemplifies holistically integrating all three perspectives, and it is only after she accomplishes this feat that she finds her inner self and understands what “home” really is. It is significant that the film emphasizes her as its heroine. The Wizard of Oz was released only 19 years after women gained the right to vote all across the United States. Thus, Dorothy is a strong symbol of feminism. Nothing reveals this better than when she opens the door of her black-and-white home and walks into a future filled with vibrant technicolor. It is as if the film is saying the future belongs to women. And throughout her journey, Dorothy learns that she has the ability within herself to become empowered.

Everyone knows The Wizard of Oz has influenced the lived experiences of LGBTQ people. It certainly has enormous resonance with me as a gay man. Would there have been a rainbow flag if it had not been for The Wizard of Oz? I am inclined to think not. It will always be one of the LGBTQ community’s greatest inspirational films. But what really makes The Wizard of Oz a masterpiece is that while it has symbolism unique to the American context and the LGBTQ community, its themes transcend and resonate with people from diverse lived human experiences.

The Wizard of Oz was nominated for a 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture. It ultimately lost to Gone with the Wind, which came out the same year. Yet, I dare say it has aged better than Gone with the Wind. A hundred years from now, although future generations may still be discussing Gone with the Wind and its revisionist take on the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, I think it may become as forgotten as so many other classics. The Wizard of Oz, though, will live on, because what it stirs in the human spirit is timeless.

This article appears in the August 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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