After reading my post on how we can examine our favorite children’s classics to gain self insight, my colleague Barbara Beliveau in the St. Mary’s economics department mentioned how much she enjoyed L. Frank Baum’s second Oz book, entitled The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), when she was growing up. This was always my favorite as well, although I suspect for reasons different than Barbara’s. As it ties into the gender-crossing theme that I have taken up this week, I will devote today’s post to talking about this and other Oz books that gave me aid and comfort during my confused childhood. (Note: All childhoods are confused.)
The Marvelous Land of Oz takes place entirely in Oz. Young Tip lives with the witch Mowgli, who has purchased some magic powder that can bring things to life. When she determines to turn a pumpkin-headed figure that Tip has created into her servant while transforming Tip into a statue, he and “Jack Pumpkinhead” run away together to the Emerald City, now being ruled by the Scarecrow (since he now has a brain). The city is then besieged by an army of women who no longer want to be housewives. The Scarecrow, Tip and friends escape and get help from Glinda the Good, who not only puts down the revolt (her own army of women is superior because they carry spears rather than knitting needles) but also reveals to Tip that he is in actuality the long lost princess Ozma of Oz. The book ends with Tip undergoing a transformation process, and he emerges as a lovely girl ruler who will thenceforth rule over Oz.
Like Twelfth Night, The Marvelous Land of Oz fed my fantasy that I was a girl in a boy’s body. At the same time, it confirmed what I liked about being a boy: Tip gets to have boy-type adventures and is not limited to a cloistered girl’s life (as the conventions of the time defined these things). So whereas I loved the idea of Tip becoming Ozma, I lost interest in her in subsequent books as she became more sedentary. (The one exception was Ozma of Oz, the next book in the series which I also liked, where she leads a dangerous expedition to free a family taken hostage.)
Interestingly, many of Baum’s subsequent books feature adventurous girls (Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, Trot) while the boy characters are often effeminate and sometimes bookish, such as Button Bright and Bilbil—although Bilbil, through the help of magic pearls, is able to magically perform great acts of strength in a Baum power fantasy. It’s as though, through his girl heroines, Baum combines what attracts him about each gender.
In The Marvelous Land of Oz there is also gender role transgression in the army of women. (Their emasculated husbands are depicted as wearing aprons in one illustration.) At the end of the book, Baum indulges in a bondage fantasy when he shows their leader, whose name is Jinjur, taken off in chains at the end of the book. I recall being fascinated by these women, who wear sharp uniforms and boots.
I’m trying to figure out why they captured my imagination. Here’s one idea in line with this theme of gender crossing. Jinjur’s army is set against a set of soft and ineffective male characters who would have triggered my own anxieties over being a soft male (the Scarecrow, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Tin Woodman, and a highly magnified “wogglebug” who is a pretentious intellectual). The rebel women, by contrast, are strong and confrontational, to be rejected but at the same time secretly admired for the way they transgress traditional boundaries. No wonder that I felt a tingle as I read about them.
One of the boundaries they cross, by the way, is class since, what with their knitting needles, they have working class associations. They also cast their lot with dark female power (and bad mothering), the witch Mowgli. In the end, as is customary with endings, this titillating excursion into the realm of taboo is rejected and order is restored. The women are relieved to be returned to their husbands by two women who are more acceptable to men: the virginal mother goddess Belinda and the princess archetype Ozma.
But acceptable though they may be, Belinda and Ozma are powerful women nonetheless. The sensitive and bookish Baum imagines losing himself in this soft female world that seems to acknowledge his sensitive interior far more than do male stories. Or at any rate, this is the refuge I found in the Oz books. They helped preserve something precious that the world in general seemed bent upon destroying. Baum’s Oz fantasy was no small gift.