The Lap-Dancing Drag Queen of Oz
Reading L. Frank Baum today is like embarking on an extended acid trip. Political satire and social allegory under the guise of fantasy books for children, the Oz epic ran to 18 volumes, of which 14 were novels. Times change, so it is said, and the Wizard, however wonderful, went from being the best-selling children’s book for the years 1901 and 1902 to being universally banned by all public libraries in the United States in 1928. The chief reason for this ban, coming from the very association that is now hard pressed to keep up the fight against the hundreds of like bans being instantiated across the same nation by people who must still imagine that they themselves live a century ago, was that it was ‘ungodly’, in its portrayal of women in leadership and heroic roles.
In hindsight, it is likely, had the Democrats run a male against Donald Trump, we would not have that specific lunacy that yet rests within popular politics at this moment. To simply say so only describes a sexism which oft verges on misogyny and is not sexist in itself. But rewind for a moment to the decade which began our social and technical modernity. The combination of women winning the national vote in 1920 and entering the workplace in droves, the new emphasis on the nuclear family and the abandonment of both that extended and the idea that young men, at least, were the de facto wage-earners in dyadic relationships must have been quite the culture shock at the time. As with today, most of the reaction against these very material shifts in society were themselves symbolic. In saying this, however, we do not say that ‘mere symbolism’ has no effect.
If Baum’s lysergically weird trip was relatively benign – there is but one dark scene in the entire 14 volumes, and then a single dark novella in the 4 companion compendia – our current theater of identity politics seems much less so. From politicians referring to transgendered people as ‘demons’, ‘mutants’ and ‘not quite human’ to private citizens raiding, in vigilante style, drag queen shows – and, wouldn’t you know it, drag children’s story hours in public libraries – the bigotry, intolerance, and basic ignorance that could well have been widely available a century ago appears to have resurrected itself. The Scopes trial of 1925, held in Tennessee, a state which currently writhes in self-imposed political anguish – or is it neurosis? – seems as well to be a kind of resonant talisman for the neo-conservative movement. After all, creationism is taught alongside evolution in most private schools in the United States, as well as being at least present in public systems such as that of Texas, wherein over five million minors attend school. Textbook publishers kowtow to this politics simply because of market. That the pen is more powerful than the sword was never so well, if perhaps ironically, exemplified.
Baum’s pen would no doubt have out run all available phantasmagorical ink if he were alive today. But as Al Jaffee suggested, it is more difficult to satire politics in our time simply due to the fact that politicians have outrun the satirists, ‘dreaming up things we cartoonists could never have imagined’. In America and elsewhere, politicians have become their own self-satire. The darker scene that is the outcome of what at first seemed mere theater, is that it is the lie that has been accepted as the truth of things. The Wonderful Wizard, Oscar Zoroaster Pinhead, has successfully implanted his persona as a deus ex machina into the hearts and even minds of the otherwise hard-headed citizens of the latter-day Oz. And if the ‘merely symbolic’ can take on a life of its own apart from worldly reality – one simply has to recall the woeful weight of both heaven and hell upon the faithful – all heroic deeds by men, women, or yet other genders might just be in vain.
Baum was himself originally captivated by the theater. After an unsuccessful stab at it, he returned to it once armed with his best-selling novels. Theatrical and even film adaptations of The Wizard came early and often, culminating, long after Baum’s death, in the MGM film in 1939. But it is telling that the epic series itself has never again been so adapted after early and successful attempts in 1908 and 1910. The 1908 series has been lost though a few production stills remain. The 1910 series of three has been preserved in fragmentary form. In 1914, when Baum himself founded the Oz Film studios, the most advanced of their time, he must have had high hopes. But his offerings were box office failures, being cast as mere children’s fare and thus of no critical or dramatic value. After a scant few of the novels were scripted and shot, the studio went under the very next year.
I am going to suggest that we too, in not taking the political theater of fantasy seriously enough, are in danger of going down with it. And though MGM itself released a number of the Oz Studio films as riders to their own famous adaptation on its 70th anniversary in 2009, it is clear that the allegorical satire of the Teddy Roosevelt empire-building era – presumably the very period that MAGA ‘if I only had a brain’ Republicans are referring to as ‘great’ – no longer has a willing audience. Or does it?
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, politics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.