The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy

The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West. Ed. Randall E. Auxier and Phillip S. Seng. Popular Culture and Philosophy, Vol. 37. Chicago and La Salle, IL.: Open Court, 2008, x + 366 pp. ISBN 978-0-8126-9657-8. $18.95.

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Reviewed by Ruth Berman

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 30.1/2 (#115/116) (2011): 171–73.]

The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West is a collection of essays on philosophical issues raised by various aspects of —mostly— “The Wizard of Oz” (the MGM movie), or The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum’s book), or “The Wiz” (the play and movie), or Wicked (Gregory Maguire’s book), or “Wicked” (the musical). It’s a mixed bag.

Some of the essays, particularly those that don’t try to be funny, are excellent. The four essays on Wicked, mostly focusing on Maguire’s interest in feminist issues, “Wicked Feminism,” by Pam R. Sailors, “‘I’m Not That Girl,” by Richard Greene, “Wicked? It’s Not Easy Being Green,” by Kevin Durand, and “In the Merry Old Matriarchy of Oz,” by Randall E. Auxier, are especially noteworthy. Also noteworthy are “Freeing the Slaves of Oz,” by Jason Bell and Jessica Bell, which examines Dorothy’s role in Baum’s Wizard as a liberator (of Munchkins and Winkies from Wicked Witches, and of the Emerald Citians from the humbug Wizard) in the context of the “Kansas” that Baum would have known most about as a child (born 1856): “Bleeding Kansas,” the territory where the battle between South and North over whether the territory should become a slave state or a free state led directly to the Civil War; and “When the Wiz Goes Black, Does it Ever Go Back?,” by Tommy J. Curry, which examines “The Wiz” in relation to Black experiences of oppression and of hope for change.

Many of the essays, however, insist on trying to be funny—a bad idea, partly because it is so easy to make lame jokes on material as familiar as the best-known lines and images from the MGM movie, and correspondingly hard to make genuinely amusing jokes on over-familiar material, but also because the lame jokes, most of the time, seem to be there to express contempt for the readers, who will not pay attention to philosophical issues unless invited to laugh at them, and/or out of contempt for the stupidity of MGM (usually, or sometimes Baum, or a vague mixture of both) for not including more direct discussion of the issues the essayists find in the action of the story and perhaps therefore for stupidity in presumably not understanding the issues.

Several of the essays devote much humor to such stupidities as: including a yappy little dog in the story when everyone really hates yappy little dogs and no right-thinking child would want one; having Dorothy want to go home when Oz is so much more colorful and interesting and fun than Kansas, where her economically stressed aunt and uncle can’t manage to stand up against rich Miss Gulch to save the yappy little dog; having Glinda ignore the legal rights of the Wicked Witch of the West as her dead sister’s next-of-kin in favor of giving the Ruby Slippers to Dorothy; and letting the Wizard claim to be a “good man,” when he had been so wicked as to send a kid and three bumblers off to see the Wicked Witch, when it must have been obvious to him that the likely upshot would be the deaths of all four..

If these complaints about the stupidities of the story sound stupid themselves—well, they are. Some of the essays come round to arguing that Dorothy does have good reasons to want to go home, but the sarcastic question seems to be put so sarcastically in order to demonstrate the essayists’ philosophical wisdom, so much greater than Baum’s or MGM’s. To non-philosophers, it is more likely to be obvious from the beginning that Dorothy wants to go home because her family is there. Baum leaves this motivation implicit; the MGM movie spells it out at the start in Professor Marvel’s crystal-ball analysis of Dorothy, in which he leads her to realize that her aunt does love her, and the movie makes the point again (if anything, too obviously), in Dorothy’s realization that “There’s no place like home.”

The real answer to the odd behavior of Glinda in the MGM movie is that the script-writers were making changes for dramatic effect. (In Baum’s version, the Wicked Witches are not sisters, Glinda is not the one who hands the Silver Shoes to Dorothy, she and the Wicked Witch don’t appear until much later in the story; his Wizard does, however, claim to be a “good man.”)

Did the MGM script-writers make their changes being too stupid to realize that their changes raised legal or ethical issues? Perhaps so. Then again, they might have had answers in mind that they expected to be obvious without stopping the action to insert explanations. “Philosophical” discussion of these issues would be more effective if the essayists started from the assumption that the script-writers (and Baum) might have had some understanding of the issues, and asked what that understanding might be and whether it was valid, instead of assuming that there could be no validity to the changes.

In the Wizard’s case, the character’s self-justification would probably have been something along the lines of “But I didn’t think they’d actually go out and try to kill the Witch—I was just trying to scare them off to avoid getting exposed as a fraud.” No doubt a philosopher would scorn such a defense as a “mere rationalization,” and probably rightly so. But on a scale of good-to-evil, someone tipping that far toward evil might nevertheless have some justification in believing himself to be more good than evil. A scale with some gradations of grey would yield a subtler analysis than simply dismissing the Wizard’s claim to be a “good man.”

Glinda could probably offer a solider case for her “theft” of the Ruby Slippers. The Wicked Witch is making threats against Dorothy (“I can cause accidents, too . . . I’ll get you, my pretty”), and as a restraining order would probably be unenforceable, stealing the loaded-gun-equivalent is probably ethically defensible. Then, too, the Wicked Witch herself doesn’t seem to think that she has a next-of-kin right to the shoes. Her justification is “I’m the only one that knows how to use them—they’re of no use to you!” The first part of the claim is true, but the second is false. On that basis, Dorothy’s claim to the shoes is rather better than the Witch’s.

The more serious (in both tone and approach) essays make the collection worth getting, in spite of the shallowness of the more frivolous ones.

The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West. Ed. Randall E. Auxier and Phillip S. Seng. Popular Culture and Philosophy, Vol. 37. Chicago and La Salle, IL.: Open Court, 2008, x + 366 pp. ISBN 978-0-8126-9657-8. $18.95.

Buy Online

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