Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Oz and the Vulnerable Male

Sometime back, I wrote a blog offering my take on why Oz appeals to gay men. It wasn't a very well thought-out blog, but sometimes ideas are best to say once and then build on later. But here's another thought, which doesn't really explain why gay men love Oz, but why men of all types sometimes embrace it.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many of its sequels are noted for their strong female characters who take the lead. But this is not to say that there's a lack of male characters. But where are the big, self-confident heroes in Oz?

The answer is that Baum eschewed the typical depiction of male heroes in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and instead gave us male heroes who were not only vulnerable, but were self-aware of their vulnerabilities and open about them.

A good many male heroes are often depicted without many personal vulnerabilities. These are often glossed over or sometimes played down. Take Batman, for example. Depending on the writer, Batman can appear to be just a force of violence who stops short of killing his enemies. Yet he is supposed to have a tender side where he'll relate to the victims of the criminals because he was once victimized himself, and will also refuse to kill or use firearms. But sometimes, fans and even the writers themselves can seem to gloss over Batman's more human side.

In the case of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, every major male character (with the exception of Toto) seems to have them. Uncle Henry seems to be emotionally closed (we are told that he never laughs and seldom speaks), and Baum leaves us to interpret it as we will. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion are very much defined by their vulnerabilities. They are each open about qualities they feel they lack and the plot of their stories focus on them trying to obtain these qualities, which they do through experience, though they aren't convinced they have them until the Wizard gives them items that pretty much can be seen as placebos.

The Wizard himself almost personifies the invulnerable man trope until he's exposed, then he reveals he's every bit as human as anyone else. Baum doesn't spend much time on his vulnerabilities, but when he returns in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, we hear more about his past and he even admits that he might die trying to defend Dorothy, Zeb and the animals.

Baum rarely puts such emphasis on the vulnerabilities of male characters again. Jack Pumpkinhead is cautious of his head, as he's very aware that it can spoil. The Frogman puts up a facade of being a wise man when he knows he's just a overgrown frog and the Truth Pond makes him admit this. In addition, Baum's boy characters have often been criticized as not being as well-developed as the girls.

Last year at Oz Con International, I was on a panel about Baum's boys, and while the host was skeptical about our views, John Bell, Paul Dana and I all seemed to think that Baum's boy characters weren't badly depicted. Button-Bright has ADHD or perhaps Aspbergers, Ojo has depression, and the thing is, that's perfectly okay in Oz.

It is no mystery that Baum believed in early feminist ideals. He had great respect for his mother in law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, founder of the Woman's National Liberal Union. Many have pointed to his depiction of female characters in the Oz series as evidence of his feminism. But a good part of feminism has been relieving society from ideals that over-glorify the role of men. This means that not only should women be held in equal esteem and allowed to be who they want to be, but men are free to be only themselves instead of living up to an idealized image.

I think this ideal of feminism is quite evident in the Oz series: strong male characters can be strong male characters. Vulnerable male characters can be vulnerable male characters. They are not trying to live up to some ideal. Women are allowed to be strong or vulnerable and one is not used to shame another.

For this reason, I think, we can point to one reason why the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeals to gay men: it is a story about empowerment that is not based on gender. Any character is allowed to be who they are, whether they want to improve themselves or just remain as they are and are thought of as worthy members of society.


Nathan DeHoff said...

I was just thinking the other day about how most of Baum's male protagonists aren't really stereotypically male, although that's mostly just to say that they tend to be gentle. Thompson's boys are more what you might think of as boyish.

saintfighteraqua said...

I'm pretty sure I'm asexual, and I think that Oz helped me through life as a kid since I was not quite as brave and boisterous as many of my peers, though certainly not a sissy either.
The lack of sexuality in the Oz books was good for me as most stories tend to emphasize the love affairs and romantic relationships (the Baum Oz book that really pushes it: Scarecrow of Oz, was also one of my least favorites growing up)
For me, Ojo, Woot and Inga were characters I could relate to. I often sympathized with Ojo. I wasn't depressed as a child, but I often felt alone and awkward. I also found six leaf clovers. :)
Ojo could have been a stand in for Woot, they were pretty similar and the artwork didn't do much to change that. But Woot was braver and more forthright where Ojo often feels a bit scheming.
I was never a BB fan. I don't dislike him, I just wasn't interested in him.
Zeb I could never really relate to and Inga was what I wanted to be. A prince who read all day in the tree tops and then found the courage he needed (and magical items) to save the people he loved.

Baums boys were not written badly, they were just written differently.
Just as to me, Dorothy, Betsy and Trot are all three different characters. I don't remember ever having trouble telling them apart in the text, though the illustartions seemed to. ;)