I’ve recently finished the first season of Emerald City, the NBC TV adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s children’s novel The Wizard of Oz. The show takes many artistic liberties with the text, transforming it into something new, but this meta won’t be a comparison piece between the novel and the show (not least because it’s been ages since I read it). What the many transformations amount to, however, is the fundamental narrative of a man finding fault with his lot in life and taking the opportunity in a new world to reinvent himself — by subjugating others.
Cool motive, still murder
In short, Frank was a sad bastard — and he believed that it was others that made him so. Women who paid him no mind, scientists who didn’t take him seriously… and so, instead of endeavouring to make friends in the world he was catapulted into, he took what he believed he was owed. He didn’t show the kids that science experiment to entertain them, or to share something he’s clearly passionate about with them: he did it to impress them, to prove his superiority. And then Nahara showed him magic, and he felt like a fool, like he’d landed in another world that wouldn’t give him his due. A world in which women had power that he did not. Karen and Jane had degrees and funding to build something extraordinary, the witches of Oz have magic.
Reinventing Frank meant fashioning himself into a wizard, meant subjugating magic into something he had control over, something that wouldn’t threaten his precious science. He took the science from Jane and Karen (and Roberto, God rest him) and he took the witches’ magic, and when both belonged to him, he used them to chain everyone to his will.
The Magical Feminine in Emerald City
Magic, in Emerald City, is irrevocably tied to femininity; although the narrative manages to avoid the conflation of femininity and female sexuality — the Wizard, towards the end of the season, attempts to make magic into the Beast Forever, but even then it isn’t made to evoke the monstrous feminine.
Women do, however, get to struggle with all the usual bullshit, and it’s exemplified in the one character who was raised as a boy. (I’ll be referring to Tip using gender-neutral pronouns, as at this point it’s not clear what Ozma’s decision will be going forward.) Ozma’s story becomes a little muddled in the final two episodes because, when the witches do not accept them as a boy, they transform themselves into a princess, dress and jewellery and all — and this comes after fighting with West for the chance to present themselves as a boy, because that is what Tip identifies as, and having the knowledge of being Ozma doesn’t change that. So having this either trans or, at the very least, genderfluid character creates a really interesting twist to the story; and I was afraid the writers were going to ruin it by turning reductive/forcing Ozma into a female body for good. But the moment when they look at their reflection in the crown’s jewels and we see Tip looking back, we are reminded that a boy is what Ozma feels they are, deep inside. And I hope that in Season 2, they will be allowed to live that truth.
Circling back to the point: Tip was brought up as a boy, and confronted with turning into a girl when the medicine wears off and the realities of living as one… it’s no wonder they’re not impressed.
Exhibit A) Tip was never brought up to hide their boobs. Granted, being locked into a tiny bedroom had some part in that, but the barmaid telling them to cover up or risk being molested or harassed by the lechers in the corner really drives it home. You have tits, now get used to being treated as a sexual object. Jack, whatever his intentions, suddenly kissing Tip runs in the same vein. Sadly, it is left unexplored whether Jack always had romantic feelings for Tip and only then felt safe in expressing them. The disgusting point, though, is that as soon as Tip was a girl, they were fair game to be kissed without their consent, and in a moment of extreme distress.
Exhibit B) When Tip is told to choose between going with either West or Glinda, they sum it up very succinctly: being a woman, you get the choice between being a nun or a whore. Again: welcome to the Oz that the Wizard made.
A wizard who possesses no magic.
Who did not truly defeat the Beast Forever in the first place.
The dichotomy between Glinda — the cruel angel in a pristine white gown, seemingly cooperating with the Wizard and secretly plotting his demise — and West, the fallen witch who runs a brothel, drives the narrative for the Cardinal Witches. The Mistress of the East, most merciful and stern, is killed shortly after Dorothy’s arrival, so we never quite learn if there was ever a “neutral” between virgin and bitch.
Of course, Glinda’s angelic image is subverted by her raising an army of witches, sacrificing many of them before any war can even start. Dororthy’s fight against Glinda is due, in part, to her belief that the witch would lead an army of young girls to their deaths. (Sidenote: if only a witch can kill a witch… then how did the Beast Forever do it? I mean, I know they drowned, but… still?) It’s not until it’s too late that she realises that Glinda had, at least, some sort of contingency. The girls, if fighting only a man armed with bullets, would survive. That doesn’t mean that Glinda is suddenly a Good Person (TM): she still enforced the rules of her “convent” without giving way to compassion. It is her act of punishing one of her own for being with child that pushes Dorothy over the edge; and faced with Ozma as the rightful ruler of Emerald City, Glinda protests that only magic should rule Oz. West reminds her of Pastoria being a just King, and with Tip possessing East’s magic… still, I see in Glinda a kind of hunger for power that I fear will not be easily dissuaded, even after she ostensibly joins West and Ozma.
By claiming that witches are the Beast Forever, the Wizard turns them into the cause of their own oppression, which is a true classic. Men were never better than women, never stronger. But when they felt threatened by them, they outlawed women from public life, claiming they were weak, or dangerous. When the Wizard cries that magic cannot be controlled, therefore it must be extinguished, his is the same fear of those that decreed that women must not attend universities, must not vote, and must not compete in the same sports as men. That last one seems frivolous to include in this list, but there are so many examples of women turning out to beat men — and, months later, sports associations deciding that co-ed professional sports can’t be a thing. Babe Ruth got out-pitched by a girl, and then women were banned from baseball.
There is also something profoundly colonialist about the Wizard’s subjugation of Oz. Bringing so-called progress — science — to a world that runs on something he does not understand and cannot master: magic. And then, having the gall to name himself “Wizard.” Reinventing himself in a fully developed civilisation by treating it as a clean slate, disregarding its history and culture and seeing it only in relation to himself. Oz knows nothing about Frank Morgan, so he will teach it, and make himself the centre of the universe.
In the end, Frank is a balding, bitter man who wanted power and believed he’d earned it, no matter what the cost to anyone else. Frank… is not the Beast Forever. He’s not terrifying, the misogyny and contempt that he personifies, that is.
Exactly what kind of villain the creature that is holding Dorothy’s mother hostage will be, we’ll see next season, provided that NBC is willing to continue the experiment. As of this writing, nothing has been confirmed.
But have this really cute photo from Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s instagram: