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Opinion | TOM KEANE

Backward backstory

‘Oz’ indulges in the stereotype that women are malleable

WALT DISNEY PICTURES/GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

It was all the wizard’s fault. The Wicked Witch of the West — the green-skinned, hook-nosed, flame-throwing nightmare of children everywhere — would never have been wicked but for a man. Poor, weak-willed woman: Others, not you, determine what you shall be.

Such is the message of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a new movie that presents itself as the backstory to “The Wizard of Oz. The book and the 1939 movie recount the story of Dorothy’s confrontation with a wicked witch. The new film tells us how the wizard first made it to Oz and for good measure explains how the witch turned wicked.

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We first meet her when the wizard meets her — Theodora is her name, a kind, perhaps naive beauty — and she instantly falls for the stranger. He, lusting but not in love, returns her attentions (this is a PG movie, so how far those attentions go is left to conjecture). Later, when her sister (who is already bad — no backstory provided) magically shows her the wizard wooing the good witch Glinda, the heartbroken Theodora flies off the handle, a course of action that soon has her flying a handle.

The film indulges in stereotypes. Good is beautiful; its opposite is ugly. Thus, as Theodora is corrupted, her physical appearance is horribly altered. But the most pernicious of stereotypes is that of the malleable woman, whose entire persona is defined not by herself, but by those around her and, most especially, by her relationship to a man who rejects her.

Granted, it’s a stereotype that dates back almost to the beginning of history. It played out in the Greek myths: Hera, Zeus’s wife, spent much of her time making mischief, or worse, as revenge for her husband’s unfaithfulness. Millennia later, Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction’’ boiled a bunny after Michael Douglas jilted her. And just this year saw a British cabinet member, Chris Huhne, brought down by his wife. Furious over an affair, she revealed she once conspired with him to escape a speeding charge (after her admission, both she and her now-ex got eight months in prison).

“Hell [hath no] fury, like a woman scorn’d” comes from a 1697 poem and indeed some women (such as the Scorned Women’s Society) celebrate it — payback for unfaithfulness or betrayal is thought a form of empowerment.

No question, in their relationships with each other, human beings do things to the ones they once loved (or even still love) that are vicious and cruel. It’s so common, in fact, that the first under suspicion for a murder are usually those closest to the victim. But it’s not mostly women committing these acts. Counter to the “scorned” cliché, men commit violence against their partners or lovers at least as often as women (and, although some dispute this, likely much more).

Still, I have a hard time seeing Theodora’s turn toward villainy as simply as a case of domestic abuse writ large. True, as the movie wears on she bears a particular animus toward the wizard. But her transformation is about more than settling scores. She becomes thoroughly and completely evil.

Philosophers and filmmakers both try to grapple with the nature of evil. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica thought it was caused by good — both by good’s absence and by accident. George Lucas spent three very unsatisfying movies trying to explain why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side. Personally, I think evil occurs when people stop feeling empathy, when their own sense of self becomes so profound that they no longer see others as their equals.

Still, that begs the question: What could turn a good person bad? Oz suggests that Theodora is so fragile that her very being can be changed for the slightest of reasons. It’s an old-fashioned take on a woman’s personal strength and her ability to roll with life’s punches. Rather than donning a pointed black hat, a truly modern Theodora would likely have just spent an afternoon reading “He’s Just Not That Into You.” And for that, the munchkins would have been grateful.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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