Surrender Dorothy

I used to believe that The Wizard of Oz belonged to gay men in a special way, a way the straight world was barred from. I know now I was wrong: I’ve just read a brilliant monograph on The Wizard of Oz by Salman Rushdie — yes, that Salman Rushdie, of the Satanic Verses and the ayatollah’s death fatwas. An unlikely, but as it turns out, fascinating combination of writer and subject.

Rushdie saw the film when he was a boy and, as the son of a diplomat traveling between London and Pakistan, experienced it against the pungent backdrop of Indian cinema, where hectic outbreaks of mass dancing are common and gods routinely descend from bubbles. Puffs of smoke, too, are a favorite mode of transportation for Vishnu and the gang.

Reading the monograph I realized that everybody gets the heightened, or “gay”, sense of this movie. Perhaps because we see it first as children, more likely because the Judy performance leaves such a vivid imprint, but the gay subtext of Wizard of Oz turns out to be the unavoidable, universal take. Rushdie, a veteran of four quite heterosexual marriages, doesn’t miss a trick, no matter how “queer.”

“Of the two Witches, good and bad,” he writes, “can there be anyone who’d choose to spend five minutes with Glinda?”

Like many of us, he prefers the gleeful green malevolence of Margaret Hamilton. Glinda, specifically Billy Burke’s flutey way of playing Glinda, works poor Salman’s last nerve.

The actress is mercilessly, exquisitely unpacked: Her appearance Rushdie pronounces “powdery,” her “elocution voice,” with its fluttery cooings and simpering facial accompaniment, beyond irritating, and Dorothy’s reaction to her (oh, but I never heard of a beautiful witch before) way too generous.

A commonplace of the post-modern impulse is to invert good and evil in a fairytale. In this reading, the Witch turns out to be noble (if flawed), while Glinda is mendacious and banal. The musical Wicked takes that tact, as does Rushdie, but the author goes one better. He finds Glinda not merely corrupt, but perverse. “She has a smile,” he writes, “that seems to have jammed.” Glinda knowingly misleads Dorothy while carefully sidestepping an outright lie — “plausible deniability” as we now call such shams of statecraft:

When Dorothy asks her how she might return to Kansas, Glinda tells her to ask the wizard. It turns out Glinda knows the answer all along — click the ruby slippers three times and recite a platitude about home. Yet this Good Witch of the North doesn’t produce the formula until another Witch is dead and the Wizard exposed — both, perhaps, her rivals for control of Oz.

“No place like home” is exactly the lesson the film refutes

“Glinda’s instructions to Dorothy are oddly enigmatic, even contradictory,” writes Rushdie. “One can see Glinda’s obliquities as proof that a good fairy or a good witch, when she sets out to be of assistance, never gives you everything. Glinda is not so unlike her description of the Wizard of Oz, after all. Oh, he’s very good but very mysterious.

Rushdie’s deconstruction of official morality goes further, pointing out that the purported traditional value put forth by the film — there’s no place like home — is exactly the lesson the film refutes:

“This is the home that there’s no place like?” he exclaims, citing the dirt-poverty of the film’s Kansas and the stiff, prim Miss Gulch riding roughshod over Auntie Em and Uncle Henry when she seizes the dog. “This is the lost Eden we are asked to prefer (as Dorothy does) to Oz?”