She’s Gone Where the Goblins Go: The Wizard of Oz at 80

In 2009, Harvey Weinstein optioned a biography of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke called Get Happy, choosing Anne Hathaway to play the titular character. While researching the book, Clarke said, he stumbled upon a gossip column noting that Garland was working on a memoir. When he sent his research assistant to the Random House archives at Columbia University to search for letters about the project, he found around 30. But there was another discovery: “Oh, by the way, there’s also an autobiography,” Clarke recalled his researcher mentioning.  

While unfinished at only 68 pages, Garland’s memoir chronicles the decades-long mistreatment she sustained under the auspices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Clarke’s book shines a light on just that. When she giggled while shooting The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming, one of the film’s many directors, struck her face. Of the film’s skipping quintet—Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Lion, and Terry the Cairn Terrier as Toto—only the dog made less than Dorothy: $125 to her $500 a week. As a teenager, Garland endured rampant sexual abuse at the studio. Louis Mayer (the latter M in MGM) groped her on a regular basis. (When she finally told him, “Mr. Mayer, don’t you ever, ever do that again. I just will not stand for it,” Mayer started sobbing. His response, “How can you say that to me, to me who loves you?” seems eerily out of Larry Nassar’s manual.) Another executive, whom Garland did not name, summoned her to his office for sex, and when she said, “No sir, I’m sorry,” he began screaming at her. As if echoing Weinstein’s threats, she recalls him yelling: “Listen you—before you go, I want to tell you something. I’ll ruin you and I can do it. I’ll break you if it’s the last thing I do. You’ll be out of here before I’m finished with you.”

Garland’s MGM was both lewd and doctrinaire: though the workplace was hyper-sexualized, female desire and agency were not part of this equation. From Garland, the studio expected a kind of infantile sexuality—one in which men in power made advances and Garland, whose hair and makeup and body were managed to make her look like a little girl, was to passively accept. She joked about her “prisoner’s menu” to keep her weight down: waitresses at the studio cafeteria were ordered to only serve her chicken soup; Metro later added weight-loss pills, amalgamations of Benzedrine and phenobarbital, to her diet. “From the time I was 13,” Garland recalled, “there was a constant struggle between MGM and me—whether or not to eat, how much to eat, what to eat. I remember this more vividly than anything else about my childhood.” Her breasts were bound to emphasize the message that Dorothy was a young girl. And according to a 2016 Vanity Fair article, when she later became pregnant, Garland’s mother conspired with MGM to arrange an abortion.

Though we continue to revere stories like The Wizard of Oz as folklore, 2018 demands that we revisit the canon—our cultural body of work—while reckoning with the entertainment industry’s brutal legacy of sexual abuse. January marked the 80th anniversary of MGM’s acquisition to the rights of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s novel, leading to the film’s release in 1939. Of the filming, Salman Rushdie argues that it “is a rare instance of a film improving on a good book.” The main difference I notice between the book and the film, however, is the latter’s explicit didacticism on gender. MGM’s obsession with controlling the female body is rendered all-too visible in the film’s themes.

In 1919, halfway between the book’s publication and the film’s release, Sigmund Freud wrote “The Uncanny,” an article whose psychoanalytic symbols erupt throughout the film to present The Wizard of Oz’s dogmatic lessons on sexuality in a package that is both kid-friendly and threatening. For Freud, the uncanny addresses the feeling of creepiness that arises when the familiar transforms into the unfamiliar: a doll that comes alive, for instance. (The term uncanny is derived from the German un-heimlichheimlich is defined as “belonging to the home” and “familiar.”) In particular, the uncanny refers to formerly-hidden facts that cause a sense of disorientation or dread when they surface—truths we might rather not see. As Freud notes, the uncanny “is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has been alienated from it only through the process of repression.”

One of the most prominent of Freud’s observations that the film mobilizes to illustrate Dorothy’s desire to return home is the uncanny nature of female genitals. Freud locates the source of such anxiety as the womb, the original home of humans:

It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that “Love is home-sickness”; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: “this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before,” we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix “un” [“un-”] is the token of repression.

Another prominent symbol is the envious evil eye, in which a fortunate person “is afraid of other people’s envy, in so far as he projects on to them the envy he would have felt in their place.” For Freud, this suspicion “betrays itself by a look even though it is not put into words.” The fear is that envy will transform into violent action.

Because Dorothy’s desire to return home is the driving force of The Wizard of Oz, it seems appropriate that the film is laced with uncanny motifs. But the film also uses these images to transform female sexuality into that which arouses dread and horror, into something demonic. It situates itself in a liminal dream reflected by Dorothy’s relation to womanhood; her age is unclear, and though she looks like a young woman (Garland was 16 when she made the film), she dresses like a little girl, an illustration of her entrapment between adult desires and childhood fears. The film exposes Dorothy’s inner state by expressing her concerns in fantastical characters: the Good Witch, the Bad Witch, and the fatherly Wizard, the intellectual control center, who attempts to keep these forces at bay.

As the tornado hits Dorothy’s childhood house, a window blows open, prefacing the repression that is released as these fantasies come to life. She is knocked unconscious on her bed, and as she dreams, her window turns into a movie screen that projects Dorothy’s fears and fantasies: Miss Gulch, the woman whom, earlier in the film, Dorothy spotted riding her bicycle—a traditional assertion of agency—turns into the Wicked Witch of the West, an erect broom replacing the bike. Dorothy’s transition from the sepia-toned real world into the colorful Land of Oz translates real-life fears into an uncanny dream chronicling Dorothy’s birth into adulthood and accompanying trepidations about her burgeoning role and desires as a woman.

After the tornado spits her house out of its chute, Dorothy opens the door of her dark home—the mother’s womb—and suddenly the world is colorful. She is reborn as a woman. Glinda the Good Witch welcomes Dorothy to Munchkinland, singing, “Come out, come out, wherever you are, and meet the young lady who fell from a star.” That Glinda is dressed in a gown embellished with sequin stars and holds a wand topped by a star establishes her position as Dorothy’s mother; that Dorothy “falls” from a star mimics the direction of her drop from the womb. Glinda continues singing, “When she fell out of Kansas, a miracle occurred.”

Dorothy responds in her own song, describing orgasm followed by death:

It really was no miracle
What happened was just this
The wind began to switch, the house to pitch
And suddenly the hinges started to unhitch
Just then the Witch, to satisfy an itch
Went flying on her broomstick, thumbing for a hitch (my emphasis)

The munchkins’ response frames female sexual drive as a dangerous one toward death. As they chant,  

The house began to pitch, the kitchen took a slitch
It landed on the Wicked Witch in the middle of a ditch
Which was not a healthy situation for the Wicked Witch
Who began to twitch, and was reduced to just a stitch
Of what was once the Wicked Witch (my emphasis)

The munchkins thank Dorothy for killing “her so completely,” and Glinda proclaims, “Let the joyous news be spread, the wicked, old Witch at last is dead!” They next commence a new song that warns Dorothy of the precarious state of this death, that these desires must be sublimated down below. “Ding-dong! The Witch is dead,” they sing. “She’s gone where the goblins go. Below, below, below. Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out.” Their song suggests that this drive is not dead, however. The “ding-dong” chant, an echo of a ringing bell or knocking door, is a literary device that, when coupled with epizeuxis (the repetition of one word in succession—“below, below, below” in this song), marks the presence of murder and looming doom. (Both Shakespeare, in Macbeth, and Plath, in The Bell Jar, are fans of this device, the literary origins of which are outlined in Thomas De Quincey’s 1823 essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.”)

After Dorothy’s fantasy of orgasm, which occurs as she sleeps through the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, the film uses uncanny imagery to illustrate her attempt to bury the sexual drive down below while portraying her rebirth. Before Dorothy is welcome, the munchkins must be sure that the Wicked Witch “Is morally, ethic’lly, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.” A certificate of death is presented to Dorothy by the coroner, signaling that a death within Dorothy needs to be reinforced, and newborn munchkins begin waking up in their nests, rubbing their eyes and chirping. The munchkins begin a dance routine—“we represent the Lullaby League”—that indicates both Dorothy’s dream state and her status as a newborn.

Sustaining the ding-dong note of doom is the talisman Dorothy uses to protect herself from the onset of sexual desire: the red high-heeled sequined shoes, an assertion of sexuality that endows her with immunity. As Rachelle Bergstein writes in Women from the Ankle Down, the slope of high heels “forces the foot into an attenuated position, [recalling] the arch that happens naturally during lovemaking.” In the ruby slippers, Dorothy is held in a space of performed orgasm, preventing her from experiencing it herself and suffering a death like the Wicked Witch’s. That we first see these shoes on the dead Witch sends warning signs to the viewer.

When the slippers magically appear on Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West, arriving in her characteristic haze of fiendish red smoke, demands she, “Give me back my slippers,” because “I’m the only one who knows how to use them.” In response, Glinda instructs Dorothy: “Keep tight inside of them. Their magic must be very powerful, or she wouldn’t want them so badly.” Then, with a kiss goodbye as Dorothy departs on the Yellow Brick Road, she warns, “And remember, never let those ruby slippers off your feet for a moment, or you will be at the mercy of the Wicked Witch of the West.” Once the slippers come off, she will be at risk for succumbing to desire.

Throughout Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City, the Wicked Witch appears at pivotal moments of temptation, teaching old-as-time lessons about womanhood. As an unwitting Dorothy wanders up to an apple tree, threatening to make Eve’s mistake, the Witch crouches behind it. And, in one swift move, the film wraps together several kinds of curiosity—toward food, toward knowledge, toward sex.

Oh! Apples! Oh, look!

As she touches an apple, the tree slaps her wrist in condemnation, his deep, adult-male voice booming. “What do you think you’re doing!” Dorothy explains that she was hungry. The trees respond with condescension, laughing: “She was hungry? She was hungry!” (The second tree’s voice is also deep—he, too, is male.) What proceeds is one of the more didactically explicit dialogues of the film, as the Scarecrow taunts the trees about their impotence:

Come along Dorothy, you don’t want any of those apples.  

Are you hinting that my apples aren’t what they ought to be?

Oh no, it’s just that she doesn’t like little green worms.

The tree tries to grab Dorothy, and when she squirms away, he begins throwing apples at her and the Scarecrow. To Dorothy, the Scarecrow makes clear that what the trees have to offer her, their apples filled with shriveled worms, will not satiate her hunger; the worms also preface and provide a contrast to Emerald City’s virility, a curiosity toward which Dorothy strives for the duration of the film.

Finally, Dorothy arrives at the Emerald City. It is a kingdom of straight green towers with rounded tips and inhabitants dressed in green—full-on projections of Dorothy’s envy for the sexual power of the Wizard. In a similar regard, the Wicked Witch of the West, with her green skin and broomstick, is the projection of Dorothy’s sexual desire onto a woman—she is a flying evil eye—and Dorothy’s fear of this desire.

To enter the kingdom of the Wizard, Dorothy rings the bell twice, knocks, and then presents her slippers at the gate. After the guard’s notable reticence toward letting her in, once he sees the shoes, his turn to friendliness is quick: “Bust my buttons!” he exclaims. The kingdom is urbane and orderly. A mustached man in a Victorian top hat directs a horse and buggy that transports its guests to their makeovers, where they are scrubbed clean and groomed. The horse changes colors, silver wheels spin, bottled chemicals are abundant. Verdant plant life blossoms everywhere. Everything is green and shiny.

The Wizard tells Dorothy that if she wants to go home, she must bring him the broomstick of the Witch of the West. It is noteworthy that Dorothy is an orphan, and that the Wizard stands in for a father with all of the answers. The agreement rings of a purity-ring ceremony.

Dorothy and her friends slink toward the Witch’s castle, which, in contrast to the lively kingdom of the Wizard, is both wild and sickly, embedded in a forest full of trees that sprinkle down brown leaves like lifeless confetti. In these trees sit an array of mechanical birds: their eyes glow red; their beaks, like the Witch’s nose, are especially pointy. Flying primates zoom through the air. As horror-movie music booms in the background, the first shot of the Witch’s territory lingers on a wooden sign warning “I’d turn back if I were you!” in front of a glowing purple-streaked sky carved by twisted trees. As Rushdie notes, “home and safety are represented by such geometrical simplicity, whereas danger and evil are invariably twisty, irregular, and misshapen.” For me, however, these trees, in their non-normative twistiness, scream out “Perversion!”

The film’s climax comes when Dorothy, surrounded by the harpoons of the Witch’s creatures, listens to the Witch as she chants: “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of spears.” It’s a rapey scene, for sure. We share Dorothy’s perspective as the Witch moves in on her.

Then, in her effort to protect the Scarecrow when the Witch sets him on fire, Dorothy douses the Witch in water, accidentally killing her. “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” the Witch pleads, melting away. The Witch’s desire is infernal; water will kill her passion. Dorothy takes her broom. The Witch’s death coupled with the passing of the broomstick—from the Witch to Dorothy to the Wizard—marks the dissolution of Dorothy’s sexual agency.

I was really scared of The Wizard of Oz when I was little, especially the landscape of the Witch’s kingdom. Now I see the special effort made to render the Witch’s creatures—the most terrifying element of her lair—primitive: their insect-like wings, their gorilla faces, the grunts they make, their tails, too long for their bodies, that swing wildly. They threatened and warned me. Their spears are not only shaped like fish hooks, but they are also marked with barbs. If they were to spear me, I would be hooked forever.

In Baum’s 1900 introduction to his children’s book, however, he expresses his endeavor to write a fable that is not moralizing:

Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.

Rushdie even asserts that the film achieves Baum’s original goal, claiming that its “absence of higher values greatly increases the film’s charm, and is an important aspect of its success in creating a world in which nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares, and needs of human beings (and, of course, tin beings, straw beings, lions, and dogs).” And though I didn’t have the language to express it then, I had a panging feeling, while watching the film as a child, that I was being manipulated in some way.

Now I have the words: the film is moralizing. It threatens with age-old lessons, about how female sexuality is acceptable only when acted upon by men who wield power over her; about how a woman’s hunger—for knowledge, for sex, for food—is a danger to her (rather than to those towering men); about how, in response to this danger, we better keep those ruby red slippers on or we might succumb to demonic forces. The film’s message is that Dorothy must remain a little girl, an impossible endeavor. And Garland’s treatment—the breast binding, the starvation, the expectation that she passively accept sexual advances from those in power—both birthed The Wizard of Oz and illustrates what it looks like when the film’s sanctimonious messages play out in real life. Garland’s own had a tragic, too-young, end.

In 2018, it comes as no surprise that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is still the stuff of myth. The movie did a remarkable job coding the politics of its time into something digestible and didactic, into something to be passed down to children of generations to come. And it has been successful in this enterprise. The film captured the anxieties of the culture that produced it, ones that, as this year has shown, endure eight decades later. In his 1919 paper, Freud cites Friedrich Schelling’s notion that unheimlich is “the name for everything that ought to have remained…hidden and secret and has become visible.” In reckoning with an accurate account of film history that acknowledges the alarming dynamics at work during production—visible to us only if we listen to women like Garland—sinister lessons of our fairytales are flung into sharp clarity. Had Harvey Weinstein got his hands on Judy Garland’s story, it is frightening to imagine what he might have forced back down below.