The Wicked Witch of the West as a Survivor: A defense of
the most misunderstood and most maliciously maligned
early radical feminist.
Sharon R. Kahn
[I originally wrote this paper in January 1990. SK]
THE WIZARD OF OZ's (Baum, 1900;Fleming & LeRoy, 1939) most popular punching bag of a character has traditionally been the Wicked Witch of the West: a much misunderstood woman who was two steps ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist. The so denoted Wicked Witch was certainly not blameless, but she was unfairly maligned and unjustly condemned to death. Glinda and Oz, as symbolic parents in Oz, must assume the ultimate onus for perpetuating the fantasy that the Witch was to blame in any ill that befell any citizen, and for unwittingly setting into action the course of events that lead to the destruction of the Witch, and with her death, the hope for her rehabilitation, for persuading her to utilize her power on behalf of the social weal.
The Witch is probably the survivor of a dysfunctional family milieu. Her tragedy was that in her family, she never learned what responses to make in order to obtain positive reinforcement, but she was unconsciously apt in pushing for punishment and isolation. This was poignantly underscored when her attempts to hinder Dorothy from reaching the Wizard of Oz failed: "Curses, somebody always helps that girl".
As she grew to maturity, she even managed to have a relationship with another non-traditional career woman, the Wicked Witch of the East. The only woman in Oz with whom she developed a rapport with was then abruptly removed from her life in a freak accident, and the sole memento of her existence, the ruby slippers, was bestowed upon her murderess. How painful this must have been to the Witch. To top it all,the other Wicked Witch was equally loathed and thus the Witch is her sole mourner. No one is willing to comfort the Witch in her grief. And rather than admit her vulnerability, she blames Dorothy. In Oz, the surrogate parents refuse to give her mourning validity by listening to her grief. "Begone, you have no power here." says Glinda. And thus, her mourning is subverted into rage directed outward at Dorothy. Dorothy's arrival caused her friend's death. Dorothy has social skills that the Witch lacks: the former was plunged into Oz and instantly has made friends, been parented by Glinda, and has been promised parenting by Oz.
The Witch is rejected by the symbolic parents in Oz because she does not fit in. She has not chosen a traditional female career, as has Glinda.Instead, she had the audacity to set up a parallel kingdom in direct competition with Oz, and Oz, a most insecure newt of a man, resents her for this and would see her destroyed, so that he could seize her corporate assets.
The Witch's has rejected traditional feminine values as well. She refuses to behave according to the standards laid out in Godey's, and instead of being hailed as a maverick she is despise as a rebel and a threat to the established patriarchy. The Witch is sexual, dresses in black, and rides a broomstick. She controls men: her factotums are the flying monkeys, an all male entourage. All of these characterize her as aggressively sexual and as having rejected the need to be protected by a man. Glinda, by contrast, is the virgin mother. She is hailed as the female role model. There is nothing sexual about her. Like the good mother ought to be, she is rounded, bosomy, and slow moving. She dresses all in white and lace. She smiles, speaks softly, and laughs gently, She travels in a plexiglass uterus. She is of no threat to the established patriarchy, and thus is the approved of female. However, Glinda is not without her character flaws: she is afraid of intimacy: witness how whenever Dorothy wants more closeness, she gently laughs and retreats back into her plexiglass uterus and glides away.
The Witch especially makes Oz nervous: not that this would take any special talent. This is a man who quivers and cowers with his bottle of Similac in bed at the prospect of sharing an elevator ride with an early arriving suppliant. Oz rules by benefit of being a mysterious male outsider with above average
oratory skills and the facade of enlightenment. He knows that he is just an ordinary damned man who had good luck and good press upon his arrival in the Emerald City. The worst thing in the world would be if this became public knowledge. So he must turn recluse and hire factotums to perpetuate his mystery. How awesome would he remain if the citizen caught him obsessing in the cereal aisles between Count Chocula and King Vitamin? He knows there is nothing extraordinary about his ability, but believes that the Witch must have the wondrous powers in her mysterious broomstick which he would want. He projects onto her what the collective ego of the Emerald City projects unto him, only not with awe but with envy. He believes that he will have really made it if only he could get a hold of her broomstick, mistaking, the external structure of her power for the internal substance of her power. This streak of grandiosity and denial ultimately served to send him into exile, because instead of helping Dorothy realize the power within her, he chooses to play the Superdaddy and take her home himself.
Dorothy, for her part, is only a child who suffers greatly
from separation anxiety and is eager to end it, at any cost. She is too preoccupied to take responsibility for her actions: how would she feel if her best friend was suddenly killed and her murderer celebrated as a great heroine who will have a "bust in the Hall of Fame", and to boot gets the victim's property. All Dorothy knows is that the Witch was cross and has tried to trip her and her friends up all the way down the Yellow Brick Road. Furthermore, even her mentor, the Good Witch, sentences the Witch back to her exile and praises Oz as a great and good man. Dorothy is thus witness to how sexual, aggressive women are rejected by the powers in the society.
The Witch's surviving a dysfunctional family is both cause of and causative of her continuing isolation from humanity. It would do her good to tell her story and thus to end her isolation, to realize that others are like her as well, but try to find a listener in Oz. The Just World principle operates in this land. In a Just World, you deserve the family you get and you get the family you deserve. It is easier to believe that somehow Witch is at fault, that Witch is demon seed. To think otherwise, to believe that there was a time was Witch was an adorable, eager to please tyke who was severely traumatize by parents she did not pick, removes the safety valve. If it could happen to Witch,it could happen to anyone. And then the world is no longer safe and good. So it order to save their psychic safety, they reject Witch as bad, wicked. She is not given any role in Oz, an event which only serves to perpetuate the eventual tragedy. For had they given her a place in their world, this would have motivated her to moderate her extreme impulses, and thus, be more like they are in order to retain her position. If she is an outsider, with no hope of ever being taken in, she is free to despise them, and their culture, and to develop and perpetuate her own behavioral norms, without consideration of any others. Why would she? They have nothing to hold over her. By casting her out for the repose of their souls, they miss an opportunity to exercise control over her. And she has prospered without their permission, recommendations, and guidance, which is unforgivable She has power and control, despite being a female in a patriarchal society. And thus, they despise her, even as she scares them. The Witch could align herself with Dorothy against Oz, by revealing to her in the crystal ball that once Dorothy presents Oz with the broomstick, he will again yet refuse to empower her by helping her return to Kansas. Instead, she loses control, trying to kill Dorothy for having the ruby slippers. Because the Witch not only expresses anger, but so unfemininely, directly, and aggressively expresses anger in a world where women do not do this, she must be diminished because she is too hot to handle. Cold water is thrown upon her, and there is an end to all her aspirations, and an example set for all posterity as to what will befall any woman who rejects the traditional female realm to compete with men. Had the Witch been a man, doubtless, a more rehabilitative model would first have been applied: witness how Scrooge (Dickens, 1840) was successfully rehabilitated using a combination of shock incarceration and corrective emotional experiences. But the Witch was a woman who trod the yellow brick road not taken, and that has made all the difference in the therapy options extended to her.