Published in 1904, the big reveal-the-end of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, is that the protagonist (a rather dickish young boy appropriately named Tip) is in fact the erstwhile Princess Ozma of Oz, having been magically transformed into a boy as an infant. According to some curmudgeon on Wikipedia:
“The detail of Tip/Ozma’s sex change, which can raise a range of psychological speculations in modern readers, made perfect sense in terms of early twentieth-century stage practice, since the juvenile male role of Tip would have been played by an actress as a matter of course.”
In other words, quit with your newfangled psychological speculations, you darned modern readers you! Get off my lawn! The thing is, they’re probably not too far off about the theatrical angle. According to Baum’s preface, it was the success of the stage version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—not necessarily the success of the book itself, nor any unanswered questions—which lead him to cash in with an equally adaptable sequel. The Jurassic Park / Lost World Effect, if you will. He even dedicates the book to the actors who played the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman on stage in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to reprise their roles.
Thus, I’m inclined to believe that the Tip/Ozma switcheroo was mostly a practical decision, though Baum probably also saw it as an opportunity to top himself. Oh, sure, there’s a talking scarecrow and a man made of tin and an anthropomorphic lion, but that’s all so 1901. A boy becoming a girl? Now that’s the most amazing, unpossible, incredible thing ever!
All the same, the reveal and subsequent transformation of Tip back into Ozma—described in glittery detail, complete with an illustration of the newly restored Ozma all tarted up like Jon Benet doing Stevie Nicks—can’t help but resonate with transgendered people. And by resonate, I mean “feel like a kick in the teeth.” In a good way. Reading it now for the first time at thirty-five, a decade after I began my own considerably slower and less glittery transition from male to female, it’s powerful stuff. I can only imagine what it would have been like when I was a child still trying to figure out what these weird feelings meant, and every image of crossing gender was a shock to my system, let alone one so straightforward.
Humans are starved for images of ourselves. We like to see our lives reflected, to identify with the characters on the page or on screen or wherever. We’d prefer them to be positive images, but, hey, beggars and choosers. If you’re a straight white American male, you’re pretty well covered. The farther away you are, the dicier it gets. Even though I was born a white American male and have always liked girls regardless of my own gender status, I never really saw myself in those particular images.
In The Celluloid Closet, Harvey Fierstein says the following: “All the reading I was given to do in school was always heterosexual, every movie I saw was heterosexual, and I had to do this translation, I had to translate it to my life rather than seeing my life.” Me, I can translate like nobody’s business, and a story doesn’t have to have tranny themes or a tranny character for me to enjoy it or get emotionally attached. Hell, I don’t even necessarily trust it when they do. I still haven’t watched Transamerica because I can’t get over my annoyance at the casting of a genetic female as the male-to-female transsexual character. Besides, I know I’m no more the intended audience of that movie than gay men were the intended audience of Brokeback Mountain or Philadelphia.
Anyway, I’ve always been hyper-conscious of such images, especially because most of them are played for laughs or scorn. Just last night I watched the execrable James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, and winced at a scene in which the bad guy is in drag. There’s a zillion other ways the flimsy plot could have progressed—and it was already plenty homophobic thanks to a pair of gay henchmen—but a man dressed as a woman is always funny, right? James Bond would never do something like that because he’s the hero, but humiliating the villain is not only fair game, it’s satisfying. That’s the sort of negative image we’re bombarded with, the constant reinforcement that crossing gender in any way is bad.
Which is why the Tip/Ozma scene is so powerful: it’s not played for laughs, and it’s not meant to belittle the character. Quite the opposite, since he becomes queen of the fucking universe. Sure, Tip is not pleased about it at first, described as “ready to cry” (like a bitch!) as he begs to not have to become a girl. Both the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow tell him that there’s nothing wrong with being a girl, and the Woodman even admits that he thinks girls are nicer than boys—only to be immediately contradicted by the Scarecrow, who downgrades it to “just as nice, anyway.” (Whew! That was close!) Though he consents, Tip is still cranky about the whole thing, which I choose to write off as some kind of Campbellian “hero’s journey” archetype. Don’t they always have to, like, refuse the initial call to adventure or something like that? And, let’s face it, most boys don’t want to become girls.
Except for those who do, who wanted at that age and every age which followed to be a girl rather than a boy, making that scene wish-fulfillment of the highest order. I’m ambivalent about traveling to a magical land with talking scarecrows and flying monkeys and little people who’ve based their municipal government around getting a sugar fix, but a no-fuss no-muss transformation into a beautiful girl, and a princess, no less? Yes, right now, please please please thank you. I doubt L. Frank Baum expected any boys to react that way. The shallow, shrewish portrayal of most women in the book gives me the feeling that the ol’ Baumster was a bit of a misogynist, but—hey, look, I’m already at a thousand words! I guess someone else will have to open that can of worms.
The Tip/Ozma storyline didn’t make it into 1985’s Return to Oz (a seriously great film which is far more faithful to the books than the original movie), but thanks to the magic of YouTube, here’s a nighmarish clip of the big scene from a stage version. If nothing else, it goes to show that some things work better on the page.