Friday, December 16, 2011

Ethics in Children's Fantasy: Wizard of Oz

I'm reading Wizard of Oz with Prince at night. It's been pretty fun. In casting parts, he wants to be the Scarecrow. Daddy is the Tin Woodman, Mommy is Queen of the Field Mice, and Princess is Dorothy. After some thought, he decided the computer is Toto, because the computer loves him. Oh boy.

It's been long enough since I've read Oz that all my memories are of the MGM movie. It shocks me no end that the Wicked Witch of the West doesn't show up to threaten Dorothy when she lands in Oz ... doesn't threaten them once she hooks up with the Scarecrow ... doesn't ensorcel the poppies ... doesn't even seem to exist until they get to the Emerald City and Oz commands each of them in turn to kill the witch.

Our heroes then sit around to discuss the matter, and this is what we read tonight:
"What shall we do?" asked Dorothy sadly.
"There is only one thing we can do," returned the Lion, "and that is to go to the land of the Winkies, seek out the Wicked Witch, and destroy her."
"But suppose we cannot?" said the girl.
"Then I shall never have courage," declared the Lion.
"And I shall never have brains," added the Scarecrow.
"And I shall never have a heart," spoke the Tin Woodman.
"And I shall never see Aunt Em and Uncle Henry," said Dorothy, beginning to cry. ... "I suppose we must try it, but I am sure I do not want to kill anybody, even to see Aunt Em again." ...
"I haven't the heart to harm even a Witch," remarked the Tin Woodman; "but if you go I certainly shall go with you."
Therefore it was decided to start upon their journey the next morning.....
Seriously?! Some great, green, glowing head/women/beast/fireball thing tells you that the only way to get what you want is to commit first-degree murder for him, and you say sure? I don't much want to, but I'll do it anyway is the entire depth of your inner struggle over killing someone you've never met who has done you no wrong? You only have his word that she really is Wicked [don't get me started on the musical, folks] and here we have a child - only 9 years old or so for all Judy Garland's charms - preparing to kill someone to get what she wants.

And this is the morality tale we feed our children! This is Good Entertainment. This is Best Books. She's not threatening them or the destruction of the world and everything they hold dear; just standing in the way of their private wishes and they're suddenly willing to join the Mafia!

And when they find out the Wizard is a humbug, they call him a bad man ... and that's it! He says, no no, I'm a very good man, just a bad wizard ... and that's it! No remorse. No one wonders, "Gee, do you suppose we did the right thing in killing her?" No, no, they're just happy to get the thing they came for. Maybe there will be something later in the book that redeems these decisions that I've also forgotten, but my skimming forward is failing to find it.

Kids, for those of you reading at home, the Wizard of Oz IS a BAD MAN, okay? He has committed murder and conspiracy to murder, along with any number of assorted other crimes and scams. He has used and abused the trust of good, innocent people. Please also do not grow up to be like Dorothy or her companions, who either didn't know right from wrong or how to say "The things I want are less important than my integrity and doing what I know to be right."

And now that I think more about the morality tales of this little piece of monetary policy propaganda, notice that each of them focuses exclusively on what he or she lacks. None of them has enough. The Woodman and Lion don't appreciate or use their brains; Dorothy and the Scarecrow never consider their courage, etc. They look only at what they lack.

Now teach several million kids that these are the good guys and we get a culture driven by the things we lack to make us happy. What's worse, the things are just that: things. The wizard didn't and couldn't give them what they really wanted and needed, but they chose to be satisfied with what he offered: We want degrees, not learning; we want McMansions that both parents have to work overtime to afford, not happy homes; we want clothes that speak of pride and attitude, not the courage to stand alone for what is right; we want kitsch that makes us cry, not to go out and care for the hungry and homeless and dry their tears with our hearts. Not only that, but we're willing to do anything just to get these pale imitations.

I learned a good vocabulary word for all this once that actually applies: barmecidal - giving only the illusion of plenty; named after a prince who gave his guests only empty plates, but claimed that he fed them sumptuously. It's all Satan has ever offered, but the World is more than happy to accept his fraud and to do any and all of his bidding to get it.

Is the road to Gehenna paved with yellow brick?

I'm probably overselling this. I'm probably pushing my thesis too far. I'm not going to stop reading the book with Prince because even if all this is in there, it's taken me this long to find it. However, I am trying to think of how I can subtly suggest to Prince someday to question their motivations just a wee bit and to help him appreciate the blessings he has now.

(PS - Are we liberating the Winkies from an oppressive dictatorship, perhaps? Gee, I wonder where I can find a modern parallel for that one.)

(PPS - Reading the Wiki article I linked to above, the idea of the entire adventure being a Machiavellian plot by Glinda to rid herself of the other three main rulers in town only adds one more layer to the problems of our heroes' naive ethics. I am almost disturbed that in my present mood I find the idea entertaining. Just one more layer, folks. That's why we're given the Light of Christ, so that we can tell between good and evil, light and darkness.)