Strong Female Characters of Oz

I have a question for any reader who cares to answer. In recent days, we’ve had a discussion about strong female characters. We did not discuss little girl characters.

With little girls, the question of sex (outside of perversion) drops out of the equation. But little girls can still be feminine or masculine, a tom-boy or not. My question for readers is this: can a little girl be a strong character?

I am thinking specifically of Dorothy Gale as she is portrayed in the books by L. Frank Baum. I noticed that when reading the first twelve Oz books to my sons that the great charm and the drama from Oz is not so much exciting battles or murders or suchlike. The adventures are usually travelogues or simple quests where the girl (Dorothy, Trot and the oft-forgotten Betsy Bobbin) travel from point A to point B meeting odd characters or quaint villages of talking animals or animate objects along the way.

The Friendship between Dorothy, Trot, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger, the Sawhorse, the Glass Cat, Cap’n Bill, and Scraps the Patchwork Girl and so on and so forth is the main appeal of the series. There is not the slightest hint of romance in Oz (all the little girls are too little) and so the menfolk do not appear as father figures nor as romantic leads, but as friends.

It is rare to see men portrayed in a book starring a female main character simply as friends.

In none of these books, so far as memory serves, even when stranded in a sunken city or trapped by magical islands or transformed into geese or what-have-you, Neither Ozma nor Dorothy nor Trot nor Betsy cries or whines or acts like she needs a Prince Charming to save her. I have not counted up how often or when the girls get rescued by friends versus how often the friends get rescued by girls, but it was not the kind of obvious formula we see in, say, the Barsoom novels of Burroughs, where Princesses get kidnapped with such regularity that one assumes they wear carrying-handles to tote them.

Whatever it is that people are looking for when they look for ‘strong’ characters could be one of several things. If it is typical masculine behavior, the reader does not see that in Oz. If it is being the prime mover of the action, the one who makes the decisions, or on whose acts the plot hangs, that the little girls in Oz certainly have.

This leads to a second question: is it the genre? I tend to think the sword and sorcery genre is one where it is difficult to portray a strong female character, unless she is a good witch or something, because the action revolves around manly deeds of masculine physical strength, such as fighting pools full of nipping weasels. Or chthonic horrors. I meant to say chthonic horrors. Whereas the detective story genre, or the magical schoolchums genre are more welcoming to girl characters, because the Veronica Mars or Hermione Grangier are in situations where brains count for more then brawn.

Is Dorothy Gale a strong female character? What about Wendy Darling, or Alice Pleasance Liddell?

 

 

 

 

17 Comments

  1. Comment by Rigel Kent:

    Before I answer I have to say that my memories are primarily of the Judy Garland Dorothy from the movie. I have read Oz, but only the first one, and then that was long after my memory had been set by multiple viewings of the movie version.

    Dorothy struck me as having several excellent qualities. She was courageous, loyal and caring. And all the while she struck me as believable. Her adventures are fantastic, but I’ve known several people who I think would have handled things as well as she did, if they were ever in those circumstances.

    I don’t know how she would be viewed by those who constantly cry out for “strong female characters” in fiction, and I’m probably better off not knowing. But I think any writer of any format, in any genre, could do far worse than to use her as a model when coming up with a heroine for their story.

  2. Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

    I would say that Dorothy Gale is definitely a strong female character. I am quite fresh on her exploits, because I have been reading them aloud on our local cable channel. She is always at least arguably the leader in any of the expeditions she goes on, and is always full of advice and encouragement.

    After the first adventure, she becomes something of an “old hand” at fantasy quests, explaining to the chicken why it can now talk, for instance, and of course giving background information to any new characters (and therefore new readers). She is very brave, in the face of being lost, meeting weird creatures, or being bullied by tyrannous Nome kings, wicked witches, vain princesses with detachable heads, etc.

    Her author, L. Frank Baum, was the son-in-law of Matilda Gage, an early feminist. Baum hosted Susan B. Anthony when she came to Aberdeen, South Dakota, and supported women’s suffrage.

    Baum was not trying to write deep political anything (I think, though there are some rather whacky theories to the contrary), but it’s interesting to look at the gender politics in The Land of Oz, the second book in the series, in which Dorothy does not appear. General Jinjur, a Gillikin girl, forms an all-female Army of Revolt and forces the Scarecrow from the throne of the Emerald City, so her army can loot the city of jewels and force reversals of sex roles, with the men forced to cook and clean. So far, so much a caricature.

    But then Jinjur and her forces are overthrown by the army of Glinda the Good, composed of Quadling girls with proper military training. Everyone goes back to normal roles, the men remarking they don’t know how the women did it, the women remarking they couldn’t take any more of their husbands’ cooking.

    So the domestic issues are tossed off as jokes in three or four paragraphs scattered through the book, but most of the political leaders, the main heroes and villains, and all the armies, are all female.

    And the crowning twist is that the protagonist, a young Gillikin boy named Tip, turns out to have been Princess Ozma, kidnapped as a baby when the Wizard came to power, changed into a boy, and raised by Mombi (a second-string wicked witch and the main villain of the book). Glinda forces Mombi to change him/her back. So the hero’s reward in this book is, ah, to become the heroine (and a fairy princess). If this raised any eyebrows in Baum’s time, I never heard about it. I know people (children in particular, and the publishers heeded them) asked for more Oz books until he was sick of writing them.

    I don’t know that genre requirements for physical prowess come into it. Monsters get slain in the Oz adventures – by the male friends of the little girl protagonists. The Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion both rack up body-counts in the first book (not the movie). The Wizard, in the fourth book, kills an evil vegetable wizard in a sword-vs-sorcery duel (the Wizard using the sword since, as we all know, he’s just a humbug wizard), and later an invisible bear. In the third book, Tik-Tok (honorary male) beats up a Wheeler for Dorothy and the Scarecrow assaults the Nome King with an egg. (It makes sense in context.) In the fifth book, the Shaggy Man fights off the Scoodlers, led by their ferocious queen.

    Alice, I think, is more of a detached observer. Mainly, she dreams and we watch her dream over her shoulder. And her sanity highlights by contrast the insanity of the various dream-creatures. I think it’s notable that, like Dorothy, she combines being polite with being firm about not being pushed around, as much as possible. Also like Dorothy, at least for a little bit, she has an old man for a friend, the White Knight, often thought to be a self-portrait of Carrol.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      But then Jinjur and her forces are overthrown by the army of Glinda the Good, composed of Quadling girls with proper military training. Everyone goes back to normal roles, the men remarking they don’t know how the women did it, the women remarking they couldn’t take any more of their husbands’ cooking.

      The line is really funny. Thanks to the internet, here is the passage:

      ‘What has happened?’ the Scarecrow asked a sad-looking man with a bushy beard, who wore an apron and was wheeling a baby carriage along the sidewalk.

      ‘Why, we’ve had a revolution, your Majesty — as you ought to know very well,’ replied the man; ‘and since you went away the women have been running things to suit themselves. I’m glad you have decided to come back and restore order, for doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.’

      ‘Hm!’ said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. ‘If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?’

      ‘I really do not know,’ replied the man, with a deep sigh. ‘Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron.”

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      The Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion both rack up body-counts in the first book (not the movie). The Wizard, in the fourth book, kills an evil vegetable wizard in a sword-vs-sorcery duel (the Wizard using the sword since, as we all know, he’s just a humbug wizard), and later an invisible bear. In the third book, Tik-Tok (honorary male) beats up a Wheeler for Dorothy and the Scarecrow assaults the Nome King with an egg. (It makes sense in context.) In the fifth book, the Shaggy Man fights off the Scoodlers, led by their ferocious queen.

      I salute you as a true citizen of the beautiful fairyland of Oz. Yes, your memory of those scenes agrees with mine. The wizard is choking because the veggie man is casting a suffocation spell on him while the wizard is quickly trying to put together his trick sword. The Shaggy Man catches the Scoodler’s deadly well-aimed Janus-like two faced heads while standing on the bridge of Khazad-Dum (or maybe that is another book) and throws the detachable heads into an abyss — a scene that gave me odd dreams as a child.

      Shaggy Man defeats the Scoodlers

  3. Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

    Thanks very much for finding and posting the illustration. Viewers may note that the Shaggy Man has a donkey’s head. They may like to know this was a gift to him from the magic-working king of a city of talking donkeys, who took a liking to him. Another character, the little boy Button Bright, was given a fox head in a similar way. Both got their own heads back by the end of the story.

    For some reason, if the second book was all about gender roles, the fifth book was all about heads.

    As to citizenship of Oz, thank you very kindly. It is a family tradition. My grandmother bought the books for my mother, I was read them as a child, and now I’ve read them to my daughter.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      AH! Not just a citizen of the greatest of fairylands, but a subject of many generations! May King Pastorale and Elfqueen Luraline grant you their blessings. (I think those were the names. With the internet, I could look it up, but let us rely on memory for once.)

      I don’t know if you have ever ventured elsewhere in the Baum Universe aside from Oz, but Cap’n Bill Trot appear in SKY ISLAND, as does Button Bright (who has not only a magical umbrella but seems much smarter than the comically ignorant Button Bright of ROAD TO OZ.) Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter, my personal favorite of nearly all Oz characters, puts in a cameo.

      Strangely enough, Trot and Cap’n Bill seem more appealing (at least to me) in MAGIC OF OZ than they do in their own books, SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND, which do not have as much whimsey or appeal as Oz. I am not sure why.

      If you have ever wondered why Trot was rescued from drowning by unseen hands at the beginning of SCARECROW OF OZ, the answer is that she wears a magic ring given her by the queen of the mermaids in the book SEA FAIRIES wherein she was first introduced.

      Trot Griffith and William Wheedles

      • Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

        “AH! Not just a citizen of the greatest of fairylands, but a subject of many generations! May King Pastorale and Elfqueen Luraline grant you their blessings. (I think those were the names. With the internet, I could look it up, but let us rely on memory for once.)”

        I think it was “Pastoria” and “Lurline,” but I’m just running on in-head memory, too.

        I am one of two alternating gamesmasters in a long-running roleplaying game. Once, as we were romping through various published fantasy worlds, I decided to take the player characters to Oz. My co-GM remarked, “I’d often thought of doing Oz, but thought someone—” Meaningful glare at me. “—would have an unfair advantage.” “Now, now,” I replied, “just because I have dual citizenship…”

        I then sent them on an adventure through Oz history, because the Wizard had invented a time machine (looking like a ride-able grandfather clock) that did not have all the bugs worked out yet.

        I have read bits of non-Oz Baum, including Queen Zixi of Ix and John Dough and the Cherub. I knew of the books you mention but have not yet read them. As I recall, Sky Island makes a re-appearance in one of the later Oz books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Speedy in Oz, where the young boy Speedy is blown up to Sky Island in a volcanic explosion that also re-animates a dinosaur skeleton he was helping his uncle excavate. Speedy and the dinosaur team up and are co-protagonists.

        Getting back to strong female characters, I agree that Lucy Pevensie belongs on the list. She is a much more developed character than either Alice or Dorothy, exploring faith, hope, and charity in the various Narnia books, unfailing in courage, and showing plenty of “agency” Wardrobe, Caspian, and Dawn Treader. I recently learned she is based on, or at least a compliment to, Lucy Barfield, daughter of Owen Barfield, one of Lewis’s fellow Inklings and a friend who was instrumental in his re-conversion to Christianity.

  4. Comment by Mary:

    Oddly enough I was just thinking of my favorite webcomics’ female characters, and one I was considering was Red of Red’s Planet. Initial impressions may be that she’s just bratty, but she manifests more character than that after a bit.

  5. Comment by Brian Niemeier:

    I nominate Violet Baudelaire from the Series of Unfortunate Events…series.

    At fourteen, she can’t really be called a little girl, but she hasn’t reached the age of majority either (despite Count Olaf’s nuptial intentions in the first book, which makes him all the creepier).

    She initiates most of the protagonistic action, uses her intellect to solve problems, perseveres despite overwhelming obstacles, and maintains unbending solidarity with her siblings.

  6. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    My question for readers is this: can a little girl be a strong character?
    This leads to a second question: is it the genre?

    I think Mr. Earl Wajenberg answered both questions remarkably well in those few words: Dorothy […] combines being polite with being firm about not being pushed around.

    Being firm about not being pushed around. In other words to have free will, to be one’s own person, while being polite, that is, virtuous, which refers to other virtues of the heroine: she is brave (she admits of being afraid but is able to overcome fear), level-headed, friendly and caring.

    The style of hero may vary as much as the genre, character type and plot call for. Masculine or feminine, brainy or brawny may be mixed in every possible way, depending on inspiration and taste. Personally, I like a princess in need of rescue as much as an Amazon, or a willful little girl, whether thoroughly feminine or tomboyish, provided the character is interesting and the story entertaining.

  7. Comment by Stephen J.:

    Lucy Pevensie of the Narnia books must be mentioned — if only to glom onto an obvious candidate solely to disguise my own shallowness, whereupon I must admit I have never read any of the actual Oz books. To be ruthlessly fair to a series I do not otherwise much like, I have to admit that Lyra Belacqua, of Pullman’s “Dark Materials” books, has a respectable bit of gumption to her, her flaws notwithstanding. And one other character that occurs to me is Li’l Orphan Annie, who certainly had a great strength of personality in the daily comics where I read her. (Annie was the source of one of my favourite pieces of wisdom about sensible proselytization: “Tellin’ people they shouldn’t be doin’ what they already know they shouldn’t be doin’ don’t accomplish much… ‘cept they start to run when they see you comin’!”)

    From these and the other examples cited I think it fairly evident that little girls can be characters of great strength, i.e. people of well-depicted, complex personalities who are capable of knowing their own mind and staying true to that until such time as they decide to change and grow from what they’ve learned. Sword and sorcery, as a genre, is perhaps problematic simply because like all genres derived from the basic pulp-melodrama action template, it does not favour the introspection, character complexity or emotional conflict necessary for that type of strength to be evident and plot-critical.

  8. Comment by DGDDavidson:

    By the way, you got me hooked on Kim Possible. I can’t believe it took me so long to finally sit down with this one. I can’t believe I haven’t already watched every episode twenty times.

    However, at about the halfway point of season 1, though I know it’s sick and wrong, I’m already shipping Kim with Ron, and the haters can suck it.

  9. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    This may be seen as off topic, not sure how much it is but…

    http://ink-splotch.tumblr.com/post/69470941562/there-comes-a-point-where-susan-who-was-the

    Someone imagines Susan as a feminist post-narnia.

    • Comment by Mary:

      One notices that this agrees with Lewis’s indictment, because its solution for Susan’s being solely interested in lipstick and — nylons, was it? — is to declare that she wasn’t.

      • Comment by Nate Winchester:

        One of my favorite rebuttals was this essay. Which I just now realized today, our gracious blog host commented on way back in the wee early years of this century.

        Heh, I find it funny sometimes how the internet seems to be as small as the world as I go around, and often sight familiar faces (like you, Mary, and Foxfier) when we weren’t walking the same path to get to that page in the first place.

        Considering that I grew up in a small-ish town and could hardly ever go anywhere without running into people I know, it gives a comforting feel to the internet. Though I wish sometimes I could wave and shake ya’ll’s hands like in real life. :)

  10. Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

    It seems there is a whole fan genre dedicated to “the Problem of Susan,” as I’ve heard it called.

    (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read The Last Battle)

    The Tumblr post was pretty good, but it skips over the fact that Susan either pretends or has made herself believe that Narnia never happened. The Susan of the Tumblr story is one who hasn’t denied Narnia and Aslan.

    I don’t know that I’d call the Susan of this story a “feminist” particularly. Activist, certainly.

    (Interesting. The spell-checker on this web site recognizes “Narnia” but not “Aslan” or “Tumblr.”)

    My own expectation about Susan is:

    A few days after the train crash, as she sits stunned and empty in her parents’ house, someone arrives from the mortuary or some such stark place and presents her with the personal effects that were found on her family. (People were rubber gloves when they sort through stuff like that. This is important.) In among the other stuff, she finds four green rings and four yellow rings.

    She remembers Prof. Kirk’s stories. She doesn’t believe them, but still, she picks up a green ring first. Then she picks up a yellow ring.

    She looks around the Wood Between the Worlds, and sobs and sobs and sobs. And when she’s done, the next round starts.

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