Whenever I heard my mother's refrain, I wanted to disappear. I was a wussy girl. Growing up, I was afraid of everything (except, oddly, scary movies). I'd had enough political correctness drilled into me to know I should feel ashamed of identifying with these fictional women in peril, but I really wanted to be rescued.
To paraphrase High Fidelity, did I watch movies about damsels in distress because I was afraid? Or was I afraid because I watched movies about damsels in distress? I would be tempted to say it was the latter, except that I also had plenty of brave girls in my movie and television library (and even more on my bookshelves).
Return to Oz was one of my absolute favorite movies. I thought The Wizard of Oz was fine, but even as a child, I preferred the darker aesthetic of its not-quite sequel. Rob and I watched it recently, after Labyrinth got us thinking about the fantasy sub-genre that revolves around girls and young women escaping into magical worlds. All of your Alices in Wonderland, Lucy Pevensies having tea with Mr. Tumnus, Wendys flying off to Neverland...
Fairuza Balk's Dorothy in Return to Oz is my favorite of these girls. For one thing, the actress bears a pleasing resemblance to W. W. Denslow's illustrations in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But more importantly, she manages to come across as both kind and fantastically gutsy. As a child, I never thought about Dorothy's bravery much, but watching Return to Oz as an adult, I was struck by just how unafraid Dorothy seems throughout the story. And it's a terrifying story!
Oz was a sinister place before, but now it's downright dangerous at every turn. Immediately upon arrival, Dorothy must cross the Deadly Desert, which turns all living things to sand. The Wheelers with their hyena laughs, surround Dorothy with the intention of capturing her? Torturing her? Tearing her limb from limb? We're never really sure, but these deranged circus performers with wheels instead of hands and feet are definitely up to no good. Princess Mombi, who collects the heads of young women to swap out with her own (via some pretty great early CGI), is not too subtle about her plans to behead Dorothy. Oh, and before she even gets to Oz, Dorothy is almost the victim of a psychiatric experiment in early electroshock therapy.
What fascinated me most during my recent viewing of Return to Oz is Dorothy's unflinching determination to find her friend the Scarecrow and save Oz from the evil that has taken over. If she's afraid, it never really shows. When something scary happens, Dorothy's first move is to remedy the situation. Captured? Don't worry, just find a way out! Headless monster lunging at you? Steal its magic potion and run like mad! It's like it never occurs to this little girl that she could totally die right now!
As an adult remembering myself as a child, I find Dorothy's fearlessness interesting, but it kind of takes me out of the story. But as a child, it was the perfect fantasy. I was never as interested in the magical worlds as I was interested in the idea being brave in terrifying situations.
It makes me wonder, however, which is more problematic? The "wussy girls" my mother can't stand, or the female heroines who are never afraid, even when maybe they should be?
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