Enchanting, joyful and magical are the words that describe the film, The Wizard of Oz. After its release in 1939, it became a classic and one of America’s most beloved films. Based on the 1900 novel by Lyman Frank Baum, in some ways it seemed to have shaped the cultural consciousness of America. It is now even more significant, not only for revealing the development of theatrical fantasy within American life, but also for shedding light on a hidden narrative behind major current events around the world.
The story starts with a nostalgic sepia-colored farmland in Kansas. A young girl named Dorothy played by Judy Garland wished to find a place where there is no trouble. One day, a tornado swooped down and transported her into the land of Oz. Dorothy embarked on a journey to meet the great wizard of Oz with a hope that that he could help her find her way back home. Dorothy’s journey can be seen as mirroring America’s over the last century.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
When Dorothy left Kansas and entered Oz, the scenery turned colorful, as if it is adding colors to the soul and landscape of America. It was like the transition made in this country from the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929 to president Roosevelt’s New Deal and slow resurrection. It reflected a nation in dark turmoil transforming itself.
The United States went through a rapid new industrialization. Nature was reshaped as roads were paved and the electric grid constructed. A new direction was ushered in with construction of modern buildings, metropolitan cities and more recently strip malls and suburbia. Just as Dorothy stepped out onto the Yellow Brick Road with cheerful music, the US danced to new expansion fueled by gasoline energy. Americans followed those footsteps onto the seemingly endless freeway seeking a better life, which in Dorothy’s case was symbolized by her desire to go back home to Kansas. American psychoanalyst, Phillip Cushman (1995) elucidated how the development of what he describes as personality became a key factor in defining the successful American life.1
Personality, since it made one attractive to others, led to business success as well as personal success. Success in business was predicted on the ability to sell-not only goods, but oneself as well. Social performance, not hard work, became the key to wealth and power.2
The American stage was cast for those who possess a kind of personality that excelled in performance. Those who demonstrated this performability sold themselves to commercial interests. If they carried the roles smoothly, they were given the spotlight and financial rewards. Among them were the Wall Street businessmen and corporate executives in the financial and industrial power sectors elevating themselves into a position of producers of the play called the American Dream. The stage was a market. Capital demand pulled the strings of these producers controlling the content of the show behind the scenes, and people would compete and audition for roles that were designed to advance the plot.
The Emerald City
On Dorothy’s way to the Emerald city in the Land of Oz, three accomplices joined her. The first was the Scarecrow who only wished to have a brain. These two then came across a Tin man who wished to have a heart, and lastly a cowardly lion that dreamt about gaining courage joined them. When Dorothy and her friends finally reached the end of the Yellow Brick Road, they found themselves in the Emerald City.
The guardian of the gate gave them green glasses that would protect their eyes from being blinded by the brightness of the Emerald city. In the Emerald city, everyone was comfortable and happy. Everything looked green, with all the people wearing the same green clothes. This was a new America. It was a promise of the life of middle class, two garages and an SUV, a big house with a yard and pool. Acquisition of designer clothes and corporate brand goods gave the individual new status. What is behind all of this was the commodity of “American middle class” being sold to people for a sense of meaning and a kind of belonging in a society.
The rich imagery of the American dream promoted a promise that if one works hard, anyone can reach the dream of middle class. The spirit of collaboration, and helping the poor was replaced with envy of other’s success measured by economic and materialistic prosperity. A nation’s hunger for meaning was directed toward a desire for material acquisition and drove people to compete with one another through further consumption. Every corner of the city, people heard the confident voice of economist Milton Friedman, preaching capitalist gain for individual worth, saying that “in a capitalist system like the United States, ‘the market’ sees to it that people are paid ‘in accordance with product,’ in other words, according to how much they produce.”3 But for some, production was itself performance. It was the trick of making gains without hard work by manipulating public perception through ads and PR (Public Relations). As the century progressed, the smooth performance of politicians and the growing power of transnational corporations carried out systematic export of the means of production. Trade agreements like NAFTA and WTO paved the way for this type of globalization. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, factories that produced real goods were shipped overseas, replaced with corporate overseeing managing sectors and exploitation of cheap labor. Yet this fact was kept from the eyes of the American people or disguised with the narrative of the information age economy. This set the stage for this nation to float on the bubble of a false economy based on massive debt.
The mighty oracle of Allan Greenspan further advanced this performance through the magic of derivatives, namely to create money out of thin air and manipulate perception and the will of the people into self-destructive practices. The credit card was introduced as a new product, a symbol of a middle class. “MasterCard can get them anything, at anytime; and when they acquire and consume these things, they can ‘master’ any occurrence.”4 Everything was green, everyone looked green, like a smoke that contaminated the field, everyone sensed unlimited credit, abundant resources. “You should know no boundaries.” said an investment firm Merrill Lynch to the viewer.4 Like adventurous American Eagles who had no fear of soaring too high, unregulated greed expanded beyond borders, carried by the mighty wings of transnational corporations.
Pop motivational psychology and personal trainers became trends of the day, preaching how to make a quick buck and elevate oneself to the status of celebrity by making oneself more attractive, popular and sellable. The meaning of individual life became securing one’s personality in monopoly game of Wall Street and controlling market values. Under the fantasy of the American dream, people saw an endless Yellow Brick Road ahead, showing them a misty land of opportunity promising ever-increasing profits.
The Crumbling Yellow Brick Road
After the turn of the millennium, this road constructed with what could be metaphorically described as the empty substance of personality seems to be crumbling. With the recent gigantic bailouts for investment banks like Goldman Sachs, the middle class rapidly shrinking, the American Dream has quickly turned into a nightmare of massive consumer fraud. The consequence of this reality created through fantasy is spinning out of control. Destructive forces have come into the world carried by the rhetoric of “War on Terror”, with reduction of civil liberties and what is now revealed as an unsustainable derivative economy. The economy crises of Greece and Iceland is spreading like an epidemic that is calling for an urgent awakening.
In the story of Oz, Dorothy’s encounter and journey with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Lion seemed to reveal a transformation of her personality, through integration of these disparate parts of herself represented by each of her companions. Awakening from the dream requires union of those three capacities, first developing the ability to think for oneself, that will lead to feeling with others in a sense of morality and finally cultivating the courage to confront the truth.
The Man Behind the Curtain
How might it be possible for the world to wake up from one reality, so people might imagine the world anew without this manufactured dream? In the story of The Wizard of Oz, it was when Dorothy found the man behind the curtain, whom she had thought of as a great Wizard of Oz, the spell of the Wizard was broken. The person everyone thought was the great and powerful wizard was simply an ordinary man, who was just able to perform some clever tricks. The man told Dorothy how he had come to be regarded as a powerful Wizard. He described how once he made a balloon, and took off. When he landed in Oz, his status was elevated; everyone thought that he possessed great power. In actuality, the only power that he had was an ability to project voices everywhere, seen in the powerful mainstream media and PR used as tools for propaganda. He created the Emerald city by giving everyone a pair of green glasses so that that is all they could see. The man made another balloon to bring Dorothy back home with him, yet when the balloon was about to take off, she missed the opportunity to go with him and he left without her.
The balloon symbolizes taking a path toward meaning by the development of personality. The balloon is like an inflated personality that has no solid substance, just floats in the air without roots and is destined to pop and eventually fall down. It was not this balloon, but her feet being firmly grounded that made her able to awake from her dream and get her in touch with reality.
In the end, Dorothy found a way to make her wish come true. She had sought for the supposed great power in the Wizard, only to find that the power existed inside of herself from the beginning. She has so long run after an unfolding paved road that promised to lead her to the power outside. With her right and left foot always separate, she was never fully in touch with the ground. When she finally awakened to the fake authority of Wizard of Oz, her feet for the first time got settled. Magic happened when she put her heels together and knock them three times. Dorothy woke up from a dream, going back to her home.
Back Home: A New Beginning
How is her life back in Kansas? Did Dorothy gain new insight to see through her previous life after wakening up from her dream? Instead of monopoly of life through the green lenses, she brought rich colors to Kansas, where the ordinary scenery was widened. The story ends when Dorothy’s returns home, but the imagination continues, moving out of the screen into our immediate situation, into the theater of the unfolding story of America and the world.
This film that once inspired many Americans reveals a larger story that continues today in each person. What is revealed as the socio-economic dilemma that we face is also a deep moral issue. It was symbolized as Dorothy’s awakening, which made it possible for her to transform her old life. Bringing solutions to the problems requires awakening of our own power that has been asleep. Perhaps our yellow brick road is crumbling, our taken for granted way of life quickly changing. Yet it is each person’s great awakening where a new story begins. This time we remain grounded on the rich soil of the Earth. Instead of following the road that was promised, we make the path by walking together with our eyes wide open.
- Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. NY: Da Capo Press. [↩]
- Cushman, p. 65. [↩]
- As cited in Zinn, H. (1990). Declarations of Independence: Cross-examining American ideology. NY: HarperPerennial, p. 159. [↩]
- Cushman, p. 84. [↩] [↩]