Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” is a poster girl of the typical runaway girl from another era. She’s an orphan living with her aging aunt and uncle in the drab black-and-white middle-of-nowhere, who takes off on her own when the ineffectual Henry and Em allow wicked old Elvira Gulch to take her beloved little dog off to be destroyed. Dorothy’s first adventure on the road is to meet a charlatan fortune-teller who feeds her a hot dog and tells her to go home—but before she can get there she’s caught in the tornado that will lift her up into its vortex, then drop her down into another world altogether, where she’ll find that what she needs to get what she wants has been well within her reach all along.

We can look at this Dorothy—to see who she is and what she means to us—by comparing the text of the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900, to the still popular musical film, released in 1939, before considering its even more recent sequel, “Return to Oz,” in 1985. To begin with, there are important differences between the book and the first film, not only the color of the shoes—which in the book are silver[2] but in the movie turn out to be the same familiar ruby shade of another girl’s suggestively red hood—but also the colorlessness of the Kansas landscape, which in the book is described as even more desolate and inhospitable than the film’s dust bowl poverty:

“When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions  The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.”[3]

Even Aunt Em is depressingly gray and dull, as the sun and wind had “taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now.” And Henry is no better. He “never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.”

Who wouldn’t want to run away from that? But this Dorothy of Baum’s invention is not a runaway, she is merely “an innocent harmless little girl who had been carried by a cyclone many miles from home and she had never killed anything in all her life.” Here there is no threatening Elvira Gulch and no unhappy home situation to drive Dorothy away, which makes her longing to go home more believable than in the movie. In the book the Scarecrow listens to her story and then says: “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.” To which Dorothy responds:  “That’s because you have no brains… No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.” Well, maybe.

Even more important, in the book there is no implication at all that the whole trip to Oz was maybe just a dream, or the result of a concussion got from a hard knock on the head by a window frame. Dorothy’s return to Kansas is not a coming-to in her bed with all the worried grown-ups gathered around, instead she’s simply dropped back down again from the sky into the dirt. There is not the construct of the farmhands or the fortune-teller as players both in Kansas and in Oz, either, and so no sense at all that the whole adventure was something that happened not in the real world, but only in a feverish girl’s own crazy little head. Too much imagining, too much dreaming, is unhealthy for little girls—it’s another kind of indiscretion, a mental transgression that can only lead to madness in the end.

In 1900, psychologist G. Stanley Hall said of woman:  “She works by intuition and feeling… If she abandons her natural naiveté and takes up the burden of guiding and accounting for her life by consciousness, she is likely to lose more than she gains, according to the old saw that she who deliberates is lost.”

Hall went on to claim that women are more often insane than men and he blamed that insanity on a modern tendency toward too much thinking, an activity which he claimed ran against a girl’s more intuitive and emotional nature. He urged that girls be schooled more in body and less in mind, with that education regulated to accommodate the unpredictable effects of menstruation, which threatened to throw them into an even more unmanageable lunacy[4] as they matured. In his analysis, Hall quotes S. Weir Mitchell, another preeminent psychologist of the time (and the model for the doctor in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,”[5] who instructs the disturbed heroine of that story to abandon her intellectual life, avoid stimulating company, and cut out all that self-subverting creative writing in her journal):  “No one knows woman who does not know sick woman.” And when he says “woman” here we might as well read “girl,” because as we’ve already seen,  in Hall’s paradigm a girl does not develop as a boy does, she is always a girl, whether a woman or not, and her age doesn’t matter because “[w]oman is far nearer childhood than man.” Once a girl, always a girl, and maybe that’s why we so rarely get to see her come of age.

She gotta dance, she gotta dance
And she can’t stop ’till them shoes come off.
These shoes do a kind of voodoo
They’re gonna make her dance ’till her legs fall off.

—Kate Bush, The Red Shoes, 1993

We could argue that since the trip to Oz was all in her head, Dorothy’s journey in the film is just another kind of transgression, another sort of leaving of the natural path, in which she wanders off from her healthier and more immediate physical nature into the dangerous territories of her mind, which for a girl might be a world better left alone. As we’ll see, this aspect is further developed in the film’s most faithful sequel, “Return to Oz,” where a wide-eyed Fairuza Balk plays a much younger-looking Dorothy than Judy Garland’s, and she’s literally crazy—she can’t sleep, she can’t concentrate, and she can’t stop talking about Oz. In fact, she’s so clearly disturbed that Aunt Em finally sends her away to a mental institution for a cure: electro-shock therapy.

Just as Red Riding Hood’s story has changed in response to the needs of her audience—whether it be French peasants, Victorian children, or modern boys and girls—so do these film adaptations of Baum’s book play to our own expectations, making Dorothy the girl she needs to be for us in the context of our own culture now.

Let’s go back to the shoes, then, because their symbolism is so obvious. Ruby red, rosy red, blood red, they’re vaginal sheaths, uterine vessels, signaling the onset of adolescence, puberty, menarche, womanhood, the other side of the rainbow, and although their magic is hidden, it’s real and it’s strong, stronger even than that of the All-Powerful Wizard himself, who turns out to be an elaborately impotent fake. In Baum’s book, Dorothy finds a pair of silver shoes and puts them on herself, but these red ones of the movie come as a surprise—like a bloom of blood in the crotch of her clean white panties, they just magically appear on her feet. They don’t really go with her outfit, either, they’re much too fancy for that girly white pinafore and plain blue gingham dress. And with the anklets they look out of place, too grown up, as if this nymphet were only playing dress-up, a little girl modeling a pair of Mom’s best party pumps.

Looked at in this way, we might consider “The Wizard of Oz” to be a kind of aborted coming of age story for Dorothy. In the beginning she wants desperately to cross over the rainbow, but then once she gets there, she can’t handle it. The dangers (a wicked witch out to kill her), the responsibility (three flawed and needy traveling companions), the unpredictability (talking trees lobbing apples)—it’s just too much for her, and all she wants to do is go back to home to safe colorless Kansas, back to her innocent girlhood  again. Now her “no place like home” mantra seems almost stunted, and as a kid watching it myself, I never understood it. I couldn’t believe she didn’t even bother to test the power of those shoes, experiment a bit to see what else they might be able to do for her, but instead just clicked her heels and used them to take her back to where she’d been.

Anyway, it was all just a dream, and in the end she is still just a girl—no red shoes and no menses. No color, no power, no danger, no thrill.

There was a girl in my high school who was like that. She was an angel; she even played the harp. She was tiny and frail, as pretty as a petal, a petite flower as underdeveloped as a Munchkin—she was an anorexic before we knew what anorexia was. She lived on air, she shaved her pubis,[6] she never bled. She would have starved herself to death if it meant that she’d found a way to stay a girl forever.

Somewhere over the rainbow…

“Return to Oz” was released almost fifty years later, in 1985, at the height of the McMartin Preschool molestation frenzy, with 10-year-old Fairuza Balk[7] an important six years younger than Judy Garland (who had to have her breasts bound to make her chest flat enough to be believably pre-pubescent) and playing the role of a much more childlike Dorothy. With her long braids and wide-eyed look, Balk is a good model of the kind of vacuous innocence that author James R. Kincaid assigns to Shirley Temple who “was blessed by nature not with beauty but with a total emptiness, a fat, round face with nothing in it,”[8] suggesting that in this we find a sort of deliberate vacancy into which we can project whatever we want, including “voyeuristic pleasure” and our own adult erotic desires. Although it is not a musical, “Return to Oz” is a sequel to the first film, in that it follows the plots of the next two books in Baum’s series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, mixing them up so that Dorothy can play her part, since she’s not a character in the second book at all.

“You’re in a pretty fix, Dorothy Gale, I can tell you!”[9]

When the film opens, it’s 1899, in the darkness just before the dawn of a violent new century that will see our culture’s own supposed innocence lost to the atrocities of World War and Holocaust, unprecedented mass financial ruin, threats of nuclear annihilation, sexual liberation and libertinism, along with technologies of communication that will leave none of it unspoken or unseen. Dorothy is blissfully unaware of what’s in store, however—she’s back in Kansas again, and she’s not happy about it. For all her struggling to find her way home, now what she longs for is a trip back to Oz. It’s been six months since she left, and she can’t get it out of her head. Disturbed by Dorothy’s continuing preoccupations with Oz—she’s not sleeping and she keeps talking about this fantasy of hers as if it were real—Em (much younger here, not so old and gray, pretty even with her blond hair and fashionable hat) takes her (commits her) to an asylum, where she’ll be subjected to that most modern of treatments, electroshock therapy. Dorothy is obedient and trusting, allowing herself to be abandoned in a gothically creepy institution by her aunt, put into the hands of the doctors and nurses, locked in her room, strapped to a table, and hooked up to a complicated-looking apparatus, the “electrical marvel” that will shock her back to her senses again, Frances-Farmer-style. Meanwhile, outside the walls of the institution a big thunderstorm is raging—this still being Kansas after all—and just as the doctor is about to turn on the juice, lightning strikes, the current’s cut, the lights go out, and the marvel fizzles off.

With the help of another girl—first glimpsed in a mirror in an earlier scene, and with her long blond hair she is a sister to Alice—Dorothy is able to make a break for it. The two girls run away, into the storm, through the woods, and down to the roiling river. The blonde is swept away (she’ll show up again later as the entrapped Ozma of Oz), but Dorothy manages to stay afloat by clinging to a chicken coop. When her wild ride ends, she is back in Oz again, thrilled to be there, but dismayed to find that things have changed, and for the worse. The Emerald City is in ruins, the yellow Brick Road is a potholed mess, the path through the forest is a buckled ruin. And now, even after all that she’s been through, Dorothy still manages to sentimentalize Kansas, when at one point she says:  “I wish I could be in both places at the same time.” A girl and a woman at once?

There are plenty of recognizable symbols scattered throughout the film as Dorothy goes through her adventure: clocks and mirrors, ruby slippers (again), locks and keys, an underground king, an evil queen with an assortment of interchangeable heads, and a lunchbox tree where the girl gets her own version of the now-familiar basket that both Red and the earlier Dorothy carried with them. Remember what it was to be a little girl and want to carry a purse—that soon-to-be-obvious outer manifestation of our own as-yet-unknown innards—just like a grownup woman? We clutched our little beaded bags, stuffed with pretend female necessities—plastic lipstick, sunglasses, nickels and pennies, candy cigarettes—as we tottered around in our mothers’ cast-off party dresses and high-heels.

The coming-of-age in “Return to Oz” actually belongs not to Dorothy, but to Ozma, who has been trapped in the mirror by the evil queen Mombi. When Dorothy sees her she says, “Oh, it’s you. I thought you had drowned.” To which Ozma replies, “Help me through the glass, Dorothy.” Ozma is the rightful queen and ruler of Oz, and with the little girl’s help, she is restored to her proper place of power.

As for Dorothy, she goes back home to Kansas again. She shows up drenched and unconscious, found on the riverbank by the search party that’s been out looking for her, and what they come upon is the by now all-too-familiar tableau of the dead girl’s body dumped in the woods. But Dorothy is not dead. Uncle Henry gathers her up out of the wet leaves and holds her in his arms, breathlessly crying, “Dorothy! Are you all right? I’d almost given up hope.”

Dorothy is back, all right, but she seems almost unnaturally unaffected by the adventures that she’s had. Her aspect, that blank-slate vacuousness that Kincaid has ascribed to Shirley Temple, has all along been bland and expressionless, as if she were in shock, wide-eyed even when facing the medical horrors of Kansas and the mortal dangers of Oz, and even at the very end of the movie, it hasn’t changed. Once again her coming of age has been aborted, and she is still just a girl.

The last scene of the film finds Dorothy upstairs in the new, more private bedroom that Uncle Henry has built for her—what Em calls, admiringly, “a room of your own.” Dorothy turns from the window, which offers a vast view of the broad flat (green) Kansas landscape, and stops at the mirror. She dreamily traces her finger over the glass, and as if in answer to a wish, her own reflection fades as the blonde, beautiful nymphet Ozma, bedecked in a shimmery sleeveless dress, jeweled crown, and gaudy gold bangles, appears in its place. Dorothy cries out to Auntie Em to come quick and see, but Ozma puts a warning finger to her lips. Hush. Our secret. Dorothy agrees, and tips the mirror up toward the ceiling. When she tips it back, Ozma has gone, leaving Dorothy there to look at herself, still a safe and unsullied little girl in her pinafore and braids.

Of course the truth is that in the real world things are neither so simple nor so safe, and a runaway girl is not likely to be as lucky as Dorothy was. If she doesn’t end up a lifeless bundle in the woods or by the river or in the ditch, if she comes home again at all, it won’t be unscathed, with her precious bottle unbroken and her girlhood pure and intact. Most girls in the real world run away not to something that entices them, like Oz, but from something that endangers them, like a neglectful or abusive family situation at home. The flight will be a enactment of precocious independence, a bid for freedom from parental control and protection that leaves the girl vulnerable, like Red. And once a girl has been out on her own, it will be difficult if not impossible for her to return to the old childhood routines of parental supervision and rules.[10]

One third of the girls who run away will be beaten up. One third will be threatened with a weapon. One fourth will be victims of sexual assault.[11]  The most critical problem a runaway girl faces is getting money for food and shelter, and the longer she is on the streets the greater will be her struggle for survival, especially if she is too young to be legitimately employable. She might be able to panhandle enough spare change to get by for a while, but eventually she’s going to have to turn to illegal means of survival, including drugs, stealing, pornography, and that oldest and most reliable of available professions, prostitution.


[1] On April 19, 1949, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus of San Marino, California, was playing in a field overgrown with weeds when she fell 90 feet down a 14-inch-wide abandoned well. Her parents heard her crying, and within an hour police and firemen arrived and began summoning well-diggers and other heavy equipment to dig a parallel shaft from which Kathy could be rescued. Hearing about the rescue effort over the radio, other volunteers showed up: workers, engineers, and various diminutive people who offered to be lowered down the pipe. Soon, trucks carrying live television equipment arrived and began broadcasting from the rescue site. There were only about 20,000 television sets in Los Angeles County at the time, and this was one of the first spontaneous news stories to receive live television coverage. People crowded around television sets in neighbors’ homes and bars across the country, and of the 50 hours spent attempting to rescue Kathy, more than 27 hours were broadcast live on Los Angeles television. On April 11, rescuers succeeded in reaching Kathy through a parallel well but it was too late: the little girl was dead. A similar story, which received rabid international television coverage in 1987, would end more happily as Baby Jessica McClure, a toddler who had fallen into a water well in Midland, Texas, was brought up alive after 58 hours underground.

[2] Some critics have interpreted The Wizard of Oz as a thinly disguised political tract published at the time of conversion to the gold standard in the United States. In this reading, Dorothy is an everywoman, the tornado is the storm of debate that blew up around the issue, Oz is a reference to the sixteen ounces (oz.) of silver that the silverites wanted to be equal to one ounce of gold, the Wicked Witch of the East represents the Eastern bankers, the Munchkins are ordinary people, the good Witch of the North is the Northern electorate, the yellow brick road represents gold ingots, the Scarecrow is the American farmer, the Tin Man is the industrial laborer, and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan himself.

[3] L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1999).

[4] A woman’s bleeding was once considered a cosmic event, relating and connecting her to the moon, the lunar cycles, and the tides. At the same time, the moon has long been thought to drive people crazy, which is why the Latin word for moon (luna) roots the words lunacy, lunatic, and loony. In the 16th century Paracelsus claimed that lunacy grew worse at the time of a full or a new moon, and the 1842 Lunacy Act in Britain defined a lunatic as a “demented person enjoying lucid intervals during the first two phases of the moon and afflicted with a period of fatuity in the period following after the full moon.” Sort of like a woman suffering “the curse.”

[5] An early feminist story in which the narrator writes in a secret journal against the orders of her husband and doctor, who believe that such mental activity can only make her nervous condition worse. Through her journal we learn that this narrator is a new mother who has been brought to a country house for a “rest-cure” by her husband. He gives her the room with the yellow wallpaper, which she assumes must be a former nursery or gymnasium, as the windows are barred, a railing has been attached to the walls, and the bed is nailed to the floor. Forbidden to write and think, the woman begins to obsess about the yellow wallpaper, in which she sees terrifying patterns from which an imprisoned female figure is trying to emerge. At the same time that this figure finally frees herself from the paper, the narrator also “escapes” the tyranny of her husband by a final descent into insanity as she creeps round and round the room, peeling the paper from is walls.

[6] This impulse has lately caught on. In 1994, seven Brazilian-born sisters, Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Juracy, and Judseia Padilha, collectively known as the J Sisters and owners of a posh Manhattan salon, first introduced their signature “Brazilian bikini wax,” which removes the hair from the entire pubic region, except for a small patch—called a “landing strip,” just above the clitoris. First the hair is snipped with scissors so the wax can reach the follicles. Then, using a wooden stick, a technician places warm wax on the area a little bit at a time. As with a regular bikini wax, cloth strips are placed over the hot wax and, after it hardens, pulled away from the skin. A traditional Brazilian includes the labia and the area that reaches into the buttocks. If there are stray hairs after waxing, the technician may also tweeze the area until you’re “fresh as a peach and bald as a baby girl.” The procedure has caught on and is now one of the J Sisters’ most popular offerings, second only to nail care, and the salon is frequented by the glamorous girlish likes of Liv Tyler, and Naomi Campbell in real life, as well as the gals from “Sex in the City” on TV. The salon’s walls are covered with celebrity photos and their signed testimony to the miracles of waxing, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s gush: “You’ve changed my life!”

[7] As Balk herself grows up to become a young woman, she’ll chop off her long hair, pierce her face, lose her bland features to sharper bones, bigger eyes, and a broad full-lipped mouth, and go on to play bad girls in such films as “The Craft,” “Almost Famous,” and “Valmont.”

[8]James R. Kincaid, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 120.

[9] Dorothy to herself in Baum’s Ozma of Oz.

[10] Dan R. Hoyt and Les B. Whitbeck, Nowhere to Grow: Homeless and Runaway Adolescents and Their Families, (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1999), p. 13.

[11] Ibid, p. 9.