For those of you that don’t know, Dorothy Gale is the main character of L. Frank Baum’s timeless novel, The Wizard of Oz. The plot follows the adventures of Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas who finds herself transported to the magical land of Oz and tries to get back home again. Written over a hundred years ago, the book has come to be seen as a classic of children’s fiction. After several movie adaptations (one of which changed the face of modern film), several more literary re-imaginings (one of which portrays Dorothy as a sex-crazed dictator) and a handful of musicals thrown into the mix, The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the popular consciousness. Dorothy herself has become an icon, recognisable by her shoes alone, and has continued to influence millions of people’s childhoods.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
In both the book and the movie, Dorothy isn’t really in control of her own destiny. After getting caught in the tornado that whisks her away to Oz, she immediately decides that she wants to go back home to Kansas. In this respect she has power over her own fate, as she’s ultimately decided what she wants to do, but in fulfilling this goal, she doesn’t have control over her own destiny at all become she can’t get home under her own steam. The second she arrives in Oz, she is sent to ask the Wizard for help, and this isn’t really a journey that she wants to make. Similarly, when she reaches the Emerald City, the Wizard says that he will only help her if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West – Dorothy doesn’t want to go anywhere near the Witch, let alone kill her.
Throughout the story Dorothy is sent off on quests by different characters to different places, none of which she really wants to do – she’s pushed through the plot like a pawn across a chess board. She does display moments of agency – like throwing water on the witch, or demanding that the Wizard send her home when his secret is revealed – but ultimately, her fate is entirely in the hands of other people.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Dorothy’s main goal throughout most adaptations of The Wizard of Oz is to get home to her family, and this can count as something that she came up with on her own – it’s a direct result of her love for her family, but also of her being stranded in a strange land with no means of support. As far as her beliefs and hobbies go I’m drawing a blank. No hobbies she enjoys are mentioned at all, and she doesn’t really seem to believe in much of anything either. You could make a case for her believing in being kind, good and polite to people, but this is mainly conjecture based on social courtesies rather than evidence of any concrete beliefs. For that reason, I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Dorothy is a pretty consistent character. Throughout both the book and the movie she functions as a kind of ‘Everyman’ – a relatively blank slate with no strongly defining characteristics to mark her out from the other people she encounters on her journey. She’s kind, innocent, a little gullible, and capable of being brave when she needs to be, but this isn’t anything new in terms of characterisation of women, or even of people in general. However, she does display elements of a more defining character – mainly her tendency towards petulance and the bravery she shows, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She doesn’t develop any spontaneous abilities to make the plot move along, either, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A young girl transported to a magical land must find her way back home.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Dorothy doesn’t have a love life at all – no matter what fanfiction says. Most of her decisions are influenced by the situation around her, or by her love for her family, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Dorothy’s development is actually pretty hard to pin down. In the book, she doesn’t really develop much at all, but in the final scene of the movie, she’s asked by the other characters what she’s learned on her travels, to which she responds ‘there’s no place like home’. It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers want the audience to take this as the moral of the story – despite the distractions of the colourful world of Oz, Dorothy has learned the true value of the home she took for granted and reaffirmed her love for her family.
However, this development doesn’t really hold up, and that’s mainly because of what comes before it. Dorothy never once expresses a desire to explore Oz, or even stay there for any length of time – she only travels across it because she has to, and she’s never tempted to stay. At the very beginning of the film, she attempts to run away from home before she travels to Oz, but doesn’t get very far. She turns back pretty quickly when a travelling magician tells her he sees her Aunty Em getting sick, and Dorothy rushes back so quickly that her family only notice she’s gone when the cyclone hits. From the minute she arrives in Oz, all she wants to do is go home, because even though she’s been showered with gifts and praise from almost everyone she meets, the only thing she really values is her family. This isn’t something she’s learned from her journey, it’s something she’s learned before her journey even starts. As both a message and as character development, ‘there’s no place like home’ ultimately falls flat, because Dorothy never seriously entertains any other option.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she have a weakness?
Dorothy does have a few weaknesses, but they don’t really hold her back as she moves through her story. She’s gullible, not particularly bright, and occasionally petulant, and even though these do count as weaknesses, the way she relates to them makes them much less effective.
The main problem with Dorothy’s weaknesses is that they don’t really hold her back. As she progresses through the plot, her weaknesses either have no effect on the way others treat her or they are seen as charming, endearing character traits that only help her win more friends. As a result, they’re not really something she has to struggle with, because her behaviour has no consequences. For that reason, I’m giving her half the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Dorothy does influence the plot of both the book and the movie, but often her influence is limited to smaller-scale decisions rather than the ones the plot depends on. She goes on a quest – first to find the Wizard of Oz, and then to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West – but she doesn’t decide to go on that quest under her own steam; she goes because she’s been told she has to. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any influence on the plot: she brings together the principal characters, defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and exposes the Wizard as a fraud. She also gets captured by the Wicked Witch, but crucially, she gets herself out of trouble rather than waiting around for someone to do it for her.
However, the most important thing to note is that a lot of Dorothy’s adventures happen because of the position she’s in, rather than because of the decisions she makes. She’s been dropped into a magical world and comes into possession of a very powerful artefact – the ruby slippers (silver, if you go by the book). She can’t get rid of these shoes, but the Wicked Witch of the West wants them, so she sends various minions to get them from her and Dorothy is forced to seek the Wizard’s protection. Basically, it wouldn’t matter if Dorothy had decided to stay in Munchkinland the moment she arrived – simply because she’s got a pair of magical shoes, the plot will happen around her. As I’ve already discussed, this doesn’t really count as agency. She does influence the plot, but only on a relatively small scale.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In terms of characterisation, Dorothy is a pretty generic young girl. She’s kind, pretty, polite, makes friends easily, isn’t particularly intelligent and is devoted to her family. Part of this ties into her functioning as an ‘Everyman’ character – it’s very easy to empathise with her because the things she wants are things that everybody wants, and the character traits she displays are those that everyone wants to display. Another part of this is simply the time that it was written. At the beginning of the twentieth century, child characters weren’t always given a whole lot of distinct character traits because of Victorian ideals about the sanctity and innocence of childhood. A lot of Dorothy’s dominant character traits can be chalked up to any of these alternative explanations, rather than gender stereotypes.
But this is really where the book and the movie start to differ. In L Frank Baum’s original novel, Dorothy is a very young girl; her exact age is not given, but going by her behaviour and the original illustrations, she’s clearly a pre-pubescent girl. In the books, she’s a lot more practical and forthright, and doesn’t seem to cry very easily. She’s shown as someone who’s capable of adventure and handling great change from a very young age. What’s more, even though at the end of the first novel, she finds her way safely back to Kansas, in later books she goes back to Oz, revealing a real taste for adventure and a love of new things. This goes against traditional stereotypes surrounding women – namely, the view that they can’t deal with adventure, hardship and change – and also lines up with L Frank Baum’s personal views about gender equality.
In the film, however, her character relates to gender stereotypes in a very different way. First of all, it should be noted that the movie version of Dorothy is much older – no matter how much Judy Garland tries to hide it, she’s very clearly a teenage girl approaching adulthood. In the film, her child-like qualities are emphasised (perhaps to hide Garland’s age) and much of her practical and adaptable nature is played down. She also cries a lot more than her literary counterpart, and most crucially at all, her killing the Wicked Witch of the West is made into an accident. While neither version of Dorothy knew that water would kill her, in the novel Dorothy throws the water over the Wicked Witch because she lost her temper, rather than to put out the burning scarecrow as she does in the movie. What this means in practical terms is that the film’s version of Dorothy has a lot less agency, hardly any flaws and far less of an appetite for adventure – she’s conforming to a lot more gender stereotypes about submission than L Frank Baum’s original version. This also gives ‘There’s no place like home’ a different context: it’s very easy to read Dorothy’s return to her family as a reinforcement of the belief that women should settle down and aspire to lead a more domestic kind of life. It’s worth remembering that this is only one interpretation of the film, and that it is also a product of a studio which had to adhere to much more conservative values than L Frank Baum’s. But the fact remains that even though the literary version of Dorothy is a lot younger (and in some ways, less well-known), she doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes anywhere near as much as Garland’s interpretation. Because of the sheer amount of interpretations available and the nuances of the different adaptations, I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Dorothy’s relationships with female characters aren’t really the focus of the story, and none of them are really given any significant depth. She’s awestruck by the good witches – who she doesn’t interact with much in the book or the film, but she regards them with a detached respect. She’s afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West, and with good reason, but this relationship is never really developed beyond that. She has a range of friendships with other female characters (most notably Princess Ozma, in the later books), but none of them are really fleshed out. The most interesting relationship is with her Aunty Em – a woman who is not Dorothy’s biological mother, but who has raised her from a very young age. Aunty Em and Dorothy frequently disagree about things, but they really do love each other, and this familial love is really what drives Dorothy through her journey. However, this is never explored in any real detail during the story. Dorothy’s relationships with other female characters are characterised by quantity, rather than quality, so I’ll give her half a point.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
Dorothy is a character who has been interpreted differently across many different types of media, but ultimately, there isn’t really enough to her character. While she does display consistent character traits, she doesn’t have any weaknesses that hold her back, she doesn’t really develop over the course of the story, she isn’t in control of her wider destiny and most crucially of all, her character is informed by a compilation of gender stereotypes and storytelling devices.
But does this mean she doesn’t have value as a character? I don’t think so. While she may not be the best-developed of characters, she’s been a huge influence on the childhoods of millions all over the world. The Wizard of Oz is an easily accessible adventure story that has inspired countless people, and while Dorothy may not be fleshed out to the extent of other popular characters, she serves as an Everyman onto which people can project their own experiences and emotions – and it is exactly this that makes her so accessible and easy to love. She may not have passed my test, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop enjoying her adventures any time soon.
Next week, I’ll be looking at the work of one of my favourite authors – Roald Dahl. Matilda, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.