(This piece aired on Kansas Public Radio in early August.)
This year marks the 65th anniversary of film version of The Wizard of Oz, and I’d like to say once and for all–I hate this film. I’m done with it, and not just because of the saccharine sweet songs or the nightmarish set designs, which are like German Expressionism gone horribly wrong. No, I hate The Wizard of Oz because of what it has done to this state. The thing is, you can’t go to the movies or turn on the television without hearing “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” or “there’s no place like home.” These catchphrases are everywhere, and hearing them always makes me cringe. When this whimsical little movie came out in 1939, who would have guessed that it would saturate our culture so thoroughly? Who would have guessed it would become so representative of our identity as Kansans?
Of course, Kansas has always embraced this sort of Oz-sploitation, and it’s become a major focus of the tourist trade. You might have noticed that every store in the state has its own retail shrine to The Wizard of Oz. Some of these knick-knacks are passably tasteful, but do we really need Scarecrow ashtrays and Dorothy Gale mud flaps?
I’ve lived in Kansas my whole life, and I’ve noticed that one of the chief shortcomings of people here is a distinct unwillingness to promote ourselves. We just take whatever label we get and then run with it. For example, Kansas may be relatively flat, but it’s certainly not the desolate, Grapes of Wrath- type wasteland that the world seems to think it is. Kansas played a critical role in the Civil War, but does the rest of the country know about this? Not really, because we don’t brag about this kind of thing the way Virginians or Pennsylvanians do. Maybe we should. Maybe we should take the time to dispel some of these myths and, in the process, bolster our flagging self-esteem before The Wizard of Oz siphons out our very souls and turns us into zombie caricatures of ourselves. After all, we do have a few other things to be proud of, don’t we? We have the Flint Hills. We had Buster Keaton, Gordon Parks, Amelia Earhart, and Billy Mills. Langston Hughes grew up here, William S. Burroughs died here. We had Eisenhower for president and, for better or worse, we almost had Bob Dole.
And look, if it’s a matter of replacing The Wizard of Oz as our cinematic ambassador to the world, I’d propose selecting a film like Kevin Willmott’s CSA, which was a huge hit at Sundance this year. Or maybe Carnival of Souls, that fantastically creepy little horror movie that was largely filmed in Lawrence. Wouldn’t that generate some classic merchandising opportunities? The point is, we can do better than this whole “Wizard of Oz” thing, which has established our image in the eyes of the world as a bunch of provincial, gingham-clad yahoos who own yippy dogs and hallucinate about witches.
So when the inevitable happens, and TNT starts broadcasting The Wizard of Oz twenty times a day like some kind of Orwellian mind-conditioning experiment, just remember, TVs were made to be turned off, as well as on. Arise comrades! Cast off your mind-forg’d manacles and join me in the sun. Together, we shall build a truer, more self-reliant Kansas, which does not need the crutch of Dorothy & Friends in order to stand. We can look the world in the eye and say, “yes, we have worth, we have contributions to make.” Then the veil of ignorance shall be lifted, and they shall see us as we truly are–a vibrant, creative people with hearts like lions (and not the cowardly type, either). Join with me today, before it is too late. We have nothing to lose but our ruby slippers, and they never worked right anyway.