Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Through an Introvert's Lens: Wicked

For my first look at introverts in the media, I decided to go with the popular stage musical, Wicked.

Wicked is, of course, the retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, with the intent of making her sympathetic.  It began as a novel called Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, published in 1995.  Eight years later, Wicked premiered as a musical in San Francisco, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.  While the musical made several changes, the basic elements remained the same: the story was about Elphaba, a misunderstood misfit born with green skin.

The Plot

There be spoilers ahead!

Elphaba's mother was the wife of the Munchkins' governor.  After the governor went away, her mother had an affair with a mysterious man, and out of that affair came Elphaba.  Scarred by her daughter's appearance, Elphaba's mother ate milk-flowers so that her second child would be normal.  Instead, the flowers weakened her mother, so that she died during childbirth and Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, was born crippled.  Elphaba's "father," the governor, blamed Elphaba for the tragedy, and steadfastly ignored her all her life, while doting on Nessarose.  Elphaba takes on the burden of caring for her sister, right up until they both leave for Shiz University.

There, Elphaba learns that she will be roommates with the blonde, perky, spoiled Galinda (later Glinda).  They hate each other on sight, and Galinda and her many friends constantly mock Elphaba to her face and behind her back.  Galinda even gives Elphaba her famous black pointed hat as a way of punishing her; Galinda's grandmother gave her the hat and she hates it.  However, both girls have a change of heart after each does something unexpectedly nice for the other.  Before long, Galinda has declared Elphaba her new friend and "project": she's going to make her popular!  At the very least, Elphaba gets the attention of the hot new guy in town, Fiyero.  He quickly shares her concern about the animals in Oz, which are mysteriously losing their ability to speak.

Elphaba finally gets to share her concerns with the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, only to learn that he is the one behind the animal abuse.  When Elphaba refuses to do his bidding, the Wizard blames the animal abuse and disfigurement on her, and Elphaba decides to embrace her new identity as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Galinda, meanwhile, remains loyal to the Wizard, despite knowing the terrible things that he has done.      

There is more, but that is the set-up.  The rest will be discussed in the analysis.


Is Elphaba an Introvert?

Elphaba is an outcast from beginning to end, no question.  But as I said in my Introduction, outcasts and introverts are not necessarily one and the same.  So before she embraces her supremely confident alter-ego, the Wicked Witch, what is she like?

She is shy, awkward, and reclusive.  She is not fond of small talk and is uncomfortable at large social gatherings (see, for example, her dance scene).  She relates to Fiyero by discussing causes dear to her heart, helping animals who have lost their powers.  She is studious and deeply talented.  

It is difficult to say how much of Elphaba's personality is innate, and how much was shaped by her being ostracized.  But all in all, Elphaba has several character traits that are associated with introverts.


Is Wicked Overall Pro-Introvert or Anti-Introvert?

You could argue that the very fact that Wicked exists makes it a pro-introvert narrative.  Otherwise, all we would know about Elphaba was that she was evil and perished when Dorothy threw water on her.  Wicked "sets the record straight" by explaining Elphaba's true good intentions, and lets us see that she had a happily ever after of sorts after all.  

On the other hand, the fact that this revised history is necessary suggests that Elphaba got, well, screwed over.  And even within the revised narrative, the message appears to be: society doesn't appreciate you and treats you like shit, but at least you get the guy at the end.  Yay?

Let's look at the story from the beginning.  From the moment Elphaba arrives at Shiz University, she is mocked for her green skin color.  While the other students might have mocked Elphaba regardless of her personality, in all likelihood, they did so because they saw that she was different in other ways -- she wore glasses, unflattering clothing, and preferred to avoid gossip and other small talk.

The mockery continues right up until the popular and extroverted Galinda decides that it is no longer okay.  Until then, Galinda was too happy to partake, gossiping with friends about how horrible it was to room with Elphaba, reveling in their murmurs of sympathy.  Galinda stopped her behavior after Elphaba did something genuinely nice for her in return for something fake-nice that Galinda did for Nessarose.

Though the mockery stops, Galinda decides that her new "friend" cannot remain in her current uncool state.  So she decides to give her a makeover.


I don't think the viewer is meant to side with Galinda, or find her antics anything more than amusing.  But it is a bit presumptuous of her to give Elphaba a makeover after she's already declined her offer.

After a makeover that consists of little more than "not-so-ugly girl takes off her glasses and wears her hair down," Elphaba attracts Fiyero's attention.  In a refreshing change of pace, he merely notes that Elphaba has been "Galinda'd."  Still, would he have talked to her in the first place if she dressed the same as before?

He becomes better friends with Elphaba after their shared experience freeing a lion cub from a cage.  However, he remains an anomaly; Elphaba's peers by and large remain cool to her, until the Wizard turns against her -- then they're only too happy to buy his claims that she is evil and the cause of every known harm.  Elphaba remains so reviled for the rest of the story.  Never do the public learn the truth about who she really is.  If not for her eventual reunion with Fiyero, she would have had to spend her exile alone.

Elphaba begins the story hopeful, singing: "Unlimited!  My future is unlimited!"  She ends it with: "I'm limited.  Just look at me."  It's a sad note that would have been sadder if not for Galinda's vow to carry on Elphaba's work to free abused animals.  An enormous amount of Elphaba's happiness hinges upon whether Galinda ever "gets" it.

Meanwhile, Galinda's storyline in Wicked is fairly charmed.  She is adored by her peers, gets an important social position after sucking up to the Wizard, and in the end, gets to be even more powerful after Elphaba gives her a book of spells, the Grimmerie.

Of course, you could also view Galinda's story in a different light: she learns that her values are shallow compared to Elphaba's.  She learns that she can't have everything she wants when Fiyero shows a clear preference for Elphaba despite being "perfect together" with Galinda.  This leads her to mature, take control of Oz from the corrupt Wizard, and carry out Elphaba's vision.

Yes, you could view the story as Galinda's redemption.  Except that she is not really challenged, apart from not getting the guy.  And not getting the guy is arguably a small price to pay for getting to wield power and never really losing your agency.  Would Elphaba give up Fiyero if it meant being able to fulfill her vision out in the open, without being shunned and mocked?  Possibly.

Some of Elphaba's troubles could be associated with any insurgent character, introvert or no.  A person trying to stop high-level corruption will almost inevitably face a powerful backlash.  But it's questionable whether Elphaba would be waging such a lonely war (with only Galinda and Fiyero as allies) if she were not introverted.  Her introversion gave people an initial reason to scorn her, and they saw no reason to change their minds after she became the Wicked Witch.  Conversely, Galinda's extroverted nature attracted people, and she built upon that attraction, becoming a person of power and influence.

Basically Wicked's bottom line seems to be: we know you deserve much better, Elphaba.  Unfortunately, we're going to wait until it's too late to clear your name.  Damn society.  Sorry.

Then again, there is only so much you can do to revise a narrative that ends with the main character melting after being doused with water.


Conclusion

So to sum up, here is how Wicked fares with its treatment of introverts:

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?: Like a pariah, except for a handful of people.

What Is the Introvert's Reward/Punishment Compared to Others?: She gets shunned and her reputation destroyed, while the main extroverted character gets to assume a position of power.  

Silver lining: she gets the guy.



The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

2 comments:

  1. Funny enough, introverts are more susceptible to certain attacks precisely because we prefer to withdraw and continue life without getting caught up in other people's agendas. However, it is a strength as well.
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