Camp Sites: The Wizard of Oz

MGM

Camp Sites is a look at the films and TV shows that have a large gay following. What is it about these creations that seems to attract the attention and affection of gay men? Pitch a tent as we guide you through the land of over-the-top acting, delightful gaudiness, and cheeky frivolity. Leave your heels at the door.

If we’re going to talk about camp, darling, we might as well start with The Wizard of Oz – arguably the quintessential gay film. Oz is as synonymous with gay men as drag or Madonna. In the film, Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale [Judy Garland] longs to find somewhere to fit in. When she gets caught up in a tornado … Seriously, if you need a plot summary of The Wizard of Oz then you have no business being here.

 Credit: MGM

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The camp love of the film largely boils down to the power of Judy. Ms Garland’s influence on our people cannot be overstated. She is quoted as having said: “When I die I have visions of fags singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast.”

So what’s camp about Garland in The Wizard of Oz? What gives her this status as the ultimate gay icon? The answer: a tune about a rainbow.

 Credit: MGM

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is about finding a place where we can be accepted and celebrated for who we are. Dorothy wishes to leave life on the farm behind for something bigger as she sings: “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” We can’t help but find meaning in the song. Like Dorothy, gay people dream of finding that place – beyond the rainbow – where we can be truly comfortable in our own skin and accepted by those around us.

Dorothy’s life on the farm can be read as a metaphor for the closet. In Kansas, Dorothy isn’t free to be herself, and the people around her don’t understand her desires. When she ‘comes out’ in Oz, she is immediately accepted and adored by the people she meets – who even gift her a fabulous pair of ruby slippers. The sepia-toned world of Kansas is replaced with the kaleidoscope of colour in Oz; mirroring the sense of satisfaction that comes with finding a place where you are accepted and loved for who you are. We see ourselves in Dorothy, and aspire to the freedom she finds for herself in this land of vibrant colour. Is it any coincidence our symbol of pride is a rainbow?

 Credit: MGM

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The supporting characters in the film are also ripe for camp enjoyment. Dorothy’s three companions on her trip to Oz have long been read as gay, and for good reason. The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are misfits who do not conform to their perceived ‘roles’. The Scarecrow is unable to frighten anything – crow or otherwise; the Tin Man constantly needs lubing up; and the Cowardly Lion seems to prefer mincing to roaring. This ostracisation is familiar to many gay guys – who are often accused of being less masculine than straight guys.

Dorothy is not phased by the queerness of the people she meets in Oz. Sure, she may have been a little perturbed when the Scarecrow told her that “some people go both ways”, but she loves her friends and sees past the things that make them different. When Dorothy decides to leave Oz behind and return home, she shares a teary goodbye with her misfit friends. In many ways, Dorothy was the original fag hag. It’s no wonder that the term ‘friend of Dorothy’ has long been used as a low-key way of asking whether a guy is of the homosexual persuasion.

Every camp masterpiece needs an over-the-top villain, and the Wicked Witch of the West is the original and best. Margaret Hamilton hams it up so much as the Witch that you expect her to start chewing the scenery at any moment. And lets face it, us gays identify with her as much as we do with Dorothy. One of the many – true-ish – stereotypes about gays is that we have a caustic wit that is viewed as bitter or bitchy. With lines like “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”, it’s difficult to see the witch as anything other than an old queen who just wants her heels back.

I haven’t even scratched the surface here. From the ropey special effects to the wizard’s penchant for the theatrical, there is so much more camp to be found in the film. There are plenty of other Oz stories that have also found a home with gay viewers. The 1978 reimagining of the Oz tales, The Wiz, swaps Kansas for Manhattan and stars Michael Jackson and Lena Horne. Diana Ross – another gay icon – takes on the role of Dorothy.

The appeal of Oz is visible even to this day, thanks to the astounding success of Wicked, and the recent Oz film Oz the Great and Powerful. Try getting through karaoke night at a gay bar without a stumbling queen squealing his way through ‘Defying Gravity’. It is this film, however, that will remain the gold standard for fans of camp. No matter how much time passes, that yellow brick road is never too far from view.

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