Excerpt: Culture on Two Wheels
The following is an excerpt from Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film (Nebraska, 2016), edited and with an introduction by Jeremy Withers and Daniel P. Shea.
“I’ll Get You, My Pretty!”: Bicycle Horror and the Abject Cyclicity of History
By Matthew Pangborn
In the classic American film The Wizard of Oz (1939), the main character, Dorothy Gale, finds herself trapped in her Kansas farmhouse as a tornado lifts it into the air. After a window detaches itself from her bedroom wall and hits her head, she catches glimpses of the familiar figures of her life, flying past outside: a coop full of chickens, a cow, her aunt in a rocking chair, farmhands—and then her busybody neighbor, Miss Gulch, riding on a bicycle that transforms before Dorothy’s eyes into a witch’s broom. Miss Gulch, now the Wicked Witch of the West, cackles. Dorothy screams. And in that scream, only Dorothy’s second in a sequence that has haunted millions of TV-watching children every fall since the late 1950s, may be read not just a character’s fear but also a nation’s extreme discomfort with the particular kind of transformation the bicycle represents, a horror, properly speaking, still evoked by the bicycle today.1
To get at that horror, it is first necessary to acknowledge the importance of the sequence to the film and of the film to the nation. The tornado functions as something of a plot “twister,” by which Dorothy may be transported from her aunt and uncle’s farm to a child’s dreamland of munchkins and flying monkeys, from which she can only return via a heroine’s journey, discovering within herself courage, compassion, and intelligence. The film’s importance to the nation lies in its depiction of this journey as involving the trade-in of an impoverished, sepia-toned heartland for a Technicolor fantasy of emeralds, rubies, and gold, an exchange the United States was only too eager to make after a decade of the Great Depression. Dorothy, then, serves as representative of a nation desirous not just of the better-off but of the fantabulously wealthy. The film’s lesson, delivered as unsubtly as a window upside the head, is that viewers have in themselves the power to reframe the world to effect that change. After all, if a windstorm is all that is needed for our main character to arrive in a brighter, shinier place, isn’t she already a Gale?
Since the film’s annual TV screenings began in 1959, thereby increasing estimation of the film, critics of The Wizard of Oz have tended to read it either as a Joseph Campbell–esque fable on that difficult process of growing into adulthood or as a political allegory on that even more difficult subject of U.S. monetary policy. The former view sees Dorothy as an adolescent Every Girl trying to make sense of the changes that come with adulthood (the ruby slippers standing in, for example, for the red blood of menarches); the latter finds in symbols such as the yellow brick road reference to national debates about the coinage of precious metals. These were in full flush at the time of L. Frank Baum’s writing of the source novel for the film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); but controversy around these policies only persisted through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s repeal of the gold standard six years before the film’s release.2 The latter reading has perhaps had the most staying power, evidenced by the popular nicknaming of recent Federal Reserve chairs Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke as the Wizard of Oz by those critical of their policies.3 But given the film’s historical moment, it is easy to combine the two readings.
Reading the film as a national coming-to- riches story, or what he calls a “secular myth of America,” Paul Nathanson examines The Wizard of Oz as “recapitulat[ing] American history”: “It begins in the Munchkin City (actually a village or town not unlike those of an earlier America) and concludes in the Emerald City (a large and impressive metropolis not unlike New York or Hollywood). Linking them all is the Yellow Brick Road (a paved highway through the wilderness in both time and space).”4
Central to this reimagined history is the faith that history can only run one way, in the direction of progress. For Nathanson, what undergirds this “civil religion” are “fantasies of technologically advanced urban communities,” represented by the Emerald City, whose temple-like structure is marked by “a collection of ‘decorative light wheels’ . . . and hubcaps” just like those that appear “on a frieze in the Chrysler Building.”5 Oz, then, isn’t just any American utopia; its traffic-signal palette of red, yellow, and green riches (i.e., ruby, gold, and emerald) identifies it as that car-centric vision James Howard Kunstler has wryly dubbed the “Era of Happy Motoring.” Sociologists call the ideology that has grown around that vision “automobility”: the notion that cars are more than just vehicles but carry with them “a politics of freedom and equality,” enabling “the ‘natural’ development of society both to greater mobility and to greater individualization and thus associat[ing] their users, and their corollaries, roads, with modernity itself.”6 The car, in short, is what will reframe Americans’ outlook; and after World War II banishes the Depression, it is war-hero president Dwight Eisenhower who literalizes the metaphor of the path of gold with the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.7
The 1939 audience would have understood the Technicolor of the film’s central Oz section to signify unrealistic fantasy (a perception that may have initially lessened serious appreciation of the film); however, with the buildup of colorful advertising around its TV presentations, viewers instead began to ask why Dorothy would ever want to return to the farm.8 Oz, in other words, begins to look more like home than that stretch of land just north of Oklahoma, reflecting viewers’ acculturation to the oddly Oz-like realm of the road-traveling shopper. For there is a lot in The Wizard of Oz that anticipates the training that young women of the postwar period especially will undergo to become fully fledged “consumer citizens” of the new advertising age orbiting around the car: the “show windows,” the greeters, the errands, the dizzying array of choices, the return to the family with food (even if in Dorothy’s case it is only food for thought).9 The naturalization of Oz’s fantasyland as American TV-and-car-culture landscape comes full circle by 1999, when Keanu Reeve’s character in The Matrix, having chosen to give up the life he has been living in a computer-generated illusion, is told, “Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.” Even in The Matrix’s futuristic world, trading in the unfulfilling unreality of Kansas is still something one does in the language of the car.10
Here we begin to get some hint of why the bicycling Miss Gulch should be read by Dorothy and by the nation as a witch on a broomstick and why the bicycle itself should so appall contemporary America. All the important elements are available in that glimpse outside Dorothy’s window: the past technology that must be forgotten, the laboring body that should be hidden, and a temporal-spatial dislocation that threatens to disorient not just Dorothy but also the viewer.
The author would like to thank Rachel Mairose for her assistance in research.
- The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming (1939; Burbank ca: Warner Home Video, 2013), DVD.
- Paul Nathanson, Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 55–95; Ranjit S. Dighe, ed., The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (Westport ct: Praeger, 2002), 14, 24.
- Yves Smith, econned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 199–232.
- Nathanson, Over the Rainbow, 122.
- Nathanson, Over the Rainbow, 133, 227, 38.
- James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere (New York: Touchstone, 1993); Steffen Böhm, Campbell Jones, Chris Land, and Matthew Paterson, eds., Against Automobility (Malden ma: Blackwell Publishing / Sociological Review, 2006), 7.
- Richard F. Weingroff, “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System,” Public Roads 60, no. 1 (Summer 1996), U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, last modified June 15, 2015, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/96summer/p96su10.cfm.
- Nathanson, Over the Rainbow, 28. Indeed, for at least one critic of the film, the moral of Dorothy’s journey is that “the bonds of family are omnipresent and inescapable,” as if her Kansas home were a prison. See Andrew Gordon, “You’ll Never Get Out of Bedford Falls: The Inescapable Family in American Science Fiction and Fantasy Films,” Journal of Popular Films and Television 20, no. 2 (1992): 2–8.
- Joel Spring, Educating the Consumer-Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising, and Media (Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003), 22–26.
- There is also, of course, the very real, physical trip Neo takes by car in order to meet Morpheus and escape from the matrix; this car ride starts, appropriately enough for the founder of a new world, at the Adams Street Bridge. See The Matrix, directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (1999; Burbank ca: Warner Home Video, 2007), DVD.