A Cultural Nightmare: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Inception’

Many films present dreams within their narrative, but the most culturally memorable are the classic The Wizard of Oz and the 2010 box office success Inception. Despite being made more than 70 years apart, both films portray a nightmarish view of women’s dreams. In “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Robin Wood states that a dream “is not meaningless; [it] can represent attempts to resolve those tensions (tension in the life of the dreamer) in more radical ways than our consciousness can encounter.” Wood asserts that the content of a dream has more meaning than just a simple fantasy; by exploring the content of the dreams in The Wizard of Oz and Inception, we gain a deeper understanding of the film’s leading ladies, Dorothy (Judy Garland), Mal (Marion Cotillard), and Ariadne (Ellen Page).

The opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz appears in black and white to show Dorothy’s dislocation at home in Kansas. Dorothy is a lively girl with an imagination that is at odds with her farm life and family. Dorothy’s vivacious character fills the screen and suggests she has potential beyond the bland, black and white images that surround her on screen. As the first scene opens, we see her running down a road, already in trouble. She breathlessly tries to recount her story to her family and the farmhands, but they tell her not to be a “bother,” as though she is only a nuisance and her childish mischief causes harm. Dorothy is told repeatedly to “stop imagining things” and find a place “where she won’t get into trouble.” Dorothy’s family stifles her creativity and treats her like a child. Even Auntie Em tells her to be useful and work rather than live frivolously and enjoy herself. Dorothy’s child-like dreams and aspirations are discouraged in order to prepare her for a role on the farm.

Dorothy fantasizes about living somewhere else, somewhere over the rainbow, where she can “dare to dream.” After Dorothy is hit over the head during the tornado, a dream transports her into a fantasy world of color. Wood believes that the dream is the “embodiment of repressed desires, tensions, fears our conscious mind rejects . . . becoming possible . . . in sleep.” Oz is not only a reflection of Dorothy’s desires, but also of her potential to grow into more than a farm worker. When Dorothy first arrives in Oz, she kills the Wicked Witch of the East by way of her flying house. Having overcome the Witch’s tyrannical rule, Dorothy gains the respect of the Munchkins. When given the freedom to pursue her own desires, Dorothy discovers that she possesses her own power. As the story progresses, she continues to be seen beacon of good for all whom she meets. Dorothy frees the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) from the pole in his garden, restores movement to the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and teaches the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) a lesson. These characters come to respect Dorothy for her brain, heart, and courage (the same traits they are lacking) and rely on her as a leader in Oz. It is important to note that the farmhands in Kansas who discouraged Dorothy are played by the same actors as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. With this role reversal, Dorothy discovers the power and respect longed for in Kansas.

Despite her newfound power, Dorothy is torn between her dreams (repressed desires) and her need to return home. She is told repeatedly at the beginning of the film that her daydreams and imagination are not only frivolous, but also useless to the farm. Auntie Em essentially tells her that there is something wrong with her desire and dreams. The criticisms from her family are so ingrained in her mind that when she is presented with the opportunity to act on her desires, she rejects it and fears assuming an assertive stand. Dorothy sings about exploring a world over the rainbow where dreams can come true; yet, when she arrives in such a place, she finds the colorful world and unfamiliar inhabitants alarming. Moreover, Dorothy does not recognize her newfound power as a good trait; she apologizes for killing the Wicked Witch of the East even though it ended the woman’s tyranny over Munchkinland. Unlike the Munchkins, who rejoice, Dorothy fears the power that comes from her own actions. Because she is only able to explore her own power by killing and taking power from other women (the Wicked Witches), Dorothy ultimately sets out on a quest to return home.

Like Dorothy, the leading women in Inception must choose between reality and the power they discover in the dream world. As an architect in the dream scape, Ariadne has the power and ability to create and exist within her own world. Just as Dorothy marvels at the colorful world of Oz, Ariadne explores the power of her mind as an architect in Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) dream. She not only creates street after street of buildings, but even folds the landscape, constructing a box in which streets, buildings, cars, and passersby exist on all four planes. This visually stunning scene highlights the amount of power Ariadne holds in the dream world. But she quickly discovers the dangers of her power as an architect. When she excitedly manipulates space in a gravity defying and exhilarating manner, she changes the space of the dream so much that Cobb’s subconscious begins to realize the dream is no longer his own. Consequently, Mal brutally stabs Ariadne. Like Dorothy, Ariadne comes to fear exploring her own power in the dream world. Fearing her power, Ariadne follows Cobb’s instructions for fabricating dream space, becoming his tool rather than actualizing her own vision of power.

Unlike Ariadne and Dorothy, Mal does not fear the dream world. She lives in a dream for 50 years, creating an entire life and exploring her own power and desires. She recreates entire cities, homes, and even imagines new landscapes to populate her world. The power and potential she possesses in this dream state is more desirable than the reality she forgot. Cobb says that “[Mal] locked something away, something deep inside, a truth that she had once known but chose to forget.” This line is extremely important because it highlights that Mal did not confuse the line between reality and a dream. Instead, Mal accepted the dream as her new reality. As Wood points out, Mal’s dream state is “the embodiment of repressed desires;” unlike Dorothy and Ariadne, Mal is not willing to give up her desires and the power that came from exploring them.

When does a dream become a nightmare in which escape is necessary? Wood believes that, “The conditions under which a dream becomes a nightmare are (a) that the repressed wish is, from the point of view of consciousness, so terrible that it must be repudiated as loathsome, and (b) that it is so strong and powerful as to constitute a serious threat.” Linda Williams’ influential article “When the Woman Looks” begins to make the connection as to why these women’s dreams went from a fantastic representation of their subconscious desires, to the dangerous and life-threatening nightmare that Wood discusses. The women’s fantasies are a representation of their discontent with life and desire for change. Dreams allow these women to look curiously at their power and desire. But, according to Williams, “even when films permit the expression of a woman’s …desire” they often do so “only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be.”

If a dream is a representation of the subconscious’ deepest desires, then these women’s dreams are portrayed as a nightmare because their desires are monstrous. Furthermore, Dorothy’s dream is also the result of a sickness. She began to dream after she was hit in the head and hurt badly. This suggests that the dream results from a tragic experience and is itself sick, like Dorothy’s state in reality. Her family thinks she is going to die, associating Oz with death and Kansas with life. Though Oz appears to be paradise, the film manages to alienate her dream of power and potential into a nightmare in which she must escape. Similarly, Ariadne’s dream, initially full of endless possibility, turns into a nightmare in which she is murdered. Though Dorothy and Ariadne do not die in reality, their nightmares serve as a cautionary tale against further exploration of their “monstrous” desires.

Mal is the only female in these films who does not seem to fear her dream or view it as a nightmare. As a result, Mal is not only “punished” for her curiosity and desire to look beyond her own world, she is villianized throughout the film and is the only female portrayed as a negative character. She murders Ariadne, shoots Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to inflict pain during the dream (killing him will only wake him up), and consistently sabotages Cobb’s attempts at extraction. While Dorothy exercises her power for good (freeing the Munchkins), we see Mal sew chaos. Though Mal does not believe that her own desires are horrific, the film clearly portrays her to be a monstrous character. Unlike Dorothy and Ariadne, Mal only leaves her dream when forced. However, reality no longer satisfies her and she constantly seeks something (the power) possessed in the dream world. Once Mal loses the ability to explore her own desires and power, reality becomes a nightmare and she kills herself. Unlike Dorothy and Ariadne, Mal does not give up her power willingly; her death is punishment for pursuing her desires.

If a film mimics the experience of a dream, the repressed desires of the dreamer, then The Wizard of Oz and Inception serve as an outlet for the expression of female power and desire. However, these two films, though they were produced in different eras and explore very different narratives, follow the same conventions that Williams lays out pertaining to female desire—it may be expressed, but ultimately is deemed monstrous and punishable. Wood claims that “popular films respond to interpretation as at once the personal dream of their makers and the collective dreams of the audience . . . made possible by a shared structure of common ideology.” If this is true and the audience has a shared ideology, it appears that a woman’s dream is a shared nightmare.

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