Thursday, 24 January 2008

Reflections on Hating Britney Spears

For some time now, I have been intrigued by the reactions people have to Britney Spears, even though I am not fascinated by the woman herself. There are pop stars who are fascinating in their own right. Michael Jackson, for example, with his countless, often extreme eccentricities and his startlingly bad judgment, can be entertaining as a person. Ms Spears, in contrast to this, seems like a rather average young woman, although, admittedly, one who has lived in luxury much of her life. Why, then, am I interested when people talk about her? The answer to that is actually pretty simple. I’m interested because so much of human nature is revealed in these reactions. I can’t help but be captivated. Unfortunately, what I see generally doesn’t encourage me to have great confidence in mankind.

Before going on, I should say that I am not an admirer of Ms Spears. I don’t listen to her music. I haven’t seen her movies. I don’t believe that I’ve even watched one of her music videos in its entirety, though I have seen clips of a fair number of them. I am, frankly, indifferent to her as a performer. I do feel sympathy for her, as I should for any living being, but I’m no more involved in her existence than I am in the existence of any other person who I don’t know personally but about whom I know.

I preface what follows with these remarks to establish my credentials as a non-fan, as someone who is not setting out to defend his heroine. Instead, I am, I believe, a reasonably impartial observer. My intention here is simply to examine people’s reactions to Ms Spears. If I do defend her throughout much of what follows, it is to reveal people’s real motives in accusing her and not, strictly speaking, to defend her (except insofar as I do believe that any person attacked ought to be defended).

In point of fact, many of the accusations leveled against the woman seem to be false. If this is true, it does, however, need to be asked why people are making them. The answers that I have found to this question are, at least to me, intriguing.

For the most part, the reason people attack the woman is simply to assert their own worth. Sometimes they do so by trying to denigrate a person of whom they are jealous. Sometimes they do so to denigrate a person whose morality, image, or music do not conform to those that person values. Whatever the case, the criticisms made of Ms Spears rarely say anything about her. They do, however, expose the inadequacies of those who make them.

First of all, let me note that simple jealousy is, so far as I am able to tell, the single greatest motivator of people who attack Ms Spears. There is no denying that people compare themselves to others in the hope that they will find that this comparison turns out to be favorable to themselves. Just about any person will, consequently, generally be happy to discover that someone else is not faring well. Unfortunately for whatever person is doing this comparison, he will not always find that the other person is less well off than he is. In such a case, feeling jealous, he will take delight in whatever misfortunes the object of his envy endures. He will be thrilled when this other is frustrated, when he loses his job, when he is rejected in love, and so on. Of course, such a person will rarely admit that he is so delighted – he will often not admit this even to himself – but the evidence of such pleasures is encountered again and again.

As I already said, in many cases, this is, without a doubt, the reason why people relish Ms Spears’ troubles. Countless people equate success with the acquisition of money and fame, and Ms Spears is both wealthy and famous. How could others who value these things not be envious of her? She has succeeded at achieving what they hold to be the measures of a person’s worth, while they themselves have failed. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that these persons smile an inner smile and dance a mental dance when they hear that Ms Spears is not as successful as they had thought she was. They are, surely, pleased to learn that they are not as inadequate as they had thought themselves to be. After all, while Ms Spears might have what they desire, she has countless troubles too. They can reassure themselves that, for all her wealth and celebrity, she is just a drunken, crazy slut. I am sure those persons will then feel much better. Their worth will have been reestablished, and they can return to their lives with the knowledge that they are not, by their own standards, complete failures.

Although jealousy is behind much of the joy people take in Britney Spears’ travails, it is not the only reason for this. Hatred surely inspires much of this delight as well. What, then, are the reasons why people hate this woman with such fervor? There are numerous reasons, which can, for the most part, be grouped into a handful of categories. Sometimes, she is hated because she performs, and so is representative of, a style of music a person doesn’t like. Sometimes, she is hated because she is perceived as being immoral by a person who feels himself to be highly ethical. Sometimes she is hated for her bad decisions and her perceived craziness by a person who thinks himself wise and sane. Sometimes, she is hated because she represents a standard of beauty a person cannot achieve, and sometimes she is hated simply because it is fashionable to hate her.

The first of these reasons is ridiculously banal, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t motivate a person to hatred. Almost every person I’ve ever met has been convinced that the things he likes are objectively good and the things that he doesn’t like are objectively bad. In the modern West, each generation has had its own style of music. Rather, each generation has had several styles of music, one or more of which a person of that generation would like and the rest of which he’d disdain. Naturally, these other styles are perceived as being bad or stupid, and those styles preferred in all other generations are, likewise, perceived as being bad or stupid. Even when a person prefers a musical style of a generation other than his own, he inevitably makes such distinctions between those styles he likes and those he doesn’t. He’ll just think he’s a particularly clever representative of his generation, one who can see worth others of his age are too blind or moronic to see.

Whatever style a person likes, when its worth becomes tangled up in his estimation of his own worth, he will generally be eager to latch onto any examples that apparently support his own judgments. Sometimes, even the private lives of the performers of another age are sufficient to establish that these people and their efforts are without value. Consequently, when a person who doesn’t like American pop music from the turn of the millennium hears that Ms Spears has done something he finds inappropriate, he can laugh out loud and proclaim that the musicians he likes are never that stupid. They always behave better. That, of course, just proves that the person hating Ms Spears has better judgment, and better taste, than those tacky morons who actually like her work.

As natural as it is to demand that one’s own tastes are the correct tastes and that those who disagree are lacking in discernment, I’m afraid that I can‘t actually accept that this is the case. Objectively, I would have to say that Ms Spears is neither especially better nor especially worse a performer than is any other popular performer of recent years. Neither Madonna, nor Michael Jackson, nor the Bee Gees, nor Abba, nor Herman and the Hermits, nor Buddy Holly was much better or worse than she is. I may like some of those performers more than I do others, but I cannot objectively say that one or another of them is better.

Now, I know the arguments that are popularly thrown out to prove that a particular musician is better than another, but they are consistently worthless. Some say, for example, “So and so didn’t write his own music.” Maybe that’s true, but, if it is, and it is a legitimate standard for judging a musician’s worth, then I suppose I had better stop listening to the London Philharmonic Orchestra. You, my dear reader, may not believe this, but I heard recently that the musicians of the orchestra don’t write the music they perform. I guess they’re just a bunch of charlatans.

“Okay, that may be true,” someone might still say, “but the musicians I listen to have something to say in their songs, Britney sure doesn’t.” Fortunately, I do not really need to reply to anyone who forms his opinions based on those of a musician (unless, of course, that musician happens to be an expert on the subject, as so many are). I need hardly elaborate on this point, so I won’t.

As for objective standards, such as being able to sing on key, being able to play a musical instrument, or being able to dance, I’d have to say that Ms Spears is skilled at both the first and the last of these (I have no idea if she can play an instrument). She’s certainly better than are many individuals who are touted as icons of rock. Let’s be honest, Mick Jagger cannot sing (I’m not even sure he’s able to enunciate simple words), and there aren’t that many of the “greats” who have the dancing skills Ms Spears does. I will grant that the ability to sing does not make someone a great musician. There are thousands, even millions, who have such skills. Nonetheless, these are criticisms that can’t be leveled against the woman. I’m not going to buy her albums – they don’t appeal to me musically – but I’m not going to pretend she can’t sing. I’d just be lying to myself, and I have no desire to do so.

Even if Ms Spears can sing and dance, some people still hate her for her depraved morality. Of course, I will concede to this objection. I do understand that she has played on her sexuality in her career, and I do know that a woman who does so is a whore. A woman, after all, should remain a virgin until sold, I mean given, by her father to her future husband, and, after that, she should always endure – but never enjoy – her husband’s advances. She should be a good, devout patriot and let him inseminate her for the sake of God and country. Sex is, undoubtedly, a dirty, shameful thing. It should never be enjoyed or commoditized.

A woman must have no regard for herself if she uses her body to make a living. That, of course, is why I have always despised athletes. It really is disgusting how they use their bodies to make money. It’s just vile. For that matter, I’ve always hated college professors for the same reason. The way some abhorrent professor whores himself, selling that filthy, slimy organ in his head, that wet, hair-covered moneymaker between his ears, absolutely sickens me. I almost feel nauseous just writing about such perversity.

Obviously, I am being sarcastic here. There is no shame in earning money with one’s body. After all, every action we perform, even our mental activity, is accomplished with the body.

Even were someone to say that certain parts of the body are more shameful than others, I would not be convinced. I would, in fact, wholeheartedly disagree. There is no part of the body that is shameful. Even those most despised parts, the genitals, breasts, anus, and buttocks, are not the devil’s play toys. They are simply bodily parts, like the brain, the legs, and the hands are. If Ms Spears emphasizes her sexuality, she is not doing anything shameful. There is nothing more shameful about her limbs and torso than there is something shameful about a surgeon’s hands, a runner’s legs, or a philosopher’s brain.

“Well, then,” the Britney-hater might reply, “just look at how she acts in public. She drinks. She goes to parties. She fails to wear underwear. She has sex with men!”

I will not deny that Ms Spears does appear to be guilty of these charges, but I will deny that she has done anything wrong in being so. I assume that any person making such accusations is a burqa-wearing teetotaler and virgin who never leaves his home since, if he is not, then he must be a hypocrite. No, that’s not true. If he is a man, it would be okay for him to do those things (in fact, it would be obligatory for him not to wear panties). It is only bad when a woman enjoys her life. After all, a woman’s place is in her home, preserving her innocence for her husband while sitting quietly in a corner knitting. Again, I am being sarcastic. While excessive drinking can have unfortunate consequences, there is nothing morally objectionable about drinking, even when it is a woman who drinks. Physical modesty, in and of itself, is nothing but a feeling of shame about one’s body, and there is nothing shameful about any person’s body. I will admit that, for the sake of aesthetics, not every person should expose his body, but if a person is attractive, even that reason is eliminated. Finally, there is nothing wrong with having sex. If anything, there is something wrong with not having sex. Chastity is as much a virtue as is starvation. It is a foolish hardship that does nothing but diminish the joy that life has to offer.

I might add, with regard to this, that people don’t seem to be very consistent about their condemnations of human sexuality. Male rock stars, as well as other male celebrities, are often celebrated for their sexual conquests. It is only when a woman, a young woman, is having sex that there is a problem. I don’t suppose it matters now, though. She’s ruined anyway. What man would marry her now? She’s soiled. She’s damaged goods. We might as well stone her.

Having said all of this, I will admit that Ms Spears has sometimes behaved unethically. She did, apparently, hit another driver’s car in a parking lot and fail to take responsibility for doing so. If that is the worst sin she has committed, however, then she is doing better than any person I know. I doubt if I’ve met a single person who hasn’t done far, far worse than that.

In fact, by celebrity standards, her behavior hasn’t been especially bad. When I think of Elton John’s abusive tirades, Naomi Campbell’s assaults on her employees, Russell Crowe’s violent bullying, Mel Gibson’s religious bigotry, and Elia Kazan’s informing on his friends to McCarthy, Ms Spears’ reckless driving doesn’t seem bad at all.

She could also be condemned for her great wealth, but then all wealthy persons could be so condemned, and she is no more guilty of being an exploiter than are any of those other persons, though she is as guilty as are many of them. I do find it ethically dubious for any person to be paid what Ms Spears is. That, however, is a condemnation of the rich in general.

Accepting that, perhaps, Ms Spears doesn’t have a history of violence and racism, and may not have been up to the shenanigans of some of the people mentioned above (who, I might add, may well regret their actions), still, she is clearly crazy or, at the least, has made some really bad decisions. She ought to be condemned for these things.

If anyone says this, there isn’t much I can say in response. In fact, I have nothing to say to anyone who would condemn a person with mental health problems. No, that’s not true. There is one thing I would say: “Shame on you.”

Even if a person condemns her for her unwise decisions, there isn’t much of a reply I can give him. Such a person must either be so lucky that, never having suffered as others have, he is without compassion for his fellow human beings, or he must be so blind to his own faults that speaking to him would be a waste of time. I only hope that, should any person who denigrates Ms Spears for making bad decision or for having mental health problems endure similar troubles, he will not be denigrated as he has denigrated her. I hope that such a person, though not compassionate, will be shown compassion. I don’t want to see anyone suffer because of the callousness of others. That said, I don’t imagine that Ms Spears is unduly concerned about the opinions of Pete the Podiatrist and Susie the Seamstress.

“Okay, then, let’s forget about her bad decisions and her wackiness,” my Britney-hater says. “I know I don’t make mistakes, but my family members do. I even know a crazy person. We don’t talk about him – since it is embarrassing to have squirrel-bait in the family – but I send him a little money at Christmas so that he can buy some candy at the store in the loony bin. Still, you’ve got to admit, Britney is stupid.”

I suppose I will have to admit that, judging from the times I have heard Ms Spears speak, she does seem to be of average intelligence. Nonetheless, she doesn’t appear to be of less than average intelligence. That means that the great majority of people condemning her as stupid are probably no smarter than she is. For that matter, I doubt if most celebrities are smarter than she is. While I make this judgment based only on having seen or read the occasional interview, I will say that I can’t think of more than a few film stars or musical performers who have struck me as being more intelligent than Ms Spears. I can even think of a few who seemed much less intelligent. More than a few people are clearly picking and choosing who they want to condemn. Perhaps a musician’s not being a genius can be forgiven if he or she performs music a person likes. There is clearly a fair amount of inconsistency in these judgments.

It would seem that what is being condemned here is not Ms Spears’ intelligence. Her intelligence is simply being employed as a way of condemning a person who is not liked for other reasons.

Not only is such condemnation applied haphazardly, but it is also nonsensical. Even if an individual is smarter than Ms Spears is, that does not make him a better person than she is. Intelligence does not equal worth. I might remind anyone who makes such a comment that all but one of the men who stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg (in the trial of the Nazi leaders) were of above average intelligence (and the one of average intelligence was at the higher end of average). But if someone wants to think that Herman Goering was a great man because he was especially bright, then, once again, there is not much I can say to him. Hitler and Stalin were clearly very clever too. Admire them if you want to, but I don’t think I’m going to.

As sad as it is to say, I have to concede that people who condemn Ms Spears for any of the reasons just given (i.e., her lack of wisdom, her unintelligence, and her questionable mental health) are simply doing so out of a desperate, dishonest arrogance. They must either believe that others are inferior to them, and so condemn them for their inferiority, or fearing that they themselves are guilty of these things, they compensate by pointing out such flaws in others. Whichever of these is the case, it’s just blindness. I would urge anyone who condemns Ms Spears, or any other person, for such things to look at himself.

I suppose that, in both of these cases, fear of one’s one inadequacies, even if unexpressed, is the root of hating Ms Spears. Whether a person thinks himself better than others or fears that others are better than he is, he must downplay the worth of others to lift himself up. Unfortunately for such a person, sometimes it takes quite a bit of self-deception to do so and, sometimes, a little jealousy might just creep into his heart.

Such jealousy is certainly the reason for people’s hatred for Ms Spears’ beauty.

We live in an age of obesity. The vast majority of people are so lazy and gluttonous that they transform themselves into great masses of flab. In saying this, I might note that I am not condemning others. I’ll frankly admit that I could lose a few pounds myself. That said, I won’t lie to myself. I won’t pretend that my blubber is beautiful. It isn’t. I might not be obese, but I have no illusions that even my size is too great. Unfortunately, there are many who are much larger than I am – who are often as wide as they are tall – but who are offended that others might not find their fleshy rolls attractive.

When many such people see a person who is physically attractive, they are annoyed and attempt to denigrate that person. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard some morbidly obese individual describing someone who’s physically fit as being “too skinny,” “skin and bones,” or “unhealthy.” Apparently, in some people’s world, white is black and black is white.

“Well,” the corpulent person might say, “I should be proud of my body. It’s beautiful the way it is.”

That assertion’s about as sane as a smoker’s describing his cancerous tumors as beautiful. Instead of pretending that what’s not attractive is attractive, a person should admit that his foolish actions have had unfortunate consequences. Both have my sympathy. I hope that every fat person (including myself) can find the willpower to shed his superfluous flesh and that every smoker can quit and rid himself of the fear of cancer. I will not, however, lie to either person. Neither smoking nor the combination of laziness and gluttony are beneficial to a person’s health or beauty.

Not only are claims to the contrary dishonest – I doubt if more than a handful of the people who make them actually believe them – but the reverse claims, that those who are slender are not beautiful, are also lies. I will concede that there are those with specialized tastes, such as “chubby chasers,” but, let’s be honest, men, women, and others, whether gay, straight, or otherwise, are generally attracted to the physically fit. I cannot even begin to count the number of rotund individuals who, while moaning about how they should be seen as beautiful, nonetheless lust for those people who are healthy, not fat. As I said, I grant that there are exceptions, but those exceptions don’t undermine my point, that most of the people making these claims aren’t being honest.

Before giving birth to her two children, Ms Spears was, let’s admit, a physically fit and beautiful woman. Because this was the case, it’s hardly surprising that the indolent overeaters of the world often hated her. Ms Spears was what they couldn’t be, sexually appealing to others. Of course, these people were jealous of her, and, of course, they despised her.

It’s hardly surprising that these same people are delighted and enthralled by the sight of a less physically fit Britney. They surely relish unflattering tabloid images of the woman. Finally, Britney, that annoying person who had what they did not, was looking rather unattractive.

While I understand that it can be difficult for a person to come to terms with who he is, that difficulty hardly justifies either self-delusion or spitefulness. I am not sympathetic when it does give rise to these emotions. If a person feels inadequate in some way, it should inspire him to better himself, if possible, or to accept his imperfections, however hard doing so may be.

In fact, nearly every time that Britney Spears has been condemned, the words hurled against her have said almost nothing about her. Instead, they have reflected either the inadequacies or bigotries of the person making the attack. I do not think that Ms Spears is without flaw. She is a human being, and she has made numerous mistakes (often apparently exasperated by the culture of “yes-men” with which the wealthy generally surround themselves). She has been inconsiderate to others (such as the time she hit someone else’s car). She might have mental health problems, and, most importantly, she is a member of the wealthy class. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to be a worse than average person. I can hardly compare the most extreme of her antics to the vicious assaults committed by Russell Crowe, the adulteries of Rory Calhoun, or the homophobic actions of Clark Gable.

Her troubles do not, by and large, show her in a bad light. She just seems to be a human being, and that means she’s flawed, that she’s capable of acting foolishly and being selfish. It’s those who harp on her troubles who appear in a bad light. Whenever someone revels in the woman’s miseries, or inconsistently criticizes her actions, appearance, talents, and the like, all he does is vomit up the reptiles and worms dwelling inside of himself. Instead of revealing another’s shortcomings, he exposes the filth of his own being to the world. It’s not pretty. I’d like to say that, seeing such vermin, a person would change, but I’m afraid that, by and large, people seem to be blind to their own faults.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Reflections on Oz and Narnia

As a child, I read both L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and I loved several of the titles from each series. Now, as an adult who is soon to be the father of a daughter, I am made to wonder why it is that I am so eager to share the former with her but not the latter.

Baum was a gifted story-teller, but, at his best, Lewis was just as good, perhaps even better. Lewis’s prose style is, on the whole, better than Baum’s, and Lewis was not afraid to include dark elements in his tales, something few children’s authors will do today – including Baum.

So, why is it that I so unreservedly prefer Baum to Lewis?

First of all, while, at his best, Lewis might have been the better story-teller, he is at his best only in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The book is often thrilling. It’s filled with moral crises, affecting moments, and real dangers. What child won’t be hot with anger when Edmund lies to Peter and Susan about having gone to Narnia? What child won’t feel sympathy for the poor Mr. Tumnus when the protagonists discover that his house has been ransacked and the charming faun has been arrested? What child won’t be touched by Edmund’s redemption, and what child won’t be on the point of tears when Aslan is killed by the Witch? The book is marvelous.

Then, what’s my problem with it? The problem is not, for the most part, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself, but with its successors. Both Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy are fun, if flawed, adventures, but the rest of the Narnia books range from mildly amusing to painfully tedious. The Last Battle and The Magician’s Nephew, in particular, are didactic bores.

Lewis’s subordination of his narratives to his ideological agenda really is the worst of his problems. Instead of simply allowing his doctrines to infuse his narrative (as he does in the first book), the narratives of many of the later books are shaped to teach his doctrines. As a result of this, several of his books read like sermons, and are just as dull. As I said, when he’s at his best, Lewis is a good story-teller, but, when he’s not, he’s just inept. In a work of art, there is no fault worse than being boring.

Oz, in contrast to this, is never boring. Baum does not try to teach his reader anything, except by implication. He tells enchanting stories filled with a bewitching diversity of magical beings. As a child, I was enthralled by Baum’s creations. When reading, in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, about the underground land of the Mangaboos, with its cold vegetable people and their glass houses, or the silent land of the wooden gargoyles, or the cave of the dragonettes, I felt as though I had been transported to those places. Virtually all the other Oz books did the same. Even while writing this, I feel excited just by remembering the pageantry of Ozma’s birthday party in The Road to Oz and the strange transforming magic Mrs. Yoop used on the protagonists of The Tin Woodman of Oz. The books are so filled with imagination that they’re like incantations capable of spiriting the reader away. As I said, I can, to this day, still feel their enchantment. If I have a complaint about them it is that I would, sooner or later, have to rouse myself from the intoxication they produced in me and return to this humdrum world. That, of course, is a complaint that compliments the books instead of condemning them.

In all fairness, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did much the same thing for me, as did Prince Caspian, but the other books, by and large, never had that magic. Lewis’s imagination, sadly, seems somewhat limited. He rarely gave in to sheer flights of fancy. But then, his point was to teach, not to entertain.

Nonetheless, there is one element of Narnia that Oz lacks. Narnia can be a dark and fearful place. There are monsters there, werewolves, giants, and other fiends, that can threaten the protagonists. It is relatively rare, especially in the later Oz books, for the heroes actually to be threatened with physical harm. In Narnia, people can be killed. As a child, I found the dangerousness of Narnia exciting. It was scary, in a good way. Oz never had that deadly intensity. It was a world of marvels, but it was rarely a world of dangers.

At least, however, the heroines of Oz do not become heroines by killing their enemies. Dorothy does kill the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but she does so inadvertently. The Nome King is never killed, though he is repeatedly defeated. Other antagonists, like General Jinjur in The Marvelous Land of Oz, even turn out to be decent people in the end. Most, moreover, are defeated by the protagonists’ intelligence or by some stratagem. Cleverness is more likely to make a person a hero in Oz than is lopping off an enemy’s head. I can’t complain if a child should learn that lesson.

Even so, I am not a believer in the notion that art should teach. Art is one thing, and teaching is another. The former allows a person simply to relish the beauty of a thing. The other has a function: to impart information. A poem can be read over and over again, its beauty appreciated as new each time, but a didactic work is useless once the information in it has been committed to memory. What person is going to review his multiplication tables once he knows them? After information has been learned, it need not, unless forgotten, be learned again. If a person does review a book on multiplication after he’s learned how to do it, then it is because he enjoys it, not because he’s getting knowledge from the work.

Admittedly, didactic elements are often included in artistic works. They can even add to the value of a work. It is quite possible, after all, for such elements to enhance the pleasure a person takes in the work. Of course, it is still the relishing of the beauty of the work, that is enhanced by these elements, that makes it art. The didactic content is successful only insofar as it contributes to a person’s appreciation of the work.

All that said, when an author (or any other artist) has included didactic elements in his works, I have to ask whether what is being taught in his book ought to be learned. As an adult – who does not consider a work of fiction to be a valid source of knowledge on any subject (other than itself) – I can read a book that teaches something questionable and still enjoy it. If I am deciding what a child should read, or what should be read to a child, I need, however, to take into account the fact that the child might not be as discriminating as I am. The child might actually pick up from the book attitudes that are not commendable.

Unfortunately, what Lewis teaches in his Narnia books is often objectionable.

The child will learn, in that series, that there is one true religion, and that other religions are merely lies taught by monstrous demons (I am not making this up; look at The Last Battle). While there are times when decent persons are deceived by the teachers of these false deities, for the most part, the adherents of these are presented in a very negative light. For example, the inhabitants of Calormen (a land outside Narnia that is clearly modeled on the Muslim world) are cruel, violent, arrogant to their subordinates, and slavish to their betters. They are repeatedly contrasted with the free, honest, and decent folk of Narnia. Sadly, though this sort of xenophobia is not prevalent in the earlier Narnia books, it pervades the later ones.

One particular comparison made between the heathens of Calormen and Narnia’s Christians (who are so in all but name) is, however, very amusing. Lewis mentions that the poetry of the former land is dull and didactic, while that of the latter is about mighty deeds and exciting adventures. It’s fairly amusing that what Lewis himself is writing falls into the former category. Perhaps he ought to have read The 1001 Nights for some story ideas. It’s full of exciting adventures that can be appreciated in their own right, not for what they teach.

Sadly, this negative depiction of non-Christian religions (and of non-European peoples and cultures) is hardly the only objectionable element in the Narnia books.

Although a number of Lewis’s main characters are female, I can’t say he handles them well. They are very traditional. Lucy, in the first book, does find the entrance to Narnia, but she doesn’t go on to fight to save that country. Her brothers do so while she and her older sister Susan basically act as nurses to the injured male heroes.

This problem doesn’t end there. For one thing, the first book centers around the conflict between a female tyrant, the Witch, and the rightful, male ruler of Narnia, Aslan. There’s even a weird comment in The Last Battle about how Susan is lost to Aslan by being interested in cosmetics and the like. I guess women who like to make themselves attractive are just a bunch of hussies. No wonder Aslan hates them.

As much as I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I do not want my daughter learning that Christianity is good, other religions are demonic lies, non-Europeans are generally villainous (as is made obvious by their dark skin), and women really ought to rely upon men. I want to teach my daughter to be open to any culture, while still being critical, to know that all people are equal, and to know that, as a woman, she doesn’t need to rely on anyone but herself.

The Oz books, happily, do not present the same sort of questionable material.

Before going on, however, I must, in all fairness, admit that there is some objectionable content in Baum’s Oz. There is, for instance, a painfully racist episode in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, in which the characters visit the country of the Tottenhots. These beings, who are parodies of Africans (and who are drawn by John R. Neill, the book’s illustrator, as such), hardly provide children with an image a parent would care for them to retain.

This sort of thing is, happily, rare in Baum’s works, and, it has to be said, is a reflection of the attitudes of his time. What is more, the Tottenhots are not depicted as being villainous. Their depiction may owe much to archaic prejudices, but it is without malice. Baum might have been ignorant, but he was not hateful.

Actually, on the whole, his books are wonderfully accepting of others. Diverse characters and people appear, and, as outlandish as they are, they are rarely condemned. There are certainly villains. There are even whole peoples that are villainous. For instance, in The Emerald City of Oz, whole tribes of evil fairies, the Whimsies, the Growleywogs, and the Phanfasms, are mentioned. These, however, are exceptions. I might note that the most frequently used antagonist of the Oz books, the Nome King, rules a people who, though enemies of Oz, are never really shown as being wicked. Their king might be a scoundrel, but they are not themselves fiends.

Oz is filled with a variety of unusual folk, and though some of them may be trying, they all have their place in that magical land. Just look at the court of Oz’s ruler, Princess Ozma. It’s inhabited by several young girls from America, a hungry tiger, a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, a stick figure with a pumpkin for his head, a tin man, a highly magnified (but thoroughly educated) insect, a former vagrant, a one-legged sailor, and so many more odd individuals I can’t list them all. If there’s one overriding message of the Oz books, it’s that a person should accept himself for who he is and others for who they are. I doubt if I could come up with a nobler message.

If that message were not commendable enough, there’s another that runs through the Oz books that is nearly as good. In fact, as the father of the daughter, I might even say it’s just as good. Over and over again, the protagonists of these tales are girls or women. Unlike the helping females of Narnia, the women of Oz always take center stage. They’re not meek beings who require the protection of males. They’re spunky, independent females who save the day on their own. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it’s Dorothy who saves her male companions, not the other way around. When Dorothy herself is saved in Ozma of Oz, it’s not by a male, it’s by Princess Ozma, another girl, and when two cities on the edge of Oz are about to go to war in Glinda of Oz, it’s Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda who restore peace.

Females, in fact, are generally dominant in Oz. The country’s ruler is a young girl, Ozma, and it’s most skilled magician is the sorceress Glinda (who, by the way, teaches the Wizard real magic –he’d previously just been a charlatan). There’s something to be said for the impression a young girl could get from this. Instead of learning to depend on a man, she might just realize that she’s capable of standing on her own. Maybe she can rescue the prince instead of needing him to rescue her.

Now, I do not mean to imply by this that men are not treated fairly by Baum. The Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and countless others are certainly brave and loyal. There are more than a few admirable men in Oz. Happily, they don’t demand that the women of the country hide behind them so that they can save the day. As it turns out, both men and women can be heroic in Oz.

Although several of the Narnia books have their virtues, I have to admit that the Oz books are better. Not only are they better literature, being filled with feats of the imagination and not having their narratives subordinated to didactic elements, but they are also far better for children. In Baum’s world, girls can be just as heroic as boys (a lesson both boys and girls should learn), and everyone, no matter how strange he or she may be, has a genuine innate worth.