In Defence of Elphaba, on International Women’s Day

I love musicals.
When I first saw The Phantom of the Opera, (the movie, because the play wasn’t available to me yet) I began to have a slightly delusional crush on the Phantom.
In context, if I was shopping with a girlfriend, I imagined to myself that the Phantom would jump up from behind the accessories rack and carry me away to his lair, where we would sing and kiss all day and night in complete bliss.
After a while, this developed into a slightly healthier crush for Gerry Butler.

Thankfully, I eventually met and fell in love with a tangible human being.
We met at a breakfast table on a singles convention. My attention was turned to the other side of this long cafeteria style table when I heard something that caught my interest.
“Who is talk about The Phantom of the Opera?” I said.
My eyes rested on a kind face, and a big mop of black hair. “That was me.”

The rest, folks, is history.

At our wedding, the best man, my charismatic brother-in-law, spoke about how being around me was like being permanently stuck in a musical.

In those days, I was constantly singing my favourite musicals, or speaking in an undoubtedly annoying sing-songy voice. Underneath this exterior, however, I wasn’t the cheerful, optimistic person you are probably picturing right now. I was deeply introspective, passionate, and sensitive, and I found solace in escapism.
Truthfully, I’m not all that different now.

Before we go on, I should probably say SPOILER warning.

The first character I really recall escaping into wasn’t from a musical at all, but she foreshadowed what was to come. Her name was Daria.

Daria was dry, sarcastic, incredibly intelligent, and a complete social outcast. I loved her, and everything she stood for.
In a particularly telling episode, characters come to Daria for advice after a death has rocked the school community. Each person sees her as the epitome of the depression and gloom they are feeling, and ask her how to deal.
Before his death, Tommy Sherman had called Daria out for being a “misery chick,” and this title ruminates with her as each person walks away.
In an exchange with her only friend, Jane, Daria says what sums up exactly how I feel about myself (apart from the popular thing) most days:
“Tragedy hits the school and everyone thinks of me. A popular guy died, and now I’m popular because I’m the misery chick. But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.”

Later in class she explains how Tennyson is not seen as a “big unhappiness freak” for being able to acknowledge that there is pleasure and pain in having love and consequently losing love.
“He’s a realist,” she says.

As a realist, Daria didn’t fit in, and I didn’t really fit in either.

When I did fall in love with musicals, I realised that I felt a particular affinity for the tormented, outcast characters.
As an underweight, pale, creative, weird young woman, I knew how they felt, and I wanted to make it all better. I wanted them to win.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these characters that I love do really bad things, and in no way do I condone those things. Yet, when we see the Phantom watch Christine leave him (for what we think is) forever, completely broken and vulnerable, or we watch Javert jump to his death, we can’t help but see the humanity in them and feel empathy for them.

When we see people in this broken state, it stirs within us the memory of a time we felt lonely, or different, and we can found some mutuality, some way to relate. The key is allowing ourselves to make that connection rather than bowing to the schadenfreude-like reactions that are so popular in our day.

At first, I wanted to write about all these beloved characters, but all I could keep thinking about was the female character who taught me the most. Elphaba from the musical, Wicked.

You may know Elphaba as the Wicked Witch of the West, or “the green witch.”
In Wicked, we follow the rise and fall of this young witch as The Wizard and Madame Morrible exploit her powers for their own means.
Although an outcast at Shiz University, showing natural talents for sorcery, Madame Morrible initially tutors Elphaba and praises her power, leading her hope she can make something of herself when she meets The Wizard. She even secretly hopes that he may able to “degreenify” her.

In the meantime Elphaba befriends her teacher, Doctor Dillamond, who also happens to be a Goat. He tells her “something bad” is happening in Oz. That bad thing is that the Animals are being discriminated into literal silence. Animals who are contributing meaningfully to society.
Elphaba, feeling empathy for Doctor Dillamond, starts taking action, which doesn’t make her any more popular.

Nevertheless, with high hopes, Elphaba visits The Wizard with her (now) friend Glinda.
They enjoy a wonderful day in Emerald City, but the joy and merriment at the moment it is revealed the Wizard is ready to see them is then strongly contrasted by the failed hopes that sink into her heart as the meeting progresses.
Elphaba is manipulated into using a magical book, which only she can understand and use, to make some Monkeys sprout wings and fly. The Wizard, who has no power and cannot allow the Ozians to know as such, has planned to use these Monkeys to spy on the Animals, in his quest to continue silencing them.
To appease Elphaba, who obviously wants no part in this scheme, the Wizard offers her the things she desires. She cannot choose fame and notoriety over doing the right thing, so she flees out to the roof. While there, Madame Morrible announces to the Ozians that Elphaba is a wicked person, not to be trusted.
With guards beating down on the barricaded door, Elphaba tries to sprout wings herself using the spell book, however the spell unexpectedly enchants a nearby broomstick. She starts to fly away, bidding her friend Glinda goodbye, as the guards break onto the roof.

Elphaba then dedicates her life to opposing The Wizard, but her behaviour is only reported in a way that continues to push her further into this “wicked” label.
She also tries to right wrongs in her personal life, but things only get worse for her as her sister gets crushed by a house and her lover is taken away to be tortured. At this low point, she resigns herself to her fate. No good deed goes unpunished, she laments, I’m wicked through and through.

What I love about Elphaba, is that she is so relatable, and real.
Have you ever been that person that gets labelled as “negative” simply because you care about the people who may not have as strong a voice as you? I have.
What about the countless names given to well-meaning activists all over the globe?Bleeding heart, do-gooder, and snowflake are just a few of these labels. (Please, insult me with that, again.)
Have you been misquoted, gossiped about, and demonised?
Have you ever felt like your father never cared for you, and you could never live up to your sister? Did you grow up without a mother? Did you blame yourself for her death?
Did you grow up completely self-conscious about your looks?
I am sure there is something in Elphaba that every woman could relate to.

We all experience vulnerability at some stage, and society sometimes tells us that this is a bad thing. Elphaba spoke up, and we, too, have the right and privilege to speak up, carrying our vulnerability as a badge of courage.
Elphaba’s experiences tell us: Be YOU, be you, despite the hardships that follow. You have the power to inspire others.

Toward the end of the musical Elphaba bids a tearful goodbye to Glinda, and then fakes her death, only to the knowledge of her lover, Fiyero. They then leave Oz together.

It may seem at first like Elphaba hasn’t inspired any positive change at all, however, while she and Fiyero are leaving Oz, Glinda starts to complete the work Elphaba started.

Glinda, who had been turned into a beloved public figure after agreeing to team up with The Wizard, banishes The Wizard from Oz, locks up Madame Morrible, and starts to undo the evil they created. She promises to really live up to her label “Glinda the Good.”
We are left with a feeling of hope for the people of Oz and the silenced Animals.

It was not only Glinda who was changed. Elphaba’s courage and passion turned Fiyero, a foppish, arrogant young “boy” into a thinking, socially conscious, brave man.

This is something we need now more than ever. We need women to stand up and create change. We need to encourage and support our leaders, male and female, to take a courageous stand for good, not a stand that would silence and dismiss those who are different.

We need to keep writing and telling stories of women like Elphaba.

Featured image: Idina Menzel as Elphaba. We do not own this photo.

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