Impregnable

Definition (from the Free Online Dictionary):

im·preg·na·ble 1 (im-preg’ne-bl)
adj.
      1. Impossible to capture or enter by force: an impregnable fortress.
      2. Difficult or impossible to attack, challenge, or refute with success: an impregnable argument.

im·preg·na·ble 2 (im-preg’ne-bl)
adj.
      Capable of being impregnated.

Today I was thinking about Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 MGM musical The Wizard of Oz. When I was a little child I was terrified of her. Yet by the time I got to college, she had become my favorite character in the film, the one I liked the most.

Some years later I tried to figure out why this was so. And then one small snatch of dialog in the film revealed all, the moment when Dorothy’s Auntie Em says: “Elmira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn’t mean that you have the power to run the rest of us.”

This is the moment when you realize that not only is Miss Gulch a spinster, but that she also happens to be an exceedingly rich spinster. And according to the iron-clad laws of physics that ruled American movies in that era, a rich unmarried older woman was the enemy, the Antichrist, the scourge of all that is true and beloved and, well, American. The idea that a woman could live on her own past marrying age, becoming independently wealthy without leaning on a man, was considered such an abomination, such a hideous affront against God, that it would have seemed to audiences at the time a very short step indeed to labeling her as a witch.

And thus I realized that this was the reason I liked her. Elmira Gulch, that detested woman who became the literal embodiment of evil in Dorothy’s dream, was the true victim of the piece. For the film was, in a sense, an attack on women’s right to equality. Of course the people who made the film didn’t know this, any more than a slave owner thinks of his whip as a tool of oppression. Once you buy into a concept of a “natural order”, you see any defense of that order as reasonable.

And so we get to that wonderful word “Impregnable” with its two opposing meanings. On the one hand it defines the significance, in some societies, of a young unmarried woman — like Dorothy. Rather than being celebrated for intelligence, for talent, for the capability to go out and accomplish things in the world, she is seen as passive, dreamy, confused, waiting for somebody to rescue her and fill her life with meaning. The girl on the cusp of womanhood is portrayed as a sort of empty vessel, existing mainly to wait until she is ripe for the plucking, for a man to claim her, to fill her, and thereby give her an identity.

Unlike the young man striking out to make his fortune, this young woman’s identity is defined by the fact that she is nubile — impregnable, as it were.

But of course the older figure of Elmira Gulch is the opposite. She has become a success, and wealthy, through her brains (although her enemies would likely use the less kind word “cunning”). And she is clearly never going to settle down with a man, so she cannot be co-opted. She is the enemy fortress that must be destroyed. In that sense she is the embodiment of that other meaning of the same word — impregnable.

One can argue that the evolution of feminism has been an ongoing attempt to avoid being reduced to this dialectic. To exist as more than a sexual conquest, to be recognized for one’s accomplishments. And yet to do this in a way that does not negate one’s own sexuality.

This negation of sexuality was a fate that seems to have befallen Elmira Gulch.

Oh, and also getting killed.

5 Responses to “Impregnable”

  1. dmaas says:

    Wow. That kind of fits with the way she dies. Melting is kind of orgasmic – losing form, becoming soft and malleable.
    Also has interesting implications for the other witch… the good witch. By inference, she is likewise independent and has means. Yet these are all downplayed behind her role as motherly helper. Wonder if she would also melt when confronted with water?

  2. admin says:

    Ah, that’s a good insight about the melting imagery. That goes all the way to Frank L. Baum’s original story, in which the witch can be harmed by water because she is completely dried out — a sexual metaphor if there ever was one.

    I don’t get the impression that Glinda is dried out. She is clearly a nurturer, looking after all the child-like Munchkins. As you suggest, her supporting role as “mother” renders her harmless to the social order.

  3. Sharon says:

    Of course, because nobody wants to think about mothers having sex. Except perhaps the mothers themselves, and maybe the fathers 😉

  4. admin says:

    I’m not sure that’s it. In the traditional cultural order that looks at Elmira Gulch as a social heretic, it’s not about whether a woman is having sex, but about whether she has been claimed by a man. E.G. is perceived as dangerous because she is not defined by a man. As Jenny Garp said “”I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect.”

  5. sharon says:

    Granted. It still begs the question of why mothers are exempt from the “rules”, especially if there is no man obviously in their lives.

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