Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s ruby slippers can be established as a queer object through a queer reading of the Wizard of Oz. The shoes posses magically queer functions: they reclaim what once was an object of the powerful, they repel the touch of the wicked cis-heteronormative, and they can transport any queer “home.” Thus, they allow queerness to be posited as future-oriented, utopic, and a space for belonging. Additionally, their camp style, important to queers, further establishes their functionality of belonging. This queering is, then, a reclamation of the slippers from a cis-heteronormative gaze.

Every New Year’s Eve in Key West, instead of the conventional midnight ball drop, a drag queen named Sushi is dropped while sitting in a giant ruby high-heeled shoe. This shoe is quite clearly an allusion to the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy Gale, played by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The film gained vast popularity within the queer community and continues to do so today, from Judy Garland gaining status as a gay icon to the pride flag’s subtle reference to “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” In response, The Wizard of Oz is often read as a queer text, both in style and content. In the context of a queer reading of the film, Dorothy’s ruby slippers can similarly be read as a queer text, asserting themselves as the prime object of queerness through their evocation of queer utopic visions and establishment of queer belonging. In this essay, I will contextualize “Somewhere over the Rainbow” within discussions of queer futurity, depict the slippers as an object of a utopic future in which Oz is a queer utopia, and demonstrate the sense of belongingness that can be found within the function and style of the shoe.

To begin with, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” has attained status as American cultural canon and enacts a hopeful future. In the film, Dorothy sings the ballad in response to her Aunt Em’s urging for her to find a place where she “wouldn’t get into any trouble.” The lyrics of the song point to a faraway land in which Dorothy can experience freedom in totality. In simple, it is a foreshadowing of her quickly subsequent arrival in Oz. But more largely, Dorothy’s yearnings are an ode to futurity and to the utopic.

Clearly, these lyrics can be quite readily queered. Questions of queer futurity are important in the realism of queer theory, with many theories being antisocial and anti-reproductive in nature but others that insist upon futurity. Lee Edelman contends that queerness should assert itself outside of heterosexual politics that necessitates reproduction as sustenance, stating that “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.” He does so through the figure of the Child, the characterization of a future that necessitates the reproduction of sameness and heteronormativity, defining it as “an erotically charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism.”[2] In opposition, José Muñoz argues that queerness is “not yet here”[3] and is a horizon, stating that “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility of another world.”[4] While Edelman dismisses the future and encourages the anti-social, Muñoz emphasizes the queer potential in futurity, which accurately captures the queer visions enacted through The Wizard of Oz.  Thus, Dorothy’s lyrics, as opposed to a contemptuous vision of a future that is perpetually heteronormative, epitomize queer longing that is characterized by optimism.  Notably, Dorothy does not yet have the ruby slippers; they lie in the realm of potentiality.

As Dorothy is taken away in a tornado, her house lands in the “somewhere over the rainbow”—the film dramatically shifts from the bleak sepia-toned Kansas to the vibrant technicolor of Oz. Her house falls right upon the Wicked Witch of the East, resulting in an extravagant celebration of thanks from the now freed citizens of Munchkin Land, and after the arrival of and confrontation between the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda, Dorothy is awarded with the dead witch’s ruby slippers. The technicolor gives a dramatic look to the slippers—doused in deep red sequins, the shoes glisten in the movie lights, strikingly contrasting Dorothy’s run-of-the-mill countryside garments. Additionally, Dorothy has, in a sense, reclaimed the shoes from a figure of power.

Thus, the shoes signal a queer reclamation and a belonging in queer utopia. Muñoz asserts that ideas of queer futurity are founded in the utopic or in other terms, “Queerness’s form is utopic.”[5] Queer longings for a future in which queers can be fully liberated rely on the utopic, despite the commonly pejorative conceptions of utopias as unachievable pipe-dreams. Muñoz states the utopic is necessary because it allows for optimism that refuses the cis-heteronormative hail, characteristic of much of the assimilationist present-focused politics of most queer issues in the political sphere, most notably marriage equality: “The present is not enough. It is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations.”[6] If the ruby slippers are conceptualized as a queer object, the act of Dorothy reclaiming them from wickedness is, in fact, an incredibly utopic act. And a queer utopic act, more specifically: the slippers can symbolize a queer dream of stealing something from cis-heterosexuality totally and irrevocably.

In a Muñozian fashion, Oz can be thought of as a queer utopia. Literary scholar Tison Pugh demonstrates how queerness is celebrated in Oz through “messages of embracing oddness and in its construction as an antinormative utopia.”[7] While this conception of queerness is an asexual one, many of the characters can be interpreted to be queer, especially Dorothy’s travel mates. This queer reading was so apparent that, in fact, back in the WWII era of the US, where queer sexual acts were illegal, gay men would ask someone if they were a “friend of Dorothy” as a way to secretly ask if they were gay. Additionally, Pugh argues that the queer nature of Oz in itself allows it to be utopic, stating that “it is a fairyland where magic brings happiness and contentment to all its citizens, despite the peculiarities of their gendered identities in regard to constructions of heteronormativity.”

Additionally, the slippers, in addition to their rootedness in being a queer-reclaimed object, possess magical powers, asserting their place within this queer utopia of Oz. When the Wicked Witch of the West tries to obtain what were previously her sister’s slippers, she gets shocked when she attempts to even touch them. This power of shocking the evil asserts a vision of queerness as magical and extra-worldly but most especially a magic that is politically characterized. Thus, the slippers can be thought of as a queerness that is untouchable by cis-heteronormativity. This is almost the ultimate queer utopic dream: a queerness that thrives and cannot be undone by the majoritarian.

However, the shoes’ most important function is their ability to return Dorothy to Kansas. As to not be forgotten, Dorothy’s entire journey in Oz is driven by her desire to return home. In the end, she gets her wish: Glinda reveals that if Dorothy closes her eyes and clicks her heels three times, all while repeating “there is no place like home,” she will be transported back. Dorothy does so, although in a bittersweet manner as she must say goodbye to her newly-formed friends. When she arrives in Kansas, she wakes abruptly, as to signal that the entire experience was a dream. Dorothy’s incessant desire to leave the queer utopia and return to her past home can be read as a failure to embrace the utopic. Instead, perhaps the focus should be shifted from Dorothy to the slippers. The slippers possess the power to send anyone where they feel the most home. This is important to queers—their given homes are often abusive or unaccepting, forcing them to find new home and choose new families. Thus, the shoes can represent the most existential desire of queers: to belong. This unreachable belongingness is then catalyzed by the slippers, with them serving as the medium between the present and the queer utopic future.

Furthermore, this sense of belonging can be found within the camp aesthetic of the slippers. According to Susan Sontag, camp is a “sensibility,”[9] meaning it cannot be distinctly defined, but broadly is a style utilized mostly in performances that are characterized by irony, eccentricity, and over-the-topness. Dorothy’s slippers (and The Wizard of Oz in itself) are prime examples of camp. The ruby slippers are noticeably flamboyant, sequin-covered and constantly shimmering, and coupled with their magical powers, the shoes establish themselves as a particular form of the sensational, correlating to Sontag’s statement, “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous.”[10] Additionally, the shoes achieve camp through contrast—their gleaming red deviates from Dorothy’s quotidian nature and they call attention to themselves within every setting throughout the film, thus establishing their “spirit of extravagance,” which Sontag calls “the hallmark of camp.”[11] Furthermore, camp has historically been a queer aesthetic, particularly adopted by gay men. In fact, Sontag was later criticized for her de-politicization of camp, particularly as it situates itself within the queer community. As Richard Dyer states, “Camp is one thing that expresses and confirms being a gay man,”[12] thus constituting a unifying aesthetic for gay men, a space for belonging within an expressly queer style. Dyer further argues that the importance of camp within the gay male community is a result of experiences with heterosexism:

We couldn’t afford to stand out in any way, for it might give the game away about our gayness. So we have developed an eye and an ear for surfaces, appearances, forms: style. Small wonder then that when we came to develop our own culture the habit of style should have remained so dominant in it. Looked at this way, the camp sensibility is very much a product of our oppression.[13]

Belonging, then, can be found both in the functionality and in the style of the ruby slippers. Thus, camp as a queer aesthetic expressed by the slippers can be thought of as the way in which queers paint their utopia, where queer sensibility elicits a fundamental sense of belongingness.

In conclusion, Dorothy’s ruby slippers reveal themselves to be a queer text through their relation to queer utopic futurity that is realized through Oz, their function of achieving queer belonging, and their camp style in which this belonging can be found. This queering of the ruby slippers functions as a reclamation, disallowing them to be an object for cis-heteronormative society, constantly subject to their gaze in museums. Instead, the queered slippers can be utilized for queer purposes—just as in Key West every New Year’s Eve. In the minutes before midnight, as Sushi drops into the crowd below her, queers celebrate the future year to come and the future that is queerness.

[1] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 3.

[2] Edelman.

[3] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Sexual Cultures (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

[4] Muñoz, 1.

[5] Muñoz, 30.

[6] Muñoz, 27.

[7] Tison Pugh, “‘There Lived in the Land of Oz Two Queerly Made Men’: Queer Utopianism and Antisocial Eroticism in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Series,” Marvels & Tales 22, no. 2 (2008), 218.

[8] Pugh, 227.

[9] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964, https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf.

[10] Sontag, 7.

[11] Sontag, 7.

[12] Richard Dyer, The Culture of Queers (London ; New York: Routledge, 2002), 49.

[13] Dyer, 59.