I first saw the musical Wicked about seven years ago. I saw it again this weekend having forgotten the story line. Like the X-Men franchise, Wicked includes moral messages about how the mainstream treats those who are visibly different and whether oppression buys victims the right to seek revenge.
This time, I left the theater conflicted about the story’s ending. It’s both a “happy ending” for two characters and a bittersweet ending for others. (If you haven’t yet seen this show, which tells the story of Oz and its residents before Dorothy’s arrival, try it.)
Among the many challenges that minoritized communities face is their visible elders and role models vanishing into convention. Conventional arcs might involve upward class mobility, such as a hero escaping the “hood” to become successful in mainstream education, sport, or entertainment. They might also include more extreme body modifications like skin bleaching, which allow dark-skinned people all over the world to comply with White supremacy’s beauty standards at their own expense.
Whether in film, on stage, or in life, conventional stories may offer audiences a few atypical characters and relationships. But the characters either pay a tax for their difference, or are somehow written out of Exception and back into Rule. The latter happens in Wicked.
Early in the musical, the lead character sings about her dream of meeting the wizard of Oz and being relieved of her overt differences.
And one day, he’ll say to me, ‘Elphaba,
A girl who is so superior,
Shouldn’t a girl who’s so good inside
Have a matching exterior?
And since folks here to an absurd degree
Seem fixated on your verdigris
Would it be all right by you
If I de-greenified you?’
And though of course,
That’s not important to me
‘All right, why not?’ I’ll reply…” —Elphaba, “The Wizard and I,” Wicked
Later on in the story, this dream is less vivid, and yet the writers still create an ending where this character is removed from the community. Community members struggle through each act to hold space for difference, and they ultimately fail: the Different leave (or are forced to leave), and so the mainstream never has to grow beyond its resentment or rejecting posture.
It’s comparatively easy to imagine what vanishing into convention does to individuals who might be able to “pass” and to individuals who can’t. I’m also curious about how this process of absorption and exclusion impoverishes a community itself.