You have to wonder what made director Tim Burton and his crew decide on a genderless look for Willy Wonka in the current Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the character is not genderless in the book, or in the 1971 film with Gene Wilder.
There are lots of ways to present as ungendered; Johnny Depp’s Wonka is ungendered the way a prepubescent child is. Being a childlike adult makes the character less real, more magical, harder to interpret and predict. Because Depp’s acting is inutterably brilliant, the character is stripped of adult gender where a lesser actor might also strip him of complications.
Another aspect of this particular genderlessness is that it underscores Wonka’s obsessions and his casual cruelties. We all “know” that a fascination with candy is childish, that adults are supposed to care about mortgages and fiscal years, not chocolate rivers and production lines of squirrels cracking nuts. Similarly, we “know” that adults are supposed to be concerned with consequences. An adult might be willing to participate in turning a child into a blueberry, but he would be expected to feel something about his actions: denial, defensiveness, guilt. Wonka is carefree, and Depp and Burton chose to represent that in the character’s gender as well as in his behavior.
“Chocolate” seems as good a name as any for this child-gender-in-adult pattern: no definitive gender choices in dress and appearance (make-up and jewelry balanced by presentation and stance); childlike interests and childlike values.
Even in Dahl’s simple, stereotypical fiction, not all children are like Willy. While all the other children on the tour are selfish or short-sighted in one way or another, Dahl’s Charlie (and Burton’s) is a sweet boy from a poor but loving family. The presentation of simplicity, common decency, and family love as important values was so common as to be almost boring for more than 100 years, but in the last forty it has almost disappeared from contemporary fiction. These values, along with the belief that poverty neither damages nor is shameful, make Charlie seem like a throwback to an earlier time. He lives in an extended family situation, his parents and grandparents all love him, and it’s well established at the beginning of the movie that his family is more important to him than his dreams.
This particular Willy Wonka, unlike previous ones, is provided with a known and formative childhood, nothing like young Charlie’s. (We’ll save the details in case you haven’t yet seen the movie.) Because of his history, and his obsessive focus on himself and his factory, he has no understanding whatsoever of what drives Charlie.
It’s almost inevitable to compare this story to The Wizard of Oz, though the differences are significant. Dahl’s children’s quests are different from most fairy-tale quests because they take family members along: in almost every other example of the genre, children are separated from their family at the very beginning.
While the fake Wizard of Oz gives the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion the awareness of gifts which they already had but didn’t believe in, Augustus, Veruca, Violet, and Mike get real come-uppances from the real wizard. We are also given to believe that they lose the faux devotion of their parents, who are all portrayed as unhappy with the altered children who leave the factory. Maybe they went to see the wrong wizard.
In the end, however, the Wizard of Oz is revealed and gets the chance to take Dorothy home, while Willy is welcomed into the real warmth of Charlie’s family. It’s no accident that the ending of this version of Charlie shows Willy and Charlie in the Bucket household, and not running the factory together.
We’ll post more about Dahl, fairy tales, stereotypes, and incompleteness, bringing body image back into the discussion, later this week.