Chocolate Gender and Sweet Families

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.

3 thoughts on “Chocolate Gender and Sweet Families

  1. Has Johnny Depp ever not played with gender roles and expectations in his movies?

    (wow, I just checked his filmography – who knew he was in “Nightmare on Elm Street” #6? Not moi …)

    In any case, the only thing the Wizard of Oz could have given those parents was a clue … ;-)

  2. Just saw the movie last night and really enjoyed it. I could have done without four of the last five minutes, though: the final dinner-table scene was lovely, but the whole business with Wonka and his father was just too cliched and saccharine. (Matt suggested that the only reason for the whole backstory with the father, which is not even hinted at in the book, was that they had Christopher Lee and didn’t want to let him go to waste.)

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pretty much the only Dahl I can stand — the other books of his I’ve read are just too cruel, digusted, and disgusting for me. Even Charlie I have various misgivings about — presumably you’ll be talking more in later posts about what the four other kids are punished for. Also, something that a friend pointed out to me a few years ago has really stuck with me: Charlie is essentially rewarded for being passive. This is most striking when he and Mike Teevee are the only kids left. Mike Teevee is actually asking some pretty good questions, and this is somehow supposed to illustrate his soullessness and lack of imagination; in the movie they made Mike Teevee quite a bit more obnoxious — he’s not just asking questions, he’s being rude, imperious, and insulting. In the book, Charlie is the “good” kid because he unquestioningly accepts everything Wonka tells him. Wonka actually says to him that he wanted to give the factory to a child because an adult would have his own ideas about how to run things, whereas a child would do things the way Wonka would want them done. In the movie, bringing in the theme of family love at the end provides another (in my opinion better) reason for Charlie to be rewarded. So morally I find the movie somewhat more palatable than the book. And gosh, that little boy is good.

    As for Depp’s earlier roles, there’ s a lovely visual reference to Edward Scissorhands in the ribbon-cutting scene….

  3. We seem to be starting a longer conversation about fairy tales.

    Your comments about Charlie’s passivity made me think.

    It has me thinking about those fairy tale characters who are rewarded for passivity. I guess Sleeping Beauty is the ultimate example.

    Is it passivity? Is it “worthiness”? It’s all interesting.

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