Can You Defy Gravity?

What Wicked tells us about radical transformation

Posted Jan 04, 2012

Let's think of it this way. The Wizard of Oz is essentially about a journey of discovering what you already have. By facing their fears, Dorothy and her three comarades came to find that they already had what they thought they lacked—home, brains, heart, and courage. Like the journey of psychoanalysis, the journey of life is about getting to know, accept, and work with the person that you already are. Indeed, this is a kind of change in itself. But the emphasis is on putting one step in front of the other as you follow the path that is laid out before you. Follow the yellow brick road, if you will.

On the other hand, Wicked explores the polar opposite yet complementary aspect of the change process: challenging the limits. We see this climax at the end of the first act with the outrageously awesome song, Defying Gravity, sung mostly by Elphaba, the central character of the story. This is a point of radical transformation for her, as she has an awakening that leads her to embrace her identity as the so-called Wicked Witch. She realizes that she can't just go along and can't just follow the path that has been laid out for her. Even though her heart has been set on pleasing and supporting the Wizard, she now sees that he is corrupt and that she must overthrow him. She sees that she must challenge the status quo, even if it means being misunderstood, losing love, and losing her dream. Elphaba is willing to be wrongly perceived as wicked when she is—it could be argued—more good at her core than Glinda-the-Good herself.

Here's a little taste of the lyrics, sung by Elphaba:

I'm through accepting limits
‘cause someone says they're so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know!
Too long I've been afraid of
Losing love I guess I've lost
Well, if that's love It comes at much too high a cost!
I'd sooner buy
Defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye
I'm defying gravity
And you can't pull me down.

This is a very powerful message, sending shivers down my spine as Elphaba took off in flight for the first time. It gave me a lot to think about. In order to move forward, Elphaba had to believe that she could defy gravity. She does this through magic, in the concrete experience of learning to fly and in the metaphorical experience of believing she is unlimited. This manic boost—as I might call it in psychoanalysis-speak—helps her to face her fears and to accomplish what everyone believed was impossible.

The good news, as revealed in the second act, is that Elphaba was able to bring about radical change in Oz, to set to right what was wrong, and to usher in a time of true goodness with Glinda's oversight. What is so profound from a psychoanalytic standpoint is that she does this by maintaining a crucial balance between defying gravity and sadly accepting that she is limited. She must bear what is most difficult for us human beings to bear; she must tolerate being misunderstood.

These are just a few of my musings; others may have a different take on the meaning of the story. But it really got me thinking about the courage it takes to change. Change often involves defying gravity in the sense that it can be an uphill battle. We must swim upstream, cut against the grain, take the narrow way as opposed to the easy way.

I admire Elphaba's dedication to finding and following her own North Star, for learning how to fly.

Copyright 2012, Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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