The character of Nessarose comes from the musical Wicked, a retelling of the Wizard of Oz (in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of it). She’s a minor character, the younger sister of the main character Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West). She ends up as the ruby slipper-wearing Wicked Witch of the East that Dorothy crushes with her house when she lands in Munchkinland. I love Nessarose because she is such a strong, powerful, tenacious character who is mistreated by everyone close to her, despite coming from a background of wealth and privilege. Unlike Elphaba, she’s not the loud, rebellious sister that viewers are encouraged to see as the badass hero. She’s the quieter sister who tries to follow the rules and do the right thing until she can’t anymore, and receives no positive recognition for her effort. Nessa keeps going and does her duty despite losing the rest of her family and being taught she’s weak. She tries to find and hold onto love even though she’s been told she’s not worthy of it for her entire life. She may not go about it in the best of ways, but she’s using the methods she was taught by those around her.
As a child, she was taught by her father that her physical body was deformed, ugly and useless, that her only worth was her ability to work and serve her people as her father’s successor. Sure, her face is tragically beautiful, but that’s just enough make people pity her. They never require much from her or ask her what she wants for herself or her life. She’s taught that she’s helpless from birth. It never occurs to her that she isn’t. Her father over-loved her, smothering her, crippling her literally and figuratively before she was even born. Nessa is so taken care of and underestimated that she doesn’t think to even try to use her power, magical or otherwise, rebel, or veer from the path others choose for her.
But in reality, Nessarose is just as powerful and talented as Elphaba, and just as strong willed. Nessa casts her spell on Boq on the first try, translating the spell book on her own, just like Elphaba had with the spell to create flying monkeys’ wings. Elphaba’s magic was triggered early and often as a child by her temper and the frequent slights she suffered, despite the family’s obvious disapproval of her use of her magic. Nessa, on the other hand, was coddled and taught to suppress her power, to be the good sister. She may not have been told outright to avoid exploring her own magical potential, but watching her father’s treatment of Elphaba would have gotten the message across loud and clear. But once Nessa finds something she wants to fight for, she fights.
Nessa’s father uses her physical condition as an excuse to keep her close, tied to him and dependent in a way he couldn’t keep her more independent mother (and he didn’t want to keep Elphie). Nessa is taught that to love someone is to dictate their actions and feelings, keep them in a chair, try to determine who they are and will be, even if if cripples them, even if it turns them into a tin man. Her disability and her mother’s death stem from the extreme lengths her father went to in order to control the outcome of her mother’s 2nd pregnancy, to avoid having another Elphaba. Eventually she takes on her father’s controlling fear of losing her mother again as her own, takes on his role in the community, but takes it to a hyper extreme because that’s all she’s been taught her whole life, and Boq and the Munchkins pay the price.
When the girls get to school, Nessarose is supposed to be the special one, living with Morrible and being taken care of by her, then she’s cast aside for Elphaba, so now her damage isn’t even enough to make her important anymore. So, feeling alone, abandoned, overlooked, and worthless, she latches onto Boq and holds on tight, just as her father taught her to do. How could anyone expect her to do anything else? He is her one shot at love, and she’s going to use every tool at her disposal to keep him. She’s a strong, intelligent woman with political power, so she has a lot of tools at her disposal, sadly enough for Boq and the Munchkins. My point here isn’t that what Nessarose does is acceptable. It’s that she’s doing what she was taught to do by her father, and her actions are understandable. She’s a formidable woman navigating painful circumstances. She’s in love with someone who’s led her on and lied to her, but she never gives up hope that she can change his mind.
Nessa Rose ends up shifting the blame for Boq’s transformation to Elphaba, just as her father had blamed Elphaba for the difficulties with Nessa Rose’s birth. Elphaba isn’t blameless in the sisters’ relationship either, though. She ignores Nessa much of the time, to the point where she didn’t even know their father had died, and only shows up when she wants something from Nessa. Elphie then heartlessly tosses aside any feelings Nessa might have and expects Nessa to do what she needs immediately, while the narrative tries to convince us that Elphie is the one in the right and Nessa is being selfish. Even though he was very flawed, their father still raised both girls, and when he died he left Nessa alone with the burden of running Munchkinland, without anyone she knew she could trust, in a time when the Wizard has spies everywhere. Elphie is wildly insensitive to Nessa’s feelings and experiences, only seeing her own problems, as usual. Wicked is very good at looking at the story from Elphie’s point of view in order to humanize the Wicked Witch of the West, but not so much the Wicked Witch of the East.
We are asked to see Nessa wanting Elphie to give her the ability to walk as selfish, but is it? Is it really? She is a young woman who is trying run a country all alone, without family or a significant other that she can trust during difficult times. Is it really so much to ask her sister to give her the same consideration that she gave the freakin’ monkeys, as far as Nessarose can tell? How long does it take Elphaba, 2 minutes?
By the time Nessarose finally rebels, it’s against the wrong people, so it seems like an overreaction. Elphaba and Boq are the 2 people who have hurt Nessa the least, and Nessa has already paid Boq back for his slights. With their father dead, and Glinda and Morrible far away in the Emerald City, Elphaba and Boq are the only ones left in Nessa’s orbit to lash out at, so they end up with her lifetime of pent up anger and hurt. She’s a woman scorned, and all of that energy needs to go somewhere.
Once Nessarose gains her own power and independence, symbolized by the ruby slippers and ability to use magic, the author tosses her aside, immediately arranging her murder. No longer the damaged girl, nothing more than tragically beautiful and pitied by the truly beautiful, pop-u-lar, good girl, and fiercely loved by her independent heroic sister, she’s summarily dismissed halfway through the 2nd act, little more than a plot device in Glinda and Elphaba’s story at that point. Because she was told she was damaged and limited her whole life, and she believed it, Nessa lost the chance to be the hero in her own story. We never get to see what she might have become once she accepted her own power, once she realized she was Elphaba’s true equal and didn’t have to live in anyone’s shadow, begging for scraps of love.
Alternatively, we never get to see just how wicked she might have become, and how much vengeance she might have needed after a lifetime of being told that she wasn’t enough as she was, after so many years of the mixed messages the disabled live with, starting in childhood: You can do anything. Look at all of these stars, athletes, doctors, lawyers and other successful people with the same disability as you. Except you also need to be taken care of and protected much more than the other children. You are so much more fragile than the other children. Be careful. Be careful. Be careful…
I want to know who Nessa could have been, had she been allowed to truly come into her own. What if Glinda and Boq hadn’t toyed with her and manipulated her for their own selfish reasons? What if Morrible had given her the chance to show that her magic was just as strong as Elphaba’s, instead of casting her aside in favor of her able-bodied sister as soon as Elphaba’s magic became apparent, making it clear that Morrible only valued Nessa for her role as the Governor’s daughter? What if her father had accepted Elphaba and hadn’t tried to control her mother’s pregnancy? What if Glinda hadn’t once again carelessly used Nessa to further her own schemes, and Nessa had been allowed to live?
Wicked, as written, is the story of Elphaba and Glinda, so there’s no room for Nessarose to grow or have a happy ending. I would dearly love to see a version of the story that makes those legs sticking out from under Dorothy’s house fake, though, and let Nessarose and Elphaba fly off into the sunset on their broomsticks together to form a resistance movement with Fiyero in the next country over. It’s already there in the story. Real legs do not curl and shrivel up just because someone steals their owner’s favorite pair of shoes, no matter how nice they are. How about we finish the story properly, with Nessa outsmarting Glinda’s machinations and betrayals like the equal to Elphaba that she is?