In the final episode of the CBS sitcom Designing Women, the show’s Southern Belles imagined themselves as Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Each character inserted herself in a fantasy sequence where Scarlett meet the dashing Rhett Butler. The women rhapsodized about Scarlett’s heroism and spunk. Then the only black character on the show – Anthony Bouvier (Mesach Taylor) comes in, and when asked about his reaction to Gone with the Wind, he shares ambivalence.
I remember watching the show with an imaginary question mark floating above my head in a cartoon bubble. I was wondering what was the pull of Scarlett O’Hara and Gone with the Wind. I’ve seen the film before – years ago. When I was a kid I used to watch the film with my grandmother on basic cable. With the commercials, the movie was so long we at breakfast and lunch before Scarlett tearfully insisted that tomorrow is another day. But I haven’t seriously watched it in a few years.
Well, I watched Gone with the Wind the other day – in fact, it took me two days to finish the film – its four hour length makes it difficult to watch in one sitting. I have to say that it was a lot more engaging than I remembered. I understood the nostalgia for the film – one of the best made in Hollywood history.
But I watched the film after years of literary criticism and film studies classes, so I cannot just watch a film anymore. The obviously troubling racial and sexual politics seem blasted on the screen – blaring like the horns of a royal fanfare. Thinking back to Anthony’s distaste for the film on Designing Women, I understood his concerns completely.
Gone with the Wind, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell, is the story of Scarlett (Viven Leigh), a beautiful Southern girl who lives in the luxurious plantation home Tara with her doting father, Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell) and her two silly sisters Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford). Scarlett’s in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is engaged to be married to the virtuous Melanie Hamilton (Olivia deHavilland). Her advances, while well-received are ultimately rejected, but she catches the eye of the rakish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a rebellious war profiteer who pursues her because he recognizes how alike they are; the backdrop of all these events is the Civil War.
So, there’s a lot that’s going on with the characters – especially with Scarlett. As played by Leigh, Scarlett is at turns, tempestuous, charming, vile, selfish, brave, cowardly. She’s a classic flirt, but has a dangerous single-mindedness which contributes to her downfall, as well as the downfall of the characters around her. These contradictions are what make Scarlett such a fascinating character.
In the classic anti-heroine of literature, Scarlett’s bad temper and terrible behavior inform much of her appeal. She’s not likable and because the film’s very faithful to the novel, she hasn’t been defanged or smoothed out for audiences. Her whole life and existence is focused on catching one man – Ashley Wilkes. Being a privileged, young woman in the middle of the 1800s, her education is severely limited, and what ever interests she has, they can be boiled down to nabbing Ashley and living a life of luxury. She is seemingly proud of her ignorance of politics and literature (when overhearing Melanie and Ashley discuss Thackeray and Dickens, she’s relieved at dull she believes there conversations to be) and cares very little about what is happening to the world outside her social circle.
To some, this may betray a kind of misogyny or sexism. And there are problems with Scarlett’s characterization – she’s definitely not an intellectual, even if she’s rather wily. But as the film progresses and Scarlett begins to collect husbands and stars to build an empire of her own, she’s found a different calling in life. As the proprietress of a mill, she finds herself to be naturally suited to running affairs as well as a natural affinity for math and figures. This doesn’t mean that Scarlett suddenly becomes a business woman, eschewing all forms of frippery and feminine wiles – she still manages to hold on to those values, but they run parallel to her lazer-like focus on stealing Ashley away from Melanie.
But there are other moments that bring about tension with modern audiences – most notably, the instances of marital rape – a dangerously ambiguous topic even today. There are two major problems with the sequence – first, of course is the way the rape is presented – it’s not seen as a violation. Instead, we’re meant to look at the sequence as exciting, titillating, maybe. And if we are to doubt just how awful it was that Rhett raped Scarlett in anger, we meet her in the next sequence, smiling slyly and humming to herself. She giggles and looks positively satisfied with her lot. To her the rape was exciting and not an act of violence. I found the sequence disturbing and waited in dread for it to finally come.
Gone with the Wind has a standard dichotomy when approaching the female ideals – we have Scarlett on one hand – scheming, sly-eyed Scarlett who does what she can to get ahead. On the other hand, we have the virginal Melanie Wilkes. Melanie, unlike Scarlett, doesn’t look at life as a game to get ahead; instead, she approaches each situation, trying to make the best of it and she always searches for the best in people. The fact that she loves Scarlett so unabashedly proves that she can find virtue in anyone. She’s angelic and doesn’t have the selfish impulses that Scarlett has; in fact, because she’s so unwavering in her naive thinking, she comes off as a simpleton and a cipher – too kind, but maybe too dumb to see the truth.
Adding to the disturbing imagery of white women in Gone with the Wind, we also must look at Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), the two slaves owned by the O’Haras. These two women occupy different spaces than Melanie and Scarlett – the white women operate in a patriarchal society, but because of Southern gentility, paired with white privilege, they assert a control over the black characters in the film.
As the main house maid of the house, assigned to take care of Mrs. O’Hara, Mammy also maintains a position of some privilege - though it severely restricted because as much as she likes to fuss and bark orders at Scarlett, there is an understanding that Scarlett and her family own Mammy, and treat her with familial deference due to societal pressures that dictated that the best families of the South must treat their slaves with firm fairness. Gerald O’Hara repeatedly reminds his daughters of treating the slaves with kindness. Viewers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that there is genuine sense of fairness in this behavior - instead there’s a paternalism in play – Gerald O’Hara feels that he’s the kind squire of a kingdom.
But Mammy at least is allowed to create some semblance of autonomy – Prissy, the only other major black female character in the film has none. Not only that, but she is written with some of the most appalling stereotypes of the shiftless, dimwitted, flighty pickaninny ever seen on screen. Prissy is wiry and high strung, and shouts her lines in an airy whiny cry. In her most iconic scene, she’s struck by Scarlett for lying about being able to deliver babies, simpering that she doesn’t know “nuthin’ bout birthin’ babies.” And when she’s given the task of getting help for a sick Melanie, she strolls back home, sauntering and singing to herself, either too stupid or too callous to care.
But seeing the black characters in troublesome characterizations should not come as a surprise. There is a definite attempt by the film to reassemble how we look at slavery and the Civil War. In the book, Mitchell goes to great lengths to portray the black characters as either incredibly inept and dense, or unfailingly loyal to their masters, not interested in all in their freedom. Of course, the slaves in the world of Gone with the Wind are treated remarkably well, considering that in reality, slaves were beaten, killed, raped, and cruelly separated from their families through the slave trade. In the genteel world of Gone with the Wind, Mammy can huff and puff and admonish Scarlett for not being lady-like, and not suffer any consequence. And Prissy’s infraction would undoubtedly warrant more than just a slap across the face. Also in Mitchell’s writing, Scarlett has a weary attitude toward the oncoming abolishionism, thinking ruefully on more than one occasion that if the Northerners were so keen on freeing the slaves, they were welcome to them.
As head-scratchingly awful as women are presented in the film, there are moments when we admire Scarlett, despite her flaws. Once the war commences and the Yankees invade and later burn Atlanta then subsequently raze the land on Tara, Scarlett is recast as the head of her household. Her mother dies of typhoid and her father loses his mind and no longer can act as patriarch. Her other sisters, never intellectual heavyweights to begin with, cannot contribute to the salvation of Tara – so it’s up to Scarlett. In the novel, Scarlett perversely enjoys becoming the hardened, tyrannical landlady. In the film, however, we are to understand that Scarlett has no other choice – if she wants to save Tara, her sisters and Melanie, she has to take on the role as the head of Tara.
Going back to Designing Women, when Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke), the show’s beautiful, but self-centered comic foil, proves to be more than just a pretty face, she’s constantly compared to Scarlett. When Scarlett fashions a gown out of green velvet curtains to meet with Rhett Butler, the audience is expected to applaud and raise in a standing ovation. The scene is very important and key to the film’s success - in fact, it’s so singular, that Carol Burnett parodied it memorably on her 1970s variety show. But the importance of the scene defines why we go back to Scarlett, despite her trying our collective patience: in spite of all the knocks she takes on the chin, she still keeps on going, and there’s something admirable in that.
So did I like Gone with the Wind? I did. I know it’s sentimental junk - historical revisionism at its worst. It’s a movie where the Southerners are the brave victims, and the Northerners are the villains. We’re meant to look at the stylized, extravagant solicitousness of the society as something to strive for, despite the disenfranchisement of women and blacks.