Sarah Rees Brennan pointed me to this article about Gone with the Wind by Elizabeth Meryment. It annoyed me. So prepare yourself for a rant. Basically Meryment argues that all criticism of Gone with the Wind (book and film) over the last few decades has been dreadfully unfair, especially from feminists, and why can’t we all just enjoy such a women-centric book with its array of fabulous strong female characters. Now, I happen to agree that Gone with the Wind features many wonderful strong women. However, that being true does not contradict any of the criticisms made of both book and film.
Why do people find it so hard to love something and accept that it’s flawed?
Gone with the Wind is at once a tale of strong women and appallingly racist. Just as there were women who campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Being a feminist does not mean you can’t be racist. Alas.
When I was wee I read the book multiple times and saw the movie almost as often. To this day I can quote the novel’s opening lines: “Scarlett OHara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (No, I didn’t have to google that.) Until my discovery of Flowers in the Attic1 there was no book I loved more than Gone with the Wind. I haven’t re-read it in more than a decade but I still know it better than any book other than Pride and Prejudice. I’m in a good position to unpick Meryment’s claims:
Scarlett O’Hara [is] a woman of substance. No cowering southern belle, here is a woman who is resourceful and resilient and does what she must to survive.
Yet critics and academics, in the seven decades since the film’s release, have been almost unanimous, and disapproving: Scarlett is no feminist but a damsel in distress who relies on feminine charms to get her way. She steals other women’s men, has an insatiable lust for Melanie’s dreary husband Ashley Wilkes and suffers from a chronic flirting problem. Worst of all, she allows Rhett to ravish her during a night of passion that she finds rather enjoyable.
Here’s the thing, all the above is true. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of substance but throughout the course of the book she also relies on her feminine charms to get her way and has flirts with pretty much everyone who’s male and white. She is a multiple stealer of other women’s men—including her own sister’s—she does have an insatiable lust (which she confuses with true love) for the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, and she does get ravished by Rhett in an extremely scary scene which (in the movie) cuts to her smiling and happy in the morning.2
As Meryment points out Scarlett O’Hara’s story begins when she’s sixteen and ends when she’s twenty-eight. During that time she lives through a war, sees many people she cares about die, loses two husbands, has three children, and goes from being a simpering southern belle to a shrewd business woman.
“Scarlett is a survivor,” says Toni Johnson-Woods, a professor of popular culture at the University of Queensland. “She’s the sort of person who would cut up the curtains to make a dress. She gets dirty. She works. She doesn’t actually do anything bad. She’s manipulative, but what person isn’t when they have to be?”
Johnson-Woods seems not to have read the same book I did. [Scarlett] doesn’t actually do anything bad. What now? Let’s leave aside all the lying and those two stolen husbands. I mean India Wilkes and Scarlett’s own sister, Suellen, clearly had it coming. Wanna keep your man? Then hold on to him tighter. Let’s put aside Scarlett’s multiple attempts to commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes.3 And let’s forget that Scarlett saw nothing wrong with slavery. She was sixteen when the war started and brought up to believe in such an evil system. But how about her using slave labour after the war is over in the form of convicts to work her saw mill and allowing her manager to beat them half to death? How’s that for an actually bad thing?
Now I happen to think that Scarlett O’Hara’s ethical impairment and selfishness is part of what makes her such a dynamic and believable literary creation. She lies, she cheats, she does pretty much whatever it takes to survive and save herself, her family and her land. But you don’t have to pretend that she never does anything bad to find her complex and three-dimensional. Many of my favourite literary creations—Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Highsmith’s Ripley, pretty much any character ever written by Jim Thompson—do many bad bad things. I don’t need to pretend that they’re good in order to enjoy reading about them.
Scarlett has many good qualities but she has plenty of bad ones too. Frankly I would not want her for a friend because she’s one of those women who only notices men. She doesn’t even realise what an amazing friend Melanie has been to her until Melanie’s on her death bed. Scarlett is not BFF material. And she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t care whether women get to vote or not, she doesn’t care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. She has no political consciousness at all.
Film critics also have been circumspect about Scarlett’s place as a feminist symbol, as well as horrified, in more enlightened times, by the glorification of the slave life on the southern plantations. As The Australian’s film critic Evan Williams noted in a 1981 review, published at the time of a re-release: “The film’s attitude to blacks (referred to constantly as ‘darkies’), to say nothing of its attitude to women, would scarcely find favour today. Slavery was glossed over; male authority taken for granted.”
Yet, for all its perceived flaws, the film and the novel are deeply loved, and remain the top-selling novel of all time (more than 30 million sales worldwide) and the highest grossing movie ($1,450,680,400 in box-office takings, adjusted for inflation). Now, in the US, where hardcore feminism has been decried for more than a decade, new perspectives about the film are emerging.
Evan Williams is spot on. Pointing out the film’s popularity does not change that. Lots of racist and sexist novels and films are deeply loved and do incredibly well. Success does not render a book or movie free of flaws.
Meryment writes “perceived flaws” as if to imply that Williams and other people who have criticised Gone with the Wind‘s racism are just imagining it. We’re not. None of the black characters in the book are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters. None of them have lives or dreams or aspirations outside of O’Hara and her family. They live in order to serve their masters. Before and after the Civil War. The book and the film are caught up in a poisonously romantic view of slavery wherein the slaves were happy to be slaves, were miserable when the South lost the war, and just wished their masters would keep looking after them. It’s only the bad negroes who make trouble. (The book and film’s language, not mine.)
In Gone with the Wind the Klu Klux Klan are the good guys.
Yeah, right, we’re imagining the racism.
Why just look at the character of Mammy, says Meryment, she’s a strong character! That proves the book isn’t racist:
Of all the strong females, perhaps Mammy is the most galling for ardent critics of the film. Black, enslaved and conforming to 1930s stereotype of the loyal, usually overweight, woman who offered cheerful servitude to her owners, McDaniel’s Mammy is nevertheless a complex and confronting creation. Indomitable and opinionated, she largely does as she likes, whether her masters like it or not. (“I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is,” she tells Scarlett at one point.)
Mammy is every bit the stereotype. With no life other than to look after Scarlett, which the quote above proves. The reason she’s disobeying Scarlett is in order to look after her. Not to do something for herself like find her own kin. The only reason so many argue that Mammy breaks with the stereotype is because Hattie McDaniel was a wonderful actor, who transcended the extremely limited and belittling role. There’s no such respite from the stereotype in the book. (Don’t get me started on the character of Prissy.)
To echo Meryment’s language, it is galling that a book first published in 1936, when the civil rights movement in the USA was already underway, and turned into a movie in 1939—the year that Billie Holiday first performed and recorded “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South—could be so astonishingly blind to the evil that is slavery. That it could spend a gazillion pages and hours glorifying a system that was built on the kidnapping and enforced labour of hundreds of thousands of people appalls me. The glorious south that Margaret Mitchell is so nostalgic for was built out of exploitation, murder, and rape. But it’s even more galling that here in 2009 there are still people trying to pretend that Gone with the Wind isn’t profoundly racist so they can enjoy all its other aspects.
Yes, Gone with the Wind is an amazing book and film.4 Yes, it’s the tale of two extraordinarily strong women, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes, and their enduring friendship5. For many years I loved it. Feel free to continue loving it, but please don’t pretend that us critics are being unfair, or in some way misreading Gone with the Wind when we call it on its nostalgic longing for an era in which the white upper classes lived decadent useless lives dependent on the blood of black people.
- I was twelve! [↩]
- It freaked me out as a kid—he says he’s going to crush her skull like a walnut!—it still freaks me out. [↩]
- Let’s even forget that wanting him is a crime against good taste. [↩]
- It’s stood the test of time way better than Flowers in the Attic. [↩]
- Even while Scarlett doesn’t realise they’re friends. Another flaw of hers: not very observant. [↩]