Posted by Susan Doll on September 22, 2014
On Sunday, September 28, and Wednesday, October 1, a remastered version of Gone With the Wind will be exhibited in select theaters across the country in a special screening presented by Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies, and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. There are two showings each day, 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. The occasion honors the 75th anniversary of Hollywood’s most famous movie—an icon of the Dream Factory, a monument to the production values of the studio system. Check here to see if GWTW is playing near you.
Much has been made of the behind-the-scenes struggles that defined GWTW’s production, which were revealed in the 1988 documentary Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind. Subsequent books have expounded on the problems surrounding the beleaguered production, detailing everything from the headaches over the multiple versions of the script to the mammoth search for an actress to play Scarlett. I sometimes think that the lore surrounding the film has overshadowed the magnificence of Scarlett O’Hara. Or, perhaps aspects of Scarlett are just not politically correct by today’s standards, so it is easier to focus on the behind-the-scenes casting than the on-screen character. As a screen heroine, Scarlett has been admired, applauded, condemned, ridiculed, and reclaimed for new generations of viewers. The word “icon” is tossed around too often as a synonym for fame or legend, but Scarlett truly is an icon of pop culture—a symbol who has evolved and developed over time to represent something more than just a character in a book and movie.
Any discussion of Scarlett cannot omit the cold hard fact that her beloved Tara is a slave-owning enterprise for half the film and that the black characters are rendered in the broad brushstrokes of stereotyping that were a convention of classic-era Hollywood. For some, that is a difficult part of Scarlett’s world to overlook. African American novelist Tina McElroy Ansa (The Hand I Fan With; You Know Better) rightly notes that as a character of the Old South, Scarlett O’Hara is rooted in an assumption of racial superiority. Long after the plantations have eroded and rotted, America still lives with racism spawned from these views. To some—black and white—Scarlett not only represents the plantation world but the views that sustained it. The depiction of the black characters in the film, in which the actors are forced to speak in that exaggerated dialect of minstrel shows and vaudeville, reinforces derogatory views of African Americans. No matter that this was typical for Hollywood films of the Golden Age, it should not be ignored or rationalized.
Another negative view of Scarlett was held by the first generation of modern feminists during the 1960s and 1970s. Film critic Molly Haskell, who interprets and defends Scarlett O’Hara in her book Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited, recalls being on a panel with Gloria Steinem, among others, in 1972. This generation of feminists loathed the character of Scarlett O’Hara because she used her appearance and feminine wiles to lure and trap men. Miss Scarlett readily adopted a false, flirty persona to conform to male views of how women should act. She also pretended to be “daddy’s little girl” or a damsel in distress to get what she wanted. Steinem was particularly disturbed by the scene in which Scarlett struggles as Mammy squeezes her into a corset that will assure her a 17-inch waist—a convention for beauty at the time. Steinem’s perspective is understandable: In a perfect world, a woman’s appearance should not be a measure of her worth; nor should she have to adopt a false persona to achieve a goal.
In a 1936 interview, recounted in a 2009 New York Times article, Margaret Mitchell explained her opinion of her creation: Scarlett O’Hara is a survivor. Mitchell commented, “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave go under? . . . What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under?” Scarlett the survivor is one of two aspects of her character that appeals to her admirers. She survives because she surveys the situation and then does what is necessary to get through it, from burying the body of a predatory Yankee in the garden at Tara to ripping down the velvet drapes to make a new dress. The latter was not out of vanity but to impress someone into lending her money to pay the taxes at Tara. The drapes-into-dress scene was hilariously spoofed in a famous skit on The Carol Burnett Show, which makes the original difficult to watch without chuckling, but it is a marker of Scarlett’s ability to overcome obstacles and move forward. Unlike many of the Southerners in the film, Scarlett does not wallow in her privileged past of barbeques and balls; she assesses her options and creates opportunities, often walking over others in the process.
Another aspect of Scarlett O’Hara that fans find admirable is her success in the male world of business. She marries her sister’s beau in order to get access to his store and his capital. She takes advantage of the rebuilding during Reconstruction to expand her operation into the lumber business. She becomes wealthy again not through old-world agrarianism but via new-era business opportunities. As an entrepreneur, she is frowned on by those in her milieu, because this is not proper behavior for a woman. And, not unlike her male counterparts in the arena of business, she sacrifices the safety and happiness of others on the way up the ladder of success: She marries her sister’s fiancé, feels little remorse when that husband is killed, and steps on the toes of others. She also tempts the very married Ashley Wilkes into running away. Ashley being the husband of the sainted Melanie.
I believe that this part of Scarlett’s character—ignoring proper feminine behavior—works hand in hand with the scenes in which she creates a false persona of femininity to get what she wants. I think Steinem, feminists, and some academic scholars miss the point because they take these latter scenes at face value. By putting on the masks of accepted feminine behavior—the beautiful flirt, daddy’s little girl, the helpless woman—the character of Scarlett not only exposes these behaviors as false but also reveals why women do it. In this world, women had to adopt, accept, or understand these personas in order to get ahead, or even get by. I dare say in many circumstances women still deal with male expectations and prejudices by putting on masks of some sort. Later in the film, when Scarlett acts her true self and defies the conventions of proper female behavior, she suffers social ostracizing and other consequences, but she is too rich for anyone to do anything about it. I think that is what some women viewers still find relevant and relatable about Scarlett O’Hara—she not only survives whatever circumstances are thrown her way but she can do what is necessary to navigate in a man’s world.
The very reasons why women gravitate toward Scarlett are the same reasons why (some) men do not like her. Men tend to denounce the ways she wraps men around her finger as manipulative, even “evil,” and they decry her “bitchy” tactics in business. Admittedly, I lack the kind of research to support this statement compared to the other views of Scarlett in this post. My comment comes as the result of personal discussions with significant others and male friends as well as anecdotal evidence from other women. Also, various blogs by women writing about Scarlett often report on their husbands’ disapproval of the character. I am sure there are male viewers who admire Scarlett; feel free to come forward and reveal why you like her.
Ultimately, my point is that Scarlett O’Hara is a female character conceived by a woman who not only understood all shadings of female behavior but also knew what it was like to live in a man’s world. I believe that this is what women viewers find relatable and understandable. It may be an uncomfortable idea for academics or culture historians, but it will bring many women to the theaters next week. As for me, I prefer Scarlett to the action heroines purported to be good role models because they can punch and fight their way through plots just like their male counterparts. In other words, their feminine characteristics have been drained and replaced by a male version of admirable qualities (aggression over negotiation; fighting skills as a measure of worth; sarcasm over sincerity; bonding through competition). Frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn about those characters.
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