The Many Faces of Scarlett O’Hara

goneopenerOn 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.

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TO SOME, SCARLETT REPRESENTS THE PLANTATION SOUTH AND ITS SYSTEMIC RACIAL SUPERIORITY.

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.

SCARLETT CRIES IN A PLOY TO GET MONEY FROM RHETT BUTLER.

SCARLETT CRIES IN A PLOY TO GET MONEY FROM RHETT BUTLER.

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.

SCARLET PREPARES TO SHOOT A YANKEE.

SCARLET PREPARES TO SHOOT A YANKEE.

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.

FROM DRAPES TO DRESS

FROM DRAPES TO DRESS

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.

SCARLETT DEFIES SOCIAL CONVENTION AND PROPER BEHAVIOR  BY DANCING WHILE IN MOURNING.

SCARLETT DEFIES SOCIAL CONVENTION AND PROPER BEHAVIOR BY DANCING WHILE IN MOURNING.

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.

SCARLET THE BUSINESS TYCOON

SCARLET THE BUSINESS TYCOON

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.

12 Responses The Many Faces of Scarlett O’Hara
Posted By Carol Monroe : September 22, 2014 9:27 pm

The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin is currently hosting an exhibit on the making of GWTW. It includes the green velvet drapery dress, plus footage of hours of screen tests from some of Hollywood’s finest. Worth a look, if you are in the area.

Posted By Doug : September 22, 2014 11:38 pm

Still haven’t seen GWTW-I think I must be in the minority here at Morlocks. I don’t have an answer as to why I haven’t yet watched it.
“Cold Mountain” has a scene where Nicole Kidman as a Scarlett-type
daughter of a slave holding Minister…serves their slaves root beer. Fiction doesn’t always mirror real life-I can’t help but think that the scene was added to ‘tone down’ the racism and humanize her character who felt fully justified in owning slaves.
“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.”
I have to add a ‘yeah, but’.
‘Yeah, but in this image conscious world of 2014 there are few
‘below average’ looking movie stars. Now, as then, beauty does have value. If Jennifer Lawrence looked like Phillis Diller, she couldn’t open movies or demand and receive millions of dollars per film. I guess that this proves that we live in an imperfect world.

Posted By Dale Call : September 23, 2014 1:55 am

My mother was born in 1939 and GWTW is her all-time favorite movie. AND…everything you have discussed about Scarlett O’Hara is the reason why she loves the character and why the movie means something to her. The wording is a bit different but I just heard her saying virtually the same thing two days ago!

It may be the fact that I grew up hearing so much about GWTW that I too have never seen the movie. My mother doesn’t around very well any more, but I think I’ll see if she feels up to venturing out to see it one more time on the big screen.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 23, 2014 3:11 am

Dale: That is a great idea to take your Mom to see GWTW. One of the things about the movies that goes beyond the scope of scholarly discussion and makes them an important part of our culture is the way they bring together families and generations. The shared viewing experience with friends and family members transcends the film’s aesthetics, historical significance, or other measure of value as an art form. Their ability to make and seal memories for viewers IS the magic of the movies.

Posted By Tammy : September 23, 2014 11:51 am

Excellent post, Susan. You have captured the essence of Scarlett’s personality – she is able to use whatever means possible (and in the 1860′s-70′s that was very little for a woman) and do what she had to survive. Movie viewers must remember she was widowed at 16 and by 20 had to find a way to not only support the family and remaining servants but also save the plantation from the tax collector. She used what she had, her “feminine wiles” if you will, to shoulder the responsibility. Did she have no remorse at her actions? I believe she did, but decided instead to “think about it tomorrow” to keep the guilt contained.
Even with some “non-PC” by today’s standard parts, this film still stands the test of time with its performances, costumes, cinematography, musical score, and compelling story. Thank you for the wonderful post on the character of Scarlett!

Posted By Susan Doll : September 24, 2014 2:47 am

Thanks Tammy. Hope you and the girls have a great time watching the film.

Posted By Phil Marchesseault : September 25, 2014 12:20 am

Another excellent posting, Susan. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
I think a scene in GWTW that is quite revealing of Scarlett’s situation and quite defining of her character, especially in light of the changes coming to her world, is the scene in which Scarlett traverses the sea of wounded outside the hospital. As the camera draws up and away she diminishes and diminishes until she is barely discernible in this ocean of broken humanity. A good metaphor for her own loss of identity. Sergio Leone borrowed this concept in ONCE UPON A TME IN THE WEST as Claudia Cardinale leave a train station to enter into a brave new world – this time of her choosing.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 25, 2014 4:08 am

Phil: Now that you mention it, I can see the connection between the GWTW scene and ONCE UPON A TIME….

Posted By PieCatLady : September 25, 2014 8:22 pm

I loved Margaret Mitchell’s novel and would pick it up as bathroom reading, opening to any part since I knew the whole so well. Took time to accept Vivian Leigh as Scarlett and Clark Gable as Rhett – they just didn’t match my imagination. Having seen the film many times, the two now perfectly embody the characters. Don’t look too harshly on Hollywood’s racism. Remember that Hattie McDaniel won an unprecedented Academy Award as Mammy. “Mr. Rhett” knew her true worth as a strong caring woman. He won her over, giving her honesty and respect for her dignity – and a red taffeta petticoat. Many thanks for your insightful comments on Scarlett O’Hara and GWTW. The film has withstood the years on its many merits, not the least of which is the character of Scarlett.

Posted By Jodi Stephens : September 26, 2014 9:02 pm

I first saw GWTW in 1969 on the 30th Ann. I was 19. I had never read the book, and was amazed later at the differences between the movie and book. Scarlett became my heroine immediately. Most people believe that the story is about the Civil War, which is incorrect. It is about the impact the Civil War had on all people, and the actual war is only part of the story. I’m not sure which non-PC areas were referred to, but you can’t change history; it was what it was. Realizing that Scarlett is only 15 when the story begins, she is a spoiled young lady who is used to getting her way. At the end of the story, she is a feminist who learned how to survive in a man’s world, who thinks and acts like a man, much to the chagrin of men because she outsmarts them, and much to the dismissal of women who think she’s scandalous. Ms. Steinem’s comments were totally ridiculous seemingly to want to re-write history . You can’t condemn a character for being a product of the times. GWTW actors create such a believable family that I can’t imagine anyone else playing any of the parts (like in the sequel “Scarlett”). As stated in other posts, Scarlett used her feminine wiles to save her ungrateful sisters and provide a home for them, but she was resourceful and forward thinking. She would “think about that another day” until she could accept what she had done, and forgive herself. Ms. Steinem should have looked at what Scarlett accomplished in a man’s world, instead of dismissing the way she got there. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I feel it an honor to be called Scarlett in my circle of friends.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 29, 2014 3:19 am

Everyone who catches the movie on the big screen will have to let me know if they saw something they had not noticed before, or if the experience of the big screen made them appreciate the film more.

Posted By kingrat : September 30, 2014 5:04 pm

Susan, sorry to be late to the party. Thank you for a great post about one of my favorite characters and one of my favorite films. I see GWTW as the greatest “women’s film” of all time. There are so many vivid female characters, and taken together, black as well as white, they show the possibilities open and closed to women in their society. Think, for instance, of Belle Watling, Aunt Pittypat, India Wilkes, the gossipy Mrs. Meade, Mammy, and the passive-aggressive Prissy.

Scarlett idealizes her self-sacrificing mother, but has no intention of being like her and detests Melanie, who does try to put those ideals into practice. Structurally, the opposition between Scarlett and Melanie is central to the film, and the staircase scene between them after Scarlett shoots the Yankee soldier is my absolute favorite.

An interesting comparison with the second half of GWTW is a film I like quite a lot: KING RAT. How about George Segal as the Scarlett character and James Fox as a more sympathetic Ashley? Both films show what happens when war turns the established social order upside down.

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