19 June 2015

A Political Input: Come on, Denmark! You can do better!

Wow. Not particularly proud of my country (Denmark) right now after the general election yesterday. I don’t know whether those who have voted right-wing are afraid or desperate or just plain stupid since it has come to this ... Goddammit - I know we can do better than this! We KNOW better than this..! You probably all hate us right now (which is understandable, really, and it wouldn’t be the first time).
However, the right-wing parties only won marginally. Half of us haven’t gone over to ‘the dark side’ yet. I know many headliners around the world make it sound like we have, and this new government may very well manage to tighten the noose around culture, education, immigration, integration, our longtime partnership with EU and any other human decency before they are let go. But believe me, half of us will put up a fight all along! So many of my peers and fellow students find it appalling the turn this election has taken.
We are a little, fairly unknown country of no significant consequence, but we are privileged on so many levels - compared to so many others who have little to nothing, and it still matters how we are viewed by and how our choices reflect upon those around us. Unfortunately, few Danes realize this and are mostly concerned with themselves and their own lives. That’s why this election has bothered me so much: We, of all people, can and must choose to take a stand against everything that is happening around us: right-wing extremism, xenophobia, etc.. Not because we are better, but because we know better. We are a tight-knitted community who must be able to show an example of how to treat your neighbor, your next of kin, with tolerance and respect. To help those most in need. To dare speak our minds; where nothing is too holy to debate, criticize or confront, not even our own methods. That is some of our greatest virtues, I believe. However, our general nitpicking, navel-gazing, and taking too much for granted are our biggest vices. Whether it’s because of our welfare model; that we’ve become too content and self-absorbed, or if it’s a cultural thing; a mentality we’ve established throughout time and become renown for, I can’t say. A dry satirist would say that Denmark is, roughly, a strange composite of navel-gazing inhabitants who rarely go anywhere but Majorca when they travel, and ambivalent cosmopolitans who know better but too often become disappointed in politics.
I may be wrong and utterly naive. But the image we are sending right now is one of hostility; hostility towards anything that isn’t us or isn’t with us, and it is far from the picture I have or want to send of my own country. Right now, in a ideologically divided Europe that is also in an economic crisis, we do not need another hostile front. Nor does the rest of the world that too battles crises of various kinds. It will do us no good. Not now and not in the long run. I only hope my generation will try to do better.

27 May 2015

Going to Italy: Cinema, Hollywood and Romance on the Tiber

I'm going to Rome with the family this early fall, having never been there before (or anywhere in Italy for that matter), despite having pretty much grown up in an well-traveled, Italophile home. I'm looking forward to it, because of - well, all the above reasons, but also because I've been interested in art of all kinds since a young age, and you simply cannot avoid coming across Italian culture and history when it comes to neither music, architecture, theatre, sculpture, painting, food, film, etc., etc.. There's SO MUCH to see in Rome that has just been piling up on my to-do-list over the years, so that's a big plus. But also because I - being a classic film fan - have watched several romanticized Hollywood renditions of the famous city throughout my youth - and I mean, who wouldn't want to visit the city as epitomized in "Roman Holiday" with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck?

Roman Holiday

Though, I must admit not everything Italian has always struck my fancy. It has always been my father's italophile influence that has surrounded everything Italian I came in contact with. He loves the food, the opera, the film makers, etc.. I'm not a big opera fan, but I as a kid I fell in love with Maria Callas' recording of Bizet's "Carmen" (I imagined I was the evil queen from Snow White, waltzing majestically around in a big cape, haha!), and I liked Mozart's "The Magic Flute" as well (but that's also one of the more kids-friendly operas, I guess). None of them Italian, I know, but I guess it still somewhat counts since it all started in Italy, anyway ;)

My father was at one point convinced that me and my sister would love Fellini's "Roma" (1972) and find it as amazing as he did, even though we were perhaps a bit too young to understand the more than two hour long, poetic film ... Every time it has been mentioned since then he's spend the time demonstratively, passive-aggressively 'apologizing' for showing us such a film (his usual mode, ugh). Oh well, maybe we were a bit too loud and exaggerating in our critic at the time, but I also think we were simply too young. Besides, he practically sold the film solely on the basis of his own, personal childhood experience of arriving to Rome for the first time as a small boy (just as the character in the film does), which isn't always the best way of selling a film to kids. There are also many inside jokes to account for when your parents choose a film director who has a specific style only they are familiar with, as well as a better understanding of a specific culture i.e. the Italians, Italian cinema and all its hidden commentaries to its society and history, and then continue to laugh at places kids just don't get. But I guess that's an everlasting dilemma when growing up and coming to terms with the world.

To begin with I found some of the old masters of Italian cinema to be frightfully grandiose and theatrical - like their opera and everything else they did - as well as hypocritical in their portrayals of women, painting them as stereotypical as Edward Munch did; as the virgin, the mother, the vampire, the prostitute or the old woman; praising and chauvinistic at the same time. But as I got older I realized many other (film) industries and directors have done so as well, just without me being aware of it before. Italian cinema may have been more ambiguous than what appeared to be, though I don't doubt some of these boisterous fellas behind the cameras had as many personal faults as some of the masters in Hollywood (such as Hitchcock, Ford or Welles).
The most male-centered of them all is perhaps Sergio Leone, but I simply adore that man and all his spaghetti westerns (despite he basically was a copycat of Kurosawa), as well as his genius collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone! I know, it may be a betrayal to my sex (his films are practically devoid of women when they aren't used as rag dolls) - but his films are just so meta-commentating, so pre-postmodern, so self-mythologizing about its own genre and the American western, that it really doesn't matter that much in the long run.
Also, as I got older, I began to appreciate the baroque feeling of Fellini, the naked neo-realism of Rossellini or the patient dramas of Visconti and Bertolucci (I've even sat through some of Pasolini's highly controversial films!). I guess, it was this over-all unapologetic feeling Italian cinema had about itself that was and is so unique; seemingly highly self-aware and satiric, unafraid of controversies, the grotesque and the dirty; of cutting into the bone and beyond. There's this distinct European or rather South European feeling tied to it, which sometimes only Europeans understand or recognize, as it so often is with different cultures. I began to understand just how big influences they were on film-making in general, such as the Nouvelle Vague in France - or in Hollywood (albeit the Americans were a bit slower to pick up on these new trends in their mainstream productions and have mainly stuck to their classic models, even to this day). 

So, speaking of Hollywood (and really the subject of this post - I apologize for the digressions once again), their renditions of Italy were, as said, much more romanticized than realistic or anything artsy and fancy than what the Italian film makers experimented with. No experiments here! Nope! Just good, old-fashioned romance after the typical, naturalistic Hollywood model.

Hollywood on the Tiber became the name of an era of film making in the 1950s and 1960s where in particular Rome or other parts of Italy became the center of the plots, given all the history, drama and romance the country had to offer (though, one could argue other countries had so as well). In contrast to the native Italian film industry, these were English speaking productions, targeted mainly American and British audiences. There were all the 'usual' epic, swords-and-sandals-films and then, of course, the romantic comedies set in a - at that time - contemporary yet romanticized setting. Usually single, young, innocent girls or lonely, wallflower spinsters from the Western hemisphere vacating there and meeting their handsome, exotic Prince Charming or just a fellow - yet equally dazzling - American. And then the chase goes - however slow or fast, up- or down-hill it may go. I will look closer at a couple of films from this genre in the following paragraphs. (I warn: There may be spoilers!)
However, as time went on, the native Italian industry gained footing and escalated in popularity, but not without borrowing from Hollywood and its classic genres, as the swords-and-sandals films continued and the highly popular Spaghetti Westerns came about. The values of the 1950s were slipping in the sand and its idyllic visions of Italy disturbed by new and violent images of the 1960s.

Back to the topic, one of the most enduring and classic examples of Hollywood's settlement in Italy at the time is of course William Wyler's timeless "Roman Holiday" (1953). Also remembered by being Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough role as well as her first and only Oscar-winning role. I don't know what to say about it that hasn't already been said, other than I love it and that it's one of those films you'll never get tired of watching. Sentimental yes, but never so much it gets soppy or cheesy (albeit, you could call it a tear-jerker because of its ending). It is both light and serious, funny and heart-breaking. Audrey is one of the most authentic, humble and unpretentious actresses that has ever lived and she never fails to bring that to a role. Gregory too brings his ever so solid, yet gentle, calm and believable personality to the table, and the fact that he insisted on giving Audrey equal billing for her role makes him all the more 'the Gentleman Icon', as I choose to call him. I wonder that if it had included the natural expectation of a happy ending, whether its legacy would have run as far as it has today? Audrey is wonderful as always and Greg as handsome as ever and together they make a brilliant team, but would we have liked them just as much, felt for them just as much, if they had ended up in each other's arms? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We cannot be sure now, but its legacy has definitely cemented itself in film history.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

The following year came another romantic 'comedy' film set in Rome: "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954) directed by Jean Negulesco.
The movie itself is basically a lovey-dovey, or let's use the wonderful word 'schmaltzy', feel-good story, or rather: a battle of beauty between the younger cast members which include Jean Peters, Maggie McNamara, Dorothy McGuire, Louis Jourdan and Rossano Brazzi. Hot dayum, what a cast! Personally, they couldn't find much more beautiful, alluring, exotic and refined gentlemen from France and Italy, respectively. Those brown, puppy dog gazes - and those accents, oh boy! I could listen to them speak all day long. And the women are equally beautiful in each their compelling ways that never bore you, despite their character stories are rather contrived and limited: Jean is sensual, cynical, yet never one-dimensional, Maggie is waif-like, naive, curious a la Jean Simmons/Audrey Hepburn, and Dorothy is mature, yet shining, almost childlike in her enthusiasm and sorrow.
And even more a battle between the beauty of the cast and the beauty of the city, Rome, shot on location, and also a short peak of Venice! Not many films of that era takes us round the streets and sceneries of a 1950s' Rome, so all in all, the film is definitely worth a watch for all its eye candy (cast included) ;)

Dorothy McGuire (left), Maggie McNamara (middle) and Jean Peters (right)

However, its plot lives up to its era and that it's Hollywood produced. It's awfully antiquated, as expected, when it comes to values regarding female roles and what women are taught: That their sole purpose in life is to find a man, or more precisely, a husband. A rich, eligible husband.
One of the women is disillusioned (Jean Peters' character), another still carries around (false, declining) hope (Dorothy McGuire's character) and a third arrives to fulfill the above goal no matter the means (Maggie McNamara's character). The three single girls and secretaries of course get three male components to seek out: Jean's meeting with a poor, rural, soon-to-be-lawyer (Rossano Brazzi's character) just as she is about to leave the country, Dorothy's unrequited love for her unaware, curmudgeonly employer (Clifton Webb's character) and Maggie's manipulative, yet naive and highly worrisome pursue of Rome's royal playboy numero uno (Louis Jourdan's character).

Rossano Brazzi
Louis Jourdan

When I first came across Jean Peters I must admit I was afraid she was just another stoic, pretty Jeanne Crain-face but she has surprised me every time I've watched her. She's got this pouty-seductive, girly-yet-womanly panache going on and boasts of a dry, intelligent wit and determination, not without an enthralling, melancholy vulnerability attached to it, which makes her an odd combination of depressive and beautiful in a very human, relatable sort of way (Hedy Lamarr had the same feeling about her, but just seemed more like a goddess than a human). You can almost feel Jean's inner fight for being regarded as more than a sex symbol shine through some of her more sarcastically delivered lines in several of her movies.

I haven't watched Dorothy McGuire before and though her character in this one is a bit of a pushover and a wallflower, she surprised me with a serene sense of depth and warmth as well as a very cute and funny drunk performance in the end of the film. She doesn't at all appear as the no-good, unattractive spinster, whose life has practically ended because she isn't married (Dorothy is only 36 here, for crying out loud!), as she is painted out to be and it makes me so angry to think if all women back then truly thought of themselves like this at that age or that they were 'told' to feel so by society! The idea that women should put so much effort into being something of value (for the men), whereas the men just are..! You feel like shaking some sense and self-respect back into these women; to tell them to stop serving the men and go make their own happiness - which is possible without the men! Okay, I'm ranting again, but those 1950s ideals just get on my nerves sometimes! At least, "Roman Holiday" had the decency to be a bit more creative and modern with the whole 'romantic chase'-thing, if you could call it that.

Maggie McNamara invokes, as I said before, the Jean Simmons/Audrey Hepburn vibe, but sadly falls in between the two of them, not really personalizing the role (or gets enough time or material to do so). She gives her character that cute, naive, curious trait that you would think is just right for Louis Jourdan's notorious playboy character, but she does everything wrong - in the most demeaning and cringe-worthy of ways (especially for a feminist)! - by deleting herself and wooing him solely based on what HE likes. Of course, she ends up realizing how wrong this was when he truly falls for her, and in the end admits stringing him along. Unfortunately - and highly unsettling - they do end up together despite this, which makes one wonder how this could come to be if his love for her was based on an entire lie and, the fact, that they have nothing in common??
Like Laura, the couple I was most interested in, Jean Peters and Rossano Brazzi's characters (and two of my favorite actors), had the least amount of screen time, which is a shame.

Jean Peters (left), Maggie McNamara (middle) and Dorothy McGuire (right)

Clifton Webb, who plays Dorothy McGuire's employer, is always a treat to watch in all his cool, acerbic flamboyance - which worked perfectly in "Laura" (1944) - but here his surprisingly badly concealed sexuality unfortunately skews the plot to become something else than a man motivated to get married because he is on his death bed and because his sweet and lonely secretary is in love with him. Suddenly it becomes a homosexual man's last resort to save himself and his secretary from further loneliness - in a world that doesn't look kindly on his sexual preferences or her spinsterhood. And then suddenly the reason behind her unrequited love for him has an entire new meaning than what she assumes: That she's just not an attractive enough woman for him. Maybe I'm just reading things into it and I'm definitely sure there was no intention whatsoever by the film makers or studio to hint to this. Though it surprises me that they didn't at least try to make him seem 'less' flamboyant in that case or choose another actor to play the role (Webb, as I said, is brilliant being himself, but I doubt he could be any less himself, and I would be sorry to see him try that). Don't get me wrong, I almost wish it was intentional; that it was some sort of hidden commentary to the bigoted, polished society of the 1950s' view and horrible treatment of homosexuals, but sadly, the film never goes that deep. Actually, don't expect any film from the 1950s to touch on such sensitive subjects directly (I can't even think of any that did it indirectly... "Rebels Without a Cause" perhaps?). Instead watch Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven" from 2002 which deals with those matters and comes highly recommendable.

In Venice

At the Trevi Fountain in Rome

The single girl/spinster/secretary-topic was apparently hot in the '50s and continued the following year with David Lean's "Summertime" (1955), starring one of my favorite actresses, Katharine Hepburn, and, once again, handsome Rossano Brazzi in the lead roles; this time shot in beautiful Venice. I really want to experience this version of Venice when I go visit it one day, but having heard rather off-putting stories of how the tourism has practically invaded the place I'm afraid it cannot be quite as idyllic and peaceful as portrayed by Lean. Anyway, I just want go there before it drowns.

Katharine plays the single, middle-aged (Kate is 48 at the time) secretary, Jane Hudson, who travels to Venice on a long awaited summer vacation and encounters the younger, swarthy, dashing Renato (Brazzi) eyeing her up in a café. At first she is put off by this and hurries away, but when she meets him again by chance, she slowly becomes attracted to him yet keeps him at bay when he starts to pursue her. Eventually, she gives in and they start a sweet, but passionate romance. When he admits being separated from his wife, it throws her off, but he convinces her to seize the day and give in to what he offers. However, in the end, she sees their relationship as eventually doomed, and despite his protests she returns to America with a bittersweet farewell between the two lovers.

Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in Summertime

On the surface, it is a somewhat cliché tale of a 'prudish', American spinster who tries to hold the moral high ground when she meets the younger, exotic and dashing foreigner who pursues her. Any other actress in the role of Jane Hudson would have seem pitiful to the point of laughable, or maybe it's just me who cannot picture the film without Katharine's great sense of vulnerability and human insight. If it wasn't for Katharine's wide-ranging acting abilities and David Lean's sensitive direction the film might not still be able to power through with its quiet and surprisingly relevant philosophy about life and loneliness. 

I think we can conclude, in its essence (and most stereotypically of fashions), there's something beautifully tragic or melancholy-romantic about Italy that just draws lonely people to it. People who hasn't much else in life to live for; people who are sensitive, contemplative, who appreciate and seek out beauty and put up walls or facades to protect themselves from temptations, but end up giving in to them, despite inner struggles of what one should or shouldn't do. Just like Gustav von Aschenbach in Visconti's "Death in Venice" (1971). Some seek solace, romance or adventure; the exotic and different; where time and history stand still yet live; while others simply run from their old lives or present situations at home.

Death in Venice

These films also made me think of American photographer Ruth Orkin's wonderful illustrative series of photographies from when she was a young girl in the 1950s and went alone to Italy. There she met a fellow American, Ninalee Craig (also known as Jinx Allen) and used her as a model for her experiences in Italy. I find the pictures very much invoke many of the feelings from the above-mentioned films and give you a sense of how it was (and maybe still is) to be a young, single girl travelling in a foreign country on her own:

Ruth Orkin's most famous photo: American Girl in Italy, 1951

Maybe when I return from my vacation this fall, I'll be able to recognize some of these portrayals of being a foreigner visiting Italy. I've already romanticized the hell out of Paris and the real thing has yet to disappoint me.
Who knows? Maybe I'll meet my own Rossano Brazzi and make him fall in love with me..? (Nah, I wish!)

Hubba hubba!

14 March 2015

The Scandalous Haircut and The Loss of Virtue

When Mary Pickford in 1928 cut her famous golden curls, opting for a more smart, cutting edge (no pun intended) haircut attuned to contemporary 1920s' fashion, it raised an outcry among her fans around the world. 'How could she do it?!', people gawped, miffed that their beloved, petite starlet could shed what had so long been connected with her image and stardom as 'America's Sweetheart' on screen; an image further enhanced by her most often chosen roles as innocent children, playing feisty, little girls and teenage spitfires. 

The fact that Mary herself was well into her 30s by 1928 and greatly affected by her mother's death that same year didn't seem to matter to her audience. They still wanted the 'little girl'-image in their star that they were so used to see and admire throughout decades; not this new, sleek, elegant woman of the 1920s. Mary's ringlets had become the very symbol of female virtue and innocence, and the transformation - this symbolic loss of virtue in the public eye - was a shock. 

One would say this notion was tightly connected to the society and standards at the time where women - young girls in particular - should walk the virtuous road until marriage (their sole purpose in life) and never step out of line before, during or afterwards. Even in the roaring '20s when women's roles had become somewhat more outgoing, this notion still wasn't dead.
And one would think we've come a long way since then, but interestingly, we have, in fact, seen the issue arise many times well into the 21st century.

The most similar and best known example was when another 'America's Sweetheart', Miley Cyrus, in 2012 opted for a fresh, blond pixie-cut instead of her long, dark tresses - which for a long time had been linked with her just as well-known and beloved, Disney-construed, feisty screen-persona, Hannah Montana. Along with a new dress-code and attitude, Miley was transformed, image-wise (and thus, inherently, identity-wise), but most importantly: No longer controlled by the Disney corporation. The break-away fueled an image-change which ran much deeper than just the hair. 

Such life-changing episodes, just as Mary losing her mother, are often only the enablers for a natural, yet somehow always controversial process that is inevitable and sometimes just temporarily stalled: the transformation from girl to woman, from child to adult; the coming-of-age that everyone goes through at some point in their lives in various shades and sizes. Or simply the progression of identity and self-growth. It shouldn't come as such a shock, really, as it is common knowledge for even the simplest of minds, but what may make all the difference is that for Mary and Miley it happened while the whole world was watching. While we may have endured a couple of bullies at school, they endure the bullies of the entire world - probably for as long as they'll live - which is the curse of all celebrities! The definition of 'slut-shaming' reached a new high with Miley, and not even Britney Spears' infamous head shave in 2007 or Natalie Portman's role-required shave in 2006 (to just name a few) sparked quite the same amount of discussion about not just how women - especially female celebrities - are perceived in media, but how women still serve as the moralizing punching-bag in society and its measures of beauty and behavior.

A string of 'less' outrageous cases such as Felicity-star Keri Russell cutting her curly looks, Emma Watson's pixie-cut after ending the Harry Potter-film series or Jennifer Lawrence's sudden haircut at the peak of her career all sparked the question "Why?" in the media as well. Which again cemented the idea that stepping out of heteronormativity, even in the slightest (aka getting a haircut), makes society question the reason behind it as being 'abnormal' as well, such as 'coming out' or being mentally unstable etc., despite it often only is people innocently experimenting with their looks (as we all do); the least harmful deed of all, surely!

This notion is more than just the media overreacting as usual, and although it fuels the standards of heteronormativity, it works both ways. Like when the girls on America's Next Top Model cry their eyes out for hours whenever they are told of their 'complete' make-over - which often isn't more than getting a new hair-cut - one wonders why they are so attached to something that definitely will grow out again? Is it because they are young and coming-of-age and simply more sensitive about their own image and personal changes in general? Or does the show manipulate and edit in its material so that is what we see: Young women being hysterical every season so that we are made to think girls in general are behaving silly, when, in fact, they are made to do things in a very young age that one could question both the fashion and the television industry and its overly harsh attitude for?
Perhaps a combination of both where the show exploits the young girls' youth, hormones and inexperience, puts them in situations bound to create the wanted scenarios and affirm traditional views - all in order to create entertainment. It is shameless really, but unfortunately it sells and the contestants only get younger and younger for every season. Hell, we even have those perverse beauty pageants for small children! People are greatly entertained by Toddlers & Tiaras because they find it so absurd, but seemingly no one wants to do anything about this outrageous phenomenon...!!? Now that makes for a relevant and important "Why?"!

And why is it that only women are still caught in this hairy mess? (And yes, that pun was intended). Perhaps because the issue of hair is tightly connected to the idea of femininity. After all, men growing long hair as being something controversial basically became extinct after The Beatles and the hippie-generation happened. Today 'man buns' couldn't be more hip, being a skinhead no longer carries the ideological associations it once did and having bald spots is no more outrageous than having a zit, at most only serves as a pitiful vanity complex. Men don't seem to get any hate when it comes to their hair; they can experiment all they like for that matter - just look at David Beckham(!) - but for women the long tresses still serve as a symbolic phenomenon that shouldn't be tangled with for some reason.
Only the military cut serves as a symbolic loss of innocence among young men when they join the army - but that is in such a specific context that it's assumed only natural they should go through such a 'ritual' to become 'real men'. Of course, that notion itself makes for a lot of critique but it is pointing towards the system rather than the men. Here the men are the victims of such an action. I'm not saying women should be victimized, but they aren't necessarily forgiven either for cutting their hair - no matter the context. Perhaps it's a distorted comparison but the obvious distinction between the sexes in these matters strikes me as peculiar, nonetheless.

Apparently, virtue, in its essence, is still something going strong, despite its archaic use and the fact that the conditions since its origin have changed. But what is virtue? Well, it is basically asking for perfection; being able to live up to every damn stigmatic and dogmatic norm, tradition and expectation that come in your way all the time. Virtue may allude all good intention; a guideline made up long ago for young people to follow, containing many of the Christian values of inner strengths that we indeed treasure, such as love for your kin, kindness, humanity, tolerance, unselfishness etc.. But in the end, the virtue-package also picks up everything else from the outside world throughout time such as expectations of various, rigid kinds that keep the youngsters in a fearful leash - and it is made into this perfect ideal no one can live up to, yet so desperately, fruitlessly, unnecessarily tries. It isn't fair and never should be expected of anyone!
The word itself comes frighteningly close to the word virgin in my mind - along with all the frighteningly 'oh-so-good' associative words of moral excellence and an ascetic and abstinent life those two words conjure in your head. Bleh! NO ONE is or can be entirely virtuous, and it's highly hypocritical when we think we can judge other people on whether they are or aren't virtuous! And we always hit a new low, when we base these judgments solely on the imagery that the media sells us. (Sorry for my ranting; my temper just gets the better of me sometimes).

The whole Miley-incident has pointed out some critical facts in our time and age that mirror a frightfully rigid notion we all thought dead a long time ago. Hopefully, the discussion about women's roles in society will continue and be able to change something about this aspect - but enough with the female, virtuous hair already! After all, why do hairdressers even exist, you think!? The fact that we can STILL - after so much time and change - be outrageous about something so small as women cutting their hair short is beyond me. Apparently, some symbols die harder than I thought.

"Where the Boys Are" (1960)

Where the Boys Are (1960) 1/2 by heapsoflovehide

Where the Boys Are (1960) 2/2 by heapsoflovehide

25 January 2015

Female Characters Under Scrutiny: In (Critical) Defense of Scarlett O'Hara (*EDITED*)

Not many come in defense of Scarlett O'Hara. And it's quite understandable, really. Liking Scarlett is a double-edged sword and it definitely isn't easy, since she's a character that gives nothing immediately in return but sheer, spoiled, attention-seeking, childish, manipulative egocentricity in its purest form. Not to mention, she uses her beauty and charm to carelessly seduce and dump men (though, remember, James Bond has done this to women since the year dot) - and only marries them for purely selfish and beneficial reasons, among other 'scandalous' things. Sure, it's entertaining while it lasts, but in the end it leaves many with a bitter taste in their mouths. Because, Scarlett O'Hara is a woman who does things few others have done before her and more or less gotten away with.  Yet - and there is indeed a 'yet' worth remembering whether you're a Scarlett-lover or Scarlett-hater - she's also one of the few female, autonomous protagonists in literature and on screen who determinedly, stubbornly, necessarily and thus inevitably breaks with conventional codes, limits and expectations regarding women's roles - from the 1860s to the 1930s and well into this millennium - and transcends into aspects of feminism that are still quite controversial - among feminists as well. Nonetheless, it's all the more interesting to discuss - and to me, it is simply because she keeps stirring things up that I regard her as an icon.

She is, in that sense, an anti-heroine (or heroine if you see her that way). She not only (wants to) break with the preconceived expectations of how a woman should behave, but, paradoxically, also wants to live up to them somewhat (e.g. be like her mother): That is being a woman (if not any human being) in a nutshell! The conflict at stake here is so much more than a woman behaving like a stubborn, little child and having her way, but a woman whose identity is caught in between time and society's overwhelming and restrictive standards and her own will to push through and forward such demands and limitations. If that isn't as relevant today as it was relevant (and shocking) back then, I don't know..!

Also, whether you like her or not, you've got to admire her staunch resolution and endurance, flaws and all, in situations which weren't deemed 'fit for a lady' back then. I think one often forgets that Scarlett is 'merely' a teen when the Civil War arrives and is quite abandoned in a city that's practically on fire with a laboring woman and no other help than a scared slave girl - and then eventually, for the sake of the plot and the love story, receives a bit of help from the man himself, Rhett Butler. Though she still has to make it the rest of the way on her own - which she does despite having to cross bloody fields of the slain soldiers, through rain and heat and hide from rampaging Yankees, only to arrive at home where there's nothing to eat, her mother has died and her father's gone mad.

Scarlett is not just a spoilt brat, but also a survivor in the word's truest sense. She does what she has to do in order to survive no matter the means - and I somehow suspect it is this aspect that scares off people; the fact that a woman can do and think like that. And I don't just think it's an old, outdated notion; people clearly have their doubts about Scarlett still, but I think it all comes down to a general confusion and inner battle about, on the one hand, wanting to respect and admire her for coming through all the horror of war (and practically, single-handedly, saving her entire family and household) and, on other hand, wanting to dislike her for her very, er, ruthless and driven mind (or should I say 'unbecoming and unladylike qualities'). But that is exactly what Scarlett is in society's eyes: she's not a lady - a fact Rhett sees the minute he meets her, and he loves her for it. And - if you'd be willing to go this far with me on this - Rhett almost serves as the reader's perspective at this point; a sort of guide-through how to love Scarlett despite - and because - of everything. Thus also evoking the symbolism of her name: She's a scarlet letter, ill-fitted for society's prim and proper and fairly restrictive guidelines in life, but instead she's bound by heart and soul to the scarlet earth of Tara (sure, one could just as well claim the red soil symbolizes the blood of the slaves spilled there, and I quite agree; ultimately, it could be all those things). Of course, the ending ambiguously implies she loves Tara more than Rhett, but I believe - as the story says - that she simply gets her strength from the earth.
But my point is that Rhett loves Scarlett because of her obvious flaws and because he sees himself in her, stating they are "cut from the same cloth". A fact, which - in the story - also eventually becomes their doom since their mutual pride and fear won't allow them to outwardly proclaim any selfless love or need or display any emotional vulnerability for one another - despite feeling all this to the very breaking point. And it is reaching this breaking point which breaks them as well as us readers and makes this story so utterly devastating and yet, ironically, life-affirming and human at the same time.

This might be the most tender expression of love ever seen on screen!

Another matter on my mind is, how Scarlett is commonly defined as a good ol' bitch. But what is a 'bitch'? A woman being obstinate in matters when she should be calm and collected? Or a woman who is deliberately mean and spiteful towards everyone around her? It might be two aspects of the same coin, but it might also be two different types of women that are easily confused with each other.
And where's the male equivalent to the term - on screen and in literature - if there even is one, at that?! Do we call him a 'douchebag' or an 'idiot'? And does it even carry the same weight when we call a male character or actor 'a real douchebag' and when we call a female character or actress 'a real bitch' on/off-screen? No, somehow, the terms applied to men are more pitying and forgivable whereas there's a more general and deep-felt dislike at present when we say a woman is a bitch, am I right? I may be deemed biased in this matter, merely because of my gender, but objectively I've always wondered why this seems to be a general opinion. When male stars are known to throw fits on sets and be overly demanding, we call them names that are distinctly feminine in their origin (and thus for some reason condescending), such as 'he's being a diva' or 'behaving like a drama queen'. Is this coincidental or is it because we still somehow instinctively connect hysteria and unnecessary drama with women? That the female sex is fickle and less reliable than men and get every (angry) retort blamed on their period? You might say: 'Well, if that is the case, maybe there's some truth in it'. Sure, there might be some psychological or evolutionary or biological explanation behind it or there might not (since there's never just one explanation behind things!), but should an entire sex be at fault because a few display such actions in certain situations? Isn't it just the easy way out; not understanding someone's behavior and instead concluding it must be 'some common mysterious, female/male thing' and leave it at that? Why, isn't it striking that throughout history, the male sex has always been the most war- and blood-thirsty, often even spurring to it? Even intelligent, rightful men have done so and though it has long been their privileged and powerful positions in a patriarchal society which have enabled them to do so, it is still a mystery to me why men have to be so greedy, prideful and territorial, seeking out war as if it is the only solution to everything..?! Men may make war and violence but it is women who throughout history have managed to adapt and make new lives in otherwise impossible situations!

See, I'm generalizing here and have probably offended many of you (men) out there already, but only to stress my point: Isn't this the very same thing that has been done to women? Applying generalized notions to the opposite sex in order to explain actions done by a few? That surely shows ignorance! After all, some of the most peace-seeking icons were men, such as Gandhi and John Lennon, whereas some of the most cool-headed politicians were women, such as Margaret Thatcher. Yet, these men are still seen by many as being 'too soft' and the women as 'too hard', when in traditional and gender-stereotypical views it should be the other way around. We just expect men to be harsh in some situations and forgive it (whereas we don't forgive them for being soft-hearted), and we expect women to be gentle in others. If they are not, it surprises us and is rationalized away with saying 'it's not normal/natural behavior'. Well, it's unusual but that's just because it has not been represented for us often enough! This is the most common heteronormative way to look at things at and (not) surprisingly, this notion hasn't yet dissolved, which is why Scarlett O'Hara - and other women like her - is still so relevant to discuss, as much as there is to critique.
She's hardly a lady by the late 19th century's standard; doesn't display any outward motherly, selfless or loving instincts towards her children or married life - which is still expected as something inherently natural all women should show - but she's got spirit and grit and isn't unintelligent, but pragmatic and opportunistic and  has a keen - if not the keenest - sense of business, even snubbing and surpassing more than half of her male counter parties along the way.
At best, there should be pointed out more similarities than differences between the sexes or genders (which by the way, can't even be limited to only two, since the spectrum is so much wider and complex)! And as GWTW proves, both/all sexes can be as fickle and at fault when it comes to mutual love and understanding.

I know, when reviewing - or reading a review of - the film or the book version of Gone With The Wind, one hardly wants to go into the whole critical feminist reading or gender speech about the representation of women on screen, in (pop)culture and in society. It's easier stating the most obvious facts about Scarlett - as I did in the beginning - and leave it at that. And though I cannot contest much of what is being said about her, I'll still defend her as an iconic image in the representation of women. She may be, at some point, a black spot to the feminist cause (if you'd call it that) since it's fairly reasonable to say that she's deemed far from likable by most men - and women as well - but the point isn't necessarily to make her likable but human and flawed. She's not the statuesque, exemplary model to build the perfect female ideal on, but she needn't be. When I first published this post, I wrote that "feminism is NOT about finding the Mary Sues because Mary Sues don't exist in real life". However, after one of my favorite feminist websites, 'The Mary Sue', (of course) wrote a pretty interesting and strong case against the general misuse of the term 'Mary Sue' regarding female characters, I see how it resonates with my earlier points about the general misuse of the term 'bitch' - and why there seem to be no similar - or quite as equal or frequently used - terms for male characters (let's be honest, 'Gary Stu' doesn't cover it). And in continuation hereof, how the term 'strong female character' seems to have no male equivalent either, because, well, men are already strong, right? Huh. I've found myself caught in the very heteronormative linguistic I want to break free from. Funny, how it always finds itself in your blind spot.
So, in conclusion, let's find another, less gender-biased (or anything biased) term for both/all sexes when it comes to describing unrealistic, non-complex characters - which really is the point I want to make here: That neither Scarlett or Melanie are unrealistic nor complex characters. And which leads me to edit the following segment I originally wrote:
"One could be prone to call the ever so soft and perfect Melanie Wilkes a Mary Sue, but even she has her surprising flaws and strengths that differ from the common conception. Women have too often been portrayed as inconsequential, soft, perfect, purely motherly beings, or little Miss-Do-Gooders who don't speak up or do anything controversial for a longer period of times; who are too depended on those around her and rarely display (ruthless) ambition in both business and love. If they do display such ambition, they are called femme fatales and are often punished for their 'selfish' actions in the end."
"Melanie simply has another personality than Scarlett, but she is no less admirable, complex or interesting." ;)

One could say Scarlett gets what she deserves in the end as well, but then again she doesn't die and though she doesn't get her man, she has something else: Herself and her land, Tara. The way I read it, the point is that 'not getting her man' - or be undeserving of him - shouldn't be seen as a common punishment for women. Sure, she did many things wrong along the way, especially by Rhett, but he wasn't exactly faultless himself (an important fact!). Scarlett has other alternatives that makes her life worth living than a man, but that is not to understand it in a misandrist way either. It is, after all, implied that she will try to get Rhett back some way or another - fueled by Tara and her innate, unquenchable tenacity in life - but, surprisingly, it is also alright if she doesn't. What is important here is her will to try. Her unfaltering will is the story and what makes her so admirable in that regard - not just as a woman, but as a human. Despite the war and all the personal setbacks or exactly because of them, her true person has come alive and in the end she has become a grown woman; a human being who has lived a human life, whereas Ashley Wilkes, 'the fairy tale prince', stands as the opposite; a zombie or ghost of the past, unable to adapt or move forward.

One could make similar references to the current vampire-analogies on TV, where becoming a vampire is said to draw out a person's true nature - whether good or bad. One example could be another popular 'belle of the ball', Caroline Forbes, in The Vampire Diaries. She starts out as a spoilt, manipulative, dislikable brat as a human, but when transformed becomes a smart, determined, confident and loyal young woman - albeit a vampire who can drain the life out of people. Though this transformation can be said to be much more consequential and literal than Scarlett's more wavering, chaotic one (if there even is a transformation, one could claim?), there's still some parallels to be seen. Scarlett can also be said to have drained the life out of those around her, but not always deliberately or knowingly - just her being inexperienced. One might say, she's become a grown woman too late, but hey, that's life; always badly timed. Her awareness of her own faults comes in the very last minute when she loses or cannot have what she wants the most, but that doesn't stop her. It only fuels her to (hopefully) do and know better next time. Unlike other 'Scarlett O'Hara-like' characters such as Ashton Main in North and South (by John Jake) who's just plain stupid, utterly disloyal to even her own family, never develops but stays in her own petty mind and simply is a terrible human being, Scarlett at least displays intelligence regarding business matters and surviving a war, she doesn't abandon her family or household (quite the contrary) and, in the end, gains some realization and wisdom about her own life choices - albeit a bit late, but then again; better late than never. Ashton Main is a flat character, but Scarlett O'Hara is far from flat and thus all the more worthy of discussion.

However, one shouldn't forget the very same notion or expectations applied to the male sex in GWTWRhett Butler is, on the surface, the very stereotypical embodiment of many women's obscure dream of the 'tall, dark and handsome stranger', who, in many aspects, is too good to be true. He's got the whole James Bond package; everything men want to be and everything women want in a man (or, as in my case, both): well-educated, handsome, witty, charming, impeccably dressed (and an impeccable taste in women's fashion as well), elegant yet animalistic, undeniably sexy, sarcastic, shameless, powerful and confident (let's not forget filthy rich). He's a self-made man of the world; a black sheep, a charming rogue, a professional gambler, a blockade runner and an opportunist with somewhat obscure principles, an extensive knowledge of the female mind and body and a great appetite for life. All in all, he can be seen as the ultimate sexualized objectification of the male sex who has everything men in real life don't (seem to) have, mentally and physically (he's literally bursting with masculine virility). And of course, there's some truth in that. It is, after all, fiction we're dealing with; a synthesized, idealized version of reality, and though it inhabits many autobiographic traits from the author's, Margaret Mitchell, personal life, it is still a fictional character. That doesn't mean he hasn't got complex, realistic flaws as well - or hypothetically could exist in real life; one should only never be too dismissive or too glorifying towards such a male character or, er, set the bar too high in real life (which, unfortunately, has happened in my case).
"As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low in the bosom. He looked quite old, at least thirty-five. He was a tall man and powerfully built. Scarlett thought she had never seen a man with such wide shoulders, so heavy with muscles, almost too heavy for gentility. When her eye caught his, he smiled, showing animal-white teeth below a close-clipped black mustache. He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate's appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath. She felt that she should be insulted by such a look and was annoyed with herself because she did not feel insulted. She did not know who he could be, but there was undeniably a look of good blood in his dark face. It showed in the thin hawk nose over the full red lips, the high forehead and the wide-set eyes." (GWTW, Chapter 6)

A lot of his magnetism and charisma, besides being played perfectly by the one and only Clark Gable in the movie, also lie within the fact that Rhett Butler is an enigma (we never hear much about his background or his business relations) and yet, has got more obvious humane and tender sides than one would have thought of a cynical half-pirate, "a scoundrel and a renegade". In that regard, he complements Scarlett where she's obviously lacking: He bestows immediate affection and attention on Scarlett's children when she's not able to, keeps up pseudo-friendly appearances when she wants to do anything but that and says the only person, besides Mammy, he genuinely likes and respects is Scarlett's 'frenemy', Melanie (much to his own surprise). He's the epitome of the bad boy with a heart of gold; an anti-hero who is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. In that sense, Rhett breaks with the commonly conceived idea of masculinity by embracing his feminine side (his dandy tendencies included) and actually being soft-hearted - which is especially contrasted to Scarlett who has fully embraced her masculine side:
"Now her reactions were all masculine. Despite her pink cheeks and dimples and pretty smiles, she talked and acted like a man. Her voice was brisk and decisive and she made up her mind instantly and with no girlish shilly-shallying. She knew what she wanted and she went after it by the shortest route, like a man, not by the hidden and circuitous routes peculiar to women." (GWTW, Chapter 36)

In the end, none of them comes out the victor, deeming neither femininity nor masculinity weak or strong characteristics (respectively and vice versa), but rather human and flawed (here we have it again) and something we all have in us. That, at least, is my interpretation or what I get out of the book.

Does Scarlett have something he hasn't got? Well, perhaps a more determined and stubborn mind if that can even be classified as a positive feature. One do not doubt she will pull through in the end (and afterwards), being the survivor she is, whereas you could suspect Rhett for growing more bitter and reclusive. Otherwise, they pretty much mirror each other. He, too, has trouble fitting in; his reputation and status wavering in extremes at times (often deliberately self-inflicted) as he wants to break free from the conventions and expectations of society while also wanting to be in its good graces, particularly when it concerns his beloved daughter, Bonnie.
Apropos, Bonnie, one can critique Rhett just as much (if not more) as Scarlett for her upbringing. Not so much her tragic death, which was a combination of many things, partly the pony, herself and both her parents' fault - and then again not, since it was essentially an accident. The way Scarlett blamed him wasn't okay, but not exactly entirely incomprehensible either since he did pamper Bonnie excessively and was rather overindulgent; giving her all the love and attention he tried to give to her mother, which Scarlett again misinterpreted. The shock of losing a child is perhaps the most devastating thing you can experience in your life, I imagine, and the shock and grief hitting them both made them do insane things (and that's saying a lot!) such as Scarlett's furious reaction towards him and Rhett's self-isolation with the body of his dead child. Scarlett, being Scarlett, reacts by unjustly blaming him for Bonnie's death, though her reaction is only human given the shock. Neither he or she are unjust in their reactions; after all, every bitter feeling that has been piled up inside of them during their unhappy years of marriage explodes and implodes outwards and inwards, enabled by the devastating shock, and they blame themselves as much - if not more - as each other for the way things has turned out. With Bonnie's death, all the love Rhett had - for Scarlett, too - and poured into the child, disappears. The question is whether it is gone for good? Quite understandable if it is, yet hopefully not.

 God, I love this scene!

In the end, Scarlett and Rhett's tumultuous relationship is a circle of continuous punishment, misunderstandings and cross-purposes on both sides; a situation which is partly self-inflicted but also escalates, though one hardly knows where it started. Sure, before they got married, Scarlett said she loved another man (of course, only an idealized illusion), but Rhett also said he didn't love Scarlett or intended to fall in love with her (of course, a lie in order to protect himself) and almost cruelly so: "No, my dear, I'm not in love with you, no more than you are with me, and if I were, you would be the last person I'd ever tell. God help the man who ever really loves you. You'd break his heart, my darling, cruel, destructive little cat who is so careless and confident she doesn't even trouble to sheathe her claws." Of course, Scarlett cruelly said she didn't want his babies or company in bed anymore after Bonnie's birth, but Rhett didn't make it any better by helplessly, desperately throwing himself in the arms of prostitutes, gambling and alcohol. You can say they acted  rather cowardly and stupidly towards each other - you just want to bang their heads together and tell them off! - but also incredibly human and, in that sense, understandable and pitiful. Sure, they should have seen the truth or stop doubting it if they did suspect it, instead of fearfully holding on to their own pride and self-denial, but it was also their only guard from being rejected and hurt if they actually opened up. Naturally, being who they are, essentially rebels, they've learned to keep up a harsh attitude because life has taught them so when faced with obstacles from the outside world. Not believing it when something too good to be true comes into your life, especially your soul mate, seems the natural reaction and you immediately expect them to disappoint you at any given moment - or even want them to, just in order to protect yourself. But if two of the same kind does so, it can only end up self-destructive. Despite Rhett having terrific human insight, claiming to see himself in Scarlett, understanding her and often seeing through her schemes, he couldn't read her as well when it came to matters he himself had difficulty dealing with, such as showing love, which he mainly did by showering her with materialistic things.  He also liked goading her, not always for the better, often laughing at Scarlett with his cynical detachment which could make her laugh at herself or spark a challenge in her, but also too often infuriate her to the point where she overreacted and they ended up pushing each other away - despite often well-meaning original intentions. They spited each other as if testing each other, or trying to get some genuine reaction and feeling out of the otherwise sarcastic shell of 'loving' wife or husband when they couldn't get the love they sought. It's like a competitive power play; of who's holding the upper hand and doesn't succumb to saying 'I love you' first but still trying to get the other one to do it first - as if there was a winner and a loser in the game of love. Indeed, ironically, as if they were trying to see if the other truly cared or only pretended such by hurting each other in order not to get hurt - and basically doing all the wrong things in the book! But who has ever done the right thing in the book (if we even pretended for a second that there's some sort of guide book to love)?!

Then, of course, there's the much debated (especially among feminists) 'rape' scene to stir all this 'true love talk' up. Honestly, I cannot decide what my feelings are regarding it. After all, not much is revealed about what actually happens after he carries her upstairs; some suspicious hints to what's going on, yeah (we know they're not baking a cake), but the whole scene is rather subjectively written; a lot of confusing feelings and senses mixed in between the words - with Scarlett being surprised and Rhett being drunk and all - and it's hard to discern who does what. The scenario afterwards, next morning, when Scarlett is contently sprawling in bed, presumably in her afterglow, tells us that she enjoyed it; that she may have discovered aspects of Rhett she hasn't seen before (yet secretly longed for?), but that can also be concluded as her being turned on by the 'dominating love-making' and controversially so. You see? It's a fine line. All in all, the limited sequence might as well cry rape as it might not. It is not impossible that he raped her, given Rhett's rare yet volatile tendencies to lash out and that Mitchell drew on certain, similar autobiographical experiences, and of course, I agree that rape is utterly wrong, but to be factual and honest, we don't know how things exactly unfolded up there. In my eyes, it is as much about what we read into things and how we do it, given we cannot entirely separate ourselves from our own point of view, gender, personal feelings, values and ideologies etc.. It's hard to be objective in such a controversial matter whether it's in fiction or real life, but there certainly are some interesting views on the scene out there.

The end leaves much out in the open and one of the big questions remains: If she indeed manages to get Rhett back, will she then get tired of him because she has succeeded in her chase, such as Rhett implies? Perhaps, but I'd say rather unlikely now since she's grown so much. Not exactly changed, but grown - which is a more realistic scenario as well. Ashley, as a romantic interest, is forever gone from her mind and no one equals Rhett as a match for her, and though there might be ups and downs in a hypothetically new relationship with him, it will most likely be him not her who gives up first. Not because she'll put up a fight against their marriage but because she'll put up a fight for it this time. Whereas he will probably be totally disillusioned about it and utterly drained; physically as well as emotionally, although one could wonder how long he'll be so... After all, he does state at some point that he has always had "a weakness for lost causes once they're really lost".

Whether Scarlett would succeed in times of peace and tranquility or not is also an interesting question. We've seen her survivor skills come to use in times of war and chaos, but the ending leaves much to the imagination concerning her forthcoming life. However, this new, post-war, 1870s' America is far from chaos-free and only just beginning to rebuild itself, so there'll be much for her to manage - especially if she continues to live in the old South. Of course, I have no doubt that she will strive and come through it all, and she still has fight left in her to fight for Rhett. Even so, she has Tara and her two other children, Wade and Ella, which are logistically left out in the movie, but whom I reckon will play an important part in how her future life will fare - and furthermore, if not to get Rhett (who became a loving stepfather to both of them) back at some point, then at least be the reasons not to exclude him entirely from their lives. One can hardly picture Rhett Butler having nothing at all to do with the children for the rest of his life, even if he wants nothing more to do with their mother! And that's another thing I love about GWTW: You can just keep on pondering what will happen after the end! To illustrate, just go to any fan fiction-based forum on the Internet and look up 'Gone With The Wind' to see just how many continuations there are - and how long they are...! We're talking book-lengths in the size of the original one!

I agree that Melanie Wilkes is a to some extent stronger and more interesting and likable character, but without Scarlett it would be a dull affair. Melanie is the perfect female specimen in many regards: frail on the outside, but tough on the inside; she's unbelievably selfless, caring and tolerant - perhaps too much since she's prone to think more of others than taking care of herself. She has her flaws, besides being physically frail, e.g. being blind to the fact that Scarlett lusts after her husband, but she may also just be turning a blind eye to the matter, having complete faith in both her husband and her best friend and sister-in-law. Like Mammy and Rhett she loves Scarlett and supports her, when society doesn't, and even sees clearly what Scarlett doesn't herself: That Scarlett truly loves Rhett and he her. Thus Melanie isn't afraid that anything could happen between Scarlett and Ashley, but that can also be seen as plain stupid since she rather naively believes love always overcomes lust. She also carries a more blind admiration for Scarlett than Rhett and Mammy do, thus not always seeing the things that should set her alarm clocks off.

But that is what I love about Gone With The Wind: Here we literally have two sides of the same coin; two different, yet iconic female characters you can include and critique in the complex representation of women - for feminists and alike to promote. And it's the diversity, complexity and open-mindedness I seek to promote when I speak of feminism and realistic representation of women. As Voltaire once said: "We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good; we do the best we know", and I think GWTW shows us exactly this spectrum of being a human through the different characters in the story.

Of course, one of the most controversial thing about Gone With The Wind to put a finger on - also in this matter - is the book's underlying racist tendencies (e.g. glorifying and justifying the KKK) and furthermore, portrayal and representation of Afro-Americans, particularly women, in the book as well as the film, especially regarding their status as slaves. Hattie McDaniel, who plays Mammy, is as always the uncut jewel of them all, but to say she's a realistic or fair representation would be a shame since she's not given much to work with - at least, not enough to give a more complex and critical portrayal of her race and/or gender. She will forever stand as the loyal house slave among Afro-Americans - the 'Mammy archetype' - which is problematic, to say the least. I can't even talk about the highly offensive and demeaning black character, Prissy, or what poor actress, Butterfly McQueen, suffered through playing her!
Though we've come a long way since then, we've still got a long way to go when it comes to racial representation - not to speak of women of color in general. However, The Help (Kathryn Stockett, 2009; film adaptation: Tate Taylor, 2011) is an excellent - and much needed - example of a story that deals honestly and critically with these matters, some ten decades later.

Butterfly McQueen (left) and Hattie McDaniel (right) on the set
of GWTW 

If we focus on Scarlett's story, Gone With The Wind is so much more than a love story, an epic tale of a historic, revolutionary era in America, or a woman's journey through it all. It's all this combined and its insight in human nature at its most extreme and its most basic that transcends and stays relevant and timeless to this very day.

You still don't like Scarlett? Well, that's quite alright and you certainly don't have to carry any traditional views on gender roles as such, though one can do so more or less unconsciously. I know I do myself in some way or another; my immediate reactions, how short they may be, are often coined to heteronormativity and what is conceived as 'normal'. Even if I don't like to react this way, it is what society and the media inherently has taught me (all of us, really) ever since a very young age, no matter the positive influence from those around you. However, once you've realized this, one can always choose to expand this field of knowledge to contain a more complex and open spectrum. At least, that's what I always try to do. Ironically, society and the media can help you do that as well, once you've adopted a more critical sense to the information you seek and gain.

Regarding Scarlett, I feel some ambivalence towards her myself, but I somehow like that feeling as well. I like not knowing entirely what she's on about. Maybe she is a bitch - or she's simply a woman with a drive. After all, in a man's world what is a girl to do if she's just a bit more impatient, stubborn and ambitious than the rest of her sex? And just because she chooses to act and be autonomous like men always have, she's to be called a bitch? That doesn't seem fair, but apparently that's the only word people have been able to come up with, so why not just live up to it? Scarlett fits the description rather perfectly, and if she doesn't give a damn about reputation when more important matters are at stake, then why should we? That's what I like about her! However, as I said, liking her doesn't come without some sacrifices on one's behalf. My conscience and principles have often been compromised and outraged by some of Scarlett's actions, but she's a complex spirit; more autonomous and self-reliant than most (teens) her age, but still far from grown up. It's easy to sense her own inner conflicts and confusion in between the lines, especially when it comes to Melanie, Ashley and Rhett. It is as if she's just about to realize the truth and her own misconception of things, but she quickly shrugs it off with that unfathomable, stubborn pride of hers. Foolish girl! But her flaws also makes her so real. I simply cannot hate her for her 'realness' in that regard. Perhaps it isn't so much about whether you hate or love her, but that you hate loving her or love hating her..? Or maybe not? You see, she's a pretty hard character to make out. Every time, I make some analytical, conclusive remarks about her, I change my mind and conclude something else. Actually, she would be great a case for a psychological analysis! 

And the fact that her and Rhett are so alike and yet differ on certain points makes them so interesting to watch and dissect. Their age gap, I believe, is one of the crucial differences between them, given that Rhett has had far more time to be young and foolish (which he undoubtedly has - just think of a male teenage version of Scarlett) and now, well into his 30s-40s, is far more mature than Scarlett when they marry. Remember, she has hardly had any time to grow up and be young in midst of war and hunger. That is, paradoxically, also to some extent beneficial - especially for Scarlett - since Rhett's maturity and experience (combined with a worthy personality) not only gives Scarlett a run for her money but, in the end, also some important life lessons and a person whose intelligence and life experiences she can't help but admire.
I still argue that this love story is so classic, so profound and memorable, because Scarlett and Rhett are of that strange, paradoxical, yet all the more interesting and realistic, relationship where they are the same and then not. I would say, they are complementary equals; equal souls who are equally complex and flawed - in the same way Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, or Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, are to each other, respectively. However, where the arches of the other stories have satisfying endings, where wounds are licked and love re-established, Rhett and Scarlett's story ends in the open; inconclusive, nerve-racked, and highly dissatisfying (but certainly never boring nor mediocre despite its melodrama!). Because, in our minds, we expect fiction to give us the happy ending real life cannot always give and bring the soulmates together. But sometimes the inconclusiveness, the ambiguity of fiction can give us so much more in return and continue to feed our dreams and imagination in ways happy endings cannot always do.

To quote Voltaire once again: "Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous". To dismiss Scarlett entirely would be a fault indeed, in my opinion, since you can learn a lot from her and this story - what to do and what not to do - but most importantly, how your own views on and expectations to women, men, gender, representation and fiction in general are. If you get something else entirely out of GWTW, whether it's a big romantic rush, a highly critical analysis of the racial issues at stake or simply questions its genre - it's perfect as well; that's what literature, film and art etc. should do to us, in my opinion: Present different views of the world around us and make us question them (and our own) as well.

Further interesting reading material about above-mentioned subjects can also be found in "Scarlett's Women: 'Gone With The Wind' and its Female Fan" (1989) by Helen Taylor, though some of the discussions and analyses in it may be a bit outdated, and to some extent, colored by feminist reading:

Or a more recent studies that expand a lot of the points already made here: "A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O'Hara and Her Literary Daughters" by Margaret D. Bauer from 2014. You can read a snippet from it here.

PS. By the way, did I mention how utterly perfect and brilliant Vivien Leigh is as Scarlett..??!

(A/N: Boy, I don't think I've stressed so many words in one post before - or ever written such a long one(!) - but it has been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time now. Phew! Nice to finally get it all out, though I don't doubt I will edit, expand and revise it over time.)


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