25 January 2015

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

A complex anti-heroine – one of the few

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. However, 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!

'A good ol' bitch'? Or just sexism?

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 monthly cycles? 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 then 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.

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 trap 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 uncomplicated 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. ;)

Some admirable features

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, rather unfavourable '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 never comes to such realizations; she is a flat character, but Scarlett O'Hara is far from flat and thus all the more worthy of discussion.

Scarlett is hardly a lady by the late 19th century's standard; doesn't display any outward (or conventional) motherly or loving instincts towards her children or married life - which is still expected as something inherently natural all women should show - but she doesn't abandon her home or let her family starve. She does everything she can so that they can survive while also housing, feeding and nursing passing soldiers - even starving herself and almost selling herself as mistress to Rhett in order to get the much needed money. 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.
I can hardly get my arms down over this feat, so why doesn't she get more credit and recognition for this in general?

The complementary and equally complex soulmate

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, compassionate/fatherly, 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.

Scarlett and Rhett's relationship reviewed

Does Scarlett have something Rhett 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 for two characters who have survived a war!) 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 stopped 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/survivors, 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)?!

The controversy, part 1

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 sensations 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 book/film 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 and never to be excused, but to be factual and honest, we don't know how things exactly unfolded up there.
In my eyes, the whole ordeal is as much about what we read into things and how we do it, especially regarding fiction, 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.

Was that the end or...?

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, who 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 extensive they are...! We're almost talking book-lengths in the size of the original one!

Two sides of the same coin

I agree that Melanie Wilkes is a, to some extent, stronger and more 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.

The controversy, part 2

Of course, one of the most controversial things about Gone With The Wind is the book's underlying as well as explicit racist tendencies (e.g. glorifying and justifying the KKK) and furthermore, portrayal and representation of Afro-Americans. Particularly the women, in the book as well as the film, and 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 giving voice and agency to women of color in general.

In this regard, Scarlett comes to suffer as well - but on entirely different terms! She suffers as a fictive, feminist icon reviewed as I have done so far because, for all her complexity, she - and her creator - are so clearly born within the racist mindset of the South; ignoring, downplaying and/or stereotyping the roles of Afro-Americans and the history of slavery. There's hardly any acknowledgement of them! They are just...there. Being and doing what they are 'supposed' to be and do: Slaves.

Though, most of time (except that awful KKK insinuation and Prissy getting slapped by Scarlett), there's no outright racist violence or abuse committed against the slaves by the main characters. In the case of Scarlett, she clearly expresses a close, affectionate child-mother bond with Mammy - which was not uncommon at the time, since slave owners often let their children be cared for by their slaves through most of their youth.
At times, the slaves are even treated with respect and admiration by Scarlett and Rhett in separate instances, but the treatment comes painfully two-faced since Scarlett, despite her love for her, never frees Mammy. Scarlett never sees a reason why she should and depends on Mammy for her own selfish reasons. The same hypocrisy goes for Rhett when he immediately decides to help initiate the lynching of an Afro-American who harassed Scarlett. All in all, this two-faced treatment screams of the racist mindset so many Southerners had (and, sadly, still have).

Besides, Scarlett never seems to pay much thought to the true issue behind the Civil War - which otherwise fills half the book with convoluted, military details! - and she is never directly or even indirectly punished or criticized for her treatment of the slaves by the author, reflecting the author's own (lacking) awareness or blindness to the matter. Margaret Mitchell, a born Southerner herself, was known for glorifying the South and its history and she prided herself with it as the book and film gained success.

Though one could argue that Scarlett in general is too selfish to see beyond her own nose; too caught up in her own game to even acknowledge those of her non-colored acquaintances, nor even questioning her own faulty behavior towards them, there will always be the underlying theme - for her and all the other characters as well as the author herself - of never questioning or addressing the real reason behind the Civil War: The fundamental and inhuman problem of slavery and racism.

This concludes that both book and film are truly products of their time - and with an archaic mindset of an even earlier time - which needs to be taken into account and addressed.
And whatever admirable or interesting things Scarlett may stand for, they will always remain in the white feminist category. The fact that she can never be an inclusive icon in the feminist agenda is troublesome, indeed.

I want to bear in mind that this influences my own standpoint (since I am both white and female), but I also want to become aware, acknowledge and address this very important and relevant problem (thus the reason behind this update, though somewhat late in the process). Not because I want to prove myself as any better or wiser or less inherently/institutionally racist that anyone else, but because I want to learn and become better at spotting my own privilege and its blind spots. Sometimes that takes a lifetime, but I'm always prepared to question my own standpoint.

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

In conclusion: Another point of view

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 fully liking a character; it just makes the character more interesting and I'm always curious to poke at the reasons why I don't like that particular person. I like not knowing entirely what she's on about.

Maybe Scarlett is an egotistical bitch, born into the mindset of racism however explicit or implicit she expresses it. But she's also a woman with a drive. And, sadly, we don't have many female narratives with the kind of complexity that Scarlett entails. 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! 
Vivien Leigh herself made some pretty interesting observations about Scarlett, her life's role, as well, and which sorta concludes all of the above:
“Scarlett fascinated me but she needed a good healthy, old-fashioned spanking on a number of occasions and I should have been delighted to give it to her. But she had courage and determination and that is why women must secretly admire her- even though we can’t feel happy about her too many shortcomings.”
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, death 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, thus making their love stories so classic and enduring. 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, race and fiction in general are. If you get something else entirely out of GWTW, whether it's a big romantic rush, a highly critical discussion of the unaddressed 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.

Bonus material

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.

***LAST EDITED 08-17-17***


  1. this was a great write up. i used to think Scarlett was a "bitch on wheels" as someone i knew once called her. Scarlett is amazing as a female character. she's not a bitch at all she's bull headed and knew exactly what she wanted and went for it while all the other women and even the men of the south just sat around with their tails between their legs over their loss. Scarlett went out there, worked, and made the money she wanted by herself to live a life she wanted. GOOD FOR HER! some of her methods for getting her money and pushing forward are a bit shady but she did them and got what she wanted i got no complaints there.
    i watch a lot of TV shows with strong female leads. there is one show in particular where the lead character is almost exactly like Scarlett in doing what she can to survive. the TV character jumped a guy's bones in the first ep but she did it to not be found out. some can call her slut but i definitely don't at all. she did what she had to do to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. there are better examples for that character but that's the one that always comes into my mind.
    Scarlett will always be a character to both love and hate. movie and book Scarlett are two different women. movie Scarlett is more likable and rightly so since movie audiences need/want someone to sympathize with. book Scarlett was not as likable. i love and, not exactly hate nor dislike, both book and movie Scarlett. those feelings i think are what makes fans of hers and people who watch the movie so passionate because there are two very intense sides to Scarlett and all that is projected onto her by the other characters.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by for a comment! And a very delightful comment at that! So nice to see there are others who can see beyond the 'bitch'-surface of Scarlett ;)
      I also used to think of her as merely a 'bitch on wheels', and though the word 'bitch' is a very ambivalent word to me and in Scarlett's case doesn't do her credit, I also somehow like the idea of Scarlett being a 'bitch on wheels'. It means she's got drive and a bit of 'to hell with the rest'-attitude! However, 'bitch' is too often overused and wrongfully applied. If only we could get over the word and come up with something a bit more fair and creative that doesn't demonize women with guts and ambition entirely (again, why does women get all the bashing?). Of course, one shouldn't idealize Scarlett entirely, but neither should one make her the villain. Rhett also gets slurs, such as 'scoundrel' and 'scallywag', but they only seem to add to his romantic persona as a 'charming rogue'. Somehow it's 'okay' and 'expected' that he behaves as he does (because he's man and much older than her?), though he can be blamed for doing a lot of cruel and rash things, too; partly spurred by Scarlett, partly spurring her.

    2. Ashton Main was not stupid. She was a lot more unpleasant than Scarlett . . . a villainess.

    3. Ashton Main was not stupid. She was a lot more unpleasant than Scarlett . . . a villainess.

    4. Well, yes that could also be argued, and true, she was a lot more unpleasant and villainous than Scarlett. I guess my perspective of Ashton being 'plain stupid' is mainly colored by the very one-dimensional and stereotypical characterization of her 'Southern Belle'. But, honestly, I cannot recall Ashton actually succeeding in any of her attempts to achieve what she wants, and if she'd had just a little more brain (like Scarlett, though it may be an unfair comparison on a whole?) she could perhaps have had a little more to her story line. So, objectively speaking, even for a villainess, I wouldn't exactly call her neither smart nor shrewd. Then again, none of John Jake's characters in those series are that complex or well-written to begin with (hence the slightly unfair comparison to Mitchell's writings, perhaps). But thanks for the input!