Movies that Shaped Me: Gone With The Wind

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Gone with the Wind (1939)Gone with the Wind (1939)

Based on the novel by: Margaret Mitchell
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Screen play by: Sidney Howard
Written by: George Cukor, Sam Wood, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten
Produced by: David O. Selznick
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh

I don’t remember my mother ever reading to me (mainly because my brotherten years my eldertook it upon himself to manage my parenting), but I do remember reading to my mother when I was around ten years old. We’d cuddle up in her bed with kids books like Maybe A Mole, but eventually, my eyes turned to the books in her closet. Alice in Wonderland came first, but soon enough, I was devouring Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, the 733 page monster bound in blue leathermy first real grown up book.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

How could I not want to be her?

Back then, I didn’t understand many of the adult references, the historical events, the political, and racial significance. But it didn’t matter. I was in love with Scarlett O’Hara. Then I saw the movie. And I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara.

When I was but a pre-teen, I saw a precocious, confident young woman who knew what she wanted and would lie, cheat, or kill to get it. I didn’t really understand then that Scarlett was by no means a good person. I just saw the force of nature that pulled everyone along with her, crushing beneath her feet anyone that couldn’t keep up. Scarlett is driven by her selfish desires, lacks empathy, and is not above spite, but she is also a survivor. Fortunately for others, her love of her father and their home, Tara, as well as her (almost) unrequited infatuation with Ashley Wilkes keep her from truly leaving anyone behind, even if she wanted to.

Scarlett’s stubbornness is attributed to her beloved father, Gerald, and their Irish roots. Her attempts to adhere to her mother’s more gentle ways in order to be the sweet, placid girl society expects her to be only last so long. Scarlett is a woman whose instincts simply won’t allow her to confine herself to the kind of life she’s expected to lead. Yet she knows the game, and plays it when it suits her, marrying meneven stealing one from her own sisterto advance herself and take care of Tara. She might turn her nose up at Belle Watling, the woman who runs the bawdy house Rhett Butler frequents, but Scarlett also knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate men, even before she understands what sex is actually about. She is a woman of questionable morals. Selfish to a fault. Under the right circumstances, she could make the perfect villain. Just tip her a little further along the edge of sociopathy…

There’s a trend in the characters I have come to idolize since meeting Scarlett and in the characters that I play in video games. They share a common theme of confidence and determination and a ruthlessness that gets the job done despite the cost to their reputation. They can seem cold and distant, but only with those who don’t know them well enough. Who don’t earn their respect. They are the me that I wish I could be. The woman who can speak her mind without hesitation. Who knows what society and family expect of her, but can follow her heart too, even if it might hurt others to do so sometimes.

Scarlett is the opposite of “mealy-mouthed” Melly, whom I disliked when I was younger. I stupidly thought, just like Scarlett did, that Melanie Wilkes was weak and foolish. I didn’t want to admit to myself that Melly was not only ridiculously strong, but that she knew exactly what Scarlett was aboutright up to and including her friend’s desire for her husband, Ashley.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

We could have solved this whole problem with a threesome.

In a recent conversation, Claire called me “brave” for having children. For handing my body over to the lovable little parasites that will continue to feed off of me for years to come (my words there, not hers). I told her I didn’t think I was brave, not when I think about the women for whom pregnancy and labour are not only difficult or even impossible, but life-threatening. I told her about a co-worker who almost died having her first (after almost dying miscarrying a previous), and yet, when she saw me pregnant with my second, she wanted to risk it all again. Hearing this, Claire replied, “When I read Gone With The Wind I was like ‘damn Melly is hardcore, her single-minded I WILL HAVE THIS BABY AND DIE.” Melly refused to let Scarlett summon the doctor, lest he be taken away from the soldiers who needed him more. What is that, if not strength? Courage? The self-sacrifice of a true hero.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Real friends will help you bury the body.

Maybe when I was younger, I did get an inkling of what Melly truly was about in the scene when Scarlett is forced to shoot a soldier who has entered the house and threatens her. Melly, weak from birth, appears at the top of the stairs with her brother’s sword, intent on protecting Scarlett and the household. Could she have killed the man herself? It didn’t matter. What she does next though… lying to the others about what happened, stripping out of her clothes to let Scarlett use it to clean up the blood. Melly is more loyal friend and now partner in crime than Scarlett ever deserved, but Melly is not nearly as naive as she seems. And her genuine kindness is far from a sign of weakness.

Like Melly, Rhett Butler knows Scarlett better than this feisty woman ever gives him credit forbecause she’s so much like himself. When he sees her in widow’s black sitting at the corner of the ballroom, Rhett knows damn well that Scarlett isn’t mourning her dead husband. He knows that she wants nothing more in that moment than to dance like no one is watching herlike everyone is watching herand he gives her that. Reputation be damned.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Haters gonna hate.

Rhett knows her. Wants her. Pursues her. Even though he knows her heart belongs to another. Even though he knows Scarlett believes her heart belongs to another. It is Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley that truly drives her, and this is where my idolization of the woman falters, because ugh. Ashley. Handsome, brave, honourable, Ashley. But a man who can never be what Scarlett needs. He can never balance her fires, even though she thinks he ignites her flames. And this is what I love most about this storybecause she never gets the man she thinks she wants, and in the process, loses the partner she needs.

Perhaps this is where my love for inconclusive endings comes from. I am not one for happy Hollywood endings, with everything tied up in a pretty bow at the end. I love the finality of Rhett’s infamous last words as he walks out into the ambiguous fog. Scarlett finally understands what she truly needs in a partner, but it’s too late. Yet still, she will not give up. It’s not in her to give up. With the same determination that is with her when she vows never to go hungry again, she decides, after she watches him go, that she will return to her beloved Tara and figure out how to get Rhett back. And so the story closes with the promise that “tomorrow is another day.”

Oh I know there is a sequel, written by Alexandra Ripley, later a televised feature starring Timothy Dalton and Joanne Whalley. I haven’t bothered to read or see it (or maybe I did and just wiped it from my memory), because I’m quite satisfied with where Mitchell left things for us…

But I’m black. I’m not supposed to adore a movie that glorifies slavery, presenting me with happy darkies who are perfectly fine with the freedom they are granted by their nice plantation owners.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Tighter, dammit. I want to look like Cinderella.

When Hattie McDaniel won the first Academy Award ever given to a black actor for her role as Mammy, she was condemned by the black community for perpetuating the the stereotypes of slavery. She was called an “Uncle Tom” for going on to play more roles as a domestic servant and accepting $700 an hour to do so, rather than the $7 an hour she’d be paid to actually be one.

I won’t condemn her for that. Her victory was a step forward, even though she was denied the right to attend the Atlanta opening of the film, or sit with her fellow actors at the Oscar ceremony. But I will condemn Hollywood for the few steps further it has taken since then.

While I am certain that there were nice white folk who did treat their slaves nicely, even in my youth I recognized that this wasn’t the entirety of the story. And more importantly, I wasn’t watching GWTW for their story. If I want stories about the plight of slavery and the oppression of black people, I am more likely to enjoy watching and reading things like Roots and The Book of Negroesworks told through the eyes of those who suffered through slavery, aired as human interest pieces and presented for what they are, rather than as opportunities to show benevolent white folk coming to the rescue of the downtrodden. To alleviate white guilt. I don’t much care for the History Channel’s airing of Glory and The Tuskegee Airmen over and over again during Black History Month. Those are the kind of movies I will watch and appreciate. But I will also hate them. Not because they are bad movies. Not because these stories don’t need to be told. But because these are apparently the only kind of stories Hollywood thinks black people should be featured in and subsequently rewarded for (or not, as with Selmabut I’m sure some thinly veiled amends will be made at next year’s Oscar ceremony).

But I call myself a feminist. How can I like a movie where a woman’s worth is determined by marriage and features Rhett Butler carrying his wife literally kicking and screaming up to their marital bed to force himself on herand *gasp* she likes it!

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Was it good for you?

Let’s not be coy. I’m not talking about rape fantasies here, but truth is, sometimes a personeven a woman like melikes it when someone else takes charge once in a while. Someone she trusts, particularly when it comes to sex. That look on Scarlett’s face the morning after tells me that they got up to some really naughty and utterly satisfying things, and more importantly, that there was consent. Both book and film are a product of their times. Selznick made efforts to remove the more offensive racial aspects of the book when committing it to film, but explicit consent probably wasn’t on his radar. I can be more forgiving of a 1939 film for not including explicit consent than I can current shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones where not one, but two sex scenes were turned into rape thanks to the removal of the consent that was present in the books.

GWTW is a fantasy; it’s a war fantasy as told through the eyes of the losers. I wasn’t looking for political statements when I was watching this as a pre-teen and teenager and young adult. Now that I’m older, I certainly understand the criticisms, but I don’t let them take away from my enjoyment of this film. When I hear that opening theme, I am swept away to Tara. To rolling hills and gorgeous costumes. To the ravages of war and blight. To sly debutantes and dashing rogues and kind-hearted madames and shifty carpetbaggers.

This was the only interest of mine that my mother appreciated, understood, and encouraged. Everything elselike comic books, video games, and Star Warsshe dismissed as weird, but GWTW she could do, especially since she could later feed her own obsession with dolls. She bought me a Scarlett O’Hara Barbie, dressed in that scandalous red velvet number she wore to Melly’s party. And my husband will forever be creeped out by the porcelain Scarlett I got one Christmas. She stares blankly from her glass case, wearing the green velvet curtain dress designed by Bob Mackie and mocked by Carol Burnett. My mom bought me the special edition boxed VHS set, and admired the movie poster I kept on my bedroom walla static oddity among the ever-changing anime sketches, night club ads, panther posters, and gaming paraphernalia.

I don’t consider myself a true “Windie.” My love for this movie only goes so far. But it remains an important piece of who I am and who I wish to be.

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About Author

WWAC Assistant Editor and Left Hand. Also, mother, geek, gamer, writer, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.

12 Comments

  1. Wonderful piece, Wendy! I was really moved. I’ve only seen GWTW twice, so I wouldn’t count myself a huge fan, but you made me want to watch it again through a new lens. I particularly like how well you point out that appreciation (love, even) can live right alongside criticism.

  2. Claire Napier on

    I totally loved the sequel, Scarlett, but the risk of it not matching up to what you want from Ms O’Hara is probably real.

    The juggling of nuance in this piece is so strong.

    • I should watch Scarlett again. My view was probably also skewed by the fact that Joanne Whalley Kilmer is Sorcha. Not Scarlett. Stop crossing the streams!

      • Claire Napier on

        I’ve never watched it (it has Dalton, right? Can’t go wrong) but the book is some tasty DRAAAMAAA

        • I know I *had* the book and I feel like I did read it… but all I can remember is that Mammy was killed off right in the beginning. To me, that was just as painful as having Newt and Hicks drown in their own fluids in Alien 3.

          • I just finished reading the book, and I can promise Mammy is not killed off right at the beginning! In fact, she doesn’t die at all during the course of the book! I can’t even think of who you might be thinking of, because no one dies at the beginning of the book.

  3. Ginnis Tonik on

    I loved this Wendy. The nuance, the honesty, but also the unabashed pleasure in watching. Also, the comment about Ashley, Scarlett, and Mellie, harharhar!

    • Mellie would have been okay with this, I’m certain. Let Scarlett get it out of her system. It was Ashley that was all “ooh honour and chivalry I caaan’t.”

      • I really, really wanted Melly and Scarlett to become and item. That would have solved every issue I had with the book. Ashley could die for all I cared, he was the worst.

  4. Ack! I just noticed that you were talking about Scarlett, and not the book form of GWTW like I mistakenly thought. I am sorry! Mammy might well die in that, I wouldn’t know because I have not read it. Sorry for coming in here and stirring things up without warrant!

    • ha that’s okay! And I could be wrong. I read it a long time ago, or rather, I started reading it, but I recall Mammy being sick when Scarlett makes it back to Tara. Perhaps she doesn’t die, but I seem to remember that she did.