the Old South:
A Feminist, Historical Analysis of
Gone With the Wind
with the Wind has been hailed
as a triumph of American literature
and film. In 1937, Margaret Mitchell
won the Pulitzer Prize for her sweeping
portrayal of the crumbling of the
Old South. Since then, the novel has
sold millions of copies. The film,
a production by David O. Selznick,
exceeded all expectations, receiving
critical and public acclaim that included
an unprecedented ten Academy Awards.
Even today, Gone with the Wind, despite
its many historical inaccuracies,
forms the basis of American popular
memory of the Old South. There have
been many tales of the Old South in
the years since the Civil War, but
Margaret Mitchell's tale is the one
that is most deeply embedded in American
culture. An important element of the
story's popularity is Scarlett O'Hara,
a strong female character.
obsession with Gone with the Wind
began with the first publications
of the novel, grew with the fevered
search for the perfect actress to
play Scarlett O'Hara, and exploded
with the outrageous popularity of
the film. Throughout this transition
from novel to film, the story underwent
many changes. Revisions in dialogue,
in the number of children Scarlett
bears, and in other details are abundant
in the film. Nearly every scholar
who has written on Gone with the Wind
has pointed out those changes, but
what is perhaps of even greater importance
is what remained the same - the character
of Scarlett. Strong willed, determined,
and with a finely honed survivalist
instinct, Scarlett's nature was unchanged
by the transition from book to film.
the book was published, the character
of Scarlett O'Hara would have been
a familiar one to readers well acquainted
with the history of Southern literature.
William R. Taylor's _Cavalier and
Yankee_ is perhaps the best historical
analysis of the literary tradition
that gave birth to Margaret Mitchell's
novel. Taylor thoroughly examines
what he labels "plantation literature,"
novels revolving around Southern plantations
written in the 1830's, 1840's, and
1850's. (1) Southern women in the
novels Taylor examines hold a place
of extreme importance. In fact, Taylor
declares the Southern plantation mistress
the "heart and soul" of the plantation.
Their daughters reflect their strength;
Taylor even describes them as "Amazonish."
Gone with the Wind is the story of
a woman of great strength overcoming
all odds to care for her family and
herself. Scarlett marries a man she
does not love in order to get the
money to save Tara, their plantation.
Scarlett disregards public opinion,
buying and running two sawmills in
order to maintain her family's financial
security. When her sister and the
house servants complain, Scarlett
even works in the fields of Tara herself
to ensure a good harvest of cotton.
Most shocking, though, is when Scarlett
kills a Yankee who has come to steal
is not the only strong female character
in the story. It is Ellen O'Hara,
Scarlett's mother, who is the picture
of Southern gentility. Her voice is
"never raised in command to a servant
or reproof to a child" yet is "obeyed
instantly." (3) Symbolically, Ellen
dies along with the plantation after
the Yankees come through Georgia.
Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett's sister-in-law,
is also representative of a kind of
quiet, gentile strength. She possesses
an otherworldly kindness, and is a
paragon of maternalism.
women's actions echo the plantation
literature of the 1830's, 1840's,
and 1850's. Though larger American
society may have emphasized female
timidity, the female characters' strength
is an admirable trait accorded particularly
to white Southern women in traditional
Viewers of the film might also have
been familiar with its cinematic foundation.
Early twentieth-century films about
the South share four basic characteristics:
the romanticizing of the Old South,
the reconciliation of North and South,
the spoiled and strong-willed Southern
belles, and the happy complacency
of slaves. (4) All of these characteristics
are present, and even aggrandized,
in David O. Selznick's Gone with the
of the romanticization of the Old
South was due to a turn away from
Mitchell's attempts at realism. Changes
in the story wrought by the Production
Code, a censorship organization, smoothed
over the ugliness that was present
in the book. The characters in the
film no longer inhabit a world full
of racist slurs, brothels, and painful
miscarriages and births. Instead,
Selznick's South is generally a safe
world inhabited by "righteous" people.
from across the country not only praised
the film, they lamented the passing
of the Old South, further proof of
Selznick's success at romanticizing
the region. One reviewer from the
San Francisco Chronicle wrote woefully
of "how completely the gracious, patrician
life of the Old South, the life of
Tara and Twelve Oaks, has been shattered,
never to be reclaimed." (5) Though
the almost blind acceptance of the
mythical South is startling, it is
less so when placed into context;
Gone with the Wind had many predecessors
to bolster its outrageous portrayal
of the South.
the most reprehensible elements of
this story are the black characters.
Unlike the complex, strong-willed
white women, the black women in the
film and novel are decidedly one-dimensional.
Though Mitchell does assert their
intelligence, she also relies heavily
on stereotypes, such as the Mammy,
to fill out the black characters.
In the transition to film the characters
become even less realistic.
historian Edward Campbell found that
slaves portrayed in the films of the
early twentieth century led "pleasantly
uncomplicated" lives. The slaves in
these films were generally minor,
stereotyped characters who lived in
happy complacency. These portrayals
persisted until the late 1960's, when
films such as Slaves and Roots challenged
the one-dimensional, demeaning characterizations
of blacks. (6)
Gone with the Wind clearly falls in
line with the flat characterizations.
Without Mitchell's reminders of the
intelligence of black characters,
they become superficial and even unintelligent.
Prissy, a young former slave, undergoes
a particularly unpleasant transformation.
Though she is lazy in the book, she
becomes infuriatingly half-witted
in the film.
then, should we interpret Gone with
the Wind? Historically, there is no
question of its inaccuracies. The
rosy, romantic Old South in the novel
and film is a figment of American
popular imagination, but one that
has deep roots in our culture and
is not likely to be expelled easily.
From a feminist view, the question
becomes more complicated. From a presentist
feminist perspective, there are troubling
elements even in the stories of the
white female characters. Perhaps the
best example is the scene in which
Rhett forces Scarlett into bed, and
she thoroughly enjoys herself, smacking
of dangerous stereotypes of rape.
She says "no," but really means "yes."
looking at the story from the perspective
of a woman in the 1930s may change
things. A film and novel with female
characters as strong as Scarlett,
Ellen, and Melanie, might have been
a positive influence. The women reading
the book or watching the film in the
1930s were coming out of the Great
Depression, and perhaps gained strength
and inspiration from the characters
in the story. Certainly, Scarlett's
famous determination not to be hungry
again rang true with much of the audience.
the film and novel do not have such
positive messages for black women.
The Freedman's Bureau is a corrupt
Yankee institution, the Ku Klux Klan
is an organization that respectable
white men join, and the slaves are
portrayed as happiest on the plantation
under the paternalistic power of whites.
In the film, in particular, the black
characters are foolish, unfailingly
loyal to the whites who were their
masters, and unable to survive on
their own. These are not messages
of strength. Some empowerment did
come out of the film, though. Hattie
McDaniel became the first black person
to win an Academy Award for her work
in Gone with the Wind. Such a step
forward is not to be taken lightly,
but still does not erase the essential
drive of the story, which rested on
assumptions of white superiority.
with the Wind leaves us with mixed
messages. White women are indeed portrayed
as strong and capable. Black women,
however, are not accorded this privilege.
For that reason alone, I would suppress
any instinct to label this film "feminist."
Though the women's rights movements
in America have had a history of being
exclusionary, I would like to believe
the direction of the movements is
toward inclusion. In order to achieve
such a lofty goal, we need to renounce
films and novels that only tell half
of a story.
the millions of people who remain
devoted to their romantic vision of
the Old South, there are many others
who are questioning the vision. When
the film was re-released into theatres
recently, picketers marched in protest.
Simply put, Margaret Mitchell's novel
and David O. Selznick's film are controversial,
and the center of controversy is the
best place for such complicated works.
For we need the people who love the
story for its artistry and strong
(white) female characters. But, we
need the protestors even more. We
need to be reminded that glossing
over the hardships of slavery and
Reconstruction is no small crime,
and that romanticizing the past is
a dangerous, though lucrative, business.
In short, we need to remember that
acknowledging reality is more important
than preserving a utopian memory.
1. William R. Taylor _Cavalier and
Yankee, The Old South and American
National Character_ (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1979) pp.18-21.
2. Taylor, pp.162-164.
3. Margaret Mitchell, _Gone with the
Wind_. (New York: Scribner, 1936)
4. Edward D.C. Campbell _The Celluloid
South, Hollywood and the Southern
Myth_ (Knoxville: the University of
Tennessee Press, 1981).
5. _San Francisco Chronicle_, January
26, 1940, quoted in Edward D.C. Campbell,
Jr. "The Old South as National Epic,"
in Richard Harwell, ed. _Gone With
the Wind as Book and Film_ (Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press,
6. Campbell, pp.17-20.
1. Campbell, Edward D.C. _The Celluloid
South, Hollywood and the Southern
Myth_. Knoxville: the University of
Tennessee Press, 1981.
2. Mitchell, Margaret _Gone with the
Wind_. New York: Scribner, 1936.
3. Selznick, David O., producer. _Gone
with the Wind_. 1939.
4. Taylor, William R. _Cavalier and
Yankee, The Old South and American
National Character_ Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1979.
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