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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Janelle Collett

Romanticizing the Old South:
A Feminist, Historical Analysis of Gone With the Wind

Gone 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.

America's 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.

When 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." (2)

Indeed, 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 from Tara.

Scarlett 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.

The 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 plantation literature.

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 Wind.

Part 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.

Critics 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.

Among 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.

Film 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)

Selznick's 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.

How, 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."

However, 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.

Yet, 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.

Gone 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.

Despite 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) p.40.
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, 1983) p.181.
6. Campbell, pp.17-20.

Works Cited
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.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected].