Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Melody N., who teaches American History in Oklahoma, with an emphasis on the mid-19th century, so movies like Gone With the Wind make her especially crazy.
Gone With the Wind (1939) remains, 83 years after its debut, the highest grossing movie in film history (adjusting for inflation, of course). And why not? It is a spectacle in every sense of the word. It is huge, it is colorful, it is sweeping. Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, it tells the story of a clever, even ruthless woman who steadfastly refuses to let anyone take what is hers. For Depression-era audiences, Scarlett O’Hara’s declaration that she would never go hungry again must have been thrilling. Her determination to rebuild — and this time better than ever! — must have been inspiring. Like virtually all historically set films, it had something to say to its modern audience about their own time and their own struggles.
So why do we now, in 2022, grimace a little when we talk about Gone With the Wind? Why are our feelings towards this blockbuster epic complicated at best? “It’s because of the Civil War thing,” we said, shrugging awkwardly, “and, you know … the way it depicts Black people.”
And that’s where I nod, somewhere between historian and therapist, and say, “Would you like to unpack that?”
Gone With the Wind is very honest about itself. It tells the audience exactly what sort of story it is, right off the bat, right in the opening crawl.
This is a story of the Lost Cause
You may not recognize the term, and that’s all right. If you have even a passing knowledge of U.S. history, you’ve probably encountered the concept, even if you didn’t know that’s what it was called. The Lost Cause is a historical mythology, a way of remembering the American Civil War and the decades before and after it. In it, the antebellum American South was a gracious, genteel place, an elegant and orderly society that was ultimately too good for this world. When the war came (rather like a natural disaster — the South is blameless of the outpouring of hostility they endure from their Northern neighbors), the men of the South fought bravely and honorably, but it was a fight they could not win. They were then forced to suffer the humiliation of occupation, and the horror of having their former slaves turned against them by Northern propaganda. Because of this, the ‘Redemption’ of Southern state governments from Republicans and Black men was necessary to restore order and stability once more.
Let’s not mince words — the Lost Cause is white supremacist bullshit, and revisionist history at its finest. It is pure-strain copium, designed to absolve the white South of any guilt in their slaveholding, and of starting a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and then refusing to accept the outcome of that war. And by the turn of the 20th century, it was also the nationally accepted history of the era, North and South.
The ease with which the Lost Cause became the dominant historical narrative of the nation in the post-Civil War era is a tale unto itself, but this is the historical water in which Gone With the Wind swims. And once you know what to look for, boy is it obvious! Let’s look at a few ways the film illustrates my point.
It romanticizes the pre-Civil War South
Other than the title card extolling “knights and their ladies fair”, the best example of this is the barbecue at Twelve Oaks.
If this scene reminds the period drama fan of English garden parties, there’s a reason. The Southern slaveholding class viewed themselves as the American counterpart to the British landed gentry, and aspired to the same level of well-mannered snobbery. This is well illustrated in the two objects of Scarlett O’Hara’s affection — the gentleman par excellence Ashley Wilkes, heir to the Twelve Oaks plantation and so correct and chivalrous he probably puts his coat over mud puddles when he’s alone, and the roguish Rhett Butler, who has made his fortune in trade (hissed in our best Bingley sister voices).
The Twelve Oaks barbecue is, like all scenes of this kind, a celebration of the leisure class, of beauty and elegance that is only made possible by the unseen labor of others who are NOT invited to the party. But this is the point. By presenting this gathering of slaveholders with the visual language of any Victorian tea, the film is accepting without question that these people, and the society they sit atop, are refined and civilized.
It presents the Civil War as a tragedy brought on by the cruel North
The barbecue ends abruptly with the news that Abraham Lincoln has called for volunteers to fight the South. What a shocking act of aggression! Who could have foreseen this?
Oh right. Georgia had already seceded from the United States four months before this scene happens, in response to Lincoln’s election as president. In reality, most of the guys at this party would have already been forming militia units.
Scarlett marries her best friend’s dweeby brother five minutes before he goes off to war, and then he dies approximately five minutes later, a sad plot device designed to get her to Atlanta. There she endures the city besieged by the Union Army, and ultimately sees it burned.
So she returns home to the family plantation of Tara, and finds it in ruins.
For the remainder of the war, Scarlett is left to keep it together as the rest of her family crumbles under the pressure of their circumstances. It’s moving, affecting stuff, the section of the movie that likely resonated the strongest with its original late-Depression audience … and never once is the viewer asked to consider that this suffering might have any other source than Northern hostility.
It portrays Reconstruction as a disaster
Scarlett gets married again after the war, to another man she doesn’t love, in an effort to save her beloved Tara with his money. Tara is in jeopardy because of the new high taxes being levied by the Reconstruction government, which is corrupt, unfit, and undemocratic.
At least, that’s the Lost Cause line. The new state governments that came into power in the former Confederacy in the late 1860s and early 1870s did so on the strength of Unionists (white Southerners who had rejected secession, and in many cases, joined the Republican party) and new electoral power of freedmen, after Black men gained the right to vote with the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. These governments did raise taxes (substantially, in some cases), but what Gone With the Wind doesn’t mention is that those revenues were intended to fund public schools, state hospitals, and infrastructure projects. And charges of political corruption can’t be dismissed out of hand, but political corruption was a nation-wide problem in the post-Civil War era. For adherents of the Lost Cause, bringing up corruption was a way to smear the Republicans, and especially their Black allies, as incapable of good governance.
But the movie doesn’t have much to say about the fitness of Black people for a role other than slavery (except for one way I’ll get to in a minute). Instead, it sidesteps the issue of freedmen and the myriad ways the white South tried to reassert its power over them, and in doing so, makes some really odd choices.
After marrying Frank Kennedy, Scarlett takes a personal hand in his business ventures, including a sawmill that is manned by convicts leased from Georgia jails. And convict leasing was a very, very real thing in the post-war South, but … in the movie, the convicts are all white men. While it’s true that many of the laws designed to oppress Southern Blacks landed on many poor whites as well, the openly stated goal of convict leasing was to regain control of Black labor. The majority of those men should be Black, yet the movie shies away from this.
And when Scarlett is attacked while passing through the shanty town, her assailant is white as well. There is a Black man who takes part, but he does not menace her directly. In this case, we can see the multiracial nature of this criminals’ squatter village as a sign of the degradation of post-war society. Poor whites no longer recognize their superiority over Black people, nor do they respect the land-owning class as their social betters. Without the order of the slave system, there is anarchy.
In fact, it takes a Black man to rescue Scarlett from her peril.
Bonus Points! The Faithful Slave trope
Hattie McDaniel famously took the role of Mammy over the objections of the NAACP, believing it better to be visibly Black on-screen regardless of the job. In essence, she was refusing to let perfect be the enemy of good enough, which is an understandable position. Unfortunately for McDaniel, Mammy, Big Sam, Pork, and Patsy are all representatives of a cherished piece of the Lost Cause — the idea of the Faithful Slave.
The Faithful Slave is an archetype, an answer to the assertive freedmen who demanded their rights and lived their lives in accordance to their own desires. Black people taking the jobs they pleased, dressing the way they pleased, and raising their children as they pleased was intolerable to white Southerners, who lashed out against this change in the status quo. It was foolish Black people believing themselves capable of being the legal and social equals of white people that made Reconstruction such a disaster, Lost Causers maintained, and to back up this claim, they presented the Faithful Slave.
The Faithful Slave didn’t flee when the Union army approached. They didn’t make demands. They didn’t rock the boat. They didn’t try to transgress racial norms. They were happy to continue on as they had before, devoted not to themselves or their own families, but to the white people they served.
Certainly there were people who remained in the service of those who had enslaved them, or at the very least maintained some kind of relationship. There were a lot of reasons why this occurred, and they were inevitably complicated and deeply personal. But a trope doesn’t care about real people, and while Mammy’s love for Scarlett is very real, because of the perspective the story is being told from, it becomes extremely difficult to separate character motivation from propaganda.
Ultimately, what makes Gone With the Wind so difficult for us is that our understanding of the meaning of the Civil War has changed dramatically in the 80 plus years since it was made, even though there are still an uncomfortably large number of Lost Cause diehards determined not to let go of a myth that has given them so much comfort over the years. There is a fascinating story at the heart of Gone With the Wind, the story of a sharp, clever, take-no-prisoners woman who lives her life on her own terms. Scarlett O’Hara is, at times, almost an antihero in the movie’s willingness to let her be unlikeable. But it is the world she is set in, with its presumptions about race and the society those presumptions create, that clouds the story. I’d like to think there’s a way to lift Scarlett O’Hara, in all her complexity (and with her pretty dresses!), out of that fog, but with so much of America still so unwilling to grapple with our history, I’m really not sure how.
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