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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I never was a Scarlett fan, bc I preferred Melanie. The film as well as the book raised my hackles bc it was SO romanticised and portrayed slaves as SO happy. House slaves that is. And I was Team Rhett. Ashley might have been honorable but he was sorta wussy.
If it was made today, I’d have Mammy and Prissy secretly running a Underground RR station out of Tara.
There’s a short story where Prissy tells Mammy in private that she has secretly been sabotaging everything, salting the earth, etc, and Mammy is like “you go, you bad girl.” I can’t remember where it’s from, but I know it was a collection of “alternative viewpoints” including, IIRC, a letter from Blanche in Jane Eyre.
I think that’s “Texts from Jane Eyre” by Danny Lavery who at that time was publishing using the name Mallory Ortberg. A+ book.
Fascinating article. I have that Lavery book and will have to have a look for the piece in question!
Enslaved people’s acts of resistance is actually a big part of the historical scholarship of American slavery! Actual, physical escape was pretty rare, but sabotage and subversion were a lot more common than (white) folks realized.
Oh white owners were aware that they were being sabotaged and resisted, they just refused to believe it was a conscious and deliberate strategy. Enslaved people fought hard to achieve some agency and control over their lives and quite often succeeded. Many slave owners were ready to make concessions for a quiet life and almost none were willing to put in the sheer effort necessary to coerce submission. Few plantation owners were willing to put in the necessary effort to effectively manage their land and workforce. The lack of system and organization must have been infuriating for their enslaved workers who would find themselves being ordered hither and thither, never able to finish a job or know what they’d be doing from day to day.
I’ve never had the chance to read this but Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is more or less what you suggested plot wise
The Mitchell estate lost their minds when this was published. Interesting.
“The Wind Done Gone” was pretty fascinating. It should have been much longer, but Randall had a hard enough time just getting her basic plot published.
There’s a line of books called Remixed Classics, that basically takes the basic plot/premise of classic novels and makes them diverse, like So Many Beginnings is a Little Women “remix” with a black formerly enslaved March family. It’d be interesting for something like that with GWTW. The Wind Done Gone is interesting, but like you said, the length didn’t quite capture the sweeping feel of GWTW obviously.
really interesting, thank you!
Great read on this subject. I read the book when I was in sixth grade and hated Scarlett. But the movie brings back memories of my grandmother having me watch it. Again I hated Scarlett but loved the costumes.
Thank you for writing this rational and well-reasoned article. I was never a GWTW fan and everything in it explained why.
My mother either read the book or saw the movie as an older teen, and apparently it was world changing. Not for race relations, of course, her being white and all, but for unexpected ways that men and women could interact, much differently than her New England upbringing had revealed.
This doesn’t redeem it, of course, but it’s a perspective I wouldn’t have realized existed, before she mentioned it a while back.
PS: Mom is in her 80s now.
As a dyed in the wool Yankee I’ve never had any patience with the cavaliers and cotton fields version of the Old South. For one thing a surprising number of large plantation owners were self made men like Gerald O’Hara and those who weren’t tended to be on their way down burdened by debts due to conspicuous consumption, poor management and the sheer inefficiency of the slave system. Slave owners lived in fear of their ‘people’, slaves lived in fear of masters who might turn violent at any moment for no discernable reason and poor whites seethed with resentment because they were looked down on by everybody. The Old South was hell foe everybody living in it.
The individuals negotiating this rather horrible and dysfunctional culture formed relationships and alliances sometimes across color lines. Slaves and slave owners lived cheek by jowl; black slaves raised white children, black children played with their owners’ children and quite often they were blood relations.
It is perfectly understandable that some freedmen preferred to stay where they were and negotiate a new relationship with their former masters. To the infinite credit of the black population they were not in general vengeful but willing to forgive and move on. It was the white losers who were vengeful.
I’m with Roxana, in that GWTW always made me want to throw it across the room. Interesting and passionate characters – but the Old South was hell, no matter how you slice it for everyone black and white alike, save a handful of the blandly privileged. My one American-born Grandmother was from a Pennsylvania Quaker family who were passionate Abolitionists, and operated a safe house for the Underground Railway.
Good for them! What a wonderful family history!
But blacks understandably worried about what would become of them if they abandoned home and community for freedom. They knew that the white world was hostile and there was only so much allies could do to help. Choosing the evils they knew, while bearable, must often have seemed the better choice.
The options for ex-slaves were dreary. If you weren’t young, you really had no home or options. There were Contraband Camps where thousands died of disease. The Freedman’s Bureau actually suggested to people that they should go back to their former slave-owners.
GWTW doesn’t suggest the South fought the war due to States’ Rights and it does show the violence of enslavement–as Scarlett hauls off and hits Prissy ( who delightfully can be shown mouthing “FU” in a previous scene.) But aside from the many things I could point out about the story to prove it’s not quite as simple as some fashionable thinking has it, few point out that Scarlett dislikes the Confederacy. She says “They make me sick–all of them! Getting us all into this with their swaggering and boasting.” Rhett says “The ” Cause” of living in the past is dying right in front of us….Waste always makes me sick, and that’s what all this is– sheer waste.” Ashley makes similar comments. GWTW is about outsiders produced by their environment and questioning it, while conflictedly loving their home. We audiences (all races) can relate because we all have nostalgia, even for times of our ignorance. The best thing about slamming GWTW is that it lets us feel like we have grown up and are morally superior. But for American citizens how do we authenticity resolve our citizenship with all the exploitation and privilege we thrive on today? It’s there and doesn’t end with black people or trying to call out the glamour of a movie that exposes a lot about us.
The damage done by Lost Cause advocates has been immeasurable. GWTW demonstrates its cultural impact and the delusions it perpetuated. In terms of historic interpretation, the effects have hardly begun to be undone. I recently listened to the book “Robert E Lee and Me” by Ty Seidule (emeritus history professor at West Point) and my mind was blown by the insidious nature of the Lost Cause champions. Mind blowing.
There’s a website and forum that specializes in mid 19th century attire, which is popular among American Civil War reenactors. I used to visit, but I’m BIPOC and it got too awkward to overlook the Lost Cause advocates and other right wingers.
It’s true. I am a woman in my early 30s, raised in Northern California, but my mother, who felt like the “black sheep” of her family, was born 1959 and raised in Alabama. She has siblings who are less than 1 generation older than me, and they now have children who are early 20s. Growing up visiting extended family, it wasn’t just the older people (my grandmother did not want to have racism in her heart and on a personal level embraced anyone she met, but she didn’t at all understand that she held patronizing attitudes that stemmed from racism in how she was raised and educated) who had a very different perspective of race and class stratification, and reasons before it, including the Civil War/Old South/Reconstruction. It was the young adults, too, and they passed those ideas down to the kids my age even if they didn’t say things explicitly. As I got older and took history classes in school (which weren’t exactly in-depth), it felt like those younger adults had learned a different set of facts that I had. I don’t know all about what school is like in Alabama now, but when I and my cousins were kids, public schools in their area were very large, clearly underfunded, and had high levels of students in poverty, and the state overall had very low test scores. Popular alternatives were expensive private schools (not necessarily better instruction-wise, according to my mom who attended in the 60s/70s), home schooling, and the very Christian charter school ps (which clearly had different standards and oversight than the charter schools I was familiar with in CA). It’s clear to me that despite this, many Millenials and Gen Z in the South have not only managed to educate themselves beyond the system there that still veils the facts of history and the causes of today’s problems, but are actively working to counter it in their own states and towns and children. It’s a different choice than my mom made decades earlier- she got out, got educated, and didn’t want to go back. I think the real New South is the one young adults are slowly shaping today.
Very interesting analysis. I had never considered the connection to the Great Depression. That could be one reason my mom was drawn to this film so much. Her hunger and poverty during her youth was very real, and seeing Scarlett survive must have resonated greatly with her. Plus Clark Gable and pretty gowns!
Not coming from the US, I still think that British academic Helen Taylor has a far more nuanced and complex reading of the film and its source material in her book Scarlett’s Women, She has continued to write and lecture on GWTW for many years. For many non American readers the main reason that novel and film resonated so strongly was that it provided a means of coping with the then current World War and it provided a pivot of refusal of narrow gender roles and societal expectations for working and middle class women. Much of the new scholarship from the US, whilst responding to current politics, inequality, and the need to come to a reckoning with 3 centuries and more of separatist supremacist violence also manages to centralise US readership and interpretation as the only way of viewing GWTW. Without the war the film may not have reached into global audience and the global imaginary in the way that it did. Using GWTW only as a teaching moment about white supremacy not only becomes a sort of inverted guilt/pride trip about white America that affirms and centres [white] North American perspectives, but it ignores the strong influence that GWTW had on world cinema, There are a cluster of films that reference GWTW stylistically but have no relationship to the political content of GWTW, two are explicitly anti-nazi statements, another has a clear decolonisation narrative alongside the love story, others are more conservative elegies for a lost gracious society killed off by world war 2. All are foreign language films and include non western narratives as well as Eurocentric content. I am also a published scholar myself, and did some work 2 decade ago on GWTW, which I never got around to publishing, and probably never can now. However I think it is important to remember that the film functioned in different ways outside of 1930s/40s Jim Crow North America.
I think as well, Gerard O’Hara, an Irish immigrant, who makes good resonates heavily with the Irish diaspora. Bear in mind what displaced so many Irish families in the Victorian period and beyond.
There really is so much to unpack in this film, I am not surprised it has been the subject of so much academic study.
I have Thoughts on Gerard O’Hara. His presence is a very 1930s thing.
The amateur genealogist(I’ve got some Irish immigrants in my family tree) who has done some basic research on the Irish disapora in me also finds the presence of Gerald O’Hara/Scarlett’s Irish-American roots interesting and worthy of unpacking as well. I’m no historian, but my guess would be it reflects how by the 1930s, white supremacy was in full swing natch, but there was an increasing acceptance of “white ethnics” such as Irish-American immigrants
Sure, you can talk about GWTW’s impact on world cinema. You could talk about a ton of things in the movie. But the way the movie promotes the Lost Cause is of vital & crucial importance today in America (& to some extent around the world, considering if the far-right insurrectionists had succeeded in 2021, the U.S. govt. would be radically different; also, many of the ppl are trying to effect the upcoming election). It’s a matter of priorities.
Trystan L,Bass, relevant point, but then would the 1/6 terrorists actually know much about GWTW? Given the far right’s homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia macho fantasies and disavowed covert gayness, how many of them would have engaged with something that is so strongly branded as female/femme culture (the film has always had a camp/non-cis cultural resonance too) watched the film, and I doubt if they would ever actually read anything that involves so many words, including looong words! May be the stew/kedgeree that is North and South, which showed more boobs and battles, would speak louder to them, but the 1/6 terrorists’ supremacist origin myths have wider and mostly more recent sources than GWTW. World cinema matters too!
American white supremacy is grounded in stuff like GWTW & of course they aren’t giving it a close read — they’re taking that first screencap & saying “yep, that’s right, thanks!” I’m not saying world cinema doesn’t matter, but it’s not as high a priority. And here, on Frock Flicks, the Lost Cause connections of GWTW are why we don’t just look at all the pretty dresses OR the cinematic side (tho’ TBH we don’t talk about filmic influences a lot, only the costume ones; you might want a different blog for that).
The Godfather and Casablanca do the same thing. Casablanca supports a white saviour idea on Africa that essentially runs over the feelings of women and blacks. The Godfather suggests that family is important to the point of being murderers and thieves. The costumes in both are great, though! Ilsa’s smart tailored white dress as they look for visas.is timeless. Diane Keaton’s dresses are a little frumpier, prolly due to her drab hairstyle.
Given that Trump himself brought up GWTW and the general outrage from conservatives when it was temporarily pulled from HBO Max, even newer generations of conservatives do have it in mind, even if it isn’t at the forefront. That said, I’m curious to what you mean by it having “camp/non-cis cultural influence”, is there scholarship about that?
There is absolutely a non-U.S. context for GWTW that deserves discussion. But the Lost Cause, as a historical interpretation is pernicious, and still an active and vital part of many Americans’ (flawed) understanding of their own history. And the role that mass media plays in the spread and longevity of the Lost Cause and bad history like it cannot be overstated.
I would honestly love to sit down and examine what GWTW has to say about 1930s (the stuff I mentioned about Mitchell working through her feelings on change with Ashley and Rhett is just the tip of the iceberg), but for the purposes of this piece, I felt it best to home in its Lost Cause mythologizing, and why it’s there.
I would love the know the titles of the films you’ve referenced!
Thanks to the Frock Flicks girls for posting this for me! I had a lot of fun writing it and had to restrain myself to keep it from exploding. I hope everyone finds it useful and educational and hopefully a little humorous.
Really though provoking and well written, Melody! Thank you for your research!
Excellent job Melody. A lot of your discussion sounds like the narratives that Heather Cox Richardson is talking about in her Letters from an American daily series. Thank you for writing it up.
I am a HUGE Heather Cox Richardson fangirl. I would probably embarrass myself dreadfully if I got the chance to meet her.
The novel was horrible! DNFed the shit out of it! It mentions the KKK directly!
I fell in love with that part of the story at a very impressionable age. I fell in love with the mythology around the making of the movie and the search for the actress to play Scarlett. And I fell in love with Vivien Leigh. But at the same time, every single thing this very well-written article says about the movie is completely on point. As I often say, it’s bad on history, bad on race, bad on gender relations.
Even so, we can’t sweep the movie or what it says about the people who made it under the rug. It’s a fabulous piece of movie-making, even as it gets so very very much wrong. It spoke to the people of its time and, between the cringes and yelling at the screen, it still has moments that speak to us today. I dare anyone not to feel something when watching the sequence of Scarlett at the railway station surrounded by dead and wounded men as the camera pulls back to reveal more and more and more.
Perfectly encapsulating the problem of this movie is that it gave us the first African American Oscar winner, but for a role that fed in to the Mammy stereotype and the myth of the Faithful Slave.
So thank you for this thoughtful compelling article.
it’s a movie not a documentary. I look forward to the day when this country can recognize an art form for what it is, it is not advocacy, it is far closer to a transparency– not unlike the messaging in fairy tales. If the effort is to cancel, the list is going to be long, far longer than the pieces that survive, You can start with Mozart’s Magic Flute and Cosi fan Tutte then go to Picasso and Wagner and ad infinitum. The “essay” above is smart and cogent and completely misses the point — unless I missed it ? that we are in 8th grade history class ? apparently most skipped that class.
A huge faction of the American public has taken GWTW as history (both book & movie). That, actually, is nothing new. Popular culture versions of the past are always influential in how ppl see the past. The perception of Richard III was massively influenced by Shakespeare’s play, for just one example. The problem is when ppl take that fictional version of history into reality — which has happened with GWTW re: the Lost Cause. The book/movie didn’t invent white supremacy, but it surely dressed it up pretty & made it palatable & fashionable for legions, & that continues to be a problem in the U.S. to this very day.
When I was a child in school (1950s) in Maryland, I never heard of “the Lost Cause.” Civil War history was taught straight. No “Northern aggression.” I never considered Scarlett O’Hara a heroine. She was a selfish opportunist. Upon watching the film again a couple of years ago, with a Black friend, I came to the conclusion that Mammy was the moral center of the story.
Oh yeah, I totally agree with Mammy being the moral center of the story. In fact you can put her and Melanie together Mammy reminds Scarlet of what she “should” have been (ie, her mother) and Melanie is determined to see the good in everyone, even when no one else can see it (not just with Scarlet, but with Rhett, Belle, etc.)
As an addendum to the Lost Cause/glossing over depriving others of freedom narrative, is an 1866 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book “Dress Under Difficulties.” A white woman and plantation dweller describes in great detail fabric shortages and the utter challenge of finding/making pretty clothing. Enslaved people get a very brief mention, freed people none at all, and other politics get a sentence. According to the article, the true hardship was upper crust enslavers’ struggle for posh outfits.
That’s interesting because in GWTW the novel, Scarlett often laments about the inability to get pretty clothes and the latest fashions during the war.
I’ve loved the character of Scarlett ever since I was a kid. She’s bold and deliciously bitchy and will sacrifice anyone and anything to survive. Too often, even today, our culture forces female characters (and women) into being humble, self-sacrificing, self-effacing. She is the absolute negation of all this.
But can Scarlett be divorced from the Lost Cause narrative? I think that’s impossible. She is inextricably tied to the myth of the land, to Tara, and therefore to the glorification of slavery.
The movie departs from the book, which is a (horrible) masterpiece in and of itself, in two important ways. First, the book is even more virulently racist. As someone mentioned above, Ashley and Frank Kennedy actually belong to the KKK and ride out to burn a black shanty town in response to the attack on Scarlett. Second, the central relationship in the book isn’t Scarlett and Rhett or Scarlett and Ashley, but Scarlett and Melanie, who really comes off as the strongest, bravest character in the whole story. I wish the movie hadn’t lost this central focus on female friendship.
I just wanted to add that the most insidious aspect of the movie is Scarlett herself- she glamorizes the old South and looks damned good while doing it. That green-and-white picnic dress with the hat! Would we lovingly watch and rewatch Nazis partying and being waited on by Jewish slave laborers? Absolutely not. But we have a huge blind spot when it comes to our own history.
Thank you for this EXCELLENT article. I never had patience with the glamorization or rationalization of the “Olde South” and it’s glory. I never read the book and resisted seeing the movie until I was in my 30s. The whole thi g just infuriated me, and I must admit that I lost all respect for the actors who willingly participated in its production.
Good post! I thing a lot of us struggle with GWTW because Scarlett is such a compelling anti-hero figure, but the racist issues are just undeniable. I appreciate you pointing out that 1930s context of the Depression and how it resonated with audiences because of that.
Even looking at the historical context of when it was made, I honestly loathe this movie so much. To be fair, some of that is personal because I was forced to sit through it multiple times by my sister when I was about 6 or 7. Even leaving that aside though, I gave it another chance as an adult and the romanticizing of the antebellum south, the faithful slave trope pointed out here, I just could not find anything enjoyable about it. Especially since those lies are still perpetuated and upheld today.
I don’t come from the US, but I’ve visited often. Enough to know that I know nothing.
GWTW came out in the 1930s. How was it considered by readers then? Did people comment on the racism which is so overt to us?
The NAACP tried to stop the movie getting made, picketed theaters showing it, and plenty of black critics ripped the book and film to shreds in the 1930s/1940s. At the time white critics wrote it off as “authentic” writing and this was before the Dunnings school was debunked.
As faithful Democrats enduring the Depression, working long hours to support their families, my parents admired the novel because it exalted the virtue of survival against difficult odds. But as casual racists, like many of their fellow white folk, they also managed to overlook or accept the book’s racism.
(By the way, Melanie is not Scarlett’s best friend–Scarlett doesn’t much like other women, apart from her mother–but her rival for Ashley; she marries Melanie’s brother to spite Ashley for rejecting her. I know this stuff because I read GWTW when I was 11, thrilled to see my name in print.)
Scarlett doesn’t like Melanie at all but she takes care of her as if she loved her and Melanie stands up for Scarlett, though she never understands her at all. Very curious relationship.
Roxana, I agree with you. Scarlett thinks she hates Melanie until she realizes that she loves her, if only because Melanie sees the best in her. (And because Scarlett finally understands that Melanie resembles her adored mother.) Curious indeed. Really, the women’s relationships in GWTW are the core of the book, as perhaps Margaret Mitchell intended.
I am a white scandinavian, so my take may be ill informed, but I always found there to be such a difference between the movie and the book as far as intent(?). The book takes a lot of the stereotypes the south likes to tell itself and crushes them; the sweet southern belle is a cunning, pragmatical (rather bitchy) devoid of any sweetness. The good ole boy southern gentlemen is either near illiterate drunkard idiots (the Tarleton boys), ineffectual weaklings (charles hamilton), not really good at anything that matters (Ashley Wilkes) or a selfish, cruel douchey bastard (Rhett Butler). The damsel in distress saves herself and everybody else as well (at Tara). Margaret Mitchell, like George RR Martin takes ALL the tropes, twist them around, shake them upside down and shuffle them around. The result to my mnd is quite subversive, reading between the lines it’s like a backhanded compliment. The movie however seems to miss all these double-meanings and critisism, or doesn’t care to notice it. the result is very gung-ho-south, also missing alot of the class critisism and sexism adressed in the book.
I think there are a lot of nuances that the book and film is more than “yay, south!” as as much it says the antebellum South was a glorious culture, that culture’s people are portrayed as so f-ed up that on some level I think Mitchell was questioning whether or not that culture was truly all it was cracked up to be. I think she both did that AND bought into the racist stereotypes and Lost Cause narrative at the same time, like she did buy into a lot of that crap but then had moments of thinking “hmm, maybe it wasn’t always so great…”, if that makes sense. I think even the screenwriters of the film did that in subtle ways too, but the issue is that as far as intent vs impact, the impact was more the story influencing people’s views of the Civil War and Reconstruction for the worst.
I’ll bow to your knowledge as far as the impact of the movie, as I said, being a scandi, most of my knowledge about the civil war comes from documentaries and movies that I’ve seen as a grownup. Which is very different to still living with the remnants of this war and these themes in your everyday life.
The Old South was effed up at every level. Slavery was economically disastrous and slave and slave owner alike lived in constant fear of each other. It was horrible.
Personally I read Scarlett and Rhett as two sane people surrounded by delusional lunatics.
Absolutely agree about the subversive themes in the novel. Mitchell didn’t quite get there with regards to slavery, but in terms of the role of women, and the usual story tropes, I think she did it in spades. Of course, she was also working out her own romantic troubles, in addition to the society she’d grown up in.
I read the book when quite young (defiance against a librarian who didn’t think I could finish it in the checkout period) and it definitely made an impression. I became very interested in the “home front” stories of the Civil War, and especially in the women’s stories. My first research paper was on Varina Howell Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln, and I credit Margaret Mitchell with stoking that interest. Miss Mitchell cut her teeth on the early Lost Cause propaganda, but was also a direct descendent of white women who experienced the war; I’ve always seen the novel as part Lost Cause propaganda, part torrid romance, but also, the tale of specific female experiences that just isn’t told often. It’s a problematic novel but an important one.
The movie didn’t do a lot of those things; it has elements of it, but it is primarily as described above and for someone who still loves the spectacle of it, I appreciate having this insight to help me understand what I may have imbibed other than romance. The film’s effect in perpetuating Lost Cause mythology is definitely important, and it’s important for anyone interested in film history to look at what, aside from the look and grandeur of the movie, it ultimately encouraged. I really appreciate this article. One could wish that other movies about the Civil War could take cues from the costuming rather than the insipid racist themes throughout!
Good essay! I would also LOVE that article on Rhett and Ashley, since that’s a perspective I’ve never considered before.
I enjoy the movie a lot, and consider it one of my favorites — but am aware of its problematic position and the cringe depiction of the slaves. I’m also aware that it’s written from a skewed white Southern perspective, and so of course it does a disservice to any other points of views.
I don’t mind the black slave saving Scarlett on her trip through Shanty Town, because it represents her utter foolishness and arrogance — she was so used to being respected as a white girl that she thought she could go anywhere and do whatever she wanted. And there was a noble, kind man there who saw a bad thing happening and did something about it — without knowing it was “Miss Scarlet.” He would have done the same for anyone. He’s the good person in that portion of the story — not the white men who burn down Shanty Town later in the day. :P
Good article. I saw it when young, and then saw and read it (albeit too quickly on the latter, catching up) as a college freshman. In class we discussed Scarlet representing the new south, and I think that’s true. She’s not a wilting flower for all her privileged upbringing and that wasn’t common for the era, although as an adult reflecting I wish they hadn’t made Melanie’s virtue seem so bland and weak by comparison.
There’s quite a bit of very engaging storytelling, but it is so bound up in racist tropes and stereotypes. I know my mom thinks differently of it now as well, and I would not show it to a child as young as I was when I saw it. I do think that reflects some cultural growth–we barely thought of the issues at the time, as middle class white northerners who thought the right side had won the war. It was like background noise–so easy to forget yet a big part of the cultural ambiance. And I was also very caught up in the romance around Lee as a teen; much of those stories I have now learned were embellished, incomplete, or false. I would not let a child watch it as young as I did, and I’d have a lot of discussions around the harmful portrayal of Black people whenever I decided a(n older) child could watch it.
Good article and discussion!
I have always been shocked at how Mammy was treated. She is like a beloved member of the family, but she trashes Scarlett and Rhett to their friends (though I could be mistaking it for when she is around the other slaves–I will have to go watch parts of the movie again), and gets away with it. I am pretty sure that in the 1860s, no slave would have got away with trashing their owners or their children.
I think that’s actually part of the Lost Cause mythologizing: the idea that enslaved people weren’t resentful or angry or in fear of their lives, but instead were sassy, maternal and fully invested in the lives of their enslavers, even to the exclusion of their own families (which we never hear about).
What do we make of the fact that Scarlett and Rhett are both deeply ambivalent (at best) about “The Cause”? I don’t remember the movie too well, but the book definitely has several passages of Scarlett thinking that her fellow southerners’ devotion to this idea is ridiculous. And Rhett states v explicitly that he thinks that the men provoking this war are idiots and that he’s only in this for personal gain. Obviously neither of them is an abolitionist, but it still feels odd that this story is the “peg” on which the Lost Cause movement has hung its hat. Why has this story become so central to this movement that the two main characters both mock?
My favorite parts of the novel were Scarlett and Rhett’s lengthy, entertaining conversations about the Cause and its destructiveness. (Rhett is also an unapologetic atheist, and Scarlett doesn’t seem bothered by this.)
Yes, it is very odd that the film has become the Go-to poster child when the two major characters express open contempt for the Lost Cause and Rhett’s first speach in the other pro-confederate males explicitly foretells the inevitable downfall of the Confederacy. The ever self sacrificing and impossibly gentle and effacing Melanie is more in line with the vision of the female character that was promoted by the early 20th century Lost Cause, which was as good, gentle and victimised by the war/Yankees, The fact that Scarlett runs rings around both Ashley’s and Melanie’s old fashioned idealism places her as a successful antagonist to Lost Cause symbolism. In some accounts, Mitchell may have originally tried to write a novel that centred on the virtuous Lost Cause heroine Melanie, only for the anti heroine, prganmatic disloyal self serving Scarlett to engage her interest more as she wrote, Rhett constantly suggests that Scarlett is more akin to his modern lack of illusions Both characters see the lost cause as thwarting their needs/aims and thus annoying. Equally in an existential manner they see it also as unsustainable decayed and faulty ans thus doomed to crumble. Rhett however perversely in a gesture of Wildean hauteur, decides to fight for the south precisely because it is doomed. He is a romantic decadent to Ashley’s classicism, as well as being the commercial capitalist ruthlessness facing off the aristocratic pretensions of the Lost Cause
Does this mean that the book and film are actually discussed even by professionals in the US in terms of preconceptions and assumptions of their content rather than the content itself, given these preconceptions are fairly widely circulated in social media and popular journalism in the US and reading both book and film becomes an arena for what are contesting bias confirmations
Also the book and the film are not quite the same. The Lost Cause is more directly and overtly interrogated in the book, yet the idea of the KKK saving the US is more clearly articulated. Although the peril that the KKK is fighting is disorder and extremism as much as African Americans. Yet concurrently in the book Mammie is a sort of voice of god/shakespearian clown/interlocutor who draws attention to the failings of both Scarlett and Rhett and often articulates the moral centrepoint for the reader or even is the substitute for the reader, although she is presented as the totally loyal slave who so enjoys her life as a piece of property that she wont leave the family even when they are now fallen on hard tomes. The character of Prissy is even more derogatorily sketched in the written text than in the film, as a calculating mixed race woman. If we regard the film as a Lost Cause artifact, where does that place the producer David O Selznick,, who consciously tried to iron out the racism. OTOH the British Guardian newspaper memorably describes the film as the swirling perky technicoloured byproduct of a massive amphetamine “drug haze”, both metaphorically and in reality with David Selznick swallowing pills like popcorn again not your everyday conservative stereotype,
Mitchell’s personal letters also frequently express her scorn for the Lost Causers around her and the romanticism of the Lost Cause, and even pokes fun at Lost causers. In relation to African Americans she varies from positivity about African American people she meets and engages with to getting angry with those African Americans whom she sees as being led astray by self serving radical politicians (as if people can not decide upon their own opinions) GWTW is neither the literary nor the filmic equivalent to the crass bigotry of a Trump Tweet.
The thing about GWTW being a poster child for the Lost Cause is that it really shows just how deeply entrenched the twin ideas of “the antebellum South was a doomed fairy tale kingdom” and “the racial hierarchy must be maintained at all costs” really were for white Americans by the early 20th century. And while Mitchell came out swinging on the first idea, she (like the vast majority of her contemporaries) couldn’t quite see past the end of her own nose on the second.
The film barely scratches the surface of the book in terms of theme. Mitchell was writing about a character, not a war. She wrote about a spoiled young miss, who didn’t give a fig for anyone except herself and how what was happening in the world spoiled her fun. There is so much more in the book, that is never told in the film. And MM WAS a child of the old South, and it is from HER perspective, with all the muck that goes with it. Frankly, I don’t think any of the “Old Guard” needed any encouragement from the film to continue their White Supremacist activities, it merely gave them an excuse to pull out their moth eaten rags and parade around again, for the amusement of Hollywood. Very little that comes out of that town demonstrates noble intentions, other than to make money. David Selznick saw a cash cow in a hugely popular novel, content be damned.
A lot of works of literature use the difference between Old World and New World as a dramatic point of difference between characters. Take Hamlet as an example, where Hamlet, who has been away to university, returns to the old world of Denmark and Elsinore. A lot of the ensuing drama is about that (though there is a school of thought that designates Hamlet as the dying Old World of chivalry, and Claudius and Gertrude as the new world of Machiavellian plots).
Many of the mature works of Dickens pit the old world against new (Little Dorritt and Bleak House are examples). And of course, Lord of the Rings, where the point is made explicitly as several points in the story.
Could this be another one, with Melanie and Ashley representing the old world, and Rhett and Scarlett representing the new?
Note that the spanner in the works in all these stories is not that the old world is better than the new, but subsequent interpretations could take that view.
It’s been a hot minute since I read the book, but I remember Ashley and the Wilkes plantation as explicitly representing the “old south”. Tara, on the other hand, was a first-generation plantation that Scarlett’s father bought and the house was a disorganized series of additions to a much smaller dwelling. So yes, I think Old vs New was very much in Mitchell’s mind as she was writing.
Imagine if gone with the wind had been set in the North. How different the story might have been.
I think it would have been very different, yet not as different as one would maybe imagine. Margaret Mitchells writing is at time sharp enough to shave with, and at one moment in the book she goes after the northerners who proclaim themselves to be allies to black people, yet would not dream of letting them tend to their children because they could NOT be trusted. It was a very poignant moment and a reminder that although the north fought against slavery they certainly didn’t think of black people as equals. To me as a non american it is almost comical to watch northerners today pat themselves on the back for being on the rigt side of the war, completely forgetting their own history (and present activity) of redlining, white flight, police shootings and wage gap.
On reading through my comment I’m sorry if it came across as bitchy, I wonder if I went to off topic.
I think your comment is absolutely on-topic, and a great example of why we can’t dismiss this movie as “oh that was just back in day.” All of these threads continue today!
Don’t worry; I appreciate reading a non-American perspective, and you’re quite right about the difference between being an abolitionist and struggling to overcome one’s own racism. (As a descendant of slave holders, I think about this a lot.)
I’m a descendant of slave holders as well(I’m an amateur genealogist who has worked for a long time on my family tree), and I’ve found a lot of people defensively say “oh, my ancestors couldn’t have owned slaves” and then found out they did. There are two misconceptions about slavery, one is that it only happened in the Deep South, and one is that only the wealthiest of the wealthy owned slaves, both incorrect. While the South was more economically dependent on slavery and thus it was more common there and it was abolished sooner in the North so of course by the time of the Civil War it was a North/South divide, some of my slave-holding ancestors lived in New York and New Jersey. Heck the Schuyler family of Hamilton fame were slaveholders, and that was in Albany, NY. The second misconception is most relevant to the impact of something like GWTW as people still to this day assume only wealthy plantation owners owned slaves, so people assume their ancestors weren’t rich enough to afford enslaved people, when lots of people of relatively modest means owned one or two.
Quite, Kae-Leah. My 3xg-grandparents back in Missouri held a family of 8 to 9 (according to the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules): therefore fairly prosperous farmers, although probably not rolling in expendable income. Their sons also worked in the fields as teenagers, and one of them went to school with his designated slave companion, so I like to think there was some humane bond among everyone, but who knows? White supremacy is a powerful imperative in certain folk.
Slave owning was normal and acceptable, and not even questioned to up to the 18th c. So of course people living in those times owned slaves if they could afford it, including free blacks.
The enslaved people of small scale owners often were treated better because they worked as well as lived side by side.
While blacks and whites generally feared and distrusted each other almost everybody made an exception for certain people they knew personally.
“To me as a non american it is almost comical to watch northerners today pat themselves on the back for being on the rigt side of the war, completely forgetting their own history (and present activity) of redlining, white flight, police shootings and wage gap”
and in some ways that is why this current discussion on GWTW is so important – and why after many years of reading and loving Frockflicks online, I’ve finally jumped in. It is great that the US is beginning to address its past, as in the 1619 Project, but social media creates a new series of tropes and fantasies, that may be politically different to the Lost Cause but are equally wish-driven. GWTW, Confederate memorials and the “old south” are really the low lying fruit and easy scapegoats, sure the South used reconstruction to re-engineer a racially unequal social system, but the facilitation, policing and support of systemic injustice in the 160 years after the war was undertaken as keenly by union states or even not in existence in 1861.
If you argue that GWTW (in a US context as it is many other things in a non-US context, as the US is not the world) is not a romantic escapist pleasure, or a sumptuous fashion parade, then you should acknowledge that the book and film and especially the associated popularity and fandom are more a byproduct/reflection of than a driver of injustice.Thus responsibility for systemic injustice is both greater and more diffused and nothing will change until we accept that moonlight and magnolias is the lounge act to the main stage and address/attack that rather than doing performative trope heavy social media gestures
You make a very good point. GWTW gets a lot of flack and side-eye like it’s the reason for and not just the vehicle that already racist/racially insensitive people hitched their ugliness too.
There’s a Mockumentary/Alternate history called CSA, that’s a satire of modern US racism based on the premise that the CSA ‘won’ the civil war, that in part answers that question with a musical called “A Northern Wind”:
(See between 37:00 and 40:00 approx. – I can’t get the sniping tool to work on my device – sorry)
Then watch the whole thing – its not funny per se but its… something.
Fascinating article, and I love some of the insight in the comments here too! GWTW is one of my mom’s favorite books and movies, so much that she named me after one of the few nice characters in the story. She loves history and gets caught up in the romance of it, but a romanticization similar to how we romanticize aspects of medieval society and don’t, by any means, think it’s a bad thing that we have progressed beyond it. My mom grew up in a patriarchal, rural Texas family, and there are DEFINITELY things that she rejected about her own upbringing.
When I read the book at 14 (can’t remember when I watched the film, maybe around 12), I saw it as the blinkered perspective of a spoiled, self-centered teenager who came from a dysfunctional family and who herself romanticized the more established plantation families of the south, like the Wilkes. Scarlett is a pragmatic survivor in practice, but in her mind she remains stuck on the dream of the genteel South and the person who embodies it, Ashley Wilkes. At the end, Scarlett realizes that she never really loved Ashley, just an approximation of him that she had built up in her head. To me, this is a microcosm of the “Lost Cause” ideology. It’s a fiction created in the heads of those who wanted to preserve their “pure, genteel” society. Problematic stereotypes aside, even at 14 that’s what I took from the book–that Margaret Mitchell was implicitly saying, either deliberately or unconsciously, that the Antebellum south was NEVER the ideal society that the propaganda wanted us to think it was. If she had applied a critical lens to her depiction of the slavery institution and the individual enslaved characters, I suspect that GWTW could possibly be among the great American novels.
The complexities of the novel are largely absent from the melodramatic film adaptation, and it’s such a shame that the American public largely latched onto the romanticism that (in my mind–I could be wrong) the book so deftly undercuts. I couldn’t say whether GWTW has had more of a negative than positive affect on America (it’s not the only offender, and would we be much different had it never existed?), but I think it’s an important book and film. The fact that it’s used as the poster child for perpetuating the Lost Cause myth could ultimately be its redemption. It’s still part of the conversation about race issues in America, and we all know that there’s a long way to go there. GWTW might yet lead to a more widely accepted understanding of the historiography of American history and effect positive change.
Reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which he devotes an entire chapter on imperialism in Austen’s Mansfield Park, really changed my perspective on works we now consider problematic. His argument is that in acknowledging the author’s imperialist perspective, we see that imperialism plays a greater part in the construction of the story than it first appears. In critiquing it, he’s not saying that Mansfield Park isn’t a great novel, but that it’s a more complex novel than literary criticism has previously recognized, and that complexity adds to its richness and relevance. GWTW has MUCH more problematic content than Mansfield Park, of course. But in general, the fact that we are still having these conversations about it is a good thing.
YES! These conversations are essential. Another example of a work I love being more complex than it seems on the surface due to being influenced by imperialism/colonialism is the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett, such as A Little Princess. While it’s not the main focus of the story by any means obviously, it’s definitely a product of the era of the British Empire just the same.