Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
Striking Chords and Touching Nerves:
Myth and Gender in Gone With the Wind

by Vicki Eaklor

Scarlett's O'Hara's final words in Gone With the Wind may be the most recognizable, and quoted, in film history. Even those who haven't seen the film know the reference, a phenomenon evidently assumed by art critic Robert Hughes when he closed his recent eight-part video history of American art and architecture, American Visions with this of all lines.1 That the film is "popular" and has been literally since its premiere in December 1939 may be all too obvious, but less clear is the meaning and sources of this popularity. My claims are, first, that America's relationship to Gone With the Wind is more complex than "popularity" suggests and might be characterized as one of love/hate--for the subject matter, the characters, even for the film's notoriety. Second, this love/hate relationship is rooted, I believe, in the ways in which American myths, particularly those related to sex and gender, are both referenced and then violated in this film, particularly in the character of Scarlett O'Hara.

What seems to bother many viewers, including critics, however, is that Gone With the Wind is Scarlett's story. Typical was film critic Otis Ferguson, who wrote, "Scarlett is too many things in too rapid succession; the exact point of her aspirations is confused; there is so much sobbing and color and DeMille display, such a mudbath of theme music, that a clean realization of character or events is out of the question."2

The seeming inability to understand Scarlett's character is at the heart of both the dynamics of Gone With the Wind and responses to it. Scarlett makes viewers uncomfortable because she exposes the underside of regional and gender myths while embodying basic American (male) values transformed (but not transplanted) during an era of drastic economic change. The central, consistent, and apparently disturbing, theme of Scarlett's ambiguous gender identity can be seen in three interrelated aspects of her life: her relation to gender roles and other people; her relation to economic ideals and realities; and her relation to the war.

Scarlett, the Feminine and the Masculine

Why does a girl have to be so silly to catch a husband?
--Scarlett to Mammy

Rhett holds Scarlett, her face upturned and upper body partly exposed, in a classic pose and poster from the film. The message is clear: male dominance and female passivity, the model for heterosexual romantic love in America (and elsewhere). In Rhett's dreams, maybe, but never completely in reality, and this is precisely the point: Scarlett loses Rhett because of her inability and/or unwillingness to do more than feign the role of submissive wife. While Scarlett at times denies reality, or at least puts off thinking about it, she is the most real character in the story. Caught in America's powerful masculine/feminine gender myth, she also exposes its fallacies by violating it throughout.

Scarlett paradoxically highlights prescribed feminine virtues by serving as counterpoint to them, both through her own failures in virtually every female role and in her relations with other women. Scarlett is a "'bad' daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, and lover" in Helen Taylor's words, while Anne Jones adds "belle" and "widow" to the list.3 "Nurse" also comes to mind, though not then a completely feminized profession. Still, she does aspire to these roles, knowing no others, and through her shortcomings in each she is the embodiment of a strong tension not only within herself but also evident within the culture at large. This tension is manifest when messages of collective American values (career success, self-expression, and especially independence) are juxtaposed with their opposites (domesticity, self-denial, dependence) as expressed in idealized femininity.

Models of American womanhood appear in Scarlett's mother, Ellen O'Hara, and her sister-in-law, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Despite fine performances by Barbara O'Neill and Olivia de Havilland (respectively), neither character transcends stereotype because each is consistent with the myth, though in different ways. Ellen's two-dimensional character results from her relatively brief appearance in the film as compared to her extended treatment in the novel; in fact, the film conveys largely Scarlett's idealization of her mother (not necessarily a cinematic weakness since Scarlett is the central character). Ellen dies at a crucial moment--at the war's end and before Scarlett's return to Tara--the timing of which can be interpreted as both emphasizing the necessity of Scarlett's self-sufficiency upon her homecoming and conveying the message that the ideals symbolized by Ellen, including those feminine, have become anachronistic in postbellum America.

Although Melanie, like Ellen, is stereotypically feminine, Melanie's relationship to Scarlett is more complicated, for Scarlett merely idolizes her mother but believes she hates Melanie. Typically, we see Melanie from Scarlett's perspective, which emphasizes her unconditional devotion to her loved ones (including Scarlett) and leaves viewers feeling that she is too cloyingly sweet to be credible. This is unfortunate but significant. Read another way, Melanie's goodness is a source of genuine and potentially radical sisterhood (remember, only Melanie defends prostitute Belle against other women's disdain and rejection). Perhaps her ability to love and identify with other women is too dangerous to be portrayed as believable. At any rate Melanie, like Ellen, must die, and each death serves importantly as a catalyst for change in Scarlett. Dying while pregnant, Melanie represents the ultimate Woman, while her death forces Scarlett to face psychological reality just as Scarlett's mother's death forced Scarlett to face material reality: Immediately upon Melanie's death, Scarlett recognizes Ashley's love for his wife and her own love for both Rhett and Melanie.4

Scarlett's inability to bond with Melanie, or with any woman in the story, reinforces the central conflict, the feminine/masculine opposition. On the one hand, this may be the only sense in which she becomes archetypically female, and as such acceptable to the culture at large: one woman against other women in competition for men. On the other hand, her total lack of female friendships places Scarlett more on the masculine than the feminine side of the indelible gender line in the culture.

If Scarlett's isolation from women is typical, though problematic in its extremity, her relations with men do not redeem her as comfortably female/feminine. Curiously, gender bending is as rampant among her men as within Scarlett herself. Her first two husbands are obvious "sissies" in the masculine/feminine lexicon: Charles Hamilton, dying of pneumonia rather than like a "real" man on the battlefield (more on this theme later), and that "old maid in britches" (as Scarlett says of him), Frank Kennedy.5 She plays the dominant (presumed male) role with each of these men, reversing the culturally prescribed gender relations within marriage and rendering herself objectionable to many viewers.

The most interesting character in this context is Ashley. While Scarlett is a masculine woman, he is a feminine man. His relationship with Melanie, despite her two pregnancies, appears more cerebral than sexual; they are kindred spirits who "understand each other," in Ashley's words. Luckily, they produce a male heir, relieving both of the duty to procreate, and the film implies that Melanie's second pregnancy results more from her impulses toward motherhood than Ashley's toward her. Ashley, in fact, personifies what American society has understood, in a stereotypical way, as latent homosexuality.6

This possible reading underscores my theme. Gone With the Wind, I am arguing, not only strikes chords with its viewers but also touches some nerves, particularly those of gender. Homosexuality, particularly in its perceived challenge to gender conformity, is apparently the rawest nerve of all in our culture, perhaps because it represents the ultimate violation of comfortable and orderly identity in a heterosexist society. I agree, therefore, with Theodore Roszak's concise summary of thirty years ago, and I emphasize the relevance of his observation for understanding both the film and discomfort with it: "Deeper down than we are rich or poor, black or white, we are he or she. This is the last ditch of our socially prescribed identity . . . the one line of our psychic defense we dare not surrender."7

What Scarlett sees in Ashley remains a mystery throughout, especially because she despises stereotypically feminine traits in everyone else, including other women. This mystery is encouraged by the film's dynamics because it offers Rhett as the perfect match for Scarlett and suggests that her inability to reconcile herself to this match underscores her failures as a woman. Further, Rhett and Ashley are not merely different: they represent opposite ends of the masculinity continuum as our society defines it (Taylor called them "the king and the wimp"8). The most vivid image of this antithesis is Rhett carrying the wounded Ashley to bed to receive treatment. It is tempting to suggest the encoding of a pseudo-Freudian message: Scarlett the girl fell in love with Ashley and Scarlett the woman supposedly loved Rhett, implying that as she reached maturity she recognized and desired him who could dominate her "properly." Perhaps this reading stretches the point (although Rhett himself tells her he's waiting for her to "grow up" and get Ashley out of her mind), but the film's equation throughout is that masculinity = ability and willingness to dominate a woman = sexual attractiveness. Correspondingly, the stronger or more independent (read masculine) the woman, the more masculine the man required to conquer her. Clear Ashley (and Charles and Frank) will not do.

However, a parallel reading complicates the picture while making a certain kind of sense. If, as I assert, Scarlett embodies masculine ideals housed in a female form, her desire for both Rhett and Ashley achieves a balance. Scarlett mediates between Rhett (the masculine) and Ashley (the feminine). Similarly, Ashley mediates between Melanie (the feminine) and Scarlett (the masculine). This dualistic pattern produces two gender balances among the four characters, but only in two groups of three, and notably with Scarlett and Ashley, the most ambivalent sexually, at the center of each opposition.

Such a configuration suggests that the coupling of Ashley and Scarlett would achieve a balance after all. This violates the myth in two related ways, however. First, it would imply that we should have trusted Scarlett's instincts over those of everyone around her, including Ashley's; that women just might be capable of discerning what they want or need. Second and more important, that pairing would have completely disrupted the male-dominant/female-submissive dynamic at the very core of the myth of "right" heterosexual relations in our culture. When Scarlett discovers at the movie's end both her love for Rhett and her illusionary concept of Ashley, she finally validates the only masculine-feminine paradigm considered acceptable.

The epitome of the myth is the romance of Scarlett and Rhett, the central relationship that exposes the seams tenuously holding the fabric of the myth together. The more one looks at their interactions, the more predictable is Rhett's departure--even a relief--and the more apparent is the fact that the roots of their differences lay as much in institutionalized gender roles as in the characters' specific personalities. As it turns out, each tragically wants from the union precisely that which s/he cannot have: for Rhett, complete control; for Scarlett, independence with security.

If Rhett failed to achieve his goals, at least his more nearly correspond to both the myth of romance and the reality of nineteenth-century marriage. From the moment he sees Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks barbecue, she becomes his quarry; thereafter, themes of pursuit, dominance and force characterize their entire history. After their first unfortunate encounter in the Wilkes's library, Rhett appears in Atlanta as a swashbuckling blockade-runner, and successfully bids for Scarlett at a benefit dance. She accepts, of course, but Rhett wields the power (and money!) to control their situation. This control, not to mention its relation to economics and gender, underlies their ups and downs. Visiting Scarlett a bit later, for example, Rhett refuses to kiss her, saying, "No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, by someone who knows how." Clearly we are now meant to see Scarlett through Rhett's eyes, and agree that the cure for her or any other woman's presumed maladjustment is the right man to dominate her. After the death of Scarlett's second husband, Scarlett visits Rhett and they kiss. He says, "This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you've ever known has kissed you like this, has he? Not Charles or your Frank or your stupid Ashley." Consistently, even Rhett's marriage proposal reeks of coercion, as he tells the drunken Scarlett to "Say yes, say yes" amid more kissing.

Once one realizes that Rhett's need to dominate Scarlett pervades their every encounter, the infamous (apparent) rape scene, potentially so offensive from a feminist perspective, becomes less eventful though no less disturbing. Initially having asked myself if what occurred upstairs was really a rape, I now believe this question to be less relevant than two related observations. First, the entire relationship, modeled on rape as it is, renders that one scene more symbolic than offensive reality. Second, this Rhett/Scarlett relationship, with rape as its dynamic model, portrays for viewers the prototypical romance, leading to the logical and dangerous conclusion that romance and rape are indistinguishable. Scarlett's high spirits in the morning-after scene, apparently denoting satisfaction, reinforce both this view of romance/rape and the corresponding myth that women, despite their protests, want and need to be conquered.9

Ultimately, the scene epitomizes the difference between male and female power as manifested in the traditional American marriage. On the one hand, so-called female power is paradoxical. Whatever control Scarlett has over Rhett is sexual in origin and passive in implementation; one of the few ways she can wield her power is to deny him. Rhett's power, on the other hand, is institutionalized, particularly through his complete legal right to Scarlett's body as well as her property. Besides the previous examples, after their daughter Bonnie's birth, Scarlett informs Rhett (albeit euphemistically) that she won't be risking pregnancy with him anymore. In quick succession, he names the options his power provides: He asks, "and do you know I can divorce you for this?"; tells her "I'll find comfort elsewhere"; and finally, when she threatens to lock the door, he kicks it in, saying, "If I wanted to come in, no lock could keep me out."

This male power, so integral to the romantic myth, extends conveniently over other women as well (Belle, the local prostitute, is also at Rhett's disposal, also for a price) but within strictly drawn class and racial lines (the male must always must be of the dominant class/race, doubling his power). Thus, when Rhett uses force, he is viewed as romantic, but when males outside the ruling class threaten the same (a Yankee scavenger at Tara and later the Shantytown drunks who challenge Scarlett), the picture changes. And of course, protecting the honor of "their women" supposedly justified the racist/classist terrorism visited on Shantytown which got Frank Kennedy killed and Ashley wounded.10

Importantly, Rhett's power derives from wealth (and race) as well as gender, rendering the Butler marriage prototypical also in an economic sense. This power configuration leads to two notions of marriage as entirely different as the power behind them: his (sex, fun, control) and hers (romance, economic security). Scarlett's concept of the institution is all too practical for many viewers, perhaps, as she woos Frank Kennedy for the taxes on Tara after failing to get them from Rhett. Later, after the death of Frank, she agrees to marry Rhett because of his wealth:

Rhett: Did you say yes because of my money?

Scarlett: Well . . . yes, partly.

Rhett: Partly?

Scarlett: Well, you know, Rhett, money does help, and, of course, I am fond of you.

Rhett: Fond of me?

Scarlett: Well, if I said I was madly in love with you, you'd know I was lying.

Whether or not her candor renders Scarlett likable, it reflects the reality that marriage, for women, has been the designated route to economic stability. When Scarlett confronts viewers with this truth, she tears through the thin lining of the romantic myth to expose a thick and less attractive layer of necessary materialism.

Unfortunately for Rhett, he accepts Scarlett's terms and embarks upon his own lost cause. His loving commitment to her is truly a "fatal attraction" because he is simultaneously drawn both to those qualities in her he cannot conquer and to the idea of conquering them. Further, if those qualities are male then the enterprise becomes as much a contest between masculinities as between male and female, perhaps rendering victory all the more essential to Rhett. While he repeatedly and successfully uses force, his real aim is Scarlett's willing and total submission. Indeed what Rhett wants--even specifies in his departing monologue--is a "little girl" like deceased daughter Bonnie, whom he can "pet" and "spoil." The comparison is meaningful, for his speech reveals that no difference exists in his mind between the husband-wife and father-daughter relation, the key dynamic of which is again male control and female powerlessness.

The confusion of gender identity and roles within the character of Scarlett has generated commentary on the novel also. Both Anne Edwards and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, for example, have noted parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett in apparent sexual/gender "confusion."11 Fox-Genovese stated that such "ambivalence" reaches "schizophrenic proportions" in Mitchell's "play with transsexual identifications."12 In addition, both writers have linked this confusion to Mitchell's era (b. 1900) and the phenomenon of the "new woman" of her adulthood.13

Conspicuously absent in the critical literature, however, is specific reference to homosexuality, itself a relatively new concept in the age of the "New Woman." Am I trying to bring Scarlett (and/or Mitchell) into the lesbian fold? Yes and no. "Lesbian," we are discovering, is a complicated word and as dependent for its meaning on the complex interactions of cultural structures, institutions, and attitudes as on simplistic notions of who seems to desire whom. Christina Simmons, for example, examined the "fear of lesbianism" in the 1920s and 1930s (Mitchell's era, it should be noted) and assigned a symbolic as well as literal (sexual) meaning to the lesbian identity: " . . . lesbianism represented women's autonomy in various forms--feminism, careers, refusal to marry, failure to adjust to marital sexuality."14 Scarlett, of course, thinks she loves and desires men (Ashley, Rhett) though at times she appears incapable of loving anyone but herself. Here the options available to a woman of her time, place, and personality must be considered. When she does not respond positively to Melanie's affection (as when Melanie calls them "two sisters"), Scarlett denies herself a potential intimate friendship and in so doing leaves herself the choices of either heterosexual marriage or standing alone--the perennial dichotomy in a heterosexist society. At film's end, Scarlett is alone, all her marriages having failed (the others were loveless and passionless, after all). If viewers sympathetic to such sisterhood could set aside the myth, they might hope that Scarlett would set her sights on female companionship rather than on Rhett's. But this, of course, cannot be: as a representation of female autonomy, a lesbian in the political sense only, she is problematic enough for her audiences.15

Scarlett and Tara

Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for; because it's the only thing that lasts.
--Gerald O'Hara

Not accidentally, the "Tara Theme" is the film's musical leitmotif. Among Gone With the Wind's most memorable scenes are those linking Scarlett to her antebellum, agrarian home: Scarlett, receiving the above lines from her father, after which both are framed by the symbolic Tara tree; Scarlett, standing in the garden of the devastated Tara as Part I ends, declaring her intention to "never be hungry again!"; and Scarlett, sobbing at the end over Rhett's departure and asking, "What is there that matters?" to which the (all male) voices of Gerald, Ashley, and Rhett respond, "Tara! Tara! Tara!" These are more than references to "Home, Sweet, Home." They express the agrarian myth, ideally set in the very period which rendered it a myth once and for all, and in the very region which exemplifies not just the American transition from a rural to an urban economy, but also the lingering American ambivalence involved in that transition.16 Because Scarlett once again dominates the action, she once again embodies conflicts as gendered as those at the root of her interpersonal relations.

Gerald O'Hara delivers the Tara speech to his daughter as an expression of Irish Catholic heritage. However, the "land" to which he refers is an ideal symbol encompassing anything from Tara to a specific region or nation to a vague set of ideals widely applicable (home, country, virtue, independence). The primary message is a combination thereof: that of "republican virtue" rooted in land ownership and referring specifically neither to the South nor to Ireland but to the United States. Like the Scarlett-Rhett romance, this theme of land allows the story to transcend its central Southernness, while introducing another violation of the gender roles understood as part of the romantic myth. That is, Scarlett's relation to Tara, and to economics generally, merely highlights the elements that render her such a problematic character throughout: her quest for and achievement of both independence and security. Why should these be problematic? They shouldn't be, unless these values are gendered and Scarlett is the wrong one.

In Gone With the Wind both Scarlett and Rhett are rugged individuals, exhibiting self-reliance at every turn. This may be appropriate in a Rhett Butler, but is the antithesis of archetypical femininity, however, to which any claim of self is anathema. Thus when Scarlett becomes head of Tara by default; when she vows to "lie, steal, cheat, or kill" to "never be hungry again"; when she tries to sell her body to Rhett for tax money, and does sell her body to Frank and then Rhett in marriage, she displays not only critical elements of her own personality but also reflects essentially masculine roles and values (though at times through feminine means). As disturbing as the roles and values may be in their extreme, they are doubly so when represented by a female in this culture.

As if all this weren't bad enough, Scarlett willingly stoops to "Yankee" practices to fulfill her economic vows. As a cash-and-carry merchant, she becomes the emblem of a New Southern order and typifies qualities often revered among "captains of industry." (Significantly, the business she runs is the epitome of literal "reconstruction"--a lumber mill.) Added to the Old/New South conflict are continuing tensions between North and South, and those between gender roles, all of which render Scarlett scandalous to the Old Southern gentry. As she deals hardheadedly with customers and exploits convict labor in her campaign for personal security, Scarlett clearly evokes the view that she is unfeminine and is overstepping the boundaries of her gender.17

The transition to a New South that Scarlett represents serves as signifier of the ongoing development of American industrialization and urbanization.18 That she always has one foot in Tara is important here, revealing that postbellum development to be fraught with conflict and ambivalence. While Scarlett adopts business practices to achieve her financial independence, she will not relinquish Tara or the agrarian confidence in land ownership. In so doing, she serves as a metaphor for the American inability to abandon the concept that a land-based economy is somehow more secure and more virtuous than one based on money.

In every crisis, Scarlett returns to Tara, regardless of the risks involved (after the Battle of Atlanta, for example). As the film ends, her final realization is that she must return to her home, her agrarian roots. That Scarlett views Rhett's departure as a tragedy encapsulates the conflicts within her feminine identity previously discussed; that to her Tara promises relief, comfort, and a chance to think (even if it's about the dubious cause of getting Rhett back) reverberates in audiences well trained in the agrarian myth; that a woman personifies characteristics and events consciously or unconsciously considered male, though, creates disorder within potential harmony.

Scarlett and the War

Fiddle-dee-dee! Don't you men ever think about anything important?
--Scarlett, on war

The setting of Gone With the Wind, Georgia during the War and Reconstruction, undoubtedly accounts for some of the tension I say underlies the film's endurance. First, nothing has been as canonized in "legitimate" history (presented as the dividing line of school courses and texts, for example) as the message that the Civil War and its aftermath was America's great test, one it barely passed.19 As an identity crisis on a national scale, perhaps only the Vietnam conflict approaches the Civil War, but with a substantive difference: While the elements of America's mythical self-image as a virtuous nation were at stake in Vietnam, the very concept of nationhood lay at the heart of the sectional crisis. Equally important, the official national stance (if not the reality) regarding race relations has changed since 1939, rendering the Southern white perspective of the story and the stereotypical nature of the African American characters obvious and justified sources of opposition. As little as some viewers want to be reminded about the fact of slavery, still less are they comfortable with the nostalgic tone of this particular reminder.

But the principle source of uneasiness is again a confusion of feminine and masculine perspectives, both in female form, which interact with the topic and setting in crucial ways. Because war is usually considered a man's experience, and so viewed through male eyes, the confounding of gender between the main character and the historical events, not to mention the conflation of gender within Scarlett, adds to the complexity of an already involved set of subtexts. The war is therefore significant, revealing the gendered assumptions that I claim underpin the mixed audience and reviewer responses to the film.

"Fiddle-dee-dee! War, war, war. This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides, there isn't going to be any war." These opening lines of Scarlett establish her relationship to the war. The audience, of course, knows there will be a war, and so Scarlett's attitude seems like self-centered, wishful thinking; even most other characters realize what some Americans later came to see as inevitable, and many of the men are (accurately) portrayed as eager for the conflict to begin. Similarly, Scarlett appears downright silly if not callous when, having just been rejected by Ashley and confronted by Charles Hamilton with news of Lincoln's call for volunteers, she says, "Don't you men ever think about anything important?" (invariably evoking audience laughter).

If her words establish clues to Scarlett's character, even more do they introduce other themes. First is the sporadic denial of reality in general, a key to both Scarlett's complex personality and to the tragedy of the larger events. Second is the meaning of war in the totality of Scarlett's (and other women's) experiences and world view. Although rarely recognized by critics or audiences, who tend to concentrate primarily on Scarlett's personality, underlying her ostensible smallness is a larger truth: Marriage, to the man of choice, was an issue more central in women's lives than in men's because more crucial to their survival in a society which dictated economic and social dependence on men.

An acceptably "female" lack of interest in war differs from complete dissociation, however, which is neither masculine nor feminine. Significantly, among the men only Ashley and Rhett join Scarlett in her failure to romanticize the war--and in doing so again send gendered signals. Ashley's attitude becomes a part of his effeminacy and Rhett's attitude becomes part of his overall cynicism and opportunism (also appropriately masculine traits). They both fight, though: While Ashley's military conduct reflects a Lee-like sense of duty to state, Rhett's turnabout may be necessary for completing the message of his ultra-masculinity. At the same time, women could be less enthusiastic than men about battles past and present, but most certainly they were expected to fulfill their female roles on the sidelines, whether as nurses, cheerleaders, or other supporters. In this context, Scarlett's defection is double, as woman and Southerner; although prototypically female in seeing alternate effects of the war, she is neither male nor female in rejecting the war and The Cause entirely. After all, such an outlook was/is a luxury reserved only for the definitive individualist among rabid nationalists, s/he willing to be called a traitor.

The discrepancy between the women's and men's concerns in the story mirrors the now common division of private versus public spheres of influence for certain classes of nineteenth-century women and men. In so doing, the film reinforces ideas that ground feminist scholarship, and these consequently offer a framework for evaluating the critical strategies for interpreting the film. Although a thorough analysis of the critical responses to the film is beyond the scope of this treatment, it is relevant that gendered definitions is one aspect of the persistent reluctance of critics to classify Gone With the Wind as art. It is worth noting, though, that there is a striking parallel between treatment of the movie and of American women in general: idolized but not taken seriously, loved but not necessarily respected.20

Scarlett and Another Day

A great strength of the film is the ending. Nothing less than the optimism Scarlett evokes would be as attractive to an American audience, while her determination to face the future by returning to the past is equally attuned to the national mentality. The question of who or what triumphs at the end is sometimes raised and often answered in terms of an old/new dichotomy.21 I say something older indeed prevails: the romantic myth in its personification, Scarlett.

This myth, as I have argued throughout, defines romance as male dominance and female submission. Additional traditions, such as that of rugged individualism and the American ambivalence over agrarian virtues versus urban and technological progress, serve to complicate further an already gendered situation because those traditions have been implicitly male-oriented. But Scarlett's apparent desire to get Rhett back verifies her femininity, and with it the myth; however ambiguous she has repeatedly appeared, however unacceptable she has been as a female in her self-serving individualism, she is redeemed at last by her belief that her happiness is rooted in emotional dependence on a man.

Just as the film's plot replicates power relationships rooted in gender, so does the history of its making and its reception, raising the issue of how many (and what kind of) "gazes" are responsible for the final product, not to mention the decades of commentary.22 My reading suggests the film contains a complex mixture of male and female perspectives (as our society has defined them); however, in the end, in both the film (in the form of Scarlett's professed desire for Rhett) and its saga (in the reviews arguing love-it-as-entertainment/ hate-it-as-art), the male gaze wins. So far.

If the day comes when every institution is not dominated by masculine values and traits, when women's experiences are taken as seriously as men's, when portrayal of those experiences unhesitatingly are considered art, paradoxically Gone With the Wind will lose and gain status: Its role as purveyor of the romantic myth will be of historic interest only, while its astute exposure of women's dilemmas and choices will place it even more firmly inside that canon reserved for "great" films. In losing the tension that underlies its popularity, then, its status may actually shift from "popular" to "art" film and, also paradoxically, it may generate less discussion. But all this is speculation and anything could happen. "After all, tomorrow . . ."


This essay has gone through several versions, originating as a paper entitled "The Strange Career of Scarlett O'Hara. I am grateful to my colleagues at Alfred University for their advice, to Gary L. Harmon, and to the readers at Images for their contributions toward the present form.

11 American Visions: The History of American Art and Architecture, volume 8: The Age of Anxiety. PBS HomeVideo, 1996.

2 Robert Wilson, ed., The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Philadelphia, 1971), 297-298.

3 Helen Taylor, Scarlett's Women: Gone With the Wind and Its Female Fans (New Brunswick, 1989), 106; Anne Jones, "'The Bad Little Girl of the Good Old Days': Gender, Sex, and the Southern Social Order," in Darden Asbury Pyron, ed. Recasting: Gone With the Wind in American Culture (Miami, 1983), 107.

4 These relationships in the novel are also noted in Charles Rowan. "Gone With the Wind, and Good Riddance," Southwest Review, vol. 78, no. 3 (1993), 377, e.g. (published two years after my original draft was written), and discussed in Freudian terms in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "Scarlett O'Hara: The Southern Lady as New Woman." American Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1981), especially 405-406.

5 A broader and relevant discussion of male types in film is the chapter, "Who's a Sissy?" in Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, rev. ed. (New York, 1987), 3-59.

6 Interestingly, Anne Edwards noted that a possible model for Ashley in Margaret Mitchell's life, Clifford Henry, may have had "homosexual tendencies." Anne Edwards, Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell (New York, 1983), 54.

7 Theodore Roszak, "The Hard and the Soft: The Force of Feminism in Modern Times," in Betty Roszak and Theodore Roszak, eds., Masculine/Feminine" Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women (New York, 1969), 94.

8 Taylor, Scarlett's Women, 109-139.

9 The results of this mythology are very much apparent in the seeming epidemics of date rape and domestic violence which, like the film, demand a more sophisticated approach to understanding heterosexual dynamics than simply attempting to fix blame. Scarlett's ambivalent reactions to Rhett's aggression are all too believable, though still objectionable from a feminist standpoint; that she might even think she had to be forced into sex or generally dominated by a man is part of the overall tension here and accurately reflects attitudes consistent with her time, class, and religion (that" virtue" and sexual desire were mutually exclusive, for example). My reading, of this scene and the issue, has been influenced in particular by the view summarized by Dianne F. Herman, "The Rape Culture," in Jo Freeman, ed., Women: A Feminist Perspective. 4th ed. (Mountain View, CA,1989), 20-44 (and see her sources also, especially Brownmiller). It parallels that of Ellen Willis, "'War!' Said Scarlett. 'Don't You Men Think About Anything Important?'" in Philip Nobile, ed., Favorite Movies: Critics' Choice (New York, 1973), 194, and those cited by Taylor, Scarlett's Women, 131-132; see also Taylor, 129-137, for her correspondents' reactions, and Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (New York, 1973), 166-167.

10 My focus on gender has superceded an extended race/class analysis, but I am not suggesting that race and class are unimportant categories in the film, particularly as they could be applied to Scarlett's relationships to Mammy and Prissy as well as to the African American males and lower-class Euroamericans around her. Certainly the racism and classism of the film's perspective--not just that depicted in it from Scarlett's era--have been legitimate sources of objection and critical opposition, and part of the general ambivalence toward the film that I believe merely adds to its notoriety.

11 Edwards, Road, 54, 72.

12 Fox-Genovese, "Scarlett O'Hara," 400, 408.

13 Fox-Genovese, "Scarlett O'Hara," passim; Edwards, Road, 72-73.

14 Christina Simmons, "Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat," Frontiers, vol. 4, no. 3, p. 58, and see her notes. The latter failure, incidentally, is attributed to Mitchell by Edwards in Road, 117.

15 I have scratched only the surface of the topic of gender and sexuality and of the ongoing debate in queer theory over "social constructionism" vs. "essentialism." See Vicki L. Eaklor, "Learning from History: A Queer Problem," Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July, 1998), 196-197, for a brief explanation, and the list of Additional Sources: Secondary, for broader treatments.

16 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform. New York, 1955), 23-59.

17 The connection between Scarlett's independence as a male attribute and hostility toward her character was noted also by Beye, "Good Riddance," 373, 378, 380; Stephen Hunter, "Burn Tara, Burn! 'Gone With the Wind': Can We Talk Frankly?" Washington Post, June 28, 1998, G01; and Andrew Sarris, "Frankly, My Dear, We Do Give a Damn," The Village Voice, November 29, 1976, 11 (she "is never really forgiven in the movie for presuming to act like a man"). Interestingly both Hunter and Sarris see the film, not its audiences, as misogynous. In Hunter's review, this was but one of six reasons that GWTW "isn't very good" even among films of 1939--a rare completely negative treatment.

18 This transition is noted also by Fox-Genovese, "Scarlett O'Hara," 396-398.

19 The popular and critical attention given Ken Burns' PBS documentary, The Civil War, especially in 1990-1991, is but one example of the war's continuing importance to our national mentality.

20 Gendered overtones appear in the two-films-in-one analysis (war story vs. love story) represented, for example, by reviews of Franz Hoellering and Time, especially in terms used to describe the "second" film the story which, said Time, . . . "could be read in any confession magazine" ("Cinema" 32). Similarly, William Bayer described GWTW as "a picture that is a masterpiece of mass entertainment and decidedly not a work of art," and used such terms as "King Corn--King of Soap Opera, King of Schlock," "wallowing sentimentality," and "impossible romantic fiction" throughout his discussion (232). What is noteworthy is not just the suspicion of popularity generally among many critics (if it's popular, it can't be art), but especially the use of terms commonly associated with women and so-called female genres. See Works Cited for full citations.

21 Jones, "Bad Little Girl," 115; Fox-Genovese, "Scarlett O'Hara," 397, e.g.s.

22 The concept of a "male gaze," has been discussed in feminist art and film theory since the mid-1970s and refers to the predominantly male perspective that has informed visual productions. See Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen, 16 (1975), 6-18; and Ann E. Kaplan, Women & Film: Both Sides of the Camera. New York, 1983.

Works Cited

Bayer, William. The Great Movies. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., 1973.

Beye, Charles Rowan. "Gone With the Wind, and Good Riddance," Southwest Review, vol. 78, no. 3 (1993), 366-380.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

"Cinema." Time, December 25, 1939, 30-32.

Eaklor, Vicki L. "Learning from History: A Queer Problem," Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July, 1998), 195-211

Edwards, Anne. Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Dell, 1983.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "Scarlett O'Hara: The Southern Lady as New Woman." American Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1981), 391-411.

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

Herman, Dianne F. "The Rape Culture," in Jo Freeman, ed. Women: A Feminist Perspective. 4th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1989, pp. 20-44.

Hoellering, Franz. "Gone With the Wind," in Stanley Kauffmann and Bruce Henstell, eds. American Film Criticism. New York: Liveright, 1972, pp. 370-371(reprinted from The Nation, December 30, 1939, 740).

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.

Hunter, Stephen. "Burn Tara, Burn! 'Gone With the Wind': Can We Talk Frankly?" Washington Post, June 28, 1998, G01

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed., with an Introduction and Notes by William Peden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Jones, Anne. "'The Bad Little Girl of the Good Old Days': Gender, Sex, and the Southern Social Order," in Darden Asbury Pyron, ed. Recasting: Gone With the Wind in American Culture. Miami: University Presses of Florida, 1983, pp. 105-115. Kaplan, E. Ann. Women & Film: Both Sides of the Camera. New York: Routledge,1983.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen, 16 (1975), 6-18. Roszak, Theodore. "The Hard and the Soft: The Force of Feminism in Modern Times," in Betty Roszak and Theodore Roszak, eds. Masculine/Feminine" Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 87-104.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Sarris, Andrew. "Frankly, My Dear, We Do Give a Damn," The Village Voice, November 29, 1976, 11.

Simmons, Christina. "Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat." Frontiers, vol. 4, no. 3, 54-59.

Taylor, Helen. Scarlett's Women: Gone With the Wind and Its Female Fans. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Willis, Ellen. "'War!' Said Scarlett. 'Don't You Men Think About Anything Important?'" in Philip Nobile, ed. Favorite Movies: Critics' Choice. New York: Macmillan, 1973, pp. 190-195.

Wilson, Robert, ed. The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson. Preface by Robert Wilson. Foreword by Andrew Sarris. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971.

Additional Sources: Reviews

Behlmer, Rudy. "Gone With the Wind," in Frank Magill, ed. Magill's Survey of Cinema, First Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1980, pp. 654-659.

Crowther, Bosley. The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

Curran, Trisha. "Gone With the Wind: An American Tragedy," in Warren French, ed. The South and Film. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981, pp. 47-57.

"Daily Worker Critic Forced Out of Job On Refusal to Attack 'Gone With the Wind.'" New York Times, December 22, 1939, 1.

Davis, Ben, Jr. "This is No Time for the Lincoln Tradition, Hints the 'Times.'" The Daily Worker, December 27, 1939, 4.

"Dre reviews Gone With the Wind." 1998.

"Film Critics Reject 'Gone With the Wind.'" The Daily Worker, December 28, 1939, 7.

Herrington, Chris. "Gone With the Wind," Memphis Flyer, June 29, 1998.

Hochman, Stanley, ed. From Quasimodo to Scarlett O'Hara: A National Board of Review Anthology 1920-1940. Introduction by Robert Giroux. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Kael, Pauline. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965.

Kirstein, Lincoln. "History in American Films (Gone With the Wind)," in Stanley Kauffmann and Bruce Henstell, eds. American Film Criticism. New York: Liveright, 1972, pp. 372-377 (reprinted from Films, Spring, 1940).

"Notice to Our Readers." Daily Worker, December 22, 1939, 7.

Nugent, Frank S. "The Screen in Review." New York Times, December 20, 1939, 31.

Preece, Harold. "A Southerner of Colonial Ancestry Gives the Answer of the Oppressed to Anti-Negro Film." The Daily Worker, January 1, 1940.

[Review of GWTW]. Theatre Arts Monthly, February, 1940, 128-129.

Rosenblatt, Roger. "Reconsideration: Gone With the Wind, the Movie." New Republic, January 25, 1975, 19-22.

Additional Sources: Secondary

Campbell, Edward D. C., Jr. The Celluloid South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981.

Rich Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs; Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Summer, 1980, 631-657.

Rupp, Leila. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "Discourses of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New Woman, 1870-1936," in Matin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and Geroge Chauncey, Jr., eds. Hidden From History; Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library, 1989, pp. 264-280.

Solomon, Stanley J. Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.


Copyright © 2002 by Vicki Eaklor
Published April 2002 by Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
URL for the article:
Images home page: