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.NOTE 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.NOTE 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.NOTE 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.NOTE 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."NOTE 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"NOTE 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. Clearly 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.NOTE 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.NOTE 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."NOTE 11 Fox-Genovese stated that such "ambivalence" reaches "schizophrenic proportions" in Mitchell's "play with transsexual identifications."NOTE 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.NOTE 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."NOTE 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.NOTE 15

page 2 of 5

Page One: Introduction  |  Page Two: Scarlett, the Feminine and the Masculine
Page Three: Scarlett and Tara  |  Page Four: Scarlett and the War
Page Five: Scarlett and Another Day

Photo credit: © 1939 Turner Entertainment Co., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.