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.NOTE 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.NOTE 20

page 4 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.