Ladies and gentlemen, today I present to y’all the case of the most celebrated and vilified Southern belle to ever grace the silver screen.
Now, depending upon where you fall in that camp–whether you revere the young woman in question, or cringe at the sound of her name–generally determines your opinion of the film that features her. I have met many a person who cannot bring him/herself to watch Gone With the Wind in full because they so detest the character of Scarlett O’Hara. And this is, to an extent, understandable. I recognize that an alienating character can contribute to one’s perception of the work in which he/she is featured.
But don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the most entertaining spectacles in all of moviedom.
My personal history with GWTW starts at the age of twelve, when my parents bought a copy of the Margaret Mitchell book at a book sale. Yes, I was a precocious child (at least, that’s my word for it … though Ma and Dad would probably term me “the biggest know-it-all English-kaku bookworm to ever walk the planet”). I sat down and read it over the course of the next week. I fell head over heels in love with the story, the characters (especially that delicious Rhett Butler), the setting … to me, at the age of twelve, it was the romantic thing in the world, to have men falling all over you, declaring their undying love, sharing a secret passion for one another as Scarlett and Ashley do. And as an unrepentant smart-ass, I adored Scarlett and her tart tongue and sarcastic asides.
Now, there were, of course, things that I did not understand at that age. But over the course of the next several years, in which I read the book probably twice a year(I told you I loved it), I began to understand that Scarlett was not the ideal of womanhood that I had built up in my head. She was not even really an ideal of humanity, if you want to get right down to it. There are things about her that are so morally reprehensible that you wonder why people like to label her a heroine.
And yet, who are we to judge? But I’ll get back to this in a moment.
When I finally saw the movie at the age of fifteen, I was bowled over by the grandeur that had been brought to life on the screen, and I marvelled at how almost perfectly cast the film was. In general, at fifteen, I thought everything about the story was perfect. I did not then understand the undercurrents of the “happy slave” motif perpetuated by the book and I did not realize that Scarlett’s happy trilling in bed the morning after Rhett sweeps her up the grand staircase is little more than a disturbing acceptance of her rape at the hands of her husband.
In these instances, and several others, the perspective brought by the passage of many years has made me realize that there are elements of the story that are far from perfect. But it is still one of my favorite stories of all time, and one of the ten best ever put on the big screen. I firmly believe this, and I doubt I will ever change my mind. And to me, Scarlett is one of the most fascinating characters ever conceived.
The thing that I appreciate the most about the film version of GWTW is that the filmmakers did not shy away from putting some of Scarlett’s least venerable characteristics on screen. So many times, a film adaptation falls apart because the characters are whitewashed and made “prettier” (at least from a moral standpoint) so as not to offend the general viewing audience. But not in this case. Scarlett’s jealously, her pettiness, her utter derision for her fellow man, her coquettish determination to claim Ashley for her own … all of it is shown, and rather unapologetically so. And for that, as I stated at the beginning of this post, some celebrate her fight to survive despite its costs to others, and some condemn her for her selfish disregard.
I lean more toward the first camp myself. I enjoy watching Scarlett toy with the affections of men she does not love; she is, after all, the “belle of the ball,” and that has its privileges. To take the attentions of men who view her as nothing more than a plaything, a beautiful trophy to take to their beds, and become the puppet-master, dangling those same, ultimately helpless men by their strings … she is, as second-wave American feminists would claim, simply asserting her power. She is, in the end, smarter than those men, and she’s smart enough not to let them know it. And it is interesting to watch this kind of behavior through the concept of the Civil War-era, when women were bound by the rules of society into home-and-hearth roles that became virtually inescapable. Scarlett, determined to enjoy life in the manner in which she sees fit, flouts those society restrictions, which most modern audiences would find admirable.
Yes, Scarlett is a bitch-with-a-capital-B. But she’s just so honest about her overall bitchery. She recognizes her own flaws and agonizes over going to Hell, but in the end is not particularly bothered by the lies she tells or the manipulative behavior in which she engages on a regular basis. Her obstinance leads her to marry her first husband simply out of spite and to inadvertently cause the death of her second husband. And she never ceases her pursuit of Ashley despite the bone-deep frustration she feels toward his passivity, unwilling to admit that she’s in it for the competition more so than actual love. At least when she finally understands this about herself, Scarlett tries to correct her mistakes, rather than allowing pride to continue to thwart her better judgement. There’s growth to her character–though not much, all things considered; the film (much like the book) tries to cram Scarlett’s redemption into the last ten minutes, leaving viewers with the sense that Scarlett has not “grown up” so much as she has finally “wised up” (and yes, there is a difference between the two).
In the end, at least in my mind, the fact that she allows the worse parts of her nature to override her one chance at happiness with Rhett is something to be pitied rather than to be celebrated. Who hasn’t lost love or friendship for the sake of pride? Who hasn’t stood in Scarlett’s shoes, staring at someone walking away from you, wondering how things would have been if you (or they) had done things differently? Who doesn’t have regrets? When Scarlett collapses on the staircase, sobbing as Rhett strides away in the mist, I’m taken back to points in my own history when I felt the world crumbling around me, when “resilience” felt like a dirty word. But as Scarlett exclaims, there’s always tomorrow. You know, as the story ends, that Scarlett will redouble her efforts to win Rhett back, and that she will ultimately be successful.
This, I think, is why I identify with Scarlett. She’s only human. She’s not a caricature of Southern gentility, the stereotypical fragile blossom whose bloom fades the moment she dons her wedding gown. As Rhett laughingly tells her, “And you, miss, are no lady!” Instead, she’s a nineteenth-century steel magnolia. The character is, in essence, a flawed, natural, thriving, and searingly honest depiction of a woman who was never meant to fill the mold. She may not cherish life, judging by her somewhat cavalier attitude toward the deaths of her first two husbands, but she sure as hell relishes it.
She also protects what’s hers, and that includes the family she does not even particularly like. She detests Melanie (her favorite descriptive term for poor Melanie is “mealy-mouthed”), but she does her duty to her sister-in-law, ensuring her survival and providing a roof over her head and food to eat. She commits murder without flinching, shooting a Yankee deserter who attempts to steal the family’s meagre remaining possessions in the final days of the war. She even accepts the possibility that she will have to prostitute herself to Rhett, offering him a place in her bed in exchange for the money to pay the taxes on Tara. For all the supposed “evil” that Scarlett does, she makes certain that her people are provided for and her beloved plantation remains in O’Hara hands. Now, such ruthlessness and self-serving determined would hardly be cause for concern were she not a woman. But because she is, Scarlett is untoward, unladylike, a lesser human being?
I don’t effing think so.
She’s a survivor; in fact, when Margaret Mitchell was asked to basically define the theme of her novel, she said it was simply about “survival.” And Scarlett is the ultimate survivor. She thrashes against fate to stay alive, and then she sticks it to everyone who doubted her in the most delicious way possible.
So I admit it. I like Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. I really do. I even feel a sort of kinship with her. Does that make me seem odd? [Well, if you’ve only now figured that out, where have you been?]
The only thing I don’t understand about the character? Why, on God’s green earth, she’d prefer this …
Are you for real? Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes is the very definition of “milquetoast”. <snorts derisively> Clark Gable as Rhett Butler just radiates sex. I don’t care if rumor has it that Vivien Leigh did not want to kiss him because his dentures smelled bad. If Carole Lombard could kiss that every night and be fine with it, then make room for me. <wink wink>
P.S. Gone With The Wind is the epic to beat all epics. If you have never read it or seen it, I urge you to do so. It’s a long investment, but I truly feel it to be worth it. It’s one of those stories everyone must read or watch at least once, if only to marvel at the spectacle of it all.
P.P.S. Now that I have spoken my piece, tell me: are you a Scarlett fan, or do you wish she would have accidentally strangled herself with that green curtain dress?