Gone With the Wind: The Great American Feminist Novel

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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41 Responses

  1. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    I’ve never read the book. The film has some issues for me, but they aren’t forefront. I have no problem with a story that imagines a vibrant relationship between a white plantation heir and a house slave. And I think Scarlett O’Hara is a brilliant character. She is dragged right down off that pedestal and becomes a real person. That makes her really interesting.

    The slaves appeared to stick around after the Civil War. This strikes me as ridiculous, but it completes the “We’re a big happy family” picture. And then there are the freed blacks living in the woods who are Oh So Very Dangerous. These are problems. But the film doesn’t strike me as threatening.

    But my opinion, I think, should not count for a lot. I’m interested in what black people think about it. But I don’t want to single out one, and make them spokesperson. I just would like to know what some of the black people I’ve known over the years would think of it.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Doctor Jay
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      says:

      Black people have every right to hate it. Absolutely. There are parts of the book and the movie that are disgusting and horrifying. I would not ever in a million years suggest that this be a book people should read, like in school or whatever. My point is that there are some things of value in there that are pretty important from a feminist perspective, unique elements I’ve never really seen done anywhere else, and would I hate it hate it hate it if that is lost in favor of some more anodyne, less meaningful tripe like Captain Marvel.

      I mean, I have read some literature that oozes with misogyny and even outright violence towards women written by men who are extremely problematic. Much of this is put forth as must read for other reasons, sometimes because it is minority-inclusive, and I’m supposed to excuse that because of other elements in the book. And I do. I understand that there are things in many cultures as they evolve that are misogynistic, I favor realistic representations of misogyny in fiction, and as most of you know, I’m not into canceling people on the basis of Badthink for any reason.

      I’m simply saying it would be very nice to have that type of grace ever extended to women.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to atomickristin
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        says:

        There is a school of thought that states we shouldn’t forgive the misogynistic literature of the past because they did things differently though. It’s growing in popularity these days. Part of the entire cancel culture. GWTW is just way too racist and pro-slavery to get a pass. I don’t think many feminists want to see it as even slightly feminist because of that. It’s just the literature equivalent of toxic waste because of that. The racist nature of the book consumers all other qualities.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq
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          says:

          I’m not suggesting we cancel Tracy Chapman. I’m just asking if “Fast Car” plays into and amplifies harmful stereotypes by allowing White listeners to engage in poverty tourism.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird
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            says:

            No, because she does it in a folk rock style rather than a hip-hop style. By using white musical tastes, the song becomes more universal. There isn’t inherently anything African-American in Fast Cars, you can easily see a white person or Hispanic person writing that song. Therefore, it passes muster by the Committee of Public Safety.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq
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              says:

              The fact that it’s done in folk rock style is half of what makes it problematic! It is not only cultural appropriation, in 1988, this was a clear invitation to be a poverty tourist to people who otherwise would never listen to artists of Color who weren’t singing something like “Feliz Navidad”.

              Which is the other half of what makes it problematic.

              Not that I’m saying she should be cancelled. Nobody is arguing that.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin in reply to LeeEsq
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          says:

          Believe it or not, I was actually aware of this very loud and impossible to miss school of thought! But thanks for filling me in!Report

  2. Avatar J_A
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    says:

    I don’t fault (good) books for accurate descriptions, both of their characters or of their circumstances (*)

    The antebellum South was racist, to say the least.

    Scarlett O’Hara, whatever her other qualities or defects, was pro-slavery, and the book is written from her POV. It is not different that saying that Tony Soprano, whatever his other qualities or defects, is pro organized crime, hence The Sopranos has (has to have) a pro-Mob attitude.

    It would be ridiculous (and make it a very bad book) to have a protagonist, call her Violet O’Shea, a Southern Belle who is totally anti slavery, holds campaign events for Lincoln in her plantation house, and cheers for the triumphs of the Union, because “they are fighting the good fight of our days”. Even worse, every white character in the novel vehemently declares in no uncertain terms the equality of black men, and black women, and black homosexuals for good measure (calling them black LGBT persons would be anachronistic, though), and talk to each other about how most of their best friends are black.

    That was not antebellum Georgia. That was not what a Southern lady would have believed.

    Scarlett O’Hara might have been wrong, but that’s her story. If you don’t want to hear it, read it, watch it, or learn about it, well, that’s your loss. You’ve made a smaller world for yourself.

    (*) I fault not-good books for a lot of things.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to J_A
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      says:

      I am gonna go ahead and sign onto this 100% I bugs me to no end to see the white washing of many points of view, and you can see this in many current artistic endevors such as Downton Abby. There is always a white and/or rich character around espousing modern ideals to make the reader/viewer feel better.

      One of my favorite books is L.A. Confidential, but I don’t love it for the characters attitudes, which are irredeemably racist, sexist and homophobic. I love it because the those charaters are so well drawn and challenge my perceptions during the narrative.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Aaron David
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        says:

        My mom had a complaint along these lines from the new Little Women movie (the book is a favorite of hers). Never read the book or seen any of the many adaptations myself including this latest one but she said the little nods to late 20th/early 21st century politics damaged it for her to the point of not being able to enjoy it.
        Obviously artistic license is as old as art itself but it certainly eliminates the possibility of learning or exposure to truly alien world views, even ones we aren’t that far removed from relatively speaking.

        For the record the old man liked Little Women (he saw it with my mom in exchange for her seeing 1917 with him) but I’m 98% sure his enjoyment was limited to ‘Florence Pugh is on the screen right now.’ Nothing wrong with that but not what I’d call a sophisticated take.Report

        • Avatar Aaron David in reply to InMD
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          says:

          I think that had I come across this trend when I was younger, I might have been more receptive to it, but now it just strikes me as false. And as I said, white-washing the past. I am starting to think of this as being much more racist than what would be presented.Report

          • Avatar InMD in reply to Aaron David
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            says:

            I find it to be patronizing more than anything else. It’s really insulting to the audience’s intelligence to say some work is important for whatever reason the talk down to them like they can’t handle it.

            When I was getting my BA in history I had a prof for Medieval studies who really emphasized how ingrained the ‘Great chain of being’ kind of hierarchical thinking was throughout society. Like even if you went and pulled people from the bottom of the social order they would believe in it and their religion and culture would reinforce it. Hearing our perspective on these matters wouldn’t make any more sense to them than theirs does to us to a point that would he challenging to reflect in popular fiction. I agree that it would be challenging but probably not impossible, which makes it all the more ridiculous when these differences are reflected in source material from times not nearly as far away yet our makers of art are too weak to grapple with them or try to make them accessible.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to InMD
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          says:

          Nearly every modern adaptation of an old novel needs to modernize it in some way. First, few modern audiences are going to be able to totally relate to a work from the past because the past is a different country. Everything would be too alien for people to grasp. Very few people would want to see something buried deep in 19th century New England Anglo-Protestantism. Plus, many of Little Women’s modern fans already give it a late 20th/early 21st century political gloss so why not.go there anyway.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to J_A
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      One of the weaknesses of movies with criminals as the lead is that they soften the criminal and move all the horror and cruelty off screen. Bonnie And Clyde comes to mind, as does Godfather I (The sequel improved on this immensely).

      But to its credit, The Sopranos showed us early and clearly that Tony was a horrible person, cruel and narcissistic. Breaking Bad even more so. Even as the shows were written from their point of view, it never lost the ability to show the awful consequences of their chosen path.

      I suppose that is a criticism that could be leveled at GWTW. That it was careful to move any pain and suffering of the slaves off screen and hidden away, but move the pain and suffering of the slaveowners to the forefront. And it wasn’t even necessary to do this in order to tell the tale from the slaveholders point of view.

      Outlander, which happens to be returning this week, does a terrific job of doing just that. We are treated to a slave owning character who is an older woman, Aunt Jocasta, who is very sympathetic and kindly, but we also see the horrific consequences of a world where people are chattel.

      And the series makes it clear that the same sort of thinking that could see black people as lesser than human would not hesitate to see women as lesser than human.

      In the real antebellum South, there is a very high probability that Scarlet O’Hara would have had her land stolen by a rapacious entitled man or group of soldiers, raped in the process and found that the law sided with her tormentors instead of her.

      Because in the hierarchy of society, she was higher than Mammy, but not nearly as high as the men in her life.Report

      • Avatar J_A in reply to Chip Daniels
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        says:

        @Chip

        I think you are making Kristin’s point, but I’m not sure if you are making it on purpose, or by accident.

        It is true, that ”In the real antebellum South, there is a very high probability that Scarlet O’Hara would have had her land stolen by a rapacious entitled man or group of soldiers, raped in the process and found that the law sided with her tormentors instead of her.”. That was indeed what happened to many, or most, of the women that found themselves in a similar position as Scarlett’s.

        Scarlett O’Hara is fully aware that the odds are very much against her. That’s what makes her story unique(r). She understood that no one would save her but herself. And she acted accordingly. She took agency for her survival, and her future wellbeing. That is what makes her, using Kristin’s word, a feminist.

        Her story is not the story of how Southern ladies were, in the hierarchy of society, higher than Mammy, but not nearly as high as the men in their lives. That’s a different story, one that is worth telling, and has been told well several times (*). GWTW is, instead, the story of a woman who saved herself, and prospered, through courage, cleverness, and the adequate use of sex. It is, mutatis mutandis, very much the story of Cleopatra, another feminist woman that has fascinated mankind for 2,000 years

        (*) Rod Dreher, of all people, has a fairly good blog post that touches this theme https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/sex-money-power/Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to J_A
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          says:

          Well right, her story is not the story of how antebellum society actually functioned.

          It isn’t a “bad” story just wildly inaccurate.

          I’ve said a few times here that life under awful regimes is actually very pleasant, for a select few. There is always a small or even large group of people who never experience the things that become, for the rest of us, the “true face” of that society.

          Like, if we saw a movie set in 1965 Soviet Union, and it concerned the romantic adventures of a Russian couple, set against the backdrop of a world where they never experienced lines for bread, where no one was afraid of the government, and everyone drove late model cars and lived in nicely furnished houses.

          Most Americans including most of the OT readers would object to this depiction as horribly inaccurate. And I doubt that my pointing out how richly drawn the characters were, or how uplifting the message was, would convince anyone to overcome the glaring inaccuracy of the setting.

          Most 20th century white Americans are able to see and enjoy the uplifting story of Scarlett because the setting comports with our preferred notion of history. Even if on one level we know it is inaccurate, it doesn’t offend us or disturb our understanding of the world. We can easily glide past it without discomfort.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to J_A
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      says:

      Thanks for reading and a thoughtful comment.Report

    • Avatar Ebony in reply to J_A
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      says:

      Just because I don’t want to read a book that marginalizes black women such as myself does not make my world smallerReport

  3. Avatar Aaron David
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    says:

    Excellent rant. Much favorable.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    The problem is not Scarlet O’Hara but that the author of the book is clearly racist.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      Well, since you provide so many examples of this, it must be true!Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      I’m going to set this link here and hope that you read it. Written by a liberal! And a real feminist, not pesky old me!
      Yay!

      https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/15/feminism-feminists-tyranny-niceness-complexity

      In other news, I remain eternally befuddled by the comments in my threads where someone tells me the sky is blue and water is wet as if I’m too stupid to be aware of or understand a position.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      Well, couldn’t you say that about almost every book written prior to the 1970’s, or, depending on how woke you are, every book ever written? As for making slavery part of a story’s setting, Harriet Beecher Stowe also did that in her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

      Clearly, for “Gone With the Wind” to work as a story, Scarlet is going to be pretty darned racist by later standards, otherwise she’d have to be written as a woke abolitionist from Massachusetts, which although perhaps interesting, would be a completely different character in a completely different story. To tell a Southern story, most of the characters are going to have to reflect what Southerners at the time thought, otherwise the reader would be thinking “So if nobody down South supported slavery, why were there so many slaves? This book doesn’t make a lick of sense!”

      Certainly many great books had heroic characters who battled against slavery, such as Harriet Tubman, but again, if those are the only stories we’re exposed to, then we’re back wondering how slavery existed when all the strong characters obviously opposed it. You could apply that to almost any historical period, where to let the reader understand how most people thought, you’re going to have to convey how most people thought.

      Scarlet is a character, so on one level I’m looking at what her environment was, what her influences were, and how those shaped her actions. Everybody was able to look at complexities and character for all the strong women in “Game of Thrones”. Well, GWTW requires the same thing. If your hero (prior to season eight) was The Mother of Dragons, who led an army of “unsullied”, burned people alive if they didn’t bow to her, and slaughtered entire cities, you should probably give Scarlet a pass on her dating choices.

      I’m not sure where all this anti-Scarlet pressure comes from. Male literary characters aren’t required to be role models, they’re just characters, often monstrous ones. What lessons should I draw from Spartacus? That it’s okay for men to be slaves, brutal killers, and failed rebels who get wacked? What social message am I supposed to take away from “The Godfather”, other than perhaps the importance of family and baseball equipment? The only thing I got from “All Quiet On the Western Front” was an understanding of why we need never worry about being conquered by The Audubon Society. They’re good stories about interesting people or events, and they don’t have to reflect truths that don’t support the central theme or plot.

      A good character needs to be interesting, or at least do something interesting, or at least be notable in being uninteresting and unimportant, perhaps inspiring a good de-motivational poster. As long as people can relate to or understand the character or the situation, it’s all good. Demanding that each character, no matter the setting, have the same drive, viewpoint, and outlook, and face (and overcome!) our modern fixations is a recipe for stale, derivative, predictable twaddle, the stuff of dime novels cranked out by low-salaried hacks writing anonymously for low-rent publishers (or season 12 of Doctor Who).

      Often, the characters who don’t follow the rules, whether they attain success or suffer disaster, are far more interesting than the people who do. Some serve as stark warnings or object lessons, and those stories can be some of the most important for people to read, or the most popular. Plenty of folks loved “Breaking Bad”, but that doesn’t mean they had no more morality than Walter White. Plenty of people loved “Narcos” season 1 and 2, yet don’t need a lecture on how Pablo Escobar isn’t a good role model.

      Sure, some sensitive folks might think every story needs to be like an episode of “Friends” , and that’s okay. But most of us would get bored and soon flip the channel to some horrifying spectacle full of awful, awful villains and horrible situations.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    There are lots of great Feminist novels that are not written with sympathy for the war of treason in defense of slavery. This seems more about not wanting to abandon something and working backwards to find the evidence to support the conclusion.Report

  6. Avatar Maribou
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    says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed more with one of your posts. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have written it! Of course or at all!)

    I read this book. I read every single page of this book. I have read *many* clearly racist classic novels (and works of nonfiction) and have made my accommodations with them for other reasons. (I spent more than a week straight yelling at Ernest Thompson Seton in my head and I’m still pissed at him, but I haven’t sworn off him either.) This one contained some of the grossest, most appalling, most dehumanizing descriptions of black people of any of the classics I have read. And it *really* didn’t feel like good characterization of the point-of-view heroine. It really felt to me like the author meant them and was thankful for the excuse of a point-of-view heroine to clothe them in.

    I went in *trying* to enjoy the book and look past what I expected to be “the usual kind of racism in books that are nostalgic for the Confederacy which this is hardly my first rodeo and I’ve read a lot of primary works from that time period for pete’s sake’ and got drowned in gross awful sincere “how hard it was to be a racist white woman in the plantation era especially with all those terrifying black people around” instead. There was a page or two describing her ride through the city (Charleston?) where I felt so disgusted by the writer, and at myself for having all these complex excuse for wanting to keep reading, that I literally threw up.

    I went to the book originally expecting to want to defend it and contextualize it without denying any of what’s wrong with it – and instead it’s just. Awful. Its main use to me is as a reminder that I can deeply respect and even be fond of so many women (some of my favorite women love this book!) and yet be utterly appalled at their taste in books. And that America is not Canada. And some other depressing and more systematic things that come in when I look at the large number pictures.

    Ugh. It’s not even that I’m mad at anyone for liking it. (All our faves are problematic, mine as much so as anyone’s.) It’s just that I can’t imagine.

    From my original review written right after I finished it:

    “Every time I started to relax into the story (and there were quite a few such times), some awful piece of bigotry jarred me out of it and made me feel ashamed of having any liking for this book at all.”

    I’ve read across 3 millennia and all the continents and I’ve never been so deeply averse to a competently written piece of prose. I cannot *imagine* finding it inspiring. (The movie also bothers me, for the record, though not nearly as much.)

    It’s good to be reminded that these gaps in the human process of connecting and understanding each other exist.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maribou
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      ” never been so deeply averse to a competently written piece of prose”
      I mean, to be clearer, narrative prose, and one that I’ve actually read all of. It’s trivially easy to come up with far more upsetting examples of theoretically competent prose (say any document written to justify apartheid from a formal religious perspective, or the Dred Scott decision, or etc etc etc) – but this is the worst one I’ve really *read* without holding myself apart from it.

      I kept expecting it to be worth it – so many people besides you have told me it was worth it – and it never, ever, was. Just kept making me hate the writer, and myself, every time I started to settle in.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Maribou
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      says:

      ” There was a page or two describing her ride through the city (Charleston?) where I felt so disgusted by the writer, and at myself for having all these complex excuse for wanting to keep reading, that I literally threw up.”

      uhhhhhhwhat

      I had a post here and I deleted it because it was mean, and I had another post and deleted it because it was mean, and wrote a third post and deleted it because it was mean, and I’m wondering whether it’s possible to not be mean to someone who has such a panic attack over reading a book that they throw up.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        I mean, it’s just very odd to me that someone might so externalize their emotional reactions that they’d consider a work of text to be morally questionable because of the strength of their feelings about it.

        If you wanna say “well you’re just a fucking lizard, you have no emotions and think they’re stupid, you aspie trash” y’know, I do have strong feelings when I experience media, but they’re from me. The media might be trying to inspire them but whatever happens is something I brought to the table. If something makes me feel sad in a way that I don’t like then I just don’t watch that movie again but there’s no moral judgement in that.

        I also question the value of declaring media to be apologia for this or that odious attitude. It’s the same conversation we had with Gone Girl (oh, and by the way, if you guys want more women writing for this site and a wider range of voices then y’all got a funny fuckin’ way of showin’ it). “The antagonist in this work is someone whom IRL-bad-people also consider an antagonist, therefore we must criticize this work lest we be considered IRL-bad-people-adjacent”. And maybe this is part of the Separate The Icky Squicky that I consider important, and that it seems like some people cannot do; this transitive-reasoning that’s so popular these days, where Gone With The Wind portrayed a racist plantation-owner as the protagonist of a story and that’s bad and that made us feel bad and we can’t keep from assigning those bad feelings to other people who make us feel bad.Report

        • Avatar Maribou in reply to DensityDuck
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          says:

          It’s the only time – *the only time* – that has ever happened for me.

          Be mean about it or not, but that’s my experience, across 20 years of reading. This is the only book that I’ve felt like this about. And it wasn’t a panic attack (I’ve had plenty of those), it was just a notably physical experience of disgust. It’s because it’s so weird that it was worth mentioning, and because actually I would *rather not have read that book* and I read it because everyone and their damn mother convinced me it was worth it, and it wasn’t. If someone else is teetering and they want to know how unpleasant it might get, that’s how unpleasant it might get. Seems worth mentioning to other people who have strong physical reactions to their feelings once in a damn blue moon.

          You can try to say personal experience doesn’t belong on the table all you want, but it is what it is.

          And I have no desire to say anyone *must* criticize anything. As I implied above, the vast majority of the white American women I personally know, ie many of my dearest friends, fucking love this piece of racist propaganda written at a time when the Nazis were a going concern. Reading my comment that way doesn’t so much make you look like a lizard as it does make you look like you could stand to read what I actually said more carefully than you did.

          Way to jump to conclusions.

          PS I would never call anyone aspie trash, jesus.

          PPS I’ve gone to bat for _Lolita_, repeatedly, for Pete’s sake. Why on earth you would think my dislike for this one must just be failure to be able to separate Icky Squicky is beyond me.Report

  7. Avatar veronica d
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    says:

    I find intersectionality is impossible, and far too often the people who are expected to bend and accommodate are we of the female variety.

    The thing about this is, I feel like you do understand intersectionality, inasmuch as you at least understand that different women will have different life experiences. In other words, I feel like you get the basic idea.

    The foundations of interesectionality were the frustrations of black women dealing with 1) white feminists, who ignored (and often supported) racism, and 2) male civil rights activists, who ignored (and often supported) misogyny. It’s not a deep mystery. In fact, it’s entirely predictable that privilege and power don’t stop working even among social justice activists.

    Second wave feminism arose because the women involved in the 60’s peace movement discovered that the men for “radical social change” wanted women to be obedient domestic sex-providers, the same as patriarchal men. In retrospect, this is unsurprising, although it is disappointing.

    Regarding GWTW — it’s okay to have problematic faves. On the other hand, it’s pretty darn racist. So that’s a thing.

    #####

    I think there is a difference between “including every voice,” which isn’t possible for any one piece of media, and “actively dehumanizing a marginalized group,” which should always be avoided. So yeah, it’s fine for lesbians to “have their own thing,” but do those things need to be overtly racist? I don’t see why.

    For example, not every piece of media needs to be by-and-for trans women. That said, if someone includes us in their story, I would insist that they not treat us as freaks or monsters.Report

  8. Avatar Dark Matter
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    says:

    Scarlett O’Hara is fun, a real person, and a trainwreck, but her overall plan is less “anti-hero” and more “villain protagonist”. It’s easy to lose track of that and she did grow during the story so there’s that.Report

  9. Avatar Fish
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    says:

    Scarlett O’Hara was Buffy Summers before there was a Sunnydale. Well…maybe Buffy after her Mom died. Anyway, I read GWTW long enough ago that I’ll be damned if I can remember details. Excellent post.Report

  10. Avatar blake
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    says:

    I feel like Kristin writing these is good for my blood pressure, because I don’t have to.

    For the record, the second Academy Awards show had two female screenwriters nominated (in a field of 10 or so), though they both lost. The third Academy Awards show had only one female screenwriter, Frances Marion, nominated (in a field of five)—but she won the award.

    What did she write about? Baking cookies? Romance?

    Nope, she wrote “The Big House”, based on an exposé of inhumane prison conditions that led to a bunch of riots. She wrote literally hundreds of screenplays (though I think that’s less impressive in the silent years, heh) and won another Oscar—she may have been the first person to win two Oscars—shortly after with the classic Wallace Beery/Jackie Cooper flick, “The Champ”.

    She was also a suffragette, perhaps unsurprisingly.Report

  11. Avatar Ebony
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    says:

    “find I am thoroughly fed up watching things of thevalue to women getting tossed onto the rubbish heap of history with nary a “meh” because they might contain some elements that are offensive to someone, because they were written at a place and time when well-intentioned people didn’t know better. ”

    “I find intersectionality is impossible, and far too often the people who are expected to bend and accommodate are we of the female variety.”

    I take issue with these quotes. With this quote you are trying to speak for all women, but you do not speak for me.

    This is one of the problems I have with feminism. This quote completely cancels out black women. As Sojourner Truth says, “Ain’t I a woman?” I refuse to read Gone with the nor watch the movie, because the black women it it are marginalized. This is why I identify as Womanist not a Feminist

    I refuse to feel bad for not liking a book/movie that marginalizes me as a black woman.Report

    • Avatar Ebony in reply to Ebony
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      says:

      Also regarding your link about the tyranny of female niceness. If you have a problem with female niceness, than you should have no problem with my strong disagreement with your post. If I was indulging in female niceness I would just let your post stand with out comment.Report

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