Gone With the Wind: The Great American Feminist Novel
Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon yet again, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this time, I’m reading literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
A year ago I wrote a piece called Ashes in the Wind and the response to it was so offputting it was the closest I have ever come to quitting Ordinary Times for reals instead of just temporarily quitting because my husband made me but then he pissed me off so I came back. But I pushed through the Ashes in the Wind unpleasantness and as is so often the case with unpleasant experiences, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, generally after a period of time spent longing for death, or a bazooka. Thus it brings me great pleasure to stand before you today and rub Gone With the Wind directly into your faces.
Gone With the Wind is a feminist masterpiece that future generations of girls will probably never have the opportunity to read because it contains Elements of Problematic Badthink (this link is about the movie, but lays out the overall case against GWTW nicely). Like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, a movie written by a woman based on a book by a woman about women and beloved by several generations of women which recently lost the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay to Yet Another Hitler Movie, Pride and Prejudice, and The Accidental Tourist, Gone With the Wind features an indepth exploration of how economic concerns affect women and the lengths some of us will go to to attain financial security.
You may have noticed that women and money is a subject I enjoy, probably because my life has been entirely governed by never having any.
The protagonist of GWTW, Scarlett O’Hara, is an unabashed mercenary opportunist who is totally cool with the Confederacy when it benefits her but when it gets inconvenient with that whole pesky war business, turns around and jumps into bed (figuratively) with Yankee carpetbaggers and (literally) with scalawag-of-questionable-loyalty Rhett Butler. Scarlett O’Hara, in addition to or perhaps in keeping with being an unabashed mercenary opportunist, does not always behave with what most would consider the purest of ethics. And portraying female antiheroes as having legitimate character flaws rather than as perfect paragons of whatever the popular definition of femininity happens to be at the time, is totally feminist.
Through the tribulations, trials, troubles, and travails of Scarlett O’Hara we learn a great truth – that she who survives terrible circumstances is not always the girl who best followed society’s rules. In fact, the rules which work so well for society in times of peace must be rapidly dispensed with in times of upheaval, and this may give those of us who are Born Trouble a leg up on the more obedient competition. To demonstrate this fact to the fullest extent, it was a prerequisite for author Margaret Mitchell (herself a known social upstart) to begin Gone With The Wind in a society replete with ladies who followed said rules to the letter, like Scarlett’s mother Ellen and archnemesis Melanie Wilkes, aka the Old South.
Could Scarlett’s story have been told in another milieu? Probably, but Margaret Mitchell knew the South. She knew the history and the culture of the South, she knew its geography and architecture, she knew what it meant to be a woman of the South. Should Mitchell have chucked that body of knowledge she happened to possess by virtue of birth and upbringing right out the window and written a novel set in the Russian Revolution or Ancient Egypt or Austen’s England instead, someplace long enough ago or far away so it didn’t ruffle the feathers of political incorrectness here today? Or would it perhaps have been better if only she have created a fantasy world that was obviously meant to be the South and plunk Scarlett down there (that’s how we chicken out and write about controversial issues nowadays, is by pretending that trolls and gnomes and dragons are real and oppression is only a thing Actual Bad Guys do, never regular people).
Margaret Mitchell told a meaningful story about women’s survival set against a historic backdrop in which the ability to survive was actually required of people, and she set it in a time and place and culture she knew. That is what good writers DO. Bad writers, or at least less-good ones, set a meaningful story in places and cultures they don’t thoroughly understand (please refer to the recent controversy over American Dirt for an illustration of this principle) oftentimes diluting the meaning and lessening the impact of their message in the process.
I see that furrowed brow, there, Dear Reader. Do you doubt my claim that survival in the face of war, famine, violence, destruction, and General William T. Sherman was what Mitchell was actually writing about? Do you perhaps believe that the purpose of Gone With the Wind was merely to romanticize a despised culture which deservedly died? Here is Margaret Mitchell in her own words, relaying the words of wisdom her mother imparted on a carriage ride to see the plantations Sherman burned:
That is the plot of Gone With the Wind, entirely.
Female survival due to ingenuity, flexibility, tenacity, and a touch of mendacity in the face of great adversity is the heart and soul of Gone With the Wind and if you look in its pages and see nothing but Confederacy porn, I think you need to find a reading comprehension workbook and work your way through it.
Stories do not exist in a vacuum. The time and place in which stories are set, matter. They inform both the plot and the characters. People behave differently in different times and different places; they have different beliefs and customs and make different choices, and they face different challenges both internal and external. The setting of Gone With the Wind, in order to properly contain the story that Margaret Mitchell intended to tell about female survival, a compelling, important, and true story that I am not sure has ever been told so effectively by any other author, HAD TO involve a culture with very strict social rules governing female behavior, existing in a world seemed secure but was then ripped away. It HAD TO involve those things to make way for a woman who didn’t follow society’s rules to succeed in a new world.
Why did it need to be that kind of culture and world? Because Margaret Mitchell’s mother May Belle (who, by the way, was a suffragist who dragged her more-interested-in-flirting-at-the-time teenage daughter to proto-feminist rallies, so my notion of feminism underlying GWTW is not without factual support) was entirely right, our secure world WILL explode underneath us, someday, possibly someday soon, probably this week by the way things have been going lately, and it’s the Scarletts of the world for all their flaws who shall survive it. It’s the Scarletts of the world who have always survived it. Lesser men crumbled around her and not a few of them, the proper and delicate ladies dropped like flies even though they were so very proper and delicate. But Scarlett O’Hara endured.
Now if you can come up with a better setting to tell that story that is NOT in a galaxy far, far away, I’d love to hear it. The Antebellum through Reconstruction Era South is an ideal setting for the type of story Mitchell wanted to tell, and best of all, it was a setting she herself knew intimately. There were disgusting, disturbing elements to Southern culture, absolutely, inarguably, and what should Mitchell have done with those? Ignored them? Written around them? Dreamed up a parable about super mean elves oppressing flawlessly nice fairies instead? Sent Captain Marvel through a magic portal to the past to fight at Abe Lincoln’s side?
I think a whole lot of people right now can’t tell the difference between prose and proselytizing.
Is Gone With the Wind perfect when judged by our modern day ethical standards? No, of course not, DUH. But you know, there’s a reason why we read Shakespeare with all those footnotes at the bottom even though no one speaks English that way any more. We still read these decrepit old books even though they’re often difficult reading – in one way or another — because they contain things of value despite their archaic language and outdated beliefs. It is against the fundamental principles of why we study literature, history, and art to suggest we stop reading great novels of the past that don’t mesh precisely with modern standards of behavior. And while I admit I may have a chip on my shoulder about the Ashes in the Wind thing still, it is downright fascist to shame people for having read a naughty, naughty book and finding something in it worthy of reflection — one step away from burning books in the public square.
I find I’m thoroughly fed up with stuff that is of value to women who have been oppressed by the men of every culture since before we even were humans, and are still getting oppressed in many places around the world today, and will immediately become oppressed again if our pretty-awesome-for-women-at-present culture disintegrates like it’s showing ample signs of doing. I find I am thoroughly fed up watching things of value 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. Just as lesbians have a right to enjoy Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe despite it containing elements that some consider Problematic Badthink, I fully believe that women have a right to Gone With the Wind (all women, across the boards, because we all have a Scarlett inside of us).
I find intersectionality is impossible, and far too often the people who are expected to bend and accommodate are we of the female variety. Karen, Becky, Sharon, Susan, Janet, Felicia – we make jokes of women who don’t bend over backwards to accommodate other people, who dare to complain and make demands and ask to speak to the manager. True, a lot of the people so mocked actually deserve it, but isn’t it interesting that they are ALL WOMEN? Men seem to think they’re gonna go right on running the show and the people who will make room at the table to accommodate the entirely justified complaints of minorities is the womenfolk since it’s our job to make peace and we weren’t using the room we were taking up anyway. What were we going to put there, anyway, tampons or something probably?
And hey, I will not. I have a very large purse and it is spilling over with tampons, by which I mean legitimate and well-founded complaints about how women are treated in our society despite #feminism, and it is going right up on top of the table where no one can ignore it alongside my copy of Gone With the Wind, which is very large because it has 689 pages of beautiful, spectacular, fantabulous purple prose that I personally like to wallow in regardless of whether men think it’s good writing or not. You’ll have to hold that skinny little Hemingway novel of yours on your lap, dude, there’s no space for it here. Sorry if it interferes with your desire to sprawl out and put your elbows on the table whilst talking loudly about what a raw deal Al Franken got.
Gone With the Wind is an incredible book. It is the Great American Feminist Novel and nothing written since has even approached it, let alone surpassed it, probably because the other books in the running were all trying so hard to be the Great American Feminist Novel that their dust covers had beads of sweat dripping off of them.
Scarlett O’Hara is a woman who succeeds in business, uses sex as a weapon, doesn’t find fulfillment in motherhood, and if you really can’t let go of the whole “feminism means performing violence on males” angle she even shoots and kills a man. You tell me you didn’t have a feminist icon until Wonder Woman, Millennials? I give you Scarlett O’Hara. Try her, you may like her.
One could even make a pretty compelling case for Gone With the Wind being the Great American Novel, although this case is wrong since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is actually the Great American Novel. Regardless, Margaret Mitchell, a woman who had to drop out of college to keep house for her father when her mother died of the Spanish Flu, survived the death of her first fiancee in WWI and a subsequent marriage to an abusive bootlegger, who managed to charm a man (the bootlegger’s close friend and the best man at their wedding) into buying her way out of said marriage and then married her savior instead – a brilliant tactical maneuver not even Scarlett O’Hara herself could have pulled off, a woman had the gall to nickname herself “Pegasus” (relatable), who vehemently did not want children at a time when expressing that sentiment simply wasn’t done, who cobbled together an impressive career in journalism in only four years’ time, who wrote over 200 pieces for the Atlanta Journal and when forced to quit due to an injury, went on to write one of the most popular and beloved books ever and published it under her maiden name (also relatable), is even more of a feminist icon than her creation.
If you haven’t read Gone With The Wind because you think it might offend your delicate sensibilities, and consider me a racist monster for loving it and admiring the woman who wrote it, well, I consider you the human equivalent of a horse with blinders on. Enjoy your oats and looking at that square of grass directly before your eyes, but if you want to know more about the human condition, particularly about what it means to be a woman in this crazy world full of violent upheaval even though some of us were lucky enough to have ourselves a nice little break from it for about 50 years there, read it. Gone With the Wind is amazing; imperfect, perhaps, a product of the time in which it was written, certainly, but still amazing. It’s a book by a woman about women beloved by several generations of women, which actually WON the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay because Hitler hadn’t been around long enough to have that many movies made about him yet, and also because a dude wrote it.
And if you want nothing but a library full of virtuous artists writing treacly moral tomes and for everything else to be banned as sinful regardless of redeeming qualities, may I humbly suggest you just start a religion and be done with it? Personally, I think we’re leaving too much behind in this rush to create a world in which we imagine we will never have to stop to consider that humans are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the good ones have a nasty tribalistic streak.
Good literature like Gone With the Wind.
Alas, I am very well aware that none of this rant, while definitely so satisfying I had to have a cigarette when I was done with it, had very little to do with romance. I’m afraid I’m going to have to split this essay into two parts and write YET ANOTHER piece that won’t get done before my self-imposed Valentine’s Day deadline.
But take heart, as I do, in knowing that I am not doing this project again next year.