Even before I saw Gone With the Wind, I knew about Gone With the Wind. In fact, I wrote an academic paper about the politics of romance novels and films positively littered with examples lifted directly from the film. And I hadn’t even seen it.
(I got a 90 and a note from the prof saying she didn’t usually give anything higher than an 89.)
And then this weekend I saw it. I saw all the things I’d commented on: the racism (it’s everywhere but most noticeably Scarlett slaps a black maid/former slave); the requiem for a noble, civilized south of leisure (if you were white and owned property and people); and the poisonous dynamic between Rhett and Scarlett.
She manipulates him and treats him with contempt. He marries her. He – maybe – rapes her. And she likes it.
That they are one of our iconic cultural love stories mystifies me. And it worries me: what does the widespread sighing over the romantic Rhett Butler say about women? Does it say we identify with Scarlett O’Hara?
I identify with Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett O’Hara is my evil twin. Dark hair, pale skin, bright green eyes, gorgeous clothes. Flirtatious. An eye for style and the effect of style and beauty on the world (and men!). Able to step up and protect those around her…and desperate to be protected. Passionate. Sometimes cavalier. Ambitious. Able to realize those ambitions…must to the astonishment and sometimes dismay of her friends, family, lovers, husbands.
And lacking in a sound moral compass (she “hires” convict labour because she can no longer keep slaves, le sigh) and really, really manipulative. She marries her first husband to make her true love jealous. (This backfires very badly, as such plans are wont to do.) When she realizes her sister’s long-time suitor has come up in the world, she tells him her sister is engaged, and marries him herself. Then she puts herself in harm’s way so he’s forced to avenge her. During that honour attack – on a shanty town, ‘cuz you know how the poor and itinerant are wicked and need a village-burning now and then – he obligingly gets shot and dies, making her a wealthy widow. And, much earlier in the movie, when she’s at risk of forfeiting Tara, her family’s plantation, because she can’t pay the property tax, she decides to ask Rhett for the $300.00.
Scarlett O’Hara is my evil twin.
Rhett thinks Scarlett is a force of nature. He respects her feistiness, her fearlessness, her complete disregard for social convention and the conventions aimed at reining in feisty, fearless women. He sees her marching through the world, making men swoon, and gives props to her power. Other men (and women) are seduced by her apparent feminine helplessness and virtue and adore her for those false charms. But unlike other men, he sees her feminine failings – her bald ambition, fierceness, and ability to extract what she needs no matter what – and is impressed. Scarlett’s rogue, and Rhett likes that. He likes her. Everyone else likes her performance of herself.
So Rhett adores – and respects – Scarlett. He’s rich. She needs $300. She and her family, all of whom are depending on her, are near starvation. This former fine lady is working in the fields, planting and picking cotton. She’s got the dress on her back, and that’s it, and it is dirty and torn and worn.
And instead of telling him that, showing him her reality and her need, she takes down the green velvet drapes and makes it into an outlandish dress and hat. She tells Mammy that when she goes to visit Rhett, she needs to look like a queen.
And she does. She swans in and Rhett, who is “tired of seeing women in rags”, drinks her in with thirsty eyes. She tells him they’re doing well at Tara. She looks like they’re doing well. Everything’s just wonderful and she came into town because she wanted to see him, was thinking about him, worrying about him, missing him. She flirts, she fawns, she fibs. Caught up in her apparent tenderness, Rhett takes her hands in his…and discovers calluses and blisters. He discovers everything is not okay. He discovers that she’s here to flatter him out of the $300 – nothing to him, he loses nearly that daily at poker – that will save her farm and her family.
If she had asked him for the money, he would have given her the money. But because she attempted to deceive him, he won’t – and doesn’t – give her the money even though he wants to give her the money.
But Rhett won’t be Scarlett’s fool. He won’t be one more man she manipulates. He won’t be convinced or impressed by her virtuouso performance of a good Southern belle. He’s bored by belles. He respects a broad.
But Scarlett O’Hara is oblivious. She doesn’t realize that Rhett adores her exactly as she is and wants to love her madly. His most fervent desire was to adore and please her. He tells her this, years and years later, after their marriage has disintegrated and their daughter has died:
It seems we’ve been at cross purposes, doesn’t it? But it’s no use now. As long as there was Bonnie, there was a chance that we might be happy. I liked to think that Bonnie was you, a little girl again, before the war, and poverty had done things to you. She was so like you, and I could pet her, and spoil her, as I wanted to spoil you. – Rhett, to Scarlett, right before he leaves her.
So that’s the thing about Scarlett O’Hara. She doesn’t know, she doesn’t believe, that her man wants to give her everything she desires, everything he can. She doesn’t believe she can get what she wants in the world by simply asking for it, needing it, desiring it, deserving it. And so she resorts to flattery and subterfuge, the tools of a disenfranchised, disenchanted woman.
Scarlett O’Hara is my evil twin.
Once upon a time, I tried to convince men. My man. My loverloverman. And then I realized I didn’t have to, because the very act of convincing unconvinced him. So I stopped convincing him. I stopped scheming and plotting to get what I wanted…and now I have to be careful about telling him what I want, because he will give it to me. Because he wants to give it to me.
This is important to know about your partner and your business and the world. You don’t need to write papers about films you haven’t seen or seduce anyone into anything.
(I’m keeping this at the fore of my mind when I write sales pages, which hithertofore have made me feel like Scarlett O’Hara’s evil twin. The antidote: no razmatazz or false scarcity. Just value, a letter to the person who needs my thing and for whom I made it, and a straightforward ask.)
(I’ll let you know how it goes.)