Talk to anyone who knew me under the age of twenty-five, and eventually the conversation will turn to Gone With the Wind. I had what can only be referred to as an obsession with old movies in my teens and early twenties, and none inhabited my imagination quite as much as Gone With the Wind.
This was before I knew much about any of the problems with the film. Although I’d learned about slavery in cursory fashion at the tail end of high school American History class, it was a purely theoretical thing in my mind. (For some reason, in school they always started with Columbus and went through the Revolution, then breezed through the Civil War, then said “Reconstruction/World War I/World War II… and we’re done” in the last weeks of the school year). I wasn’t particularly up on women’s issues either.
So it was as this kind of blank slate of social issues that I first encountered the film. I fell madly in love. Oh-my-goodness… Scarlett. Stunning, first of all, which teenage me desperately craved to be. For a good decade I aspired to that eighteen-and-a-half inch waist they say she has in the film, and my heart broke when even at my skinniest, size-zero days I was still six inches off. But she was more than physically beautiful. Scarlett had a strength I imbibed like a cool drink. Sure, she had problems. She was selfish. But scrappy and strong to the last, she survived horrible situation after horrible situation, rocking a great hat and pulling those she loved up along with her. I wanted to be a woman like that.
I memorized every line of the over-three-hour movie (watching it with me today is still a bonanza of me reciting lines just before the actors do) and let its syntax creep into my consciousness, as if I’d lived the events of the movie. I will still tell people “you’ll catch your death of dampness,” if they’re going out underdressed, as Mamie yells out to Scarlett at the start of the film, and used to tell my young daughter, “You’re mighty pretty, precious,” the way Scarlett says to Bonnie while she’s on her pony. It fed a fascination for the Old South in me (again, before I understood its history and problems). It seemed all genteel high tea and mint juleps and I wanted in.
Perhaps my greatest affinity for Scarlett came through her fierce love of her land. My house is not exactly Tara, but as I have my hands in the dirt of my garden, I often hear the line that Rhett speaks to Scarlett, “You get your strength from this red earth of Tara. You’re part of it, and it’s part of you.” The earth on my property isn’t red (although it does have a lot of red rocks), but I do draw strength from it. Last year when I had to drive from Georgia to Alabama for work, I was fascinated by the miles and miles of red earth along the highway. It was true! It wasn’t just a Hollywood line! The dirt in Georgia really was the fiercest, most gorgeous red. I was so taken in by it, in fact, that I pulled over and filled a little baggie with some of it. (The baggy still lives in my bedroom).
I loved the idea of being tied to a piece of land, generation after generation, my hopes and sweat seeping into it, making me part of it and it part of me, making me belong somewhere.
My most passionate love, of course, I reserved for Rhett. Dashing, deliciously masculine, self-deprecating and a little cynical, I would stare up at my ceiling of my teenage room in the dark and wish to find a man that fascinating one day. That strong. That rich. That able to make me feel alive, wanted, beautiful, steal a horse and buggy in the imddle of a war for me, grab me up in his arms with Atlanta burning behind him and pull me into a swoon-inducing kiss. When he said to Scarlett, “You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how,” my knickers caught on fire. God, how I wanted my own Rhett.
I watched the movie on VHS frequently for YEARS (ask my brother about the suffering of being a nine-year-old boy, coming to sleep over to my apartment, and being forced into viewing number sixty-seven or ninety-two). I breathed it in until it was like something I’d lived through. I’d lived through the siege and the scary horse-drawn buggy ride back to Tara. I’d taken my honeymoon in New Orleans with Rhett. I’d fought for the red earth of Tara, scraped the last carrot from it and shook it at the sky, signaling out my determination even at my lowest.
And, then, as one does with things lived, I put it aside, a past memory.
It’s been probably twenty years since I remember watching the movie. (Although my daughter assures me I also forced viewings on her, I actually have no memory of that). As my understanding of American history and race relations grew, I would from time to time think back on something I’d taken for granted in GWTW (how happy the slaves all were to be slaves, for example), and realize it had been a flawed story. But, for me, GWTW was the story of a couple, first and foremost, and I could hold on to that fierce passion, the tragedy of two people who love each other not being able to break through the wall between them.
Last night, at 3:00 a.m. I couldn’t sleep. And there was Gone With the Wind, free on Prime, inviting me to revisit the “land of my youth.” So I put it on.
Unlike some movies I loved in my teens and twenties, which fall apart upon middle-age inspection, Gone With the Wind still had the ability to lure me in with its beautiful storytelling. I’m far more aware of how characters are developed and stories are moved along now, and I was delighted and surprised at the economy of movement in its progress… every scene does a crucial job, making the 3-plus hours never drag. Scarlett is still feisty and fierce, although I have less patience for her self-destructiveness and selfishness than I did when I had more of both. Still, it was a sumptuous feast, the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, the trip to London with Bonnie, the shots of Tara in the setting sunlight.
But Rhett. Oh, Rhett. My forties have stolen you away from me. And, damn, I’m kind of glad.
He’s still handsome, of course. He’s still funny. He still gives off an air of self-assurance, which I’ve always found so sexy in men, a tractor beam pulling me in. But I know a lot more about men now, and about patriarchy, and many of his antics made me pretty mad. Let’s discuss:
- The violence, implied and actual. He grabs Scarlett an awful lot. Those kisses that used to look so passionate thirty years ago sure do look a lot more like sexual assault these days. That “romantic” scene in which he tells her “this is one night you’re not turning me out,” yeah, that’s rape. When he’s telling Scarlett the next morning that he’s leaving and taking Bonnie with him (wait, what?), he says,
“You have her things packed and ready for me in an hour, or I warn you, I’ve always thought a good lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely.”
Say what now? Hand me that phone while I call 911.
- He is emotionally unavailable (and, believe me, I know emotionally unavailable). When he is feeling vulnerable because Scarlett is still mooning over Ashley well into their marriage, does he talk about his feelings? Does he try to hear her out? Does he admit to himself that he knew about this even before he married her and so he bears some responsibility for the dysfunction in their relationship? Ummm… no, he does not. He runs off to a hooker and then absconds with their child to England. Just no.
- He is a controlling jerk. HE PICKS OUT AN OUTFIT FOR HER FOR A PARTY because he’s mad at her. He picks out a “hoochie” dress when he thinks she’s been slutting around with Ashley. “You’re wearing this. Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion,” he says to her. (She rocks this red dress, by the way. See above). Ummm… excuse me? I will wear what I damn well please, and maybe you should hear me out on this Ashley hug thing. But, nope, she puts the dress on. Because patriarchy.
- He is kind of a sexist pig. Yes, I understand he is a product of the 1860s (via a 1939 lens). But damn, bro. It makes you a lot less hot. As I watched him leave Scarlett with his famous, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” line, and she cries, “If you leave, where shall I go? What shall I do?” for the first time I caught myself thinking, “Damn, girl, good riddance. You’re young, you’re rich, and you’re gorgeous. You’ll be fine.” Which seventeen-year-old me would have been horrified to hear me say.
So, yes, middle age has robbed me of my attraction to the Rhett Butlers of the world, entitled in their white male privilege. Watching the movie again helped me understand just how misogyny was normalized for me and millions of women of my generation and before… we were told that a man who carried you up the stairs and forced you to have sex with him was romantic and he was just doing it because he loved you. This was signaled to us not just by this movie but by so many others like them, by television shows, by well-meaning mothers, by romance novels, by popular songs. That’s a lot to unburden yourself of when you’re trying to find your way as an autonomous human with agency and value beyond your sexuality.But, guess what? I’m officially unburdened. Feels good.