(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.
It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.
The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.
It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.
There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.
I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.
My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.
Next up: Giant.