Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Increased social awareness leads to reconsideration of childhood literary love

When I was 16, my favorite book was “Gone With the Wind.” I loved the melodramatic love story between two awful and manipulative people, and the epic portrayal of how the Old South went up in flames. And above all, I loved Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett showed me how a sheltered but stubborn young woman could be incredibly brave in the face of adversity. Her decisions weren’t always good, but once she made up her mind, there was no stopping her. I respected that determination. She behaved like a force of nature, defying anyone who dared to stand in her way. Scarlett O’Hara seemed like the ultimate feminist icon.

I cringe when I look back on my obsession with “Gone With the Wind” and Scarlett O’Hara. Since I’ve never experienced slavery or any of the social ramifications of it that are still present today and I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, I can read over descriptions of these things without being triggered by past experiences. However, as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to be critical. I wouldn’t characterize it as feminist anymore.

The book condones and perpetuates a lot of sexist, racist and otherwise awful things. When I read it at 16, I didn’t see the problems. I just saw a determined woman struggling to succeed in a crumbling, backwards society. I didn’t think to question the book’s glorification of rape and slavery, even though they now seem like such blatant underpinnings of the novel. It just goes to show how easy it is to ignore uncomfortable topics.

Scarlett’s unlikability is an integral aspect of her character. However, there are too many times when her valid desire to assert herself and defy social norms is played off as an example of how mean and unreasonable she is. For example, Scarlett is able to earn a small fortune after the war by taking over her husband’s store, but despite success, her radical changes are portrayed as tiresome and foolish. People tell her husband to do a better job of reining her in.

Even more concerning is how the book handles intimate partner violence. The iconic “romantic” moment between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, when he carries her up the staircase, is one of the worst examples. Scarlett asks him to stop and attacks him when he doesn’t, but he forces himself on her until she enjoys it. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote “Gone With the Wind” in the 1930s, had been in an abusive marriage herself. Though her own experiences and internalizations of abuse are reflected in Scarlett and Rhett’s unstable relationship, it comes off as being venerable and romantic, which could be very harmful to impressionable young girls who read the book.

For a book set in the South during the Civil War, “Gone With the Wind” discusses race surprisingly little but portrays it in a very uncomfortable way. Scarlett has no problem with slavery. The author makes a point of clarifying that the O’Hara family was nice to their slaves and never whipped them, but slavery, regardless of whether or not slaves are being beaten, is inexcusable.

It’s disappointing to think that as a feminist and ally against racism, I can’t seem to let go of the book even when I know it perpetuates bad ideologies. I wish that I could separate the things I love about “Gone With the Wind” from the troubling aspects, but, just like in real life, the bad and the good are intertwined. It’s just a book, but books have a lot of power and can change how people view the world. It makes me wonder how many other things I love have detestable aspects that I’ve accepted because I didn’t notice it or because I didn’t want to notice it. In spite of all the awful things in “Gone With the Wind,” there is a part of me that will always love it, though I can no longer justify why.

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