Race, Gender Roles In 'Gone With The Wind'

Molly Haskell has taken a new look at all the guilty pleasures and raging complexities that inhabit Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in her book Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited. Haskell explains how the characters are looked at differently today.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

There are few femme fatales that come as close to the voracity of the female sea lamprey, unless it's the fictional Scarlett O'Hara, the heroine of the novel and film, "Gone with the Wind."

And we're still falling for her charms. When it comes to pop culture phenomena, in box office terms alone, the movie version surpasses everything from "Titanic" to "E.T." What diamond necklace or space alien could come close to the marvel that is Scarlett O'Hara?

(Soundbite of film, "Gone With the Wind")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actor): (As Scarlett O'Hara) Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides, there isn't going to be any war.

Mr. GEORGE REEVES (Actor): (As Brent Tarleton) Not going to be any war?

Mr. FRED CRANE (Actor): (As Stuart Tarleton) Why, honey, of course there's going to be a war.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) If either of you boys says war just once again, I'll go in the house and slam the door.

LYDEN: Molly Haskell has taken a new look at all the guilty pleasures and raging complexities that inhabit the "Gone with the Wind" franchise, from sex to race to gender roles. Her new book is called "Frankly My Dear." It's part of the Yale University Press series, "Icons of America," and she joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome, Molly Haskell.

Ms. MOLLY HASKELL (Author, "Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited"): Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Did you talk about this film growing up? I mean, did…

Ms. HASKELL: We didn't so much talk about it as just grow into it, absorb it like osmosis. It was something we discovered on our own. This was one of the exciting things about it because it wasn't on any school reading list.

And so, many people read it the same way. They read it under the covers with a flashlight. I'm not sure why. Nobody told us to do that, either, but that seemed to be the way because there was something titillating and forbidden about it.

In fact, Margaret Mitchell said that her mother would not have let her read it until she was 18 years old if she had known about it, if that book had existed. That's probably one of the aspects that young people don't find. There's nothing - I mean, sex is so much a part of their lives from an early age that this tantalizingly racy novel that was sexy in ways we didn't even understand had a huge impact on us, which I think it probably might not have today.

LYDEN: Well, let's choose one point of entry, and that's Margaret Mitchell herself, writing about her own self, Margaret Mitchell, growing up in Atlanta and Georgia. Does she rewrite the myth of the Old South in her books, in her novels?

Ms. HASKELL: Well, here you find one of the first complexities because she, herself, is divided. She was really writing in the '20s as she, herself, was a Jazz Age rebel.

She was rebelling against a very serious-minded, suffragette mother. Her mother was trying to pay her to read good works of literature, and she wouldn't do it. She was writing out of that, and yet at the same time, she began interviewing these old women who had lived through the war.

So - she was already living in sort of two separate worlds, and she kept sort of dismissing it, or it was a secret novel that she was writing, and she was never going to publish, and nobody believed it existed, or a lady didn't put herself out there. She didn't show ambition. And Margaret Mitchell was, in fact, hugely ambitious.

LYDEN: I want to ask about the South. I mean, clearly she felt that the South had been cheated out of a victory. Her own husband says, when he sees the movie, if we had that many soldiers, we would've won the war.

Ms. HASKELL: Yeah. Well, again, she has the - a little bit divided loyalties because Scarlett, just as the clip shows, war, war, war. She's just sick of it. She's constantly complaining about it, and she almost wishes she could look at the men in that adoring, deferential way, but she just can't do it.

And this is one reason some of her - Medora Parkinson(ph), her editor at the Atlanta Journal, thought that the novel would be a failure, or at least would get a bad reaction from the South.

LYDEN: Let's go back to Scarlett, the anti-female hero. You call her the tomboy of will, and I was amused to read that back in the '70s, you argued with Gloria Steinem over what kind of feminine icon Scarlett was, and Steinem says a victim, and you say no.

And before we talk about that, I want to get to this scene where Scarlett's being corseted into her tiny waist by Mammy.

(Soundbite of film, "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. Hattie McDANIEL (Actor): (As Mammy) Just hold on and suck in.

Unidentified Child (Actor): (As character) Mammy, here's Ms. Scarlett's vittles.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) You can take it all back to the kitchen. I won't eat a bite.

Ms. McDANIEL: (As Mammy) Oh, yessum you is. You is going to eat every mouthful of this.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) No, I'm not.

LYDEN: So the 17-inch waist becomes very, very famous.

Ms. HASKELL: Yes. In a sense, her corset is her armor. This is her battle dress. She's going to war because marriage is a woman's only vocation. At the same time, even that, she wasn't conventional at. She said what a waste it is. You spend all these years learning how to get a man, and you only use it for two years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKELL: So she didn't sort of idealize that part, either.

LYDEN: Could we talk about the rape scene? I'd like to talk about how that has changed over time as contexts of rape itself have changed. Margaret Mitchell's first husband was a bounder and may have assaulted or raped her, but what do you think was going on at the time because the next scene you have after Rhett carries her upstairs is the happy wreath of postcoital smiles on her face the next morning?

Ms. HASKELL: I think people have been, and I've been, guilty of this, too - is sometimes looking at films in too literal-minded a way or seeing just sort of one level.

And what you have to take into account is the stronger a woman is, the more she needs control in her life, the more her fantasies are of surrender in the hands of the right person, not some stranger in a dark alley but Clark Gable or Robert Redford or whoever.

LYDEN: And what about Rhett Butler? I mean, so many people wanted to see them get back together. But in your book, you say no one over the age of 15 would believe that they really ever could.

Ms. HASKELL: Yeah, except people still do. I mean, these best sellers - these books become best sellers for that reason. Well, I think one -another interesting thing is that people, they want to keep a certain image of Rhett Butler in their mind, and I know lots of people who've forgotten that what he does is to say he's going to go back and rejoin Charleston society, and wants a little bit of the grace and pleasure of life.

This is not the Rhett that we've come to know and love, the renegade, the outsider. The whole thing about him is that he doesn't - he's not a conventional Southerner. In fact, Clark Gable couldn't even develop a Southern accent.

So he's always been sort of not quite Southern, and I think that's very appealing in him. And the idea that he's just going to go back and hole up in Charleston and go to the balls is something we reject.

So that's a way in which we sort of reinterpret it and remember it in our own ways.

LYDEN: How did her editors push for her to write a more acceptable and sanitized ending about the outcome? Let's just remind people how it ends.

(Soundbite of film, "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

Mr. CLARK GABLE (Actor): (As Rhett Butler) Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

LYDEN: So then the montage comes about returning to Tara and getting him back, and do you think it's believable?

Ms. HASKELL: Margaret Mitchell, well, she was a very strange combination of complete obligingness and agreeing with what everybody thought and then just holding her own.

So with the ending, this became particularly important because some people think that they want it to end with Rhett saying he didn't give a damn, and she did add, probably add on that little epilogue. But then, David Selznick made it more of an uplift by having the voices call out to her. These ghostly voices tell her that Tara is her real, true love.

(Soundbite of film, "Gone with the Wind")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Remember that Tara.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Tara.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Tara.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Tara.

Ms. HASKELL: So that added a note of promise and uplift, but there wasn't much in the original book.

(Soundbite of film, "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) After all, tomorrow is another day.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Molly Haskell is a writer and film critic. Her book is called "Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited." It was a great pleasure to talk to you.

Ms. HASKELL: To me, too, Jacki. Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.

(Soundbite of music)

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