Shrewd, Selfish Scarlett: A Complicated Heroine What business did a young black woman in the Northeast have indulging a fascination with the slave-owning heroine of Gone With the Wind? NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates explains the complicated business of Scarlett fever.
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Shrewd, Selfish Scarlett: A Complicated Heroine

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Shrewd, Selfish Scarlett: A Complicated Heroine

Shrewd, Selfish Scarlett: A Complicated Heroine

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For more than 70 years, Scarlett O'Hara has been an icon of female charm and determination.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actress): (As Scarlett O'Hara) As God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again.

SIEGEL: A southern belle and daughter of the confederacy, the heroine of "Gone with the Wind" has been revered and reviled through the decades. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates is a Scarlett fan, which surprises a lot of people because Karen is black. For today's installment of In Character, our series exploring famous fictional characters, she examines Scarlett O'Hara and her controversial legacy, especially among black women.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: I first read "Gone with the Wind" in the summer of 1966. At the time, several American cities were erupting into flames as black communities protested decades of police brutality. And the Vietnam War was becoming a national obsession. Me, I was a 15-year-old in New Haven, Connecticut. My parents were still referring to themselves as Negroes, but I was already calling myself black. Despite that, I was also immersed in the mid-19th century south, where another teen was railing against the preoccupation of her day.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) War, war, war. This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream.

BATES: Scarlett O'Hara was the founding mother of the Me Generation. And frankly, my dear, I found her unabashed self-interest delicious. My mother, on the other hand, was mystified. Why would her child, who would eventually sport a 2-foot wide Afro, be so interested in a plantation belle? She couldn't know it, but I wasn't the only black girl who was mesmerized by Scarlett.

A thousand miles away, writer Pearl Cleage was growing up in a Detroit household that was Afrocentric before Afrocentric became popular. Her mother, like mine, didn't get the Scarlett attraction, either.

Ms. PEARL CLEAGE (Writer): The idea that I could be reading this book about the lives of slave owners just drove my mother crazy. And she, you know, really kind of said to me, if you're going to read this book, you need to be identifying with Prissy and with Mammy, not with Miss Scarlett. Which, of course, was not possible. No 11-year-old girl on the West Side of Detroit wants to identify with people who are owned by a little white girl.

BATES: People like Prissy and Mammy, devoted house slaves to Scarlett's family.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN (Actress): (As Prissy) Mammy, here's Miss Scarlet's vittles.

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

BATES: Pearl Cleage loved that Scarlett insisted on living life on her own terms.

Ms. CLEAGE: She had such a strong self definition that she didn't really care what other people thought.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. HATTIE McDANIEL (Actress): (As Mammy) Oh now, Miss Scarlett, you come on and be good and eat just a little, honey.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett) No. I'm going to have a good time today. And do my eating at the barbecue.

Ms. McDANIEL: (As Mammy) If you don't care what folks says about this family I does. I is told ya and told ya that you can always tell a lady by the way that she eats in front of folks like a bird and I…

BATES: The girl kept slaves, for God's sake. So what was it about this story and this woman that Pearl and I found so alluring? I think we both liked that Scarlett was feisty and stubborn. She allowed herself to be what every nice girl, from her day to ours, was told not to be - selfish. Like here, when she and Rhett Butler have just married and he tells her he'll spend as much as she wants on the new mansion she's planning in Atlanta.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Oh, Rhett, won't everyone be jealous? I want everybody who's been mean to me to be pea-green with envy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: What a brat. But you've got to love her insistence on payback, kind of like flipping off the "Mean Girls'" table in the school lunchroom. The bravery of the heroine Margaret Mitchell originally named Pansy O'Hara - her publisher asked her to change the name - was enticing to many girls in the pre-feminist '60s. Back then, we were still expected to defer to boys, to look nice and stay sweet. Scarlett wasn't having it. Remember, this is a girl who killed a Yankee.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) And I guess I've done murder. I won't think about that now. I'll think about that tomorrow.

BATES: But while she might symbolize resilience for some, for others, especially for southern women who are black, Scarlett is something else altogether. Novelist and Georgia native Tina McElroy Ansa says the Scarlett everyone else admires leaves her cold, because her character is rooted in an assumption of racial superiority.

Ms. TINA McELROY ANSA (Novelist): There is a possibility that people just take the best parts from her character to identify with. But for me, it's, you know, it's very difficult to take, you know, take some things and let the rest rot because it was so clearly that her higher place in society meant my place had to be lower.

BATES: Protecting the sanctity of white women who had led, in part, to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. Ansa believes there's a lot of unspoken stuff to work through before honest discussions about race can occur.

Ms. ANSA: And I think, you know, that Scarlett O'Hara iconic figure sort of stands in the way of that.

BATES: I think she's right. I'm very clear that the specter of who owned whom and its nasty aftereffects will be with us for a long, long time in this country. My adult self still likes Scarlett, but I understand missy is part of a painful, complicated history we're still trying to work out. Even so, some parts of Scarlett transcend race. It might be a stretch for some people, but Pearl Cleage says civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, a black Mississippi sharecropper who insisted on her right to vote, is also an inheritor of Scarlett's ambition.

Ms. CLEAGE: Fannie Lou Hamer is as much a quintessential southern woman as Scarlett O' Hara because they both stepped forward and said, no, I'm not going to do what you think I'm supposed to do, you know, I'm free. Because that's the thing I still think about Scarlett that we like, is that she was always determined to be free.

BATES: Margaret Mitchell once said "Gone with the Wind's" overriding theme could be boiled down to survival. Well, love her or loathe her, Scarlett O'Hara is a survivor. She has that ability to struggle through trauma to reach tomorrow, which, of course, is another day.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Our In Character series continues online today, where Karen will be blogging about Scarlett O'Hara. And you can also find clips from the movie "Gone with the Wind" and the parodies that it inspired at

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