Gone with the Wind, I’ve come back for you. This time the question we are trying to answer the question: is Gone with the Wind sexist? Are we supposed to love or hate Scarlett O’Hara? and WTF is with her and Rhett’s relationship?
In case you missed it: I have already written about the racism in this book, so I will only be looking at the sexism angle in this blog post.
Is Gone With the Wind sexist? To answer that question lets look at the way women act in the novel and the way they are treated by others.
Scarlett O’Hara is the obvious woman to start with. Scarlett goes on a journey from spoiled child to a hardened woman throughout the novel. She starts out as the spoiled daughter of a plantation owner who pitches a fit to get what she wants.
Scarlett is very controlling in all of her relationships, especially with men. Scarlett is used to barking orders and having them followed, by slaves, her father, Ashley, and even her husbands. Scarlett feels a need to dominate all of her relationships. Where this need came from is not really addressed, but it is intensified in the aftermath of the war when Scarlett finds herself with the burden of having to provide for her whole family.
Scarlett fears going back to the abject poverty she endured. Her drive to “never go hungry again” spirits her to be domineering and cruel to her family, even her own children. In Scarlet’s mind, she does what she does to provide for them. . . well mostly for herself, but she does think of her family, and Ashley’s family, as people under her care.
Scarlett marries not for love but to get something. She marries her first husband to make Ashley jealous. She marries her second husband to get money to save Tara. Even her marriage to Rhett is framed as marrying him for his money. At one point, a desperate Scarlett plots to prostitute herself to Rhett, Scarlett is discussed with herself for sinking to such a level, but how is it any different than marrying a man for his money?
While Scarlett can be mean, she is actually sometimes a nice person underneath. During the sedge of Atlanta when Scarlett cries about wanting to see her mother, the film leaves out the fact that the last news from home Scarlett had received was that her mother was ill. Scarlett wanted to go home to nurse her mother.
One of the most telling moments in the book is when Scarlett stops at her lumber mill unannounced. One look at the way the men are being treated makes her enraged. She ordered that the men take a break and demands to know why the men look starved with all the food she’s been ordering. She actually throws open the pantry and starts handing out food. Scarlett goes home convinced that the foreman needs to be fired. Only to then rationalizes the cost savings to herself and decided to just never go back. She does have a heart, but it can be bought.
Scarlett does not put stake in emotional attachments and openness. It is clear early in the novel that Ashley does love Scarlett, and is marrying Melanie out of a sense of family honor. Through the course of the war, Ashley and Melanie exchange letters sharing a deep emotional bond, and that is when the pair truly fall in love. Scarlett actually reads one of Ashley’s letters to Melanie and fails to realize the deep emotional connection they are forming. She only notes that he did not sign it “love, Ashley” and concludes that it means that he doesn’t really love Melanie.
In Scarlett’s mind, all other women are competition. Even her own sisters. As a result, Scarlett only has one female friend. Melanie and in Scarlett’s own mind, she is the biggest competitor of all.
Scarlett and Melanie are actually best friends. That is, they would be if Scarlett admitted to herself that she had any friends. Scarlett tells herself, and the reader, that everything she does for Mellie is really for Ashley. That’s a bunch of bull! Mellie and Scarlett are best friends throughout most of the novel, they literally commit and cover up a murder together! It’s not until Mellie is dying-and in Scarlett’s mind, not a threat- that Scarlett admits, she really did like Melanie.
Melanie Hamilton is not quite the wet blanket she is in the film. She is both loyal to a fault and judgmental. She may be sweet and nice to all she meets, but if you cross her, she will never forgive you.
Early in the war, no one thought the city of Atlanta would be in danger, meaning the Atlanta militia would never see combat. Melanie openly bad mouths the men in the Atlanta militia calling them cowards who should have enlisted in the army where they were needed. You’d never guess it, but Melanie can throw some shade!
Melanie is fiercely loyal to her friends. When India bad mouths Scarlett, Melanie actually throws her out of her house! and that lady holds a grudge! Melanie is hard to offend but if you do, you can never get on her good side again. Not Ever!
Melanie is Mitchell’s counterpoint to Scarlett. She is honest but polite. Loyal, but not two-faced. Melanie’s biggest flaw is not believing anything bad about the people she loves. She assumes that the people in her circle are as loyal and truthful as she herself is.
And The Rest
believe it or not, there are other women in this novel!
Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, actually has a rich backstory complete with a lost love, and contently deciding to marry a man of means rather than for love. So how does the novel treat Scarlett’s mom? She tends to spoil her kids. Fawning over them because she fears them losing their chance at true love like she did.
It’s easy to forget, but Scarlett has two sisters. The youngest Caroline loses her boyfriend in the war and becomes a nun. The other sister, Suellen, has her man stolen out from under her by Scarlett. Suellen eventually does get married, and they take over the running of Tara. Suellen and her husband didn’t really love each other passionately, but they were comfortable, safe. They had lived through starvation and war. Comfortable and safe was good enough. By all accounts we get in the novel, they ease into a very comfortable, caring, stable marriage, where nobody wants to cheat on anybody, which is better than every other marriage in this novel!
Confession: while reading this book, I forgot all about India.
That’s India, if you can believe it, she is worse than Scarlett. She’s Ashley’s sister. She sees through Scarlett’s bullshit, but she has no tact. India belittles Scarlett, meanwhile living with her brother Ashley, who owes Scarlett for the lives of his wife and son.
India always assumed that she would marry her cousin who you likely remember as Scarlett’s first husband.
With these ladies, Mitchell is showing us a hard truth about women being two-faced. While men fight wars for what they want, women play games. To this day women lie, cheat and manipulate men often with more tact, then men can do to women. I think we all know at least one woman who got pregnant “by accident” or faked a pregnancy to manipulate her boyfriend. Mitchell addresses this without implying that all women behave this way.
I can’t very well talk about sexism in Gone with the Wind without discussing that scene. You know that scene.
Let me first tackle the elephant in the room: Was this a rape scene? I don’t know!
It’s intentionally vague on that point. Rhett clearly considers his own actions to be rape, but oddly, Scarlett does not. Rhett feels so guilty that he can’t even face Scarlett for weeks after this incident. Scarlett on the other hand, can not figure out why Rhett is avoiding her and feels abandoned by Rhett leaving without a word.
There are parts of this chapter that absolutely feel like a rape and other parts that don’t. At this point in the novel Rhett’s defenses are down, so instead of making fun of Scarlett, (as he usually does) he grabs her and tries to show her how much he loves her, in a VERY rape-like way! “He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened.”
When Rhett forces Scarlett to kiss him- and yes there is NO doubt that he forces her to kiss him-Scarlett feels his passion and she finds it irresistible. It’s the first time Scarlett realizes that Rhett loves her. That realization opens her black, shriveled little heart and she allows herself to love Rhett. “Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement.”
Scarlett does love Rhett, but she can’t bring herself to really trust him. For his part, Rhett loves Scarlett, but he can’t just admit he loves her. To make matters worse, both are convinced that the other doesn’t really love them. Rhett tries to earn Scarlett’s love and trust throughout the whole novel, but in order for Scarlett to trust him, she needs to believe that Rhett truly loves her. It’s toxic and they desperately need a marriage counselor!
I think the idea was that control-freak Scarlett is ‘surrendering’ control to Rhett, and truly trusting him, not that she liked being raped. I think the idea that Mitchell was going for, is that two people can live with each other, love each other, and even sleep together and still not communicate with each other.
That’s my interpretation: Scarlett and Rhett can’t communicate with each other even in their most intimate moments, and this bad communication is what ultimately dooms their relationship. But let’s not overlook the fact that Rhett is forcing physical intimacy here. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.
So is it rape? I honestly don’t know. I’m certainly not saying that anyone who reads this scene as a straight rape scene is wrong. Scarlett had made it clear to Rhett she didn’t want to sleep with him, and Rhett is clearly forcing physical intimacy. But I don’t think Mitchell was going for a “women like being raped” message. I think the idea is that Scarlet and Rhett can’t communicate on even the most basic level.
I assume most of you only know this story through the film. Rhett and Scarlett have a much healthier relationship in the film than in the novel. Think about that for a second.
There is one scene in the film after Scarlett’s miscarriage where Rhett and Scarlett talk about a lot of there issues. This conversation, at this time, could have saved their marriage.
After The death of their daughter, Scarlett and Rhett turn on each other instead of turning to each other. Scarlett and Rhett’s main problem is that they don’t have a single open and honest conversation until just before Rhett walks out.
So is Gone With The Wind sexist? yes, and no. The novel does praise marriage and babies as the best thing that could happen to a woman which is rather cringey today, but this was a book written in the 1930’s about the 1860’s so I’m not sure it’s fair to call it sexist.
Scarlett is still one of the most complex anti-hero of any work of literature, while things don’t end well for Scarlett it’s mostly through her own bad choices. Scarlett has full autonomy. While the novel does not shy away from portraying women as being manipulative, is there anyone who thinks women don’t play these games even today?