How I Bought Into Gone with the Wind’s Mythology of Whiteness
I thought I was like Scarlett O’Hara. Then I thought I could never be like her. Unfortunately, I was right the first time.
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I am a re-reader. I have been all my life. The habit was born of necessity: I grew up poor and itinerant. The books I accumulated were from thrift stores, picked up in paperback for fifty cents or in hardback for a lofty dollar. I tried to pick books that were long and would last me a while. Periods away from the library or school left me without fresh books, so I would read the good ones over again.
Gone with the Wind was one of the longest books I had ever laid eyes on that wasn’t a history or a Bible. I knew the title from conversations about the movie. The cover made it look sexy, those flames and dark-haired lovers. My mother never had the time to censor what I could read, so at nine years old, I dove into Margaret Mitchell’s epic of the Civil War.
Except it isn’t. Written in 1936, Gone with the Wind predates the concept of Young Adult literature, or really even the idea of a young adult. But as the novel begins, Scarlett O’Hara is a sixteen-year-old girl caught between two cultures and about to embark on the greatest adventure of her life. If that’s not YA I don’t know what is. It indulges in some of the most common trope constructions of the genre: Scarlett isn’t beautiful, except that she definitely is. She is torn between two love interests who are both very attractive but appeal to different parts of her nature. She is set against insurmountable odds, yet gifted with privileges of which she is never made aware. She proves astonishingly competent at skills never taught to her: mathematics, running a business, shooting a trained soldier in the face. Scarlett O’Hara is Katniss Everdeen in a hoop skirt.
I fell in love with this book. Scarlett was easy to identify with: bratty, cunning, manipulative, emotionally turbulent, artificially disguised as a victim. She flouts social convention and disagrees with the limits set for her by a restrictive society and a boring family. As a burgeoning pre-teen, this was like catnip. The short sex scenes were smoldering promises of what was to come in my own sex life. I read these scenes in that deliciously furtive way that kids do; trying to discern the mechanics from flowery euphemisms. I wept over the personal and political tragedies of Scarlett’s life like they were my own. I was hooked.
I read Gone with the Wind the first few times as all kids read books: innocently. I did not yet know how to evaluate assertions or assumptions in fiction, to discern through an author’s use of tone what she valued and what she despised. I did not yet have the tools to understand the book’s racist content or consider my dissimilarities to Scarlett O’Hara. I was her and she was me and that was it. I entered adolescence with this book as my sorting hat. In the same way people use the Harry Potter houses to decide who among their friends is a Slytherin or a Gryffindor, I divided the girls I knew into Scarletts or Melanies, boys as either Ashleys or Rhetts. The Hufflepuff types around me were minor characters: the India Wilkses and Charles Hamiltons.
I came back to Gone with the Wind as a teenager, finally in early womanhood as Scarlett is in the first section of the novel. This re-read was brought on by scarcity; I was losing my home. It was not the first time. I can’t count the number of times we were evicted, either formally by a landlord or informally by family or my mother’s partners, but I was familiar with the process at this point. I crammed all that I could into my backpack and prepared to leave a place and never return. On this occasion, I was the last one in the house. My mother’s boyfriend, who owned the place, had gone for the weekend, having made it clear that he wanted to return to his home with all traces of my mother and her children gone from it. When my work of packing up was done, my mother was supposed to come pick me up.
The electricity had been turned off and the cupboard was bare. I was no stranger to these conditions, either. I lay down on a couch in a back room without supper, lit a candle, and began to read. The book on the top of my pack was Gone with the Wind.
This time, I expected to identify with Scarlett in the post-war years at Tara. After all, she was starving. She had to pick cotton to survive. She was saddled with her mentally ill father and functionally orphaned by her mother’s death. She had nothing, yet her indomitable spirit carried her through and back to prosperity.
At least, that was what I remembered.
Instead, for the first time, I began to dislike Scarlett. I saw how privileged she was. She owned a home and a farm that could not be taken from her, even by the tax collector. She had literal slaves to contribute labor to her household, who were inexplicably devoted to her as if she were their own child rather than the issue of two rich white people. She had family who loved her, including the unfailing sweetness of her despised sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes.
The first time I read “I’ll never go hungry again,” I had cried. I was a baby feminist and I saw only a stubborn, brave woman following her ambition and refusing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
This time, I laughed. Yes, Scarlett is stubborn. Yes, she basically decides to resort to sex work in order to keep her property. But she has no idea that she’s still a princess in this ruined kingdom. When Scarlett adds up her assets after this declaration, she has the cold eye of a jeweler considering a flawed gem: she has her own prettiness, a pair of diamond earrings, and a set of velvet drapes hanging in her house. Her million-dollar estate, populated and run by three unpaid human slaves, are not included in her inventory, even as she plans to gather up most of them and travel to Atlanta to engage in the aforementioned sex work. She is so blinded by her privilege that even in her ruinous state she cannot see these things for what they are: the unearned gifts of her station.
By the light of a candle, I laughed in a house with no heat as the snow fell outside. My laugh echoed in the empty darkness where no family or friend might have heard me. Certainly no domestic servants came to ask what was wrong, did I maybe need some corn whiskey or warm milk to calm me down?
I was not Scarlett O’Hara. I never would be. She was just another rich bitch who had no idea how lucky she was.
I read the novel again in college, my own post-war period. I had dropped out of high school and failed to launch. I had passed through several periods of homelessness, reading Gone with the Wind in starlight as it filtered through an olive grove, hoping not to be hassled by the cops. When I was hungry, I would read the passage about Scarlett’s hunger at post-bellum Tara, where she dreams of feasts of the past. I can recite that section from memory:
How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, had the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.
I would consider my own prodigal wastes: the last few cold fries I had thrown away when they failed to entice me, or the burnt edge of a frozen pizza cut off and tossed in the trash. I would read this section again and again, thinking of Thanksgiving dinners given by parents of friends who’d invite me out of pity. The fast food jobs I had had that included a discounted meal during my shift. Once I knew Scarlett for a spoiled brat, there was no going back. But at least I could suffer hunger with the O’Hara’s instead of suffering it alone.
It did not occur to me to ask how hungry her slaves were. When the household suffered food shortage, how did it affect those who had always received the scraps of the table? I was hungry like Scarlett was hungry: in a way that did not consider other people.
Community college taught me to read critically, and then to read as a writer. I began to pick apart the choices Mitchell made. As my racial consciousness was shakily born, I began to encounter Gone with the Wind as a cultural touchstone of whiteness. I saw the reverent references to it in other works: in Prince of Tides, in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The Southern writers of the next generation held Mitchell blameless and enshrined her as the keeper of the Old South’s identity. In doing so, they helped preserved the myth of the happy slave, the people who had made the whole story happen without ever existing at its center.
Additional works in the same universe failed in the same way to examine the book’s relationship to whiteness. Critical disasters in every sense of the word, Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s People were pale and puny fanfic-quality imitations of Mitchell’s competent prose, while also taking no action to advance the storylines of any of the black characters beyond their subservient roles in the original. Only Alice Randall’s unauthorized parody, The Wind Done Gone, does any of that work, and the Mitchell estate did everything in its power to try and stop that racial recontextualization and queering of the original novel from happening.
It was in reading these other books that I began to see the irony in my love and rejection of Scarlett O’Hara. I wasn’t her; I wasn’t born to privilege, a slave owner, a rich widow who was neatly handed the tools for triumph during the only adversity she had ever experienced. As a poor white woman, I was more like the O’Hara’s unfortunate neighbor, Emmy Slattery, who attempted to buy Tara when Scarlett was down on her luck. As a fat woman working in food service and manual labor, I was more like Mammy: seizing my dignity by force of will beneath the yoke of terrible oppression. As a self-made success, I was more like Rhett Butler, who made his living as a gambler and discarded the morality of his culture to live as a hedonist and drunkard.
Except I was none of those characters. I was, in fact, Scarlett O’Hara.
The last time I read this book, I was older than Scarlett will ever be. The novel ends when she is 28, estranged from her husband, and the negligent mother of three children, one of whom has died. She has not grown up, nor learned anything from her mistakes. She is still a spoiled brat, insisting that she will get what she wants in the final words of the book. Because she has never known a life where that isn’t the case.
Re-reading is a way of encountering your former selves, tucked neatly between the pages like pressed spring flowers and autumn leaves. If you are honest and your memory is good, your former selves will speak to you as if this often-thumbed volume is your own diary. The last time you passed through this story, you were someone else. Because I have now read it over a hundred times in thirty years, Gone with the Wind holds many, many versions of me.
It holds my youngest conscious self; the one who had just begun to experience lust and doubt and accept that I am separate from the universe and subject to it. It holds my teenage self, trapped in homelessness and loneliness and searching for a way out, even if it means following Scarlett’s blueprint of marrying young for a shot at a soft bed and some hot meals. It holds the dawn of my adult consciousness, when I was finally able to see the way this story is tilted to keep Scarlett always in focus and deprive slave characters of any equivalent humanity in the narrative.
Finally, in this last read, I was able to grapple fully with my own privilege and lifelong investment in white supremacy. I am ashamed to say that I never understood how truly hollow and mean-spirited the archetype of the Southern Belle is until I saw a comic of the ubiquitous hoop skirt made up of a slave ship in the article “The Southern Belle is a Racist Fiction” in 2014. I had thought (as most white liberals often think) that I was good enough, anti-racist enough, that I was not invested in racist fictions anymore, nor deriving benefits from slavery and the structural forms of inequality that followed it in in my everyday life. These, too, are racist fictions. It took me far too long to see that even my optimism was a gift that helped me move toward the life I wanted.
American schoolchildren are taught a sanitized version of their own history; one that corresponds neatly to Gone with the Wind. We are induced to believe that many slaves were happy, treated as members of the family, and were transported out of Africa as “workers.” We are told that everyone has been equal since 1776 and free since 1865, glossing briskly over the struggles of 1965 with a video of Martin Luther King delivering a speech that solved racism so that Obama could be elected in 2008. Congratulations, it’s a post-racial America! We are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that anyone who says different is just complaining because life is hard for everybody.
As the product of this myth treated as truth, of the policies of redlining and disenfranchisement and brutality that are the legacy of this American mythology, all white Americans are complicit. We are all Scarlett O’Hara. Some of us are Scarlett O’Hara at her richest and most viciously powerful: Ivanka Trump in a ball gown thinking herself the favorite child of a self-made man who tells it like it is. Some of us are post-war Scarlett, taking an inventory of our privilege and remaining blind to over half of it being the product of plunder.
When I thought of myself as rising from the ashes of a ruined life and congratulating myself on digging my way out of poverty, going to college, rising to my own well-earned pride, I did not realize for many years that much of what came my way was luck. It was unearned privilege. Doors were open for me when they remained closed to others because I am white. Because I am not disabled. Because I am not trans. I worked hard just as Scarlett worked hard. But it took witnessing her ignorance for me to realize that I was also standing on someone’s back to reach these heights. The trouble with most white Americans is that we never look down.
I have read Gone with the Wind over a hundred times. I have seen countless stories and videos that strive to explain who these angry poor white people are who elected Trump and insist on border walls and believe that abortion is murder and vote time and time again to keep themselves in poverty so long as their black neighbors suffer just a little worse than they do. I have spent my life in the presence of white feminists who have only read Gone with the Wind once and never got past the initial rush: what a trailblazer Margaret Mitchell was! Scarlett O’Hara is #goals! The O’Haras are the blueprint for the temporarily embarrassed millionaire: dirt-poor but still better than you because of how they were born. Gone with the Wind sells the white bootstrapper myth as romantic reality for white people. It has been doing it for nearly a century and it can be found in every book store, every thrift store, and every library in America.
It takes real work, as a white person, to realize the racism in which you have been steeped all your life. It takes re-reading the texts you hold most dear. It takes literacy and critical thinking and listening to people of color to realize that not only is Gone with the Wind fiction, but most of what you know is fiction. Your family history is fiction. Your elementary school textbooks are fiction. Your construction of yourself is fiction. We all have to read ourselves more than once. We have to proofread and edit ourselves. We have to rewrite ourselves every day. We have to learn to separate truth from fiction from fake news. This is a monumental task, and most of us will fail.
Kids and adults will continue to pick up this book for the first time. Gone with the Wind is in some little girl’s hands right now, and she’s seeing the world through Scarlett O’Hara’s eyes.
I hope she goes back and reads it again.