I run a meetup group that gets together to watch films by and about women, and recently I scheduled a big screen viewing of Gone With The Wind hosted by a local theater that does weekly Classic Film Nights. I think it rightly raised some eyebrows, because, as one member noted, it’s not exactly a film that gives us empowering roles for women.
In scheduling Gone With The Wind as a “women’s film,” I jokingly asked whether arguing with your sister over who’s going to get to wear the green ballgown to the barbeque counts as passing the Bechdel Test.
But all joking aside, I wanted to say something about why I decided to schedule a meetup for Gone With The Wind in a group that supports stronger roles for women in film. It’s not because the film provides uplifting roles for women, but because the film is so important for understanding the history of women’s roles in Hollywood.
Based on the novel written by Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind (1939) won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and perhaps most famously, the award for Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel). It was the highest grossing film of all time until 1966 (when it was unseated by The Sound of Music).
Regarding its value, in this article, Miriam Bale sums it up when she writes that “Gone with the Wind is unarguably, painfully racist, yet extraordinarily valuable for examining just how and why.”
For someone interested in women in the entertainment industry, most interesting is the fact that Hattie McDaniel received the first Oscar given to an African-American in this film for her portrayal of Mammy. She won Best Supporting Actress, beating out Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie. We must honor McDaniel for paving the way for women of color in Hollywood, even if she had to do it by playing a stereotypical, racialized character. At the same time her Mammy character opens up a whole discussion about the roles available for women of color in Hollywood at that time: “Mammy” or “housemaid” characters for African-American women, Suzie Wong-type prostitutes or geisha characters for Asian-American women or the “Mexican Spitfire” roles, like those played by Lupe Velez, for Latinas. It’s a worthwhile jumping off spot for thinking about how and/or if those roles have changed and to what extent. For me, it’s important to look closely at the stereotypes in their earliest forms to be able to spot and analyze them in films today.
Something similar can be said for the film’s portrayal of Scarlett’s behavior. There are scenes in the film that strike us today as horrifically sexist; behavior by Scarlett toward other female characters displays anything but feminist sisterhood. At the same time, she is a woman fighting to survive in a world she didn’t create, and sometimes she questions it outright. Critics have cringed at Scarlett’s pre-BBQ corset cinching, but at the same time, her line in that scene — “Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?” — resonates today. How Scarlett chooses to behave in her struggle to survive – often ruthlessly – is part of what’s so interesting about this film, because it allows us to analyze her behavior and think about the similar tendency in today’s culture for women to treat each other as enemies. (I’m also somehow inspired by Melanie’s steadfast refusal to think of Scarlett as an enemy, even as Scarlett considers Melanie as competition.) It also helps us to spot this stuff in today’s blockbusters.
Anyway, just my two cents about why the film is important to see for those of us who care about women’s roles!