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The wonderful, terrible Gone With The Wind

Revisiting the complicated legacy of the Civil War’s most famous story

The American Civil War ended 150 years ago, and while that date wouldn’t mark the midpoint of any timeline of American events, it feels like the great dividing line of the country’s history, the moment that separates past from present, old from new, slavery from freedom. It feels appropriate that the biggest work of Civil War-related pop culture—and perhaps the most popular American entertainment ever—is perched on a similar divide, one eye looking forward, the other resolutely stuck in the past.

Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping tale of the South between the antebellum and Reconstruction eras, is a work divided against itself. Its treatment of race is nauseating, a dismaying reminder of how recently blacks could be presented as inferior with essentially no controversy. At the same time, in Scarlett O’Hara’s vicious maturation from pre-war naivety to a ruthless titan of industry, it features the strongest and most complex woman in American entertainment, along with a view of gender politics without many equals today.

It’s this friction, between what society has moved away from and what it has yet to fully embrace, that makes the book so difficult and necessary to grapple with. Exhilarating moments of Scarlett head-butting the patriarchy are followed by depictions of animalistic freed slaves unleashing waves of rape, creating a kind of whiplash for offensiveness that’s difficult to square.

If you can move past its noxious nostalgia, the book—which won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for novels—remains a blast to read. There are moments of huge drama, when an entire world order is burned to the ground, and others of quiet decision-making when you hold your breath at the state of its heroine’s soul. The clash between Scarlett and Rhett Butler is wildly entertaining, a battle between characters so big and well matched their courtship plays like the romantic equivalent of Godzilla fighting Mothra. Perhaps most notably for the current pop-culture landscape, Scarlett is the first pure example of an American antihero, and still the only female one. Some 70 years before Walter White ordered the purchase of an RV, she raised her fist to the sky and declared that, God as her witness, she would never be hungry again, a vow that would net her the world but leave her utterly alone.

One can only imagine how much Scarlett’s struggle to regain her antebellum wealth would have meant to the book’s original audience, nearly a decade into the Great Depression, and how much her boldly feminist striving would have resonated with a generation of women still a few years from commandeering factories in World War II. Despite being a work much concerned with wartime heroics, with “Knights and their Ladies Fair,” as the film’s opening crawl put it, Gone With The Wind has little use for menfolk. Scarlett’s first two husbands—both of whom she marries out of strategy, not romance—are utter pushovers, and even Rhett Butler is finally revealed as a man unable to compete with his wife’s steeliness.

Here’s how Mitchell explains the gender politics of plantation-era Georgia:

It was a man’s world, and [Ellen, Scarlett’s mother] accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, and the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him. Men were rough of speech and often drunk. Women ignored the lapses of speech and put the drunkards to bed without bitter words. Men were rude and outspoken, women were always kind, gracious and forgiving.

The book is quiet on the subject of sex, which is in line with the modesty of the times, though it’s also an empowering depiction of Scarlett’s single-mindedness. She flatters and wears low-cut gowns to manipulate men, but sex does not number among her voracious appetites. Husbands are banished from her marital bed, and when Rhett gives Scarlett her first orgasm—during sex that’s forced upon her, it should be noted—she shrugs it off. Her relationships are contests of wills and brains, not bodies. Even her infatuation with Ashley Wilkes never progresses beyond a schoolgirl’s crush; she dreams of him holding and kissing her and would surely be scandalized to imagine anything more explicit. The book that’s held up as the gold standard for historical romantic epics contains a conspicuous lack of romantic passion. (The cover on my book tweaks a famous image from the film, making Rhett look lecherous as he either winks to the reader or casts an eye down Scarlett’s ample cleavage, a promise of more steaminess than Mitchell or the film deliver.)

Critics may object to the fact that Scarlett is motivated throughout the book by her love for Ashley, the biggest weenie in a society full of them, but while this does drive her personal life, it’s only one factor in her complex character. (Also, Scarlett is 16 at the start of the book, which somewhat excuses the immaturity, especially since this era is more ageist than we are: One female character “was 25 and looked it, and so there was no longer any need for her to try and be attractive.”) Once Scarlett takes to her entrepreneurial spirit—thanks to seed money stolen from a guy she killed—her biggest obstacle is a society unwilling to accept powerful women. Give Rhett credit: The reason he’s seen as Scarlett’s equal is not that he plies her with jewels and Parisian hats, but because he alone is “ill bred enough to be proud of having a smart wive,” as he puts it. Scarlett refuses to apologize for her ambition, and for the people who think she’s “unlikeable,” here’s how she (Mrs. Frank Kennedy at the time) deals with that:

She never again regretted any means she used to take trade away from other lumber dealers. She knew she was perfectly safe in lying about them. Southern chivalry protected her. A Southern lady could lie about a gentleman but a Southern gentleman could not lie about a lady or, worse still, call the lady a liar. Other lumbermen could only fume inwardly and state heatedly, in the bosoms of their families, that they wished to God Mrs. Kennedy was a man for just about five minutes.

Scarlett’s navigations through a man’s world are awesome to behold, and they feel prescient in a time of unequal pay and uneven representation. But how could Mitchell have been so progressive here and so wrong on race?

Because make no mistake, Gone With The Wind is pointedly and explicitly racist. This is not a example of something seemingly innocent turning cringeworthy with time (like Fred Astaire’s tribute in blackface); an inhuman view toward blacks is one of the book’s biggest and most consistent themes. Racial slurs are ubiquitous, and not just in the dialogue, where such language would be an awkward necessity of historical accuracy (as in Django Unchained). Mitchell’s frequent use of the term “darky,” and worse, can only be taken as her point of view. Any time a black character speaks, the dialect is sub-literate. The character Mammy is introduced through a grotesque description of her lips, “large and pendulous,” the kind of minstrel imagery that may have been a racist dog whistle in 1936 but is plenty audible now. Less subtle: Several characters (including Ashley) join the KKK, a group that’s mostly viewed as a nuisance. More odiously, Rhett straight up murders a black man for talking to a white woman. (Rhett’s “confession”: “He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?”) The book is indifferent to this crime, so do we take that as just the way things were? As Mitchell’s tacit endorsement?

I wouldn’t be surprised if these sins cause the book to wane in relevance, though I’d be sad if pop culture forgot about Scarlett, who is all the more vital for not being followed by any descendants of similar stature. But we need to understand Gone With The Wind, and not just how it constructs affection for the pre-war era through its selective point of view (though that’s an important lesson for any pop-culture connoisseur). It is both visionary and regressive, a work of progress that flaunts the worst parts of the past. Now, with its setting 150 years gone, it more than ever feels like the definitive entertainment of a country that sometimes steps forward and sometimes seems hopelessly mired in the past.