I grew up in North Carolina, so the idea of Scarlett O’Hara — the scrappy Southern belle at the heart of Margaret Mitchell’s Post-Depression Pulitzer Prize-winner, Gone With the Wind — as “a hero for our times” might not make my head spin as it would some. But before you picture me blogging in a hoop skirt, let it be know that in my ninth grade Southern Studies class the book wasn’t on the syllabus; we learned that it presented a false image of the Reconstruction times and in many ways celebrated our region’s racist past. There was also some misogyny thrown in for good measure. All true, but I still read the novel and loved the film because of the central figure.
For me — and Pat Conroy’s mom, and film critic Molly Haskell, whose new book Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited hails the fictional character as “the post-suffragette flapper meets the post-feminist power girl who grows more astonishing over time who grows more astonishing over time” — O’Hara is a finely-drawn feminist icon in spite of her Old South roots.
Yes, she is childish and selfish, but she’s also strong and brave in a time catastrophe. And unlike many of the female characters I was spoon fed in childhood, she has, as Mitchell once put it, “gumption,” a quality many of us are trying to channel these days. Or as Armond White notes in his New York Times review of Haskell’s book: “Focusing on Scarlett’s turbulent, childlike ways, Haskell illustrates the traits of beauty, self-regard and ‘the uninhibited will to act’ that have made Gone With the Wind one of the least dated classic Hollywood movies. These attributes will always be disputed, but Haskell’s critical sensitivity rescues Scarlett’s Americanism and femininity, indicating how her image redounds upon our eternal political struggles and deepest fantasies. Haskell clarifies the long shadow that Scarlett O’Hara casts over the American movie imagination.”
Translation: Scarlett O’Hara is a doer. America hearts those. Example: When she arrives at her family home near the end of the war only to find the land destroyed and her mother and sisters ill, she takes charge of the situation, eating a radish and puking it up before famously uttering, “As God is my witness, 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. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” It’s powerful stuff thanks to Vivien Leigh.
But Paper Cuts blogger Steve Coates is right — scrappy or not, Scarlett’s a guilty pleasure. You can’t discount her context, and as a result the idea of her as a national hero is downright silly. So what I’m wondering is: Are there other female characters (preferably ones with less baggage) whose message you find particularly appropriate for our crappy economic times?