I first read—correction—devoured Gone with the Wind when I was in high school. Back then, I was a high-strung drama geek who got it into my head to model my personality after the book’s feisty heroine, one Miss Scarlett O’Hara. For me, this wasn’t too much of a stretch. I was already a notorious flirt and my freshman year I’d been ganged up on by older girls who thought I was taking too many liberties with their boyfriends. After that, I have to admit, I became a little more conservative in my actions with the opposite sex.
But I do credit my obsession for the complicated hot mess that is Scarlett with the fact that I remained incredibly self-possessed through those years. I knew what I wanted, when to stand up for myself, when to be selfish, when to fight for something, when to stare down my critics, and when to pick myself up from disappointment and press on. I got over being a boy-crazy fool and instead discovered who I was – not a vain creature driven by the need for male validation, but an aspiring writer who didn’t take shit from anybody. Sometimes as an adult, I wish I could channel my high school self. I was so much nastier, but in a good way. Years of growing older have made me insecure, doubtful, and tentative where before I had an unshakable confidence in my abilities—except for bicycling. I’ve always sucked at that.
As a diehard GWTW fan, I want to point out the reasons we should celebrate Scarlett and not just tack her image onto vapid memes that say “Smiling gives you wrinkles. Resting bitch face keeps you pretty.” And yes, I do grapple with the fact that Scarlett is a slave owner. Slavery will always be an ugly blight on our nation’s history and after 150 years our country is still struggling to have an intelligent dialogue about prevailing racial issues. But, I don’t think Margaret Mitchell was telling this story to glorify that part of the Antebellum South. I think, as with Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, she was describing a world as it existed with all of its flaws.
Speaking of flaws, it can be argued that the character of Scarlett transcends her own circumstances. She’s a mess, that’s certain. And she has traits that are considered mighty negative in a woman. Self-centered to no end and vain as a peacock, Scarlett commits ill deeds to survive, goes after what she wants (even if it means trampling those in her direct path), and has the arrogance to cast off most people around her as weak and foolish. She has a frank inner monologue so unfettered by propriety that it reads like that of a man, and—oh, there it is! The deep, deep irony in all this. Pardon the Seinfeldian manner of this question, but why is it that male protagonists can be huge d-bags and still be interpreted as “complicated,” “brooding,” “mysterious,” and “enigmatic,” while a woman who shows any sign of aggressive determination of spirit is automatically cast off as an insufferable bitch? Don’t believe me? See: Dorian Grey. Heathcliff. Gatsby. Holden Caulfield.
Not to say that Scarlett isn’t lauded by many. She is, after all, one of the most iconic and celebrated literary characters of all time—the woman we love to hate and hate to love. I think there’s still something in her that resonates with us today. It’s a duality that makes her at once loathsome and likeable (kind of like Don Draper). It’s the fact that even though she’s batshit crazy, a complete disaster, and a calculating hustler all at once — that unlike her male counterparts above, she still always manages to do the right thing…in spite of herself.
In the beginning of the novel, 16-year-old Scarlett is hopelessly in love with the noble yet incredibly boring Ashley Wilkes. (Seriously, he’s like the human equivalent of white rice.) When she discovers that Ashley is engaged to his cousin, Melanie (I know, ew, but also an unfortunate reality of this world), she refuses to accept it. Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother, Charles—out of spite—and then almost immediately becomes a pregnant widow when poor Charles dies in the war. Does she feel sorry about this loss? Does she mourn and wallow in grief? Does she take comfort in new motherhood and become a nurturing figure? That would be a triple no. Instead, she spends most of her days being majorly pissed that she’s stuck in fugly black dresses and veils while much less pretty girls get to flounce around. If you think she’s awful for being this way, remember—she’s a teenager and life is unfair. Can you even imagine how Harry Potter circa Book 5 would react WITH HIS SHOUTY CAPITALS? Exactly.
Scarlett’s growth is sparked by some very dramatic events that would send a normal person into decades of therapy. As the Civil War ignites, she’s forced to stay in Atlanta because Melanie is about to have a baby and can’t be moved. Scarlett misses the crucial window to return home to Tara and is stuck birthing Melanie’s baby while bombs literally land in her backyard. Could she have bailed and left her sister-in-law to an uncertain fate? Sure. But she doesn’t. Soon after, she must escape from the decimated city with Melanie and the newborn baby in tow. Back at her family home, beloved Tara, she discovers that her mother is dead and her father’s a little…off. She corrals her spoiled sisters into helping her pick cotton to make ends meet. She shoots an intruding Yankee in the face and hides his dead body under the house. And to boot, she has to deal with the possibility of losing Tara to the despicable former overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, if she doesn’t come up with $300 to pay the taxes.
Back then, $300 was a lot—the Inflation Calculator says that now it would equal about $7,000. No problem, right? Not for someone as calculating as Scarlett. While wracking her brain for a solution, her eyes land on her mother’s moss-green, velveteen drapes. She orders Mammy to make her an elaborate gown so she can go into town and charm the money out of Rhett Butler, who is in jail and about to be hanged for being a sketchy bastard. Unfortunately, after throwing all kinds shade from his jail cell, Rhett admits that his money is “tied up.” Scarlett hauls ass out of there, still single-mindedly trying to find a way to save her home and not giving a flying fiddle-dee-dee if he does actually get hanged.
Enter Frank Kennedy. He might be the “old maid in britches” who’s supposed to marry her wretched sister, Sue Ellen, but when Scarlett sees him and discovers he has opened a small general store that’s doing well…the wheels start turning. When he asks about Sue Ellen, Scarlett lies and tells him her sis got tired of waiting around for a proposal. Then, without pause, she adds, “Would you mind if I put my hand in your coat pocket? It’s so cold and my muff is soaked through.” Some might call this wicked—screwing over her sister just to save a house. Or, is she a brilliant opportunist? Or a self-sacrificing martyr? She knows her selfish sibling wouldn’t help pay the taxes on Tara, so Scarlett takes one for the team. To her, the betrayal is not what’s important. It’s simply a means to an end: her family’s salvation. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I call this the work of a true master.
Even more masterfully, she quickly sees the potential in Frank’s store and takes over operations to make it prosper. She also funds a small side lumber business to help Ashley support his family. In order to succeed, she coldly tells her neighbors that the store doesn’t accept credit. In the true spirit of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” she does business with Yankees and carpetbaggers to the shock and disapproval of her peers, who would rather be poor than abandon their pride and pretenses. More than her ambition and her striking determination to “never go hungry again,” is perhaps her unswerving ability to accept and acclimate to whatever changes the universe decides to throw her way — even if that means telling tradition to eff off.
After losing so many people in so short a time—her parents, her daughter, and Melanie, the last person in her life who means anything—Scarlett is betrayed by Rhett, who decides to walk out on her. She crumbles for just a moment, of course. Who wouldn’t? But then something truly remarkable happens. She remembers what’s important—her home, her roots, herself. She realizes that although bad luck has fallen on her once again, she can return home, drawing on her own gritty and tenacious willpower that mirrors the stalwart soil of her land. Because just like her enduring Tara, Scarlett is and will always be, a survivor. “After all, tomorrow is another day!” (Cue Destiny’s Child song)
Whether you love or hate her, tell us what you think. Is ultimate bitchiness her greatest strength or her unfortunate downfall? Or both?
Header Image via Wikipedia