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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Gone With The Wind–The Old South, Strong Women, And The Corruption Of Revisionist History

The movie version of Gone with the Wind now comes with an advisory about the film’s racial issues and suggestions as to how to interpret them.  The movie represents a time and place far different from our own, the advisory says, so it should be seen as a period piece, a drama whose characters have relevance for today, but whose social mores do not.

Image result for poster gone with the wind images

In other words, the owners to the rights of the film know that it still is one of the most popular movies of all time, but have bowed to progressives who condemn it and who say that it romanticizes slavery and the enabling culture of the old South.   The owners want it both ways.

The movie, of course, is no apologia for slavery nor for the Old South.  The antebellum period features only in the early scenes of the movie while the rest of the film is about the precipitous and ignorant rush to war, its utter ruin of the South, and the disastrous Reconstruction period.  

For most historians the depiction of these periods of Southern history is accurate; and for most critics the film is the story of a willful woman whose determination to save Tara, her family plantation home, is not about the restoration of slavery but about personal identity, family history, and courage.

Scarlett O’Hara is but one of many strong women in literature who defy patriarchy, circumstance, and history to achieve their own ends. Shakespeare was a master at portraying feminine ambition.  Tamora, Dionyza, and Volumnia among other women were indeed vixens who, in the name of honor, children, inheritance, or legacy had little to do with the men in their lives except to exploit them.  

Women of the Renaissance worked their wiles behind the scenes, catering to husbands and lovers to gain traction and power.  

Victorian women were no different.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel were insatiable in their pursuit of authority and influence.

In all three cases – the Renaissance, Victorian Scandinavia, and the antebellum South – society was ordered, controlled, and mannered.  From a male perspective it was ideal.  Women were in their place, God was right and in His heaven, and few aberrations to the social contract were even considered.  From a female perspective, the world was upside down.  Women were clearly the more intelligent sex – more insightful, more able, and more determined – and since there was no point in challenging the status quo per se, the avenues to emotional and financial prosperity and influence would have to be devious.

Neither Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, or Mitchell apologized for their characters’ aggressive pursuit of power, control, and dominance.  All understood that, given women’s equal intelligence, native will, and social ambition, they would best men at every turn.  

Shakespeare’s Comedic and Romantic heroes were women – Rosalind, Portia, and their sisters ran rings around the men who courted them.  The scene in The Merchant of Venice where Portia invites her suitors to guess the contents of the lead, silver, and gold boxes to gain her love is iconic. Each and every man is a parody of manhood – arrogantly and ignorantly confident, pompous, and comic.

Image result for images portia merchant of venice

Shakespeare was harshly realistic in his portrayal of the Queen of the Amazons or the mother of Coriolanus – these women were as acquisitive and hungry as any man – but he was far more realistic in the character of his Comedic heroines.  There was nothing wrong with a little melodramatic trickery in pursuit of an ideal love or practical marriage.

Today the antebellum South is looked at by many in only one way – as a racist, slave-owning, retrograde, evil and forgettable society; and in the opinion of progressive critics it’s history must be erased, expunged from current memory, debased, marginalized, dismissed, and eliminated.  

Yet because the antebellum South had grace, elegance, manners, a code of honor and respect, and a way of life that embraced the best of Anglo-European high culture, it is indelible.  Particularly in today’s harshly secular, divided, and angrily contentious society, the gentility and manners of the old South are appealing.

The antebellum South was indeed a different place, a different culture;  and James McPherson of the New York Review of Books described the difference as that between Cavalier and Yankee. The Southern gentry believed that they were descended from English aristocracy and earlier to the Normans, and continued that ‘cavalier’, chivalric and heroic tradition in the United States.  It is that very chivalric, gracious tradition that has been attractive to wide audiences.

Image result for images English Cavaliers

The genius of Downton Abbey is that it allows proper, democratic-minded Americans who question the notion of aristocracy, inherited wealth, property, and privilege to enjoy themselves.  Downton Abbey” is today’s “Gone With the Wind.” We can enjoy the excesses it depicts partly because we know that the elite in real life has had its comeuppance. Better still, when it comes to class, privilege and wealth, “Downton Abbey” lets us have our cake and eat it, too. 

The show gives us a voyeuristic peek at the pleasures of being an Edwardian aristocrat while allowing us to feel superior to him. We delight in Downton Abbey’s fancy table settings, elegant clothes, formal gardens, precise speech, and impeccable manners, but we know that their way of life is ending.

The appeal of Gone with the Wind is borne of the same guilty pleasure.  We would like, despite everything, to own Tara, to be lords of the manor and to live in luxury with elegance, good manners, and taste.

Pilgrimage is an event held in many towns in the Deep South to celebrate the antebellum period.   The houses are grand, and most of them have been restored with care and authenticity by owners who want to preserve the antebellum part of Southern history. They are often
descendants of the plantation owners who lived there and want to relive a part of their past, or simply those who love old houses, antiques, and historical appointments.

Image result for images antebellum southern homes

Yet today’s progressivism demands a total, unequivocal, unforgiving rejection of the South, its origins, traditions, and culture.  Attending a Southern pilgrimage is tantamount to racism.  It is giving comfort to the enemy, it is a betrayal of Northern progressive values, it is an unconscionable embrace of the worst society America has created.

Gone with the Wind is or at least should be an eloquent answer to historical revisionists, not a rallying point for their hostility and accusation.  It should also be an answer to feminists who criticize the pretty, flighty, and socially unconscious Scarlett, for if anything she is an ur-woman, a feminist hero who has no moral impingement, who uses men just as they have used women, and who is far superior to them. 

Most importantly it should be enjoyed for what it is - a romance, a melodramatic recreation of a storied period of history, a drama of courage and ambition, a film with luxurious sets and costumes, compelling plot, and a gorgeous heroine.

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