Scarlett O’hara: the nineteenth-century primadonna.

Many of my classmates were surprised when I said I never had seen Gone With the Wind at my ripe old age of 22.  After having watched it, I can understand their shock and surprise as it remains not only a film representative of its time, but also a classic film that embodies everything a good movie should: action, surprise, and of course, a tantalizing love story.  However, in its other purpose of preserving Civil War memory and what life may have been like for Confederate wives during the Civil War, I ultimately think Gone With the Wind is a complete and utter failure due to its stereotypical depictions, falsifying of life on a plantation, and ignorance of women who may not have succumbed to the social destiny that was ever present in the antebellum South.

One of the worst stereotypical depictions of the film is the idea that women, such as the crybaby that is Scarlett O’hara, did not do any work on the plantation until the Union came through and burned it all down.  Not only is this a wrongful depiction in terms of its villainization of the Union, but also of what women actually did during the Civil War. LeeAnn Whites, author of The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890, refers to this when she states that women were, “forced to take up labor for the first time,” which they continued to do throughout the war.[1]  Unlike in Gone with the Wind, women were not just fiddling around the house or working as a nurse.  They were  struggling to manage their plantations everyday in order to preserve their place in society.

Another misnomer that comes with the iconic movie is the idea of life on the plantation for Southern belles.  Even though my grandmother was a fan of true love stories, most of that is just made for the movies.  As fun as a barbeque at Twelve Oaks may have been, many southern women were not so hopelessly in love and had traumatizing relationships with southern men.  As Laura F. Edwards describes in her Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era, a true rebuttal to the depiction of women in Gone with the Wind, many southern women experienced abusive relationships during the time of the Civil War.  Unlike in the movie where men are constantly swooning over Scarlett and begging to bring her cake and crumpets, some men took their authority of serving their country to a whole new level once they came home. , Edwards uses the example of Marion Singleton, who in her diaries and letters, told the story of her abusive second husband and the struggle it proved to be for her.[2]  Divorces were seen as political and socially demeaning for women and in an age where class structure and racial superiority dominate southern livelihood, women were often stuck, no matter if they were with an Ashley Wilkes or not.

Last but not least is the blunt lie that every single woman in the Confederacy supported the war.  This is best represented in the character of Melanie, or Meli.  She not only puts countless hours into the hospital and house, every remark she says is somehow a euphemism for how Ashley must fight for the cause and how his honor and bravery is serving his country so valiantly.  Even more so, the scene at the barbeque where men are speaking in their own quarters while the women take a nap reaffirms this idea.  However, as Victoria Bynum describes in her Unruly Women Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South, women were not as appeasing as they may appear in the film.  She states, if these women challenged the authority of the Confederacy, the courts reserved the right to take control over the women.[3]  Yet, as Drew Gilpin Faust explains in her Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, these sentiments would allow women to become more vocal and demanding for equal rights after the Civil War ended.[4] Thus, even though Gone With the Wind portrays every woman as being completely supportive of the war, many women internally fought against it and would speak their minds when it came to a close.

Thus, even though I admire Scarlett’s tenacity and ability to speak her mind, in terms of Civil War memory, I can only declare her a primadonna of the nineteenth-century as opposed to a true Confederate wife.

[1] LeeAnn Whites, The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890 (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1995), 8

[2] Laura F. Edwards, Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 3

[3] Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 11.

[4] Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), xiii

  1. Do you think that Melanie really supported the war, or did she wrap herself in a blanket of denial to protect herself from the fact that Ashley may not come back from the war to her? Also, didn’t Melanie work as a nurse because that’s what her stature in society demanded? I think that Melanie was only using the tools she had available to protect herself from the harsh realities of war rather than a true devoted supporter.

  2. charlesanselmo said:

    I agree that Scarlet is a prima donna. Throughout the film her presence brightens a room and all of the men flock to her. Through the course of the film she manipulates those around her and loses everything she has. GWTW, I would argue, is a tragedy rather than a romantic film. Scarlet loves a man that she never has, a man who will not return her affections. Through the course of the film she marries three times and all three end in tragedy. Her first two husbands (men whom she never loved) die and the third (a man who is wholeheartedly devoted to her) she ruins. In the end, she is left alone with her wealth – wealth in her pocket but extremely poor in her heart. A question does arise from this train of thought though, does viewing this film as a tragedy add to the “Lost Cause”?

    • bktitus17 said:

      I like your ending statement that Scarlett, in the end, is rich in the pocket, but poor in the heart. To me, the second half of the film is where the tragedy lies and unfortunately, that part of the film does not have a lot to do with the Civil War. So I wouldn’t say that it adds to the “Lost Cause” in terms of tragedy. However, I do think the first half of the film and the tragedy of everything being burned down and taken from Scarlett adds to the “Lost Cause” cause it situated the Confederate men as heroes and the Union soldiers as villains.

  3. #1- I appreciated your post…I totally agree that the film Gone With the Wind was a typical lavish Hollywood production intriguing its audience by dramatizing a love story during the Civil War, not to mention the action scenes of explosive fires destroying structures, and reenacting what it might have looked like with wounded and dead Confederates spread out for miles. In the movie the women were treated in such high regard, especially when the young men are falling over Scarlett. This depiction of the southern belle and what life was like for them, is a little too far fetched considering the time period because in truth, even a mere fifty years ago women who were physically abused by their husbands had no choice but to endure the abuse due to economic security and in reality this was the expectation for women of the day. Of course, how much more would this is the case during the Civil War. We are all aware that war has a profound effect for those who experience death in the field and to think that this would not have an effect on a husband and wife relationship is unrealistic.

    • bktitus17 said:

      I think you are right and the movie fails to explore that aspect of the war. It focuses on Scarlett and the decisions she makes that alters her course in life. It does not even pay attention to the experiences of Rhett during the war and how that may have changed the dynamics of his and Scarlett’s relationship.

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post! You had a lot of evidence that I wasn’t able to find about women during the Civil War. Where did you find it? I searched Google, JSTOR, and Wikipedia (the reference section is awesome) and came up short. In my research though I did find information that acknowledged women were strong and capable both during the war and after, having to cope with supporting themselves and their family’s independently. There was also material about how such standup women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began fighting for women’s rights but because men were focused on abolition their ideas were pushed to the side. In addition, when black men obtained the right to vote these women and many others became outraged not because a black man was able to vote before them but because white men refused to see women as equals. This was an atrocity for all American women and it provided the necessary fuel needed to start the fire for equality.

    • Kristen Epps said:

      Sometimes it depends on the search terms you are typing in. Google Scholar (which you can find in the drop-down menu on the Google page, near the top) can help with this too.

    • bktitus17 said:

      Thanks Genevieve! I actually did my historiography paper last summer about Confederate wives, so most of this information came from my paper and the books I used for that paper. If you google confederate wives or search in JSTOR, etc., it should help! I totally agree with you and thats what probably angered me the most about Gone With The Wind is that no woman did anything on their own or had to until they realized nothing was left, like Scarlett when she finally went back to Tara. This, from my research, isn’t true. Like you said, women not only began to fight for various rights, they almost immediately had to take up the work load as they had to preserve the plantation and keep producing for the economy, which meant they had to work the farm and take care of themselves and the plantation.

  5. bktitus17 said:

    To me, Melanie is such a Southern belle that she just comes off as a true supporter in the war. Also, I’m not arguing that she was not a nurse and society did not demand that. I am just saying that the movie ignored the fact that many, if not a majority of them, had to pick up the farming tools and be the head of plantations in order to survive.

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