I can trace my obsession with blonde men to Ashley Wilkes.
Kind, valiant Ashley doesn’t want to fight in the war because he doesn’t want to leave his darling Melanie, equally pure and saintly. But he’ll do it, for the love of the South, which is all he’s ever known. Handsome but weighed down by the horror of all of it. He’s a dreamboat; he’s the dreamboat that I’ve been falling for, in one form or another, for my whole life.
Ashley is extra magical for his ability to resist the volcanic Scarlett O’Hara, who coincidentally was my first girl crush.
I wanted to be her; deep down, I still do. She’s able to wilt a man with a single lifted brow. And for all the screaming and yelling that goes on, Scarlett has a mind for business and she’s the one who saves Tara. Also she saves her family by shooting that creepy Yankee.
Unfortunately, Ashley Wilkes is the one man that this barbed Southern Belle Scarlett can’t have. Instead, she can have tall, dark and dangerous Rhett Butler – object of lust for every other straight woman who has ever watched this film. But she doesn’t want him until it’s too late and he just can’t be f****d, or something.
Let me say this: all of the above is terrible.
It’s all so awful that I’m actually afraid to say it. Gone With The Wind is racist, sexist, and classist in that order. The world it portrays is an illusion entirely built on an imagined memory by some segment of America that is now 100% dead. The Old South was a society sustained by the forced labour of thousands of people of colour. There’s no escaping the brutality and shame that comes with that, no matter how “nice” and “happy” Big Sam is.
But as a four-year-old child, I channelled Scarlett’s temper and slapped my mother in the face. I thought that was a perfectly acceptable, albeit theatrical, way to act. (Violence corrupts children, make no mistake.) Basically, I can trace my melodramatic temperament and general pursuit of passion to Gone With The Wind.
Where can I start? It was probably the first film that I ever saw. I watched it because my grandmother watched it, and I loved it because she did.
We didn’t just watch it once. We watched it all the time. When we finished watching it, we’d rewind the video and watch it again (this is the early nineties we’re talking about – Big Ma had a well-loved and well-used double VHS box set). I remember that the tapes were so tired that the beginning was always cut off, and so first up, instead of the opening title, we’d always see Scarlett sitting on the steps flirting with her two dopey “suitors”.
Typical of an unaware non-feminist, non-inclusive child, the love story was what captivated me. My little romantic heart knew all about it, and that has never died. Amid the backdrop of war and destruction of the Old South, what I most keenly felt is Ashley rejecting Scarlett, over and over again. But of course I knew that there were something wrong with it. These beautiful white people live in a huge house and the black people who work for them don’t get paid and can’t leave…I knew that much as a child.
In the intervening two decades, I learnt that GWTW was a problematic film to associate with a regional Australian childhood. I came to understand that films are valuable products of their time, but that we should still watch them with critical eyes. I learnt about “Classical Hollywood” and the cinematic conventions of melodrama. I realised the the film’s characterisation of African-Americans was fairly unforgivable. I found feminism. This year, I read all about where Gone With The Wind stands as a cultural phenomenon, 75 years after it was made. I didn’t read the novel.
In this time I also lost my grandmother. It had never occurred to me that she would ever die, and then she did, after being ill for hardly any time at all. I spent every afternoon with her until I was a teenager, or at least I remember it that way. She seemed to have been everywhere, know everything and everyone (this was actually true), and find everything I ever said to be the most interesting thing in the world (not always). I always knew that I was lucky to have my grandma Ethel. I still wear her jewellery all the time.
So when, at the end of my five months alone overseas, I found GWTW on my list of in-flight movies, it seemed like the right time to watch it. I was leaving all my adventures to go home to the familiar, and gulping back tears every few minutes anyway, so I thought I may as well. Nobody was going to see me cry.
I had not seen the film all the way through since I was in primary school. This time, I watched it under a blanket and seatbelt while everyone else was asleep. The staff kept refilling my wine, which was nice. The film’s gorgeous theme made my heart jump.
And now, I hate Rhett Butler. His relationship with Scarlett is violent from the start. He belittles, controls and humiliates her, while professing to “really know” what she wants and what is best for her. He straight-out admits that he wants her to be as a powerless child that he can dote on. His jealousy is extreme.
Rhett rapes Scarlett. Yes, that is really what happens. This scene is apparently so “sexy”, Scarlett’s red dress falling off her luscious shoulders, that it is the most enduring image of the film, immortalised on every poster and DVD cover .
So, we can add all of this to the film’s multitude of sins. But I still don’t hate the film. Because so many things go into making us.
Me, as a little girl loving GWTW because my grandmother did, that’s something worth remembering. The scenes themselves are so beautiful, have so much of everything that a classic film should have. It’s almost as if somewhere in the dreamy technicolor fields of Tara or the grandeur of Rhett and Scarlett’s mansion, I’ll see my small self sitting on the carpet in my grandmother’s living room, the smoke from her Longbeach cigarettes floating up to the ceiling.
On the plane, I didn’t even get to the end. It’s so long. But what I saw was enough to trigger all of this. We remember how films make us feel, and so familiar was this film to my childhood years that Scarlett at the barbecue and little me eating my banana cake may as well have been happening in the same room.
I decided then that I’ll keep watching Gone With The Wind. Each time, I’ll see something new, and remember something old. It is a masterpiece, after all.