It’s worth ending up in a re-education camp for
By: Danusha Goska
(Continued from last week)
In the book, this scene’s construction and meaning prove false any accusation that GWTW is a simple-minded potboiler veering twixt torn bodices and cheerleading for Jefferson Davis. At first, the omniscient narrator describes Southerners aflame with devotion to their glorious cause. These paragraphs could be propaganda from the Confederate government. Then, without any real break, the scene is viewed from Scarlett O’Hara’s POV. She is blind to the idealism. The entire event is meaningless to her, except as an opportunity to wear pretty dresses and flirt with desperate soldiers. Then, while she and Rhett dance, he describes the entire scene in a cynical, dystopian way. He sees himself trapped in a room full of deluded sleep walkers dancing toward a cliff off which they will inevitably fall. They exist only to provide him with an opportunity to batten off the wreckage of a civilization. Mitchell offers the reader no reason to disagree with Rhett’s jaundiced take on the entire Confederate project as an exercise in pathetic, delusional, national suicide.
Then, just after the bazaar, Scarlett reads a letter from Ashley. Ashley is asking himself why he is at the front, watching his childhood friends mangled and killed. “Not for honor and glory, certainly,” he answers himself. “War is a dirty business … we have been betrayed, betrayed by our arrogant Southern selves, believing that one of us could whip a dozen Yankees, believing that King Cotton could rule the world. Betrayed, too, by words and catch phrases, prejudices and hatreds coming from the mouths of those highly placed, those men whom we respected and revered. ‘King Cotton, Slavery, States’ Rights, Damn Yankees.’” Ashley concludes that “nothing is worth it–States’ Rights, nor slaves, nor cotton.” Win or lose, Ashley reports, the South that he and his fellows are fighting for is already gone. Both winning and losing will, in different ways, destroy everything they thought they were fighting for.
GWTW is sophisticated enough of a work that it can present four different assessments of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause myth, back-to-back. Most astoundingly, Mitchell offers no commentary. In effect, she says to the reader, “This is what the crowd thinks; this is what Scarlett thinks; this is what Rhett thinks; this is what Ashley thinks. I’m not going to grant any of these points of view my imprimatur.” Mitchell does insist that you look down on white trash as unforgivingly as she does. But her book is too complex to be understood as ordering you to admire the Confederacy. I never took it that way, not on three separate reads.
The GWTW I saw in a student dormitory in Poland in 1989 wasn’t about the South at all. During the screening, I could feel the electricity in the room. As soon as the lights came up, Poles were cheering and crying. They didn’t see Tara; they saw Warsaw. The beasts crouching in the mist were Nazism and Communism. They knew what they were reaching for: self-determination. “Tomorrow is another day” was not Scarlett’s survival ploy; it was their resolve. They would, and eventually did, see the end of Soviet communist hegemony that year.
John Matrixx, an African American YouTuber, saw a different GWTW. He didn’t much like it, but he insisted that he didn’t require HBO to serve as nanny to his reaction to the film. “The thing is,” he said, “this is not a movie about slavery. This is a movie about a conniving woman in some kind of complicated love story That’s what this is. I don’t think this movie was denying the horrors of slavery. It just wasn’t focusing on it. This is about Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s weird romance. She actually wants somebody else and she’s doing all these crazy things to get this other guy that she’s been in love with forever to leave his wife. I didn’t see this movie as glorifying the old South. You gotta remember. The movie is being told from a Southern woman’s perspective. Not from someone today, not from someone in the north. This is their story. Let the movie be what it is.”
Jacqueline Stewart from Turner Classic Movies delivers a new introduction to GWTW. She tells viewers that the movie does not depict slavery accurately. Under this intro on YouTube, other African Americans respond. “I’m a black man who has always loved this film.” Others concurred. “ I’m a black woman who also loves this movie despite its faults. I also own this movie.” “As someone from overseas, I learnt about slavery as a teenager because of this movie. It led me to watching Django and The Colour Purple and now I have made connections to current child slavery in the middle east and Asia.” “I’m a black woman, and I will always love this amazing movie! I’m even thinking about a tattoo! I already saw it like a hundred times, and I don’t feel uncomfortable, ‘cause I know that it’s just a past that we overcome.”
Life is complicated. The enemy crouching in the mist of my nightmares are neither Democrats nor Republicans; the enemy who must be defeated are those insisting on purity. Right now the armies of the pure are on the left. Their attack on GWTW reveals their hypocrisy. The left announces itself as the champion of the common man, and in its drive for purity it reveals its contempt for the common man. The common man, numbers show, loves GWTW. The left insists that it wants power sharing, and yet the left insists on monopolizing power and dictating how the masses respond to art. The left says it is all about diversity, but it insists that there is only one right way to view GWTW.
The top “Times Pick” comment on New York Times coverage of GWTW makes my blood run cold. A woman says that she read the book three times. At first, she “swooned over the exciting writing.” She “strategized alternative endings” to reunite Scarlett and Rhett. Reading it for a third time, she realized that Rhett was a “rapist,” that the book is all about white “privilege” and reflective of “the mentality of the Trump souther supporter.” (sic)
It gets worse. She made her teenage kids watch the movie. They immediately “got it” and were “furious.”
A girl read a book about people unlike herself, and was able to feel empathy with others. Years later, she realized those feelings were wrong, and she cut them off. Her children have been so indoctrinated that they are incapable of seeing any artistry in what is widely assessed, by friend and foe alike, as one of the most aesthetically significant films of all time. In their hearts, where they might have hosted an avenue to empathy, there exists only politically correct judgment and condemnation. This is no victory, except for the self-christened purity police.
Monday, March 16, 2015, I was sitting by my sister’s bedside. I had my computer in my lap. I knew we might never have another conversation. I actually transcribed our words as we spoke.
“Antoinette, did you like Scarlett?”
“Oh, yeah, I loved her!”
“She was a horrible human being! She married two men she didn’t love!”
“Women do that all the time. They’re very self-centered. I’ve never been a real fan of women.”
“Melanie was very kind,” I said.
“I really didn’t think of Melanie much.”
“But you loved Scarlett!”
“Well, I loved her at first,” Antoinette said. Then she paused. “But then … you know who was really my favorite character?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Actually,” Antoinette said, “my favorite character was Mammy. I thought she had a lot of grace and dignity.”
“I think she let Scarlett push her around too much,” I said.
“Well, what could she do?” Antoinette shot back. “She was black. That was then. Scarlett was her boss. Mammy was the only one who actually showed any dignity. She was the only one who impressed me. She was a very nice person. She took things in hand that needed to be taken in hand. She loved Scarlett and would do anything to help her out. And she was graceful in doing it. She was a lovely person. She was a rare gem.”
My sister died three weeks later. This was the last coherent conversation we had. That’s my Gone with the Wind. One in which my hero, my sister, reveals to me that her hero is a black enslaved woman. A woman who, if she had met the poor Goska kids of blue collar New Jersey, would no doubt have written us off as “Yankee white trash.” I do not begrudge Mammy this. My allowance of her prejudice against poor whites like me is the most minor of my thought crimes. If I must be made a non-person, this is the thought crime I want to be convicted for. I demand my own GWTW, which has nothing to do with glorifying the Confederacy, or misrepresenting slavery, but everything to do with compelling writing about complicated characters facing issues I face myself. That’s art, and I will defy the metaphorical firing squad for it.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery