For those of you that don’t know, Scarlett is the leading lady of the 1930s classic, Gone With the Wind. Set in the American South, the book follows the life of Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled Southern belle whose life is turned upside-down by the American Civil War. The book was a massive success, topping the best-seller lists for two years straight (and during the Great Depression, no less) and was eventually made into one of the most famous movies of all time. Scarlett herself is at the centre of all this – in particular, for the nature of her passionate relationship with Rhett Butler – and has become one of the most loved and hated female characters of all time.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Scarlett is very much in control of her own destiny, which is actually very unusual for a young woman of her social class. Scarlett is a Southern belle, who were supposed to be very delicate and demure women, deferring to their husbands or fathers on pretty much everything. Scarlett doesn’t do this once. She’s a very active character who’s not just in control of her own destiny, but of several other people’s too. She goes through several husbands, choosing them on what they can do for her and her family. She delivers her sister-in-law’s baby and takes them back to her home in Georgia, protecting them from the advancing Union soldiers. She single-handedly drags her family out of poverty by going into business – something that was almost unheard of for upper-class women of the time. Scarlett is a really active character who’s in control of her own life, and the lives of several people around her, so there’s no way she could fail this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Scarlett enjoys dancing, but we hear much more about the things she doesn’t like – such as discussing current events and reading. Her goals are pretty clear – she wants to marry Ashley Wilkes, her slightly soppy brother-in-law – and to restore her family home, Tara. As for her beliefs, Scarlett clearly values the way of life of the ‘old South’, although she does find the social niceties quite restrictive, and she is also a passionate defender of slavery.
I’ll talk about this more later on, but I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Scarlett is a very consistent character. She’s vain, spoiled, manipulative, selfish and loves to be the centre of attention – but she’s also very passionate, determined, intelligent in certain areas, and goes to great lengths to take care of her family. As far as her skills go, she’s a total pro at flirting and displays an aptitude for figures and business which ends up becoming very useful to her. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A manipulative, spoiled Southern woman must leave her pampered life behind her to rescue her family’s fortunes.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
It has to be said that a lot of Scarlett’s decisions revolve around her love life, but much like many other characters I’ve looked at, she doesn’t always choose her men for their own sakes, but rather what they represent for her.
Scarlett spends most of the novel mooning after Ashley Wilkes, her brother-in-law, but she also makes a point of seducing and marrying several other men: Charles Hamilton, Frank Kennedy and, most famously of all, Rhett Butler. But she rarely goes after these men because she actually likes them – when she’s pursuing them her chief concerns are more often about what they can do for her or her family. She marries Charles Hamilton so she can get close to Ashley, and to take revenge on Charles’s sister Melanie, who Ashley chose over her. She persuades Frank Kennedy to dump his fiancée – who also happens to be Scarlett’s own sister – and marry her so that she can use Frank’s wealth to save her family home, breaking the ultimate sibling code in the process.
Even Rhett and Ashley, her two great loves, are tangled up with what they can offer her. Ashley is the quintessential Southern gentleman, the kind of man Scarlett has been brought up to idealise – so I’ve always wondered if she’s actually going after him because he represents a return to the Old South of her childhood, or if she thinks that marrying him will make her into a proper Southern belle. Rhett is the opposite – he helps Scarlett to throw off the restrictions of Atlanta society and represents a break from all the pressures of the life she has to maintain. It’s a classic case of old vs new – Ashley is the old, and Rhett is the new.
However, even when you add in all of this there’s no getting away from the fact that Scarlett’s life revolves around the men she marries. Part of this is due to the restrictions of Southern society, as women staying unmarried were relatively unusual, but part of this is also because Scarlett uses men to feel good about herself. If you took out Scarlett’s various romances, the plot would be slashed in half. I’ll be generous and give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Scarlett does develop over the course of the story. She goes from being a spoiled, pampered young girl to a ruthless businesswoman who sees no issue with getting her hands dirty if it means saving her family home. She also realises that she has been deluding herself about her feelings for Ashley, and that it’s Rhett she really wants – but I think her character progression is a more interesting. Either way that’s some solid development on more than one front, so she definitely gets the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Scarlett has plenty of weaknesses. She treats people terribly, has very limited understanding of the consequences of her actions and she’s completely blind to her own feelings. Her insecurity and vanity prevent her from really thinking about her actions, or learning from her mistakes, and this is something that actively hinders her happiness more than once.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Scarlett is a huge influence on the plot. While a certain amount of it is out of her control – she definitely didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War, for instance – she is nevertheless important. Whether she is seducing men or setting up a business, her actions and decisions have a palpable impact on the plot. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Scarlett has a pretty complicated relationship to gender stereotypes. On the one hand, she fits the stereotype of the ‘Southern belle’ pretty well – she’s attractive, charming, spoiled, shallow and has several men wrapped around her finger. But on the other hand, she subverts this too – she finds the social constraints that come with this stereotype very restrictive, is far too flirty to fit into the chaste aspects of this stereotype, and is much more intelligent and determined than she really lets on, implying that she’s only pretending to be as frivolous as she can seem.
All of this speaks to the complexity of Scarlett’s character – she idealises and hates the idea of the ‘Southern belle’, and tries to live up to and reject said stereotype throughout the novel. This complexity extends to her relationships as well – and this is the point that we’re going to have to talk about Rhett Butler.
Rhett is presented as Scarlett’s true love – the one man who truly understands and accepts her while seeing through her manipulation. Their relationship has been (and still is) idealised by many – it’s still held up as the ideal of a passionate, stormy romance, which is part of the reason why the novel itself has lasted for so long.
But here’s the thing. Rhett is kind of a terrible person.
He calls her names all the time. He belittles her. He often comes close to declaring his romantic feelings for Scarlett but then backtracks, making her believe that he was making fun of her and doesn’t actually love her. When she tries to reach out to him (which doesn’t happen often), he pushes her away. He threatens her with physical violence, saying that he will “crush her skull”, for example. When she tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he asks who the father is, and says (and I quote) “Cheer up, maybe you’ll have a miscarriage”. And, of course, there’s the scene where Rhett and Scarlett have a blazing row and he carries her upstairs and rapes her.
This is textbook abuse. A lot of this is excused as being a part of Rhett’s ‘passionate’ nature, or his unwillingness to confess his true feelings to Scarlett, who would use them against him. A lot of the nastier aspects of his behaviour are slightly veiled – for example, his rape of Scarlett is not explicitly shown, and it’s a decades-long debate about whether he actually raped her or whether they had consensual but angry sex. But there’s no getting away from the fact that none of this is acceptable behaviour in a relationship.
Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship is fundamentally destructive. They both verbally and emotionally abuse each other and make each other miserable. Yet their relationship is still presented as something to aspire to. Countless people argue that when they call each other names and lash out at each other that it’s an expression of the depth of their feelings. But this is idealising abuse. This is teaching people that violence and threats can be an expression of love – something to run to, rather than run from.
I’m going to be giving Scarlett half a point for this round. When you look at her character in isolation, you can see how she subverts and twists some pretty strong gender stereotypes. But when you look at her relationships, it becomes clear that while she may not conform to some stereotypes, she does reinforce some of the most dangerous ones.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Scarlett has relationships with plenty of other female characters. She’s jealous of her sister-in-law Melanie, but Melanie’s kindness eventually turns this into friendship. She idealises her mother. She loves her sister Suellen, but realises that Suellen would never use her fiancé’s money to save Tara, so she destroys their relationship by seducing him away from her. And she cares for her female slaves, known as Mammy and Prissy, although she patronises and abuses them at the same time. These are a range of different relationships with different female characters – and there’s several more that I haven’t even touched on here. I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Scarlett is a well-rounded character in control of her own life. She has a range of strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs and develops over the course of her story. She has different relationships with different female characters, she’s consistent, and she’s a driving force on the plot.
But you want to know a secret? I can’t stand her.
I’ve been holding it in all through this post but my God, I hate Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is just the tip of the iceberg – for me, the whole book is utterly reprehensible. The story itself is interesting and I can see why people like it – after all, people have been writing about love and war for centuries. But it’s so incredibly racist that I just can’t bring myself to enjoy it, and I never have.
I touched on this briefly but I’ll go into it in more detail here. Gone With the Wind is pro-slavery literature. Every single ‘good’ character (with the possible exception of Rhett Butler, if the mood takes him) is in favour of slavery. The n-word is used all the time. The KKK are presented as heroes, and in fact, some of the characters we’re supposed to like are actually members. They all believe that it was a good thing for black people, and some of the slaves do too. African-Americans who rejected slavery are presented as ungrateful, and those who stay with their former owners are shown as loyal, and somehow better than people who objected to being whipped and starved and bought and sold like animals.
As I’m sure you all know, Gone With the Wind is one of the most inaccurate and deluded depictions of slavery ever to be published. I’m a history graduate, and I actually wrote my dissertation on the relationships between slaves and mistresses in the American South, so I’ve read a lot of the first-hand accounts of former slaves. When former slaves spoke of their experiences – whether they were writing their autobiographies or being interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project – they were absolutely horrific. Mistresses would beat their slaves, spit in the food they’d cooked to prevent them from eating the same food as their masters, punish them for being raped by their masters, and – in one particularly nasty incident that I will always remember reading about – throw dead snakes at them as a joke. This is the kind of behaviour that the characters in Gone With the Wind are condoning.
Scarlett herself is at the centre of all this nasty, racist mess. She owns slaves, and is shocked when they abandon her and her family after the Civil War ends. She routinely says horrible and disgusting things about black people, and even after Emancipation expects them to behave as if they’re still enslaved. She was raised by a black slave who she calls ‘Mammy’ – a gendered racial stereotype you can read about here – but she doesn’t even know her real name.
I’m never going to like Gone With the Wind, or Scarlett. She’s a well-written character, certainly, but when both she and the novel spout views like that I just can’t enjoy it and frankly (my dear), I never will.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a sci-fi classic – the Alien series. Ellen Ripley, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.