Cancel Culture

The Progressive Scarlett O'Hara

from First Things,
January, 2023:

In the summer of 2020, HBO removed Gone with the Wind (1939) from its streaming service. The move came in response to an op-ed by John Ridley, screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave (2013), which charged that the film “glorifies the antebellum south,” “romanticizes the Confederacy,” and perpetuates the myth of the Lost Cause. Progressives rushed to denounce the film, and conservatives rose up in its defense. The controversy was not bad for the film’s sales (Gone with the Wind promptly shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list), but it had the unfortunate effect of perpetuating a false idea of its source material, Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same title, which is less reactionary, and more progressive, than the polemics around it suggest.

Mitchell preaches a different creed. Her book warns against nostalgia, even as it freely trades on its appeal. It denigrates attachment to any lost cause, hymns hard work and entrepreneurship, and revels in the life of the city. It celebrates the outsiders who challenge the conventions upheld by respectable men and nice ladies. In all these ways, its attitudes are self-consciously modern rather than antique. The contest between nostalgia and realism, between looking back and moving forward, is embodied in the choice Scarlett faces between Ashley ­Wilkes and Rhett Butler, the two claimants to her devotion.

It is no wonder, then, that Gone with the Wind is in certain ways highly contemporary. Reading it today, one is struck by how fateful is the moment when Scarlett first uses the n-word. For in her society no less than ours, use of that word is inconsistent with respectability. Likewise, the condescending respect accorded ladies bears a ­remarkable resemblance to etiquette in the age of #BelieveWomen. As Mitchell caustically observes, “A gentleman always appeared to ­believe a lady even when he knew she was lying. That was Southern chivalry.” In these ways and more, the proper name for Mitchell’s story is not Gone with the Wind but another title she considered, drawn from the last lines of the book: Tomorrow Is Another Day.

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