Gone With The Wind is cancelled: frankly my dear, it’s about time

On Tuesday, HBO MAX announced it was temporarily removing Gone With The Wind from its online movie library, pending a period of reflection and agreement on the wording of an advisory statement which addresses the film’s depictions of slavery.

As a result, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my own relationship with this iconic — but deeply problematic — story.

When I was a teenager, Gone With The Wind was my favourite book-movie combination, thanks in main to the arrival of the Mississippi summer exchange students who set Warwickshire hearts a-fluttering with their Deep South drawls and enviable Abercrombie & Fitch backpacks. I identified with impetuous heroine Scarlett O’Hara, was intrigued by ‘scoundrel’ Rhett Butler, and suitably irritated by meek and mild ‘Melly’.

I have Gerald O’Hara’s rousing “land is the only thing that matters” speech to thank for my obsession with Irish smallholdings, and the Ashley Wilkes effect for the safe-but-spiritless relationship of my early twenties. Birthday cards from the y’all years were affectionately addressed to ‘Vivi’, along with presents embossed with Rhett’s rougish wisdom — from shelfie-worthy “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” bookends to “Be different and be damned!” coasters. “Tomorrow is another day” has long been my procrastination motto of choice.

And yet.

Until this week, I hadn’t once stopped to consider the book’s sanitisation – and, worse, sentimentality – of slavery in the American South to be much more than background story. Uncomfortable, yes. A sign-of-its-time, sure. But ultimately, the painful racial histories rewritten as one-dimensional caricatures into Margaret Mitchell’s epic 1936 Civil War novel was the kind of contextual detail that fifteen-year-old-me — woefully unschooled in the cause and effects of slavery — could waive away as mere backdrop. Besides, what historical romance doesn’t portray a past that falls in one way or another morally short of our present, right?

Looking back, the film too — the highest grossing in history — is, as John Ridley, writer of 12 Years a Slave said in the LA Times on Monday, a blatant and harmful glorification of the antebellum south. Defenders of the film’s legacy are quick to point out that Hattie McDaniel was the first African American actress to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett’s long-suffering ‘Mammy’ — while conveniently whitewashing out the fact that she wasn’t allowed to sit with her white co-stars during the ceremony.

I see all of this — the Hollywood hypocrisy, the troubling themes — now.

How did I miss it back then?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I read or watched either (though Scarlett’s influence makes herself consistently known in Times of Looming Deadlines), but the truth is, I didn’t see it because it wasn’t my painful history to see.

It felt like fiction: and because it felt like fiction, I was able to free myself from the burden of consumption and hyper-focus on the romance (the flirting! the handkerchief ! that kiss!) and visual splendour (the corsets! the sweeping cinematography!) — a privilege, I now realise, that was not mine to take.

This has been a transformative week.

Many of us have been reckoning with our own complicity — intentional or otherwise — in upholding the structures of inequality that have too-long run as undercurrents in our societies. Having publicly challenged the ‘All Lives Matter’ brigade and called out the biases blurted in defensive comment threads of fear, it would be the ultimate hypocrisy for me not to interrogate my own racial blindspots through the lens of my former favourite book.

As the mother of two mixed-race sons, I have witnessed first-hand the subtle micro-aggressions and deniable discrimination that still exist towards people of colour. I am therefore doubly horrified at the memory of my own cultural compartmentalism and youthful gullibility — triply so at my belated realisation of the same — of the American myths upheld by GWTW.

Without trying to entirely absolve myself of personal responsibility here, let’s not forget that I was first introduced to Gone With The Wind by some charmingly good-looking Southern boys who — looking back — quite possibly had a less-than-neutral inherited interest in the glorification of the Confederate cause. Would a forward in the school library’s paperback have lessened my propensity to skim over the uncomfortable bits, or at the very least encouraged a deeper reading beyond the tulle and taffeta? You’d hope so. What about if we had even the slightest foundation in the study of Black History and a little bit less on the terrifying Tudors? Almost certainly.

And so — in the spirt of ‘when you know better, do better’ — on Wednesday, I added my name to a 700 strong list of signees to decolonise my former girl’s school (+++ privilege points, I know) curriculum, as well as this nationwide curriculum petition.

I suppose this is a public apology of sorts: to everyone for whom Gone With The Wind (in whatever form) is no harmless fiction, but a hurtful reminder.

Before I consign all my linguistic GWTW-isms to the archives, allow me one final quote. Because I happen to know exactly what Rhett Butler’s response to my clumsily-written attempt at atonement would be.

He would say: “My Darling, you are such a child; you think by saying ‘I’m sorry’ all the past can be corrected.”

Nothing will right the wrongs of our collective past: not censorship, not suppression, not the tearing down of monuments — cinematic or otherwise.

But like Mitchell’s magnolia-scented mythical South, fall they must.

Thinker of thoughts, writer of words, mother of boys. I live on an island (make of that what you will). www.emmaelobeid.com

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