Book Club: Frankly, My Dear

The time has come–a review of Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell!

I read Gone With the Wind in my middle school English class because it was, you know, 1000 pages long and so I got more bang for my buck. But I ended up enthralled and in a sobbing rage in my mother’s bedroom after I read the dreaded “frankly, my dear” on those last few pages. Naturally, I went on to watch the four hour film until I had it memorized and worshipped Scarlett as my new heroine. So the fangirl inside of me was excited to revisit Scarlett and crew from Haskell’s feminist lens.

Scarlett challenges you to read on…
(you have no idea how long I’ve waited for an excuse to use that gif…)

Never was there a heroine so admirable, so despicable, and above all so beyond the reach of the double standard that traditionally closes in on women in Hollywood films and allows them so little moral and behavioral leeway. She is eerily timely, channeling the spirit of an age […] This is the awesomely shrewd businesswoman who subverts the the ethics and threatens the masculinity of the dear white honorable, paternalistic Southern gentleman. […] Scarlett embodies the secret masculinization of the outwardly feminine, the uninhibited will to act of every tomboy adolescent, here justified by the rule-bending crisis of war.

Scarlett was bitchin, let’s just get that statement out of the way. Yes she was self-centered and manipulative (and clearly on drugs because who in their right mind would choose Ashley when the could have Rhett I simply don’t know.) But she defied gender norms, knew what she wanted and how to get it, and she was capable and cunning and used the tools available to her at the time to achieve success. While many authors would have made timid polite Melanie the heroine, Margaret Mitchell placed strong-willed Scarlett at the forefront–a woman who defied strict gender roles and played by her own rules.

I know a lot of women who hate this book/film–they say it’s degrading and offensive to women, not to mention racist (and some friends simply cannot get over the shooting of the pony… give it up, Alissa.) I can understand how Gone With the Wind, a romance novel with a bodice-ripping cover, may polarize feminists. One of the greatest points that Haskell makes in the entire book is when discussing being part of a panel about women in film back in 1972:

Gloria Steinem, editor of the newly launched Ms. magazine, brought up Gone with the Wind, deploring the spectacle of Scarlett being squeezed into her corset to a seventeen-inch waist, that perfect illustration of female bondage, Southern style. I sprang to defend her as a fierce, courageous heroine, going her own way, a survivor, and so on. Both reactions were, in their own way, right. But this difference of perspective was also an early augur of the fault lines in feminism or perhaps a necessary split focus: between those predisposed to see and proclaim signs of the victimization of women in an enlightened world now progressing towards enlightenment and equality and those inclined to be heartened by the contradictions–the women in the past (both real and fictional) who’d held their own in a chauvinist culture, who’d subverted the norms and gained victories not always apparent through a literal reading of the plot.

This is an excellent point to make about this, and many, historical fiction novels–what we want from our postmodern feminist viewpoint is not what will happen, and to judge it as such will only lead to disappointment. During the Civil War  Scarlett could not and would not act with feminist agency as we see it now, but this does not mean we should dismiss what she did with the tools given to her at the time. Scarlett wouldn’t start a consciousness-raising committee in the parlor with Melly and Aunt Pittypat–but she could own her own lumber company and show the Reconstruction South that businesswomen were capable and successful.

That being said, on to critique Frankly, My Dear

I had high hopes for this book; Molly Haskell is the author of the (ahem) seminal From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies which when published in the late 1980s blew the lid off feminist film theory up until then. And although I enjoyed the book, it was a slight let down. First off, I’m big on structure and if there was one I never found it–it seems haphazardly put together and a jumble of thoughts and narratives between dissecting the film producer David Selznick, the author Margaret Mitchell, and the actress Vivien Leigh. Without the structure I found myself bobbing along at times uncaring.

The biggest disappointment was that it…how do I say this…wasn’t hard core enough? It skimmed the surface of a lot of feminist theory I had hoped Haskell would delve into a bit more–she flirted with the precipice but never went over the edge. I would’ve liked a bit more in-depth analysis from a scholar I know is capable of providing it. I enjoyed reading it, but I wanted more.

Anyone else have opinions on Frankly, My Dear? If you haven’t read it, any thoughts on Gone With the Wind as a film or novel, or Scarlett as a feminist pioneer?

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2 responses to “Book Club: Frankly, My Dear

  1. I’ll speak to Mitchell since I haven’t read Haskell’s book yet. Note: I’ll heretofore refer to people in general and not you.

    I love Scarlett, and find “boos” on her whale-bone servitude or the book’s racist portrayal of African Americans to be a bit…lame.

    Scarlett was an independent, take-charge woman–discontent with taking her mid-day nap while the men conducted the business. Racism? It was set in the fricking Civil War/Reconstruction…oh and it was written nearly thirty years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t racism still alive and well? Would people rather we went on denying the reality of our world? It’s like the people that ban books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for similar reasons.

    As a proud history major (and unapologetic GWTW fan), I do declare: You can’t deny the times, people!

    Let’s acknowledge the context in which it was written a bit more: the 1930s. Think depression, unemployment, despair, hero outlaws, burgeoning radical politics. As is the case for all books, if you apply the context, you’ll see the power of the characters and themes (in this case those of survival and determination).

    Plus, Margaret Mitchell won a Nobel Prize for her work. So chew on that.

    Meow.

  2. Pingback: Happy B-Day, Katie Scarlett! « Little Junkies

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