“There’s No Getting Away From It If You’re Irish”: Gender, The Irish Diaspora, and Gone With The Wind

It might be the most famous rejection in literary history. Aware too late that she has made a horrible mistake for the past dozen years, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler runs through the mist to tell Rhett that she loves him. And he, exhausted and jaded, tells her that’s done.

In 2005, the American Film Institute announced that “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was the greatest line of dialogue in the history of the movies, not only for its dramatic importance, but also because of the struggle off-screen simply to have it said.

The Hays Code had been adopted in 1930s and truly enforced as of 1934 under the guidance of Will H. Hays, the one-time U.S. Post-Master General and a man who, in the immortal words of Gore Vidal, “looked not unlike Mickey Mouse.”[1] There was nothing short of a full-scale epistolary war in order to convince Joseph Breen, chief enforcer of the Production Code Association, that the famed word ‘damn’ from Rhett Butler was, at the most, a “vulgarism” rather than true profanity.

Scarlett’s reaction to the ultimate put-down is just as well-known. She summons up images of Tara, her family plantation that has survived despite the horrors of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and declares that, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” However, what wasn’t apparent in the film’s sweeping Max Steiner score or on Vivien Leigh’s face, are the words Margaret Mitchell wrote that immediately precede the novel’s final sentences:

With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin” (Mitchell, 959).

These words are not about Southerners who have been broken by the war and still cling to illusions of moonlight-and-magnolias or the mythology of the ‘Lost Cause.’ As she had done since the novel’s earliest pages, Mitchell once again was underscoring Scarlett O’Hara’s Irish heritage as the key to her American/Southerner identity.

We might think of Scarlett as the ultimate icon of the antebellum American South, but she is, just as much if not more so, the relentless heroine of the Irish Diaspora. As a personality, she is complicated, frustrating and even despicable at times, but she also stands as an irrefutable success story of gumption and survival that mimicked the lives of tens of thousands of Irish migrants arriving in America and their descendants throughout the nineteenth century.

I have always argued in my classes that Margaret Mitchell’s grand opus is the defining tome of Irish America, just as The Quiet Man is America’s defining vision of Ireland and Going My Way idealizes Irish American Catholicism during WWII, even to the point of nullifying the threat of German U-Boats in the Atlantic in order to bring Father Fitzgibbon’s mother to America for their tear-jerking reunion.

Yes, Gone With The Wind has its problems and flaws. It is horribly biased. Its version of slave pigeon English is immediately off-putting. Its depiction of the Old South not only makes Atlanta the capital of the known world, but also reduces the “War of Northern Aggression” to an inconvenient truth in the midst of Miss Scarlett’s narcissistic traipse through life.

Rhett Butler is ridiculously forgiving until the final dozen pages of the novel.

Melanie is impossibly good.

Ashley is horrifyingly obtuse and defeated.

And Scarlett? Well… Scarlett is the single most frustrating, obstinate, passionate, self-aggrandizing, annoying, self-serving, and callous heroine ever to grace a page of fiction. Becky Sharp, take note.

Scarlett O’Hara is everything we love to hate and hate to love and love to love and love to loathe. And yet, she is so damn influential. There are millions of fanboys across the planet who probably don’t realize that they owe a large part of their childhood to Margaret Mitchell. One of the most quoted scenes in the best Star Wars movie is an illegitimate offspring of the most controversial scene in Gone With The Wind:

That clip of movie history has been re-enacted time and again – completely out of context – as a hallmark of undeniable passion and romance. The fact that it is a possible instance of marital rape hasn’t really made many ripples in American pop culture. Instead, it inspired the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia: the blockade running (space)pirate and the holier-than-thou belle of Alderaan.

If you’re of a certain age – i.e. born anytime since 1980 – that movie poster is a cultural touchstone. We grew up with replicas of it in every video store (those places down the block that existed before Netflix), even back when they wouldn’t give you the actual film sleeve, but a video cassette of the film in a separate black/brown box with the film’s title on the outside and an inside sticker reminding you to Be Kind, Please Rewind.

The Empire Strikes Back is, arguably (and I’m going to argue here) the greatest movie sequel of all time. Yes, The Godfather Part II is amazing, but it has always lost something for me in the Cuban scenes. Michael giving Fredo a reverse Judas-kiss has never quite resonated for me and mine with the same power as Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke over the air-shaft in Cloud City.

On a different note, however, Empire is also a 1980 redux of various Gone With The Wind tropes. The posters, obviously, echo one another as a way to heighten the audience’s anticipation of a romance between Han and Leia. Exhibit A and B:

GWTW (1939) vs. ESB (1980)

Furthermore, my personal favourite scene ever from the Holy Trilogy is, as I came to learn in my late teens, complete plagiarism from the mind of Margaret Mitchell. Perhaps Lawrence Kasdan’s script is an instance of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery; or, perhaps Scarlett’s role as a feisty female was so engrained in popular culture that she was a natural fairy-tale godmother for Princess Leia.

This is the original dialogue from Margaret Mitchell as Rhett and Scarlett anticipate the fall of Atlanta in 1864:

“Scarlett, you do like me, don’t you?”

That was more like what she was expecting.

“Well, sometimes,” she answered cautiously. “When you aren’t acting like a varmint.”

He laughed again and held the palm of her hand against his hard cheek.

“I think you like me because I am a varmint. You’ve known so few dyed-in-the-wool varmints in your sheltered life that my very difference holds a quaint charm for you.”

That was not the turn she had anticipated and she tried again without success to pull her hand free.

“That’s not true! I like nice men – men you can depend on to always be gentlemanly.”

“You mean men you can always bully. It’s merely a matter of definition. But no matter.”

He kissed her palm again, and again the skin on the back of her neck crawled excitingly.

And this is the scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

At this moment, and in most of Empire‘s memorable imagery, Princess Leia is Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett has definite pop culture powers. But is the source of this strength her feminine willpower, or something else?

It has been noted by literary and film critics alike that Scarlett O’Hara is a feminist icon.  Mitchell’s writing process began in the mid-1920s following a fall from a horse – housebound, the young flapper journalist began to write a novel to while away the hours of convalescence. By the time the book was published in 1936 and the film produced in 1939, Scarlett had become an emblem for both 1920s rule-breakers and the working women of the Great Depression. She was, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “the spiritual sister of Rosie the Riveter.”[2] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argued that Scarlett’s saga was much more than just another historical moonlight-and-magnolias romance, but a journey that dealt with “twentieth century problems of social change and tension, and with the dilemmas of female identity in the modern world.”[3] Molly Haskell, author of Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited, poses that, in Scarlett, the “post-suffragette flapper meets the post-feminist power girl, a Madonna derivative, morphing easily into the unbridled capitalist and slave driver (literally) of postwar Atlanta.”[4]

Of course, this type of strong, conniving and astute femininity was a threat to the existing hyper-masculine cultures of both the Old South and modern 1930s America – or, as Haskell puts it, to the “dear white honourable, paternalistic Southern gentleman.”[5]

Scarlett is not the conventional blushing belle – within the first chapters of the book, she has already complained about the frustrating confines of women having to appear weak in order to succeed: “Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?” (79).    Comments like this and others throughout the novel have led many analysts to speculate that, when it comes to gender games, Scarlett O’Hara is much more of a masculine character than might first be believed. Still in the lead-up to the barbeque at Twelve Oaks comes the line that “Scarlett, child of Gerald, found the road to ladyhood hard” (61). Anne Goodwyn Jones dismissed Scarlett’s pretence at femininity, arguing that she “adopts the male role, as indicated by her looking more and more like Gerald and by the narrator’s insistence that the Gerald in her soul won over the Ellen.”[6]

Similarly, numerous authors and academics have focused on Irish ethnicity as a key theme of the novel.[7] What does Irishness mean in Margaret Mitchell’s world? Why does this particular strain of ethnic heritage seem so pronounced in one of the great American novels?

An easy answer lies in Mitchell’s own background. Raised on tales of the Old South, Margaret Mitchell allegedly had no idea that the Confederacy had lost the Civil War until she was ten years old.[8] A proud Irish Catholic at a time when that strain of Irishness was still problematic for some of the American old guard, Mitchell had faced the passive-aggressive disdain of Atlanta’s WASP-ish social circles for some of her own rebellious behaviour and questionable taste in men; in making Scarlett mimic her own outsider heritage, Mitchell secured an unending victory over those who placed Irish Catholics on a lower rung of Georgia’s social ladder.

Mitchell decreed that Irishness was part of the class system of the Old South. Throughout Gone With The Wind, Irish heritage aligns itself with the peasantry, hard work, tenacity, ethnic slurs, physicality and, above all, an inescapable love of the land. Numerous characters, from Tara’s overseer Jonas Wilkerson to Rhett Butler himself comment on the “bog-trotting Irish” or the “bunch of wild Irish” that the O’Haras typify. At the Twelve Oaks barbecue – the great set-piece at the beginning of the novel that sets into motion all of Scarlett’s various romances and downfalls – the eldest O’Hara daughter notes that the WASP girls at the party showed none of the inner conflict that “raged in Scarlett’s bosom where the blood of a soft-voiced overbred Coast aristocrat mingled with the shrewd, earthy blood of an Irish peasant” (106).

The Irish element of the novel is possibly one of the more undervalued aspects of Mitchell’s writing. By using Irishness as a paradigm for Scarlett’s actions, Mitchell rewrote the story of presumed Protestant homogeneity in the antebellum South and, simultaneously, cast the Irish as great landowners,[9] even though historically the vast majority of successful Irish immigrants and their descendants remained firmly fixed in the urban centres of Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston, Charlotte, and Savannah.

As the eventual mistress of Tara, Scarlett O’Hara is the figure who tests the gendered boundaries of both propriety and property by assuming the masculine role of a successful businessman and a wealthy land owner.

I want to go one step further. I would argue that within this “secret masculinization” of one of America’s most famous heroines is actually Scarlett’s transformation into a son of Irish America, even while she remains a daughter of the Confederacy. Scarlett O’Hara is an ideal for the Irish Diaspora: a second-generation Irish-American who has the gumption to succeed where so many had failed less than a generation before during the depravities and degradation of the Famine exodus.

Traditionally, the great Irishman in Gone With The Wind is Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s proud and bullish father. Having fled from Ireland after killing an Orange rent collector, Gerald arrives in America as the literal runt of his family: he is the youngest brother and, as Mitchell continually reinforces, the shortest of the lot. Following the patterns of chain migration across the Atlantic Ocean, Gerald follows in the wake of his older brothers, James and Andrew, joining them in their merchant business in Savannah. Gerald is swaggering, brash and impulsive, “quick with his fists and possessed of a chip on his shoulder so large as to be almost visible to the naked eye” (61). Not content to be “in trade”, which he felt was beneath his dignity, “the hand of Fate and a hand of poker combined to give him the plantation which he afterwards called Tara” (63).

Gerald represents an Irish American success story. Unlike the hundreds of thousands who arrived in the north or south to face years of hardship mid-century, Gerald O’Hara arrived to a ready-made family unit, steady employment, social acceptance, and acres of available land. By the time of his death, he was a man with three identities: “a fightin’ Irishman, and a Southern gentleman and as loyal a Confederate as ever lived” (663). According to historian Donald Akenson, this was a more familiar story than pop culture might have us believe: the vast majority of Irish immigrants to both Canada and the United States integrated successfully in society and prospered in their new lives, just like Gerald in the pre-war years.[10]

What truly defines Gerald O’Hara as an Irishman within the context of the novel is his love of the land, a sentiment which Mitchell particularly associates with an Irish heritage. One of the most famous scenes in both the novel and the film is Gerald’s offer of Tara to Scarlett at sunset. When she dismisses him for sounding like an Irishman with his talk of loving the land, his response emphasizes one of the novel’s primary themes: “To anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them the land they live on is like their mother…. ‘Twill come to you this love of the land. There’s no getting away from it, if you’re Irish” (55).

Tara is presented as an enchanted place that defines character and gives strength to its people. When the plantation is nearly destroyed by the invading Yankee troops during Sherman’s March to the Sea, Gerald, too, is reduced to a shell of his former self. The once swaggering, macho and sentimental father-figure becomes a broken, childish and effeminate wreck of a man.

In its rebirth, Tara finds a new master in the increasingly pitiless Scarlett, a woman stripped of any soft illusions or daydreams – save her love for Ashley Wilkes – in the aftermath of the war. In this change of personality and leadership, Tara stands as a gendering agent, a living entity of red earth and white pillars that reshapes the one-time southern belle into the novel’s true incarnation of Irish American masculinity.

By irrevocably associating Scarlett with Tara, Gone With The Wind literally grounds its leading character; this thirst for ownership and place demonstrates a need to have Scarlett reclaim her American patrimony, even at the expense of her own femininity and social standing.

The importance of Tara as Scarlett’s land also invokes a supposed Irish form of romanticism about property ownership that was already a striking element of American popular culture when Mitchell wrote the novel. A love of the land is apparently something inherited through ethnic blood-ties, a trait Scarlett derives directly from Gerald that connects her to Irish spaces and topography. The devastation of Tara kindles Scarlett’s defensiveness for what she sees as her own; Tara is no longer just a piece of property, but part of Scarlett’s body that needs to be protected, nurtured and worked in order for it to regain its former strength. The “As God as my witness” speech, which appears in the middle of Chapter 25 in the novel and which famously closes the first half of the film, is not only about the fear of poverty and hunger, but also stands as Scarlett’s solemn vow that Tara will not go the same way as Twelve Oaks: a once-proud plantation now burned to the ground and lost forever.

As she rebuilds Tara with her own hands – and those of her sisters, friends and servants – Scarlett has already cast herself in an authoritative role: “No one was going to get Tara away from her…. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it” (414). However, beyond even this new level of determination is Scarlett’s awareness of what inheriting Tara means – that land is meant for sons:

Rhett was wrong when he said men fought wars for money. No, they fought for swelling acres, softly furrowed by the plow, for pastures green with stubby cropped grass, for lazy yellow rivers and white houses that were cool amid magnolias. These were the only things worth fighting for, the red earth which was theirs and would be their sons’, the red earth which would bear cotton for their sons and their sons’ sons (413).

As the heir of Tara who works the land, loves it, and will stop at nothing to protect it – including murder and chicanery – Scarlett has become Gerald’s son, rather than his pampered, ladylike daughter. She has replaced the dead baby boys buried with Gerald and Ellen in the family graveyard by transforming herself into what they would have been had they lived: Tara’s defenders. The masculinization of Scarlett is a post-war creation, as she takes on male characteristics in order to fill the role created by Gerald’s lack of male heirs and his own enfeeblement.[11]

One of the by-products of Scarlett’s obsession with Tara is her career as a businesswoman back in Atlanta, following her marriage to the older, weak Frank Kennedy. Rather than being a good mother and obedient wife – characteristics that defined Southern femininity in both the 1860s and 1930s – Scarlett immerses herself in the lumber trade, one of the more masculine industries of the nineteenth century, and one with strong ties to Irish immigrants as employees known for their supposed excellence at hard labour. She hires cheap convicts, rather than freed slaves, showing an unfeminine knowledge of finance while demonstrating a “sexlessness that shocks her community.”[12]

In the twenty-first century, we might see Scarlett as a woman who “has it all”, including a strong sense of independence, but to Mitchell’s audience and characters, it is a demeaning portrayal. If anything, Scarlett has become worse than the carpet-baggers and scallywags who teemed into the South during the Reconstruction period; standing in opposition to those who still looked to the mythic past, Scarlett is a thoroughly modern creation. Worse, she is one filled with ambition, greed, industry and materialism – all fine virtues for Northern men, but categorical sins for a Southern lady. And, when Scarlett is no longer afraid not being “a lady”, has she already become Gerald’s son?

Scarlett at the lumber yard

As the story progresses, Scarlett becomes ever more cruel, ruthless and brash, but she effects these changes in herself primarily to stave off memories of hunger and devastation, to protect her family as she sees fit, and to save Tara, the land she had once shunned in her girlish antebellum days. She hardens through the years, a fact that eventually loses her the love of Rhett Butler; the woman he loved disappears beneath the more masculine exterior of his wealth-obsessed wife. Before the war, Scarlett built up male egos for her own flirtatious purposes; after the war, she feels no obligation whatsoever to restore any confidence in the defeated male population.[13]

In fact, Gone With The Wind is full of defeated masculinities: the Tarleton Twins, Scarlett’s beaux, are dominated by their horse-loving mother and then killed at Gettysburg; Scarlett’s first husband, Charles Hamilton, succumbs to pneumonia rather than dying heroically on the battlefield; her second, Frank Kennedy, is a be-whiskered wimp who is easily duped into marriage by Scarlett so she can access his money and save Tara; Ashley Wilkes redefines “loserdom” through his tenuous grip on post-war realities and Hamlet-like indecision between lust for Scarlett and love for Melanie; Gerald O’Hara loses his mind, his land, and his self-respect following his wife’s death and the humbling of the Confederacy; and even Rhett Butler is emasculated for much of the novel through his constant inability to make Scarlett love him.

Margaret Mitchell proposes that it was the nature of war that made Scarlett move against her mother’s gentility and embrace the more masculine Irish traits of her father:

She did not stop to think that Ellen’s ordered world was gone and a brutal world had taken its place, a world wherein every standard, every value had changed. She only saw, or thought she saw, that her mother had been wrong, and she changed swiftly to meet this new world for which she was not prepared (413).

In its way, Tara defeats both Ellen and Gerald, becoming the funeral bier for one and the mental destruction of the other; only Scarlett draws strength from the soil, in what Gerald would have seen as a true Irish gesture; however, that unshakable determination to reclaim her land and not be weak in the face of overwhelming odds also allegedly costs Scarlett her femininity.

Is Scarlett O’Hara an icon of the Irish Diaspora? It has been proposed that her popularity owes a great deal to her Irish origins – that Margaret Mitchell was an early harbinger of the acceptance of all things Irish in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly in the once-hostile United States. David O’Connell goes further, suggesting that, ultimately, the novel implies the Irish and their descendants must always be on guard “until their homeland is completely free and independent,” drawing a parallel between the defeated Confederacy and partitioned Ireland.[14]

I think this is going too far. Twentieth-century Irish politics have no place in any part of Mitchell’s story. Scarlett never connects her stand against the Yankees and the carpet-baggers to Irish independence from Britain (and it would have been a push for constitutional nationalism i.e. Home Rule rather than physical force republicanism in the 1870s through 1890s anyway).  Instead, Scarlett is an icon of the diaspora because of her global celebrity, because of how her actions mirror the fortunes of many real-life immigrants from Ireland to America, and because of her strength – whether or a perceived feminine or masculine nature. And she helped to inspire one of the best scenes of the Star Wars saga. That’s a definite plus.

And so, at the end of the novel, we have an apologetic Scarlett vainly attempting to regain her place in Rhett Butler’s affections. It is a futile gesture – Rhett may have been a scoundrel before the war, but as the novel closes, he is trying to make amends for his past mistakes, including his choice of Scarlett. He, the black sheep of Charleston, intends on returning to South Carolina and making peace with his family; Scarlett, the true rogue of the story, does not express any similar sentiments of remorse, apart from her foolishness in having loved the insipid Ashley instead of Rhett, her delightfully wicked equal.

And yet, even as Rhett walks away, her brief moment of weakness is quickly overturned through the memory of her Irish ancestors and the promised solace that home will bring. Like the Greek figure of Antaeus, Scarlett cannot be defeated so long as she can draw strength from the red earth of Tara.

“Tomorrow is another day!”

Through this mythological underpinning that connects identity with ethnicity, memory, and gumption, Gone With The Wind loudly proclaims that a “masculine” love of the land passed from father to son is the true essence of Scarlett’s character and, simultaneously, the heart of Irish American identity. Whether this image is right or wrong, the story’s unending popularity ensures that there is still no getting away from it.

[1] Gore Vidal in The Celluloid Closet (1995), d. Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, DVD, Sony Pictures Classics, 1995.

[2] Roger Ebert, “Great Movies: Gone With The Wind,” 21 June 1998, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-gone-with-the-wind-1939

[3] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Scarlett O’Hara: The Southern Lady as New Woman,” American Quarterly 33, 4 (1981): 391-411.

[4] Molly Haskell, Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), xii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981).

[7] Eliza Russie Lowen McGraw, “A ‘Southern Belle With Her Irish Up’: Scarlett O’Hara and Ethnic Identity,” South Atlantic Review 65, 1 (2000), 123-131; Vicki Eaklor, “Striking Chords and Touching Nerves, Myth and Gender in Gone With The Wind,” Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture (2002), http://www.imagesjournal.com/2002/features/gwtw/default-nf.html; Valerie M. Ball, “The Novel Gone With The Wind: Irish-American Adaptation,” The Harp 9 (1994), 83-95; David O’Connell, The Irish Roots of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (Decatur: Claves and Petry, 1996).

[8] Haskell, Frankly My Dear, 91.

[9] O’Connell, The Irish Roots, 5.

[10] Donald Akenson, The Irish Diaspora: A Primer (Toronto: P. D. Meaney, 1993).

[11] Haskell, Frankly My Dear, 94.

[12] Haskell, Frankly My Dear, 96.

[13] Haskell, Frankly My Dear, 224.

[14] O’Connell, The Irish Roots, 68.

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
This entry was posted in Culture, Gender, Gone With The Wind, Irish Diaspora, Land, masculinities, The Empire Strikes Back and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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