In 2018, I wrote an entry about the iconic red staircase scene in Gone with the Wind entitled Yes, that Staircase Scene in Gone with the Wind (1939) was Marital Rape. In the wake of HBO Max’s decision to temporarily pull the movie from its lineup, this entry gained a lot of traction. Because of this, I’ve felt the need to revisit that entry for two reasons.
The first reason is to clarify my position on the movie. In spite of its myriad issues, I don’t hate Gone with the Wind. I do think it’s a cinematic masterpiece, and the last thing I would ever want is to contribute to a so-called “cancellation” of the movie.
If that’s the case, you’re probably wondering why I wrote that entry on marital rape. Well, the reason why I wrote it is for the same reason I started Films Deconstructed. For the past decade or so, there has been a growing problem when it comes to how people watch movies. As society gets increasingly dumbed down, classic films are being understood, appreciated and claimed for all the wrong reasons. Because of this issue, not only has it become more necessary for people to call out their flaws but in some cases to get them withdrawn them from public view.
Let’s see how this problem has played itself out in the current Gone with the Wind backlash. Contrary to what so many people are saying, it’s not true that the movie has never been controversial. As ScreenRant.com correctly pointed out, the movie has always been steeped in controversy. Yet, to play Devil’s Advocate, something clearly has changed in the level of criticism being leveled against the movie. For years, it ran in theaters and on network television without people calling for disclaimers or for it to be shelved; today, it seems that not a day goes by when people aren’t railing against it.
Why is this happening? Is it because we’ve all become hyper-sensitive cucks, SJWs or woke (whatever the fuck that means)? No. There’s a very interesting reason behind why the movie is being scrutinized in a way it never was before. To understand how, we have to go back to the very beginning.
You see, even before Gone with the Wind came out in 1939, there was enough controversy about the Margaret Mitchell book on which it was based, to where people were actively lobbying against its release. Some of the reasons cited were its romanticizing of slavery, as well as the potential that it would only encourage more violence from the KKK and Black Legion. Hell, even before the first scene was even shot there was huge controversy. The script had to be approved by The Hays Office before it could even be cleared for production, and huge chunks of it had to be rewritten or taken out before Joseph Breen–the head guy responsible for enforcing the infamous Hays Code–finally greenlighted it.
Why were people so worried about this film, even back in 1939? Wasn’t it just a movie? Yes. The problem is that the noxious Birth of a Nation (1915) had only been released some 24 years before, and this film had resurrected the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence with a vengeance. Given that audiences in 1915 were so unsophisticated as to take the movie seriously, there was legitimate concern in 1939 that Gone with the Wind–a movie in a similar vein–would only add fuel to the fire. After all, 1939 was not that far removed from 1915, and there’s no doubt that some of the same movie audiences who had taken Birth of a Nation to heart were not only alive but would’ve been flocking to Gone with the Wind with the former movie still fresh in their minds.
But you know what? As soon as everyone saw the film, everyone’s fears abated. The first reason is that no matter how worrisome Gone with the Wind’s political bent was, the end product was so sappy and popcorn–and with so much emphasis placed on costume, romance and spectacle–that the romanticism of the antebellum South and depiction of slavery pretty much took a backseat to everything else. To put it another way, audiences were too mesmerized by the beautiful ballgowns, luxurious sets, online romance and cinematography to really give the movie’s subtext any real thought–or even care about it.
That’s not all. By 1939, audiences had, in fact, grown sophisticated enough to understand that when all was said and done, Gone with the Wind wasn’t a historical artifact or documentary; it was just a sappy Harlequin romance-type movie and adaptation of a popular novel. Audiences at the time also understood that the movie was at heart a historical drama–aka costume drama. In this specific genre of film, the lavishly decorated scenes and costumes are less about romanticizing the past than they are about fulfilling the requirements of every costume drama. For example, in movies like The King and I (1956), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Titanic, you’re supposed to have ballroom scenes of beautiful people in gorgeous costumes, like how you’re supposed to have a car chase scene in an action thriller or a steamy sex scene in a romantic date movie. With Gone with the Wind, this is what audiences took away from the scenes of pageantry–just obligatory scenes that come with the territory, not an open invitation to romanticize the antebellum South or slavery.
In short, Gone with the Wind was finally able to escape hyper-criticism and hyper-scrutiny because unlike in 1915–when audiences were so new to the concept of film that they would’ve confused Birth of a Nation for reality–everyone in 1939 and in the decades since saw Gone with the Wind as nothing more than pure soap and spectacle.
Case in point–for as long as I could remember, the red staircase scene was never anything more than one of a large number of iconic scenes from the movie, like the burning of Atlanta or Scarlett’s “as God is my witness” declaration. Since that’s all audiences ever got out of that scene, there was no reason to call it out as being one of marital rape.
Similarly, there was no reason to call out the depiction of blacks in this movie because everyone saw the characters for what they were–silly stereotypes that were dated even by 1930s standards. They were so ridiculous, in fact, that in the famous Carol Burnett Show parody “Went with the Wind“, no one blinked an eye when Vicki Lawrence–who was white–played Prissy. The reason why is that audiences saw Prissy as what she was–a ridiculous character who was too over the top to be taken seriously as an accurate representation of black people, let alone any type of human being. Because she was so cartoony, it didn’t really matter to audiences what race of actress played her in the parody. Be it black, white, Asian or otherwise, just start screeching like an idiot about not knowing how to birth any babies and the audience would’ve laughed.
Fast forward to the 2020s, and now everything has changed. In the past, when people talked about Gone with the Wind, they talked about it in strictly cinematic terms. For example, in discussing the red staircase scene, they might’ve discussed how beautiful the set was or how tension-filled the acting was. Today, a new generation of movie goers talk about that scene in a different context. They gush about how “sexy” and “romantic” it was or euphemistically write the scene off as merely “passion”, “rape fantasy” or “rough sex.”
Regarding Gone with the Wind’s troublesome romanticism of slavery and the antebellum South, something similar is happening; the movie is being taken to heart in a way that it never was before. It’s now literally in some circles being claimed as some kind of sacred cultural artifact and monument to America’s long and storied past.
Why on earth is this happening? Why are people now looking at this movie with such seriousness and, to make matters worse, even using it to downplay some of the troublesome aspects of it that previous audiences tried to ignore? The reason why is that movie going audiences are nowhere near as sophisticated today as they once were in 1979, 1969 or even 1939. They’ve become so dumb that they’re now no better than the audiences that embraced Birth of a Nation in 1915 as “reality”. In some ways, you could argue that they’re even less sophisticated.
If these people could just keep their demented takes on classic films to themselves, that would be one thing. But they’re not. They’re going onto social media to not only share their cracked interpretations of these films, but teach everyone how to think like them. Others, tilting at windmills at imagined enemies, are highlighting the worst aspects of these movies as part of a cultural warfare campaign in which they’re constantly looking for new recruits.
When a populace becomes so dumbed down to the point where they’re using movies like Gone with the Wind to perpetuate ignorance and stupidity, then guess what? There are going to be calls for the movie to be heavily criticized and even shelved. Why? Not because everyone is “too sensitive,” not because we’re all a bunch of woke PC cucks, not because we’re all a bunch of fragile snowflakes. It’s because never in the history of film did we ever live in the type of cultural climate where people were dumb enough to see a movie like Gone with the Wind and say, “He didn’t rape her; they had hate-sex!” or fumed, “They’re erasing our heritage!”
Is it fair to the filmmakers of classic films that we have to either put their movies under the microscope or even shelve them? Of course not. In some cases, “canceling” them has resulted in a type of tragic irony, in that these films are being punished for contributing to the very problems they were trying to spread awareness about. For instance, who would’ve guessed that The Matrix—a franchise meant to get people to wake up to reality–would’ve launched a so-called Red Pill movement that encourages people to fall down a rabbit hole of bullshit conspiracy theories? Or that Fight Club—which explored toxic masculinity–would be a catalyst of the Incel movement? Or that viewers, in watching Lolita, would romanticize Humbert Humbert as a tragic hero and even start using the term “Lolita” as a quaint euphemism for their pedophiliac desires?
It’s not fair that we should have to hyper-criticize, call out, disclaimer or even shelve movies like this, including Gone with the Wind. But what else can you do? We’ve got increasing numbers of people using the red staircase scene in Gone with the Wind to argue that it’s sexy for a belligerent drunk to rape someone in a jealous rage. We’ve got increasing numbers of people believing the movie’s “lost cause narrative” and arguing that criticizing the movie is the same as practically burning the Constitution or taking down statues of the Founding Fathers.
In short, too many people are cynically latching onto movies like Gone with the Wind and other classic films to advance a toxic agenda, engage in culture wars or have noxious views validated. It’s precisely for this reason that these movies are undergoing so much scrutiny. Culture warriors frothing at the mouth pointing their fingers at various groups–either real or imagined–would go a lot farther protecting their beloved classics from “cancellation” if they took two seconds to try to understand why movies are increasingly under threat and who is really responsible. Hint: it ain’t the “SJWs,”, “cucks”, “Christian evangelicals”, “Puritans”, “Feminazis” and “the woke mafia”. Look to the pedophile apologists praising Lolita as a tragic romance, the Incels embracing Fight Club, the QAnon nut jobs quoting The Matrix, and the neo-Confederates claiming Gone with the Wind as a historical artifact, and you will see who is to blame.
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