Gone With the Wind (1939) is a film that is both compelling and horrifying. Horrifying because of its blatant racism and the way in which it takes the validity of the Confederate point-of-view for granted. Yet the film is also compelling because of the strength of its central heroines. Scarlett O’Hara is unapologetically amoral: she struggles to survive in the face of wartime and hunger, marries for spite and money, and remains in love with another woman’s husband. She is refreshing in the way that she never entirely receives her comeuppance and will always think about unpleasant things tomorrow. Her ‘Mammy’ is portrayed as a similarly strong figure, a kind of an African-American parallel to Scarlett’s white Southern belle, Steel Magnolia style of defiance, but the question arises if Mammy’s apparent strength validates the system of oppression under which both women live or challenges it.
In Gone With the Wind Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy makes use of similar strategies of resistance to the characters in the actress’ other films, according to Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks (Continuum, 2001). On one hand, as in Alice Adams Mammy is in some ways a more stringent enforcer of social protocols than whites — it is she who successfully compels Scarlett to eat before going to a barbeque and laces her into a gown with a 17-inch waist. But like her mistress, she says what she thinks and lacks a sense of innate inferiority, as a woman and as a black individual in the antebellum South. However, unlike Scarlett, Mammy is never portrayed as a sexual being, only as a maternal being, which denies her one of Scarlett’s main sources of charm and social power. Only by allying herself to a representation of white Southern femininity can Mammy achieve a foothold in Southern society and earn the ‘right’ to appear on screen as a speaking, thinking subject.
Mammy’s identity is linked solely to the O’Hara family, as a woman who has diapered three generations of the clan (Bogle 88). She fights to save Tara against the Yankees with Scarlett — although the Union forces are fighting against slavery, an inconvenient fact the film frequently tries to make the viewer forget. Mammy allies herself with Scarlett during Reconstruction, “pushing aside renegade blacks” so her mistress can pass them on the street, as if slavery never ended (Bogle 89). Much of the humor in Gone with the Wind comes from the ‘world upside down’ idea that a black woman can be far stronger and wiser than her masters, more socially conscious about status and divisions between whites and blacks, although McDaniel does have lines that are dry, ironic and funny in their own right like the hard-drinking Scarlett is “prostrate with grief” over the death of her second husband (Bogle 89).
The film also essentially claims that despite of the pervasiveness of African-Americans in Southern society, African-Americans are only worthy subjects to the degree which their fate intersects with whites. None of the brutality of the slave system is in evidence — the only example of this is what seems like a deserved slap to Prissy, versus the burning of Atlanta and the horrific scenes in the military hospital of men having their limbs amputated without anesthetic. The destruction of the plantation system is portrayed in terms of Scarlett’s loss of innocence and beauty and the loss of a simpler way of life, not the eradication of a system of human bondage. The film forces Scarlett to accept hard truths about the nature of her supposed feelings for Ashley Wilkes, but never encourages viewers to confront the reality of slavery and racial discrimination: ‘good’ blacks ally themselves with whites, and ‘bad’ blacks do not. While questions about what constitutes good Southern womanhood are contested in the behavior of Scarlett vs. Melanie, there is no debate as to who are the ‘good’ African-Americans in the film: those that serve, like Mammy, not those who fight for freedom.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Continuum, 2001
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