We live in censorious times, with potentially offensive content being yanked by nervous providers and people being fired for editorial decisions that might have provoked little or no outcry even a few months ago. The long-running reality show Cops has been canceled in the wake of widespread protests over the police killing of George Floyd and The New York Times cashiered its opinion page editor after he published a controversial column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.). Elmer Fudd has been stripped of his guns in a new slate of Looney Tunes cartoons airing on HBO Max, a new premium streaming service that has also pulled Gone With the Wind, the 1939 movie that has sold more tickets in America than any other, from its rotation.
In a statement, the management of HBO Max said, “These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.” The announcement came just a day after John Ridley, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013), took to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times with a request that the service “please consider removing Gone With the Wind from your rotation of films.” The movie, he said,
“glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.
It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was—a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”
For all that, Ridley insists that he doesn’t “believe in censorship…. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were.”
There’s no reason to question Ridley’s sincerity about censorship. His characterization of Gone With the Wind is accurate, too. The novel, published in 1936, and the movie represent the apogee of the Southern cultural revival of the early 20th century that included the objectively pro-Ku Klux Klan novel The Clansman and the movie made from it, The Birth of a Nation (which was the highest-grossing movie in America until Gone With the Wind).
If anything, what’s odd is Ridley’s narrow focus on a new, relatively small platform. The movie is still listed for streaming or purchase at YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, and Amazon (which also sells various versions of the novel, one of the best-selling and most-beloved works of fiction in American history). But Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film, have been deeply problematic since their creations. Or, more accurately, their immense and continuing popularity has been deeply problematic and in many ways, we are confronting issues about racism more openly in the current moment than at any time since the mid-1960s.
Rather than shunting it aside for the time being—HBO Max has signaled that it would stream the movie again at some undefined point in the future, with proper denunciations and context in place—I’d argue that it’s the perfect time to pair Gone With the Wind‘s insanely unhistorical yet continuously popular depiction of happy, well-treated slaves with movies such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, which foreground the physical brutality and torture that actually maintained the peculiar institution. Why did the son of Lithuanian Jews, David O. Selznick, invest so much into the recreation of an antebellum world that would have been undoubtedly hostile to his own ancestors? Why did people such as my mother, born in 1927 to poor Italian immigrants, identify with Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, pampered daughter of a plantation owner? How do we deal with the fact that so much of our national culture traffics in awful, repellent racial and gender stereotypes, often in ways we barely even acknowledge? (Try reading The Great Gatsby with an eye on its anti-Semitism and fear of black people and immigrants, for example.)
In “Gone With the Wind: The Feminization of the Anti-Tom Novel,” an essay in the 1982 collection What Was Literature?, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler elevates Margaret Mitchell’s potboiler novel to the status of art even as he denounces its depiction of an explicitly racist America that no longer exists. He argues that Mitchell, the “literary heir” to the unapologetically white supremacist Thomas Dixon, effectively revised the great American anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and created a character in Scarlett who for better or worse is as archetypal as Captain Ahab, Natty Bumppo, or Hester Prynne. To will away her hold on America’s collective unconscious is probably smart corporate policy for HBO Max but to understand why she persists is likely a precondition for successfully working through what remains of racism in America.
To acknowledge a work as significant is not to ratify its author’s (or audience’s) moral universe. Gone With the Wind is at once the high-water mark of a delusional version of the South and an acknowledgment that it had been thoroughly defeated by the forces of liberal modernity. At the close of the book and the movie, Rhett Butler leaves not just Scarlett but the United States because Reconstruction Atlanta is “too new for me, too raw.” The racial and class hierarchy he symbolically embodied and succeeded in has been replaced by individualism, capitalism, and the ability to rise and reinvent oneself afforded by urbanization. Scarlett is, against Mitchell’s own inclinations, the heroine of the book because she alone among its characters adapts to a world radically different than the one in which she was born.
There are lessons to be drawn from critically engaging our cultural past, especially at moments of tension and conflict. We are working overtime to police speech and expression across a seemingly infinite number of dimensions. The urge, however well-intentioned and temporary, to shoo it away rarely leads to resolution and instead forestalls the sort of reckoning that is already long overdue.