I’ve been part of plenty of conversations with other women about their mother’s and grandmother’s overcoming the inequality of their time to do things. Most of the time, they did things that are commonplace for women to do now, but only because of those women. It is even mentioned in The Feminine Mystique that wonderfully smart women were held back by a world that didn’t want them to fully participate in it. They had roadblocks and barriers in places that have been smoothed down by their tracks now.
It got me to thinking about some of the great literary characters of history. I thought of Elizabeth Bennet and Scarlet O’Hara and the ways that they challenged society’s expectations of women. Especially Scarlett. I know that she has a bad reputation as a female protagonist because she spends much of the movie using her feminine wiles to get her way. She flirts and gets married for the money to save her childhood home and that’s one of the biggest things that people remember about her character.
They forget about the determination it took to get a post-partum woman and baby from Atlanta to Tara, to work in the fields planting and picking cotton so that her family could eat, the business skills she had to learn to grow the business of a husband who wpuld rather go broke being nice to people than turn a profit. She fed more than her fair share of people between those wiles and the labor she was willing to put in to things. She shot a man who was going to rob and rape her and then buried his body in the backyard without anyone else noticing (other than Melanie, who was there when she shot him).
If she had been written today, without being raised to flatter and get men, with all that determination and intelligence, how would she be written? Sometimes I think I glimpse her in Katniss Everdeen’s undeniable spirit, but no, Katniss has no idea how to interact with people and Scarlett could always read them. But then she appears in Black Widow’s interrogation technique or Beatrice Prior’s will to succeed Dauntless. There are more places where I get a glimpse sometimes of her character. She tops the list of greatest female movie characters (according to AMC voting), and it’s probably because she has it all. Well, she has all the emotions and all the pitfalls and keeps getting right up. She doesn’t get everything she wants, the movie barely ends on a high note. But she has determination, ambition, intelligence, naivete, sacrifice, despair, grief, joy, love, hate, humiliation, victory, power, weakness, and a strength to overcome the worst of life.
It’s almost sad that she’s a fictional character and it really is sad that she has become one that is so misunderstood and biased against before people understand the movie that she lives in. But who would she be today? What would she be capable of in a modern story? I find this to be a bit of a heartbreaking question for all of the great female characters that came before feminism started to make a difference in our portrayal. Even the characters that I don’t admire, like Madame Beavoir. Would she have sat in such dismal unhappiness or gone out and gotten a job to make the money she so craved? Would she have stayed with or even married the husband whose presence gave her such anxiety? Would she have married at all if she could have found her way out of her father’s house without a husband?
I wonder this about pre-women’s lib characters all the time. It helps me relate to them better.