Gone with the Wind and America’s Nostalgia for the Old South

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A few days ago, stories on the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind (GWTW) on December 15, 1939 circulated in the news media. A new anniversary edition of the film has been released, one of many that have appeared as different anniversaries of the film have been celebrated.  It is a testament to the staying power of the film David Selznick produced when he brought Margaret Mitchell’s book to the big screen.

Gone with the Wind is a story that holds the “land of Cavaliers and cotton” on a pedestal, and when it arrived in theaters in 1939, it fed America’s nostalgia for the Old South then and for decades to come.

Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.
Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.

Hollywood already had terrific success with antebellum stories set against plantation backdrops. Throughout the 1930s there had been numerous films set in the Old South, many of which were successful. Some, not so much.

But it didn’t matter. Old South nostalgia was a Hollywood staple.

Among the successes were The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel which appeared in 1935, both of which starred child star Shirley Temple. In 1938, the most successful pretender to the GWTW throne was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis who won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance as a “scarlet spitfire.” (The GWTW reference was intentional.)

Film still. So Red the Rose (1935)
So Red the Rose (1935)

Surprisingly less successful was So Red the Rose, a film based on the best-selling plantation novel of the same name written by Stark Young.  Young’s novel, set in Natchez, Mississippi, might have been the most important plantation novel of the decade had it not been for Gone with the Wind.

This is all of way of saying that Hollywood had primed the Old South pump for years, so that by the time GWTW premiered, a lot of the groundwork for the film’s success had already been laid. Still, there can be no doubt that GWTW eclipsed all that had come before.

From the opening scenes and first few minutes of dialogue, moviegoers were whisked into the mythical South of faithful slaves, southern belles, cavalier gentlemen, cotton fields and beautiful mansions.  American popular culture fed this nostalgia, too, particularly during the 1930s, and not just on the big screen.  It could be found among advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, radio shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, and through the revival of Stephen Foster’s music and the “Dixie songs” of Tin Pan Alley. The film version of Gone with the Wind had all of that helping it succeed, too.

As the film is being celebrated on its 75th anniversary, it is interesting to note the ways in which Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South represented in GWTW.  In Georgia, there are tours of the facade of Tara (the film set), there are online fan clubs, a website dedicated to Scarlett touted as “the most comprehensive Gone with the Wind site on the Internet,” and you can still eat at Aunt Pitty Pat’s Porch in Atlanta.

It is important to note that Gone with the Wind is also reviled for its racism, and yet despite this it is easy to predict that when the film turns 100, there will be another anniversary edition for sale.

America’s nostalgia for the Old South is a hard thing to shake, thanks in large part to the cultural imprint this film has made.

 

 

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Paula Deen’s Recipe for Self-Destruction

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Paula Deen

There’s not enough butter to cover up or improve the bad taste that Paula Deen has left in people’s mouths since they learned that the South’s most famous cook admitted to using the “N-word” as well as making other racially insensitive remarks. Twitter lit up with fake recipe titles attached to the hashtag #paulasbestdishes, skewering Deen for her racial insensitivity.  “We Shall Over-Crumb Cake” and “Massa-roni and Cheese” are just two (and, frankly, kind) of hundreds of examples.

Her comments came under oath as she was being deposed by attorneys for Lisa Jackson, a former employee who is suing Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers, along with Deen’s company, for alleged “violent, racist, and sexist behavior.” The full details of the complaint, in fact, are much more alarming and disturbing and go well beyond racial epithets.  Yet for now, the focus is on Paula Deen’s racist comments, and for good reason.

Deen has presented herself and has been marketed as the “face of southern cooking.”  Her shows on the Food Network, her cookbooks, magazines, and product endorsements have made her a household name and a multimillionaire. She is a very public figure and has to know that what she says and does will be publicly scrutinized.  And if she didn’t, she certainly knows it now.

So what did she say?  Under oath, she admitted to using the “N-word.”  She also said she wanted to plan a “really southern plantation wedding” for her brother Bubba Hiers.  Her inspiration came while visiting another southern restaurant where black men wore white jackets and black bow ties.  She was impressed, she said, because “that restaurant represented a certain era in America.” And when Jackson was brought in to assist the famed southern cook with preparation for Hiers wedding, she alleges that the following conversation with Deen occurred:

“Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. . . Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.” (courtesy of Talking Points Memo)

The media is on her, alright. And so are a lot of Americans who have taken to social media to let her know just what they think of her comments and her, personally.

Yet what I’m interested in here, as someone who blogs about the South in popular culture, is Deen’s supposed naiveté about the use of the N-word and her misinformed (to say nothing of outdated) view of what she believes represents a “really southern plantation wedding.”

First, there’s her use of the term “nigger.”  Deen, who is 66 years-old and grew up in southwest Georgia, knows exactly what the term means and knows full well that historically, it’s been used as a pejorative. In fact, she admits to as much under oath, saying “things have changed since the ’60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.”  Though, apparently, it’s okay to use in a joke. Well, now that she’s been caught using it, she’s being forced to consider that it’s not a laughing matter, y’all.

I have a sneaking suspicion that given the power she wields because of her wealth and celebrity, she didn’t think that using that term around one of her employees would matter, especially when that employee’s job depended on it.  Based on her responses to attorneys’ questions, it appears as though Deen felt she only used the n-word to describe, not hurt. She seems to believe that what she said was innocuous, and it didn’t even occur to her that a fellow white southerner might have a problem with it.  As it turns out, not only is Lisa Jackson white, she has biracial nieces.

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Deen’s idea of a southern plantation is straight out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s. Pictured: Bill Robinson with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935)

Deen’s desire to give her brother a “really southern plantation wedding” is also problematic, because she’s out of touch with reality to say nothing of southern history. What she described, according to the complaint, was essentially Hollywood’s version of a southern plantation from movies of the 1930s.  Her reference to Shirley Temple films was a dead giveaway.  In 1935, Temple starred in two films set in the Old South, The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel.  In both, her co-star was Bill “BoJangles” Robinson who, like in Paula Deen’s image of the South “of a certain era,” is seen wearing jacket and bow tie.

The “certain era” she recalls, of course, isn’t the plantation South at all.  As one of my peers rightly noted: “As a southern historian I’ve seen a great many 19th century slave photos and none included tuxedo clad slave waiters.”  Indeed. What Deen described in her testimony is a 1930s pop culture version.  In essence, what she hoped to recreate for her brother Bubba was a wedding scene straight out of a Jim Crow era film.

According to her attorney, Paula Deen “does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable.” Such a statement is to be expected now that her own use of racial epithets has been exposed, because her southern cooking empire is very likely in jeopardy as a result.

Deen’s experience is a lesson to us all that we do not live in a post-racial America. At the same time, we should not assume that racism is simply a “southern” problem. Unfortunately, given Deen’s association with the region, the popular perception of a monolithic, racist white South rears its ugly head. Yet, what I hope doesn’t get lost in all of this is that while Deen feigns to represent the South, she is not representative of the entire region. Another southern white woman, after all, is responsible for calling her out and holding her feet to the fire.