This week on Feminist Flashback Friday, we catch up with a tricky character who isn’t quite a total feminist, but definitely shows signs of being a feminist ally. We’re talking about Civil War-era charlatan Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) from 1939’s epic Gone With the Wind.
Who Is He?
He’s best known for being the guy who wouldn’t take any more of Scarlett O’Hara’s shit, but aside from being the film’s badass, main love interest, little else is known about Rhett unless you’re someone, like me, who has seen the movie countless times (and even read the monster of a book on which it’s based more than once).
Rhett’s background is that of the quintessential Southern gentleman. He comes from a well-to-do family that has a good standing in high society. Rhett seems to be the black sheep of the family because, instead of living up to his status, he uses it to his own advantage—and to the advantage of those of whom he cares.
Though not quite a pacifist, Rhett refuses to fight in the Civil War despite being called a coward and traitor in the process. He has his beliefs and he stands by them (especially since they’re often far more logical than those of his peers). He appreciates everyone and anyone who works hard and makes a name for him- or herself and throughout the movie, it’s three women (and no men) whom he most admires for this reason.
What Makes Him A Badass?
In a society where women are expected to be subservient and succumb to the wishes and opinions of the men in their lives, Rhett singles out three women who break this mould, though the women are vastly different and seemingly have nothing in common.
The first is Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s sister-in-law. Melanie comes off as perpetually nice and obedient and seems to have everything handed to her by angels. In actuality, she is far tougher than she appears and, while her husband is off fighting in the war, she manages to do whatever she wants while still maintaining the respect and admiration of society. Rhett admires Melanie for her eternal goodness and her willingness to do what she believes is right no matter what.
In seeming stark contrast to Melanie is Belle Watling, a prostitute whom Rhett sees often, regardless of what society says. Belle’s reputation as a “woman of the night” undoubtedly has her constantly being judged by the ladies of Rhett and Scarlett’s class, but Belle Watling is a businesswoman who does what she chooses and manages to put her child through a prestigious boarding school. On top of that, she has (inevitably) had to develop a thick skin and so has learned to become unashamed of herself, and rightfully so.
Then there’s Scarlett herself who seems to fall somewhere between Melanie and Belle. As we discussed in an earlier Feminist Flashback Friday column, Scarlett is one of the earliest examples of feminism without even realizing it. In fact, most people forget that Scarlett is actually one of the most badass babes in classic film because she has the guts to ignore what society shouts at her about how a woman should act and goes on to do whatever it is she needs to do in order to survive. Of course, Scarlett is with whom Rhett falls in love and it’s mostly because she’s so unlike the other women in their class. Rhett admires that Scarlett is ruthless when it comes to her own survival and the survival of her kin and the fact that she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty in the process.
Rhett respects Melanie because she is a strong women; Rhett respects Belle because she is a strong woman (despite the fact that literally no one else in the film, except Melanie, respects Belle solely because of her profession); Rhett respects and falls in love with Scarlett because she is a strong woman. He doesn’t see any of these women as being any more or less deserving of human decency and even equality. He doesn’t try to control them or tell them what to do, but rather trusts them almost blindly to be capable of knowing how to live life as is best suited to each of them instead of what society expects. He doesn’t push his assistance on any of them, but is happy to help when asked.
Why Does He Still Matter Today?
Nowadays, there are a ton of men who call themselves allies or feminists, but not all of them understand what it means to be an ally. Feminism, at its core, is a movement that aims to bring women up to the same political and social status as men. In an attempt to help further this cause, many men speak on behalf of women about their plights rather than letting the women speak themselves or, worst of all, not listening to what women are saying.
Rhett is a surprising example of a pretty good feminist ally because he keeps his mouth shut when it comes to what the women in his life are doing and lets them take charge. As a man, he’s always had the freedom to do and say as he pleased with little to no repercussion and he uses that privilege to assist the three women in his life by supporting them without being overbearing. Rhett knows that everything Scarlett does, she is doing because she knows what’s best for her. Ditto for Rhett’s relationship with Belle and Melanie. We never know what Rhett’s stance of sex workers’ rights is, but we know that he habitually pays Bella for sex and still has the utmost respect for her as a person. We know that Rhett doesn’t want a life with a domesticated and devoted wife like Melanie, but still, Rhett often goes out of his way to support Melanie when she needs him to because he respects her and her decisions for her own life.
We see him interact the most with Scarlett and throughout it all we can tell that Rhett is both amused by and worried for Scarlett and the risks she consistently takes in order to get what she wants. And yet, we never hear Rhett discourage Scarlett from doing anything. Unless he feels that Scarlett’s life is threatened, he keeps his mouth shut and makes sure that Scarlett knows that he’s there to help should she need or want it. He doesn’t make things about him, probably because he realizes the immense freedom afforded him thanks simply to the fact that he was born a white male. Instead, he uses his privilege to help those who aren’t afforded the same courtesy. That makes him a true ally.