Yes, that Staircase Scene in Gone with the Wind (1939) was Marital Rape

Yes, that Staircase Scene in Gone with the Wind (1939) was Marital Rape

Gone with the Wind (1939), the sweeping Civil War epic based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, is considered one of the best movies of all time for many reasons. Not only did it have a top notch cast and many iconic scenes, its costume design, sets and cinematography were second to none. However, it’s not a film without its controversies. Two of them, which you’re probably well aware of, are its romanticism of the antebellum South and its depiction of slavery.

On top of these issues, there is another less talked about yet no less controversial problem that has dogged the film all these years–the infamous grand staircase scene. In case you don’t know which one I’m talking about, it’s the scene in which Rhett Butler, drunk as a skunk, belligerently confronts Scarlett O’Hara about her undying love for Ashley Wilkes, then carries her up the iconic red-carpeted staircase to their bedroom.

gone-with-the-wind-gone-with-the-wind-4376021-1024-768

This scene is one of the most powerful and memorable ones in Gone with the Wind and sets the tone of the conflict that will define Scarlett and Rhett’s marriage for the rest of the movie. In spite of how good it is, it’s gotten a lot of flack, and for good reason; it’s the scene right before Rhett rapes Scarlett.

A lot of people have tried to argue that this scene isn’t marital rape, that it was just rough sex or hate sex. To them, the smoking gun is the scene that plays right after this one, in which Scarlett can be seen waking up and smiling. Clearly, she couldn’t have been raped because what woman would react this way if she had been?

8142097_orig

Okay, so let’s address that second scene. Yes, it’s true–after the grand staircase scene, Scarlett isn’t crying her eyes out or filled with burning hatred for Rhett. She smiles like the cat who just swallowed the canary. But if you’re at all familiar with romantic fiction, you will recognize that the scene of Scarlett smiling was Gone with the Wind trying to confuse audiences about what had happened the night before, by referencing an old trope that thankfully no longer exists.

What was this trope? The “ravishing” love scene. This trope usually plays out when the two love interests, who have explosive sexual chemistry right from the get go, keep putting off sex because they initially can’t stand each other, or the woman plays hard to get (either because she doesn’t want to come across as desperate, or she is acting demure). After putting off sex for so long, sexual tensions between the two finally boil over, and the male love interest finally makes the first move, but in an aggressive manner. He might do it by suddenly grabbing and kissing the woman while her guard is down, causing her to resist before finally caving in and reciprocating with a passionate kiss. (Some famous examples: Rocky and Adrian in Rocky; Deckard and Rachael in Blade Runner; Terry and Edie in On the Waterfront.)

On the surface, the ravishing trope looks like the man is forcing himself on the woman, but it’s always made clear that the desire for sex between the two characters is mutual; it’s just that they’re both play acting a sex fantasy in which the man “passionately” takes the initiative while the woman initially resists. Gone with the Wind tried to be slick and downplay Scarlett’s rape by throwing in the morning after scene to confuse the audiences into thinking that she wasn’t really raped but “ravished.” (In other words, she was only pretending to not want sex so Rhett could take her in a fit of passion.)

But watch the grand staircase scene in its entirety without the morning after scene and there’s absolutely nothing about it that would suggest that what happened was innocent. First of all, there was never any real love or attraction between the two, not even in an “opposites attract” vein. In fact, the entire reason why the scene happens in the first place is that Rhett discovers, much to his rage, that Scarlett loves Ashley. So, the argument doesn’t wash that what happens in this scene is hate or rough sex between a feuding couple who secretly have the hots for each other.

Secondly, Scarlett isn’t fighting off Rhett because she’s playing hard to get, acting demure or covering up her feelings of sexual attraction by pretending to hate him. Sex is not even in the equation. She is trying to escape Rhett because he’s stinking drunk and he keeps threatening her physically. Not only does he rant about wanting to tear her to pieces, he puts his hands on her head as if he’s ready to wring her neck. You can see in the screenshot below how frightened she is and why later she keeps wanting to leave; he is two seconds away from slamming her head to the table, punching her or worse.

89fb73e5e289e0b29489cab484f42d88

Even if you could say for the sake of argument that sex was in the picture, Scarlett wouldn’t have been holding out because she really wanted to have sex with Rhett but was only pretending not to. She would’ve been holding out because of her love of Ashley Wilkes. Again, that is a huge part of why this incident happens is in the first place. Rhett is not only enraged that Scarlett is madly in love with Ashley, he is irate that she is deliberately withholding sex from him because of her love for another man.

On top of all of these indicators that Scarlett was raped, the movie itself indirectly explains Rhett’s motivations for raping her. First, he does it because it frustrates him that he can’t physically crush the thought of Ashley Wilkes out of Scarlett’s mind. Since he can’t do that, the next best thing is to screw it out of her. The logic is that he’ll be so good in bed, she’ll instantly forget about Ashley.

Secondly, Rhett rapes Scarlett to punish her. He sees her holding a torch for Ashley as a form of cheating and cuckolding, so he feels betrayed and humiliated. To make matters worse, it’s her love for Ashley that is the reason why she’s holding out on him. Scarlett is an extremely prideful woman who’s always held the cards in any relationship, and nothing would be more humiliating–and punitive–than to force someone like her to finally submit to a man, not just emotionally but sexually.

The third reason Rhett rapes Scarlett is to reestablish who really owns her. Because Ashley has such a hold on Scarlett mentally and emotionally, Rhett sees him as encroaching on his possession of Scarlett, as in, “Ashley not only has her heart, he has her mind, too; he as good as owns her.” Rhett’s raping of Scarlett is a reminder that Ashley can occupy her mentally and emotionally all he wants, but as her husband, only he and he alone can take her, body and soul, even against her will.

The last reason Rhett rapes Scarlett is to heal his male ego, which was bruised when it learned that this entire time, she had never wanted him but another man–and a genteel, quiet man at that. The logic behind the rape is, “Well, maybe Ashley has won her over with his personality, but that’s because she is forgetting what a real man is like. A real man isn’t all fee-fees and intellect; he is a man with a dick who knows how to use it. I am a real man compared to Ashley, and I will show her what a real man can do.”

In the face of everything I said, I am sure there are bound to be people to argue, “You’re wrong. This is all interpretation, spin. You’re simply reading into the scene too much. It was rough sex no matter what you say.”

Fair enough. So how about this then? The grand staircase scene was directly inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s own attempted rape at the hands of her husband, Red Upshaw, who was the inspiration for Rhett Butler. The attack was so brutal that she spent every year up until his death sleeping with a loaded pistol on her nightstand.

Still unconvinced?

Why the Morning After Scene?

Taking everything that I’ve said so far, there’s no question that the grand staircase is what it is, a prelude to the marital rape of Scarlett O’Hara. But now this raises another question. If Gone with the Wind had no qualms showing this event, why downplay it in the next scene? You might think it was because of the Hays Code or the morality of the times. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that either the screenwriters or the studio decided to downplay the rape for reasons having nothing to do with morality or offending 1930s sensibilities.

Because the movie spent so much time building Scarlett up as a narcissistic schemer and gold digger, there’s this perception that her ill-fated marriage to Rhett was one-sided. Scarlett is seen as this scheming, gold digging, cock teasing bitch and Rhett the stand up guy who was lured into her snare. But the reality is that they were both pretty much a couple of scheming, opportunistic dirt bags who had contributed to the toxicity of their marriage in equal amounts, especially after the death of their daughter. It’s their similarities in personality that is the reason why the marriage became a disaster in the first place. They were too much alike.

In spite of both Rhett and Scarlett being equally to blame for their marriage, it seems as if the screenwriters or someone at the studio decided to be Team Rhett and prop him up as the better of the two. The first reason, I suspect, is that they needed him to be the hero of the movie who finally tells Scarlett off and puts her in her place. Another reason is that Clark Gable was one of Hollywood’s biggest romantic leads, and the studios recognized that female audiences would be flocking in droves to the movie to claim Rhett Butler as the man of their dreams.

Had the rape played out the next morning with Scarlett emotionally distraught, this would’ve confirmed in no uncertain terms that she had been raped. That would’ve been bad from both a storytelling and commercial standpoint. Not only would Rhett have become completely irredeemable, this act would’ve alienated female audience members and made his walking out on Scarlett far less satisfying.

There was an additional bonus to showing Scarlett happy the morning after. It was to further capitalize on Gable’s sex appeal by propping up Rhett as stud. This is one of the reasons why Scarlett is smiling coyly. The smile isn’t just saying, “Ooh wee! I had a great time last night!” It was also a coy telegraphing of Rhett’s virility, to let the female audiences know that not only was he tall, dark and handsome but a beast in bed.

The Bottom Line

People can make a case that we shouldn’t condemn Gone with the Wind for its obvious flaws when it comes to social issues like slavery and its romanticism of the antebellum South. They cannot, for the love of Mike, argue that the grand staircase scene wasn’t marital rape and that everyone should shut up about it. Scarlett was indeed raped. Since she was raped, people have the right to complain about the movie’s social irresponsible message that a woman can be raped and enjoy it.

33 thoughts on “Yes, that Staircase Scene in Gone with the Wind (1939) was Marital Rape

  1. I don’t agree in the least no one knows what went on behind that closed door and assuming that it was rape is a bit far fetched and indicates it has an agenda –

    Rape is Horrendous this was make believe it was a movie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Assuming rape actually happened, or even that Scarlett was “ravished”, in real life a drunk man cannot leave a woman smiling that way. Drunks are lousy at sex. So, although the whole premise is ridiculous; still it was classic Hollywood. As for us, we didn’t go to the movies because they were good for our little psyches.

    Like

  3. On rereading the original comment the line “people have a right to complain…” strikes me as odd. Who’s stopping them? I complain, but one in Hollywood ever listens to me.

    Like

  4. On rereading the original comment the line “people have a right to complain…” strikes me as odd. Who’s stopping them? I complain, but they never listen to me.

    Like

    1. A lot of people have taken offense to the complaints about this scene, calling it “political correctness run amok” and “feminazism gone crazy.” It’s gotten to the point where anyone who calls it out is immediately shut down as “a crazy SJW trying to ruin a classic movie.” Because of this issue, I wrote that line in their defense.

      Like

  5. Who are these people claiming it wasn’t marital rape all of a sudden? “Crazy SJWs,” really? People have been writing about this since the ’90s. It’s so obvious, there’s a section on the Gone with the Wind Wikipedia page about it. (And that section has been there since the article was published in October 2016. It’s not some new thing the “feminazis” sneaked in).

    These must be the same people who choose to believe Sixteen Candles isn’t racist and Wedding Crashers isn’t homophobic. Anything unpleasant to acknowledge must not be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a huge anti-SJW contingent from millennials/GenY who view any type of criticism as a “recent” phenomenon and an expression of how “modern day SJWs” are ruining the enjoyment of classic entertainment. This they argue in spite of what you correctly stated, that people have been complaining about these things for decades. These kids are very scary when it comes to this kind of stuff; they almost sound like brainwashed cult members. For example, they will argue that the only reason that there are blacks and female heroines in Star Wars is “SJW/woke culture” (even though the original trilogy and the prequels had Lando, Leia. Padme and Mace Windu). They will rant that having black, female and gay characters in Star Trek is a sign of “SJWs ruining the franchise,” even though it’s had 40 years of diversity, going back to the 1960s.

      This insanity among young people is a large part of the reason why I write this blog. A large portion of youth are being brainwashed on YouTube and social media by vile misogynists, racists and other types trying to convince them that if people are addressing troublesome issues in entertainment, it’s not that these issues have always been there and complained about. It’s a “new phenomenon” being cooked up by “crazy SJWs.”

      Here is an example of a comment being posted by one of them at YouTube about this scene: “SJW liberal feminists are up in arms about this scene. They call it “The Rape Scene” which is bullshit because the next morning, Scarlett woke up smiling and singing and happy. The lunatics are never happy and want everything banned. Maybe they need some in there lives to carry them upstairs lol but then again, did you ever see a pretty SJW female or a beautiful feminist? lol”

      Like

  6. This analysis is missing a lot of the context and nuance from the book on which the movie was faithfully based. But I agree, the insinuation of the scene in isolation is rape.

    Like

  7. Rape fantasies are actually a lot more common among women than our society would be comfortable believing. Human sexuality can be pretty damn dark, and not just in the minds of men, but in the minds of women too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not a woman, but I’ve heard enough testimonies from women themselves on this matter. As with all things, the desire women have to be “taken” is evolutionary, a primal instinct embedded deep in the hindbrain.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think you’ve heard any “testimonies” at all from any woman. Furthermore, I think you’re a troll farmer using this and other comments sections on the web to spread pro-rape apologia across multiple platforms. Normally, when I come across comments like yours, I delete them. However, in this case, I’ve chosen to keep yours up so everyone learns to recognize troll farming when they see it.

        Like

      3. I’m afraid I have no idea what troll farming is. Rape, and I mean real rape, is violent and traumatic. For example, what many thousands of white girls have been through here in the UK at the hands of middle-eastern grooming gangs. But this is of course verboten to mention among liberal progressive, for whom non-whites are sacred. Needless to say, I do not share their value system.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I think you do know what troll farming is. For example, in a post that has to do about a classic American movie about the Civil War, you dropped an irrelevant comment about white girls being raped by Middle Eastern rape gangs in the UK. This has nothing to do with this movie, my post or anything else.

        Like I said earlier, I could’ve just deleted your comments but I’m leaving them up so readers can get a very clear view of how troll farmers work. What you do is find any open comments section that is only tangentially related to whatever it is you want to spew on the web and then post. I bet you mine is not the first section you’ve posted these types of comments; you probably post them any place you can when convenient.

        Now, you are free to comment on what I’ve said about this controversial scene in Gone with the Wind but do not continue posting irrelevant comments or I will delete them and block you from posting further.

        Like

  8. Honestly as a woman I’ve had these fantasies when I was a teenager. I remember watching documentaries about child rape crime cases to stop and realize how fucked up it really is. I don’t think that there’s much for you to be mad about. Anyway, I didn’t say this to argue 🙂 This post was actually pretty good, it did change my opinion on the whole movie, now I get to enjoy it even more knowing that Rhett wasn’t that bad after all.

    Like

  9. In the novel it wasn’t a rape. Yes, it did promote the ugly trope that “women want to be overpowered”, but Scarlett cooperates enthusiastically after resisting for a few seconds. I don’t think we should assume that the meaning was different in the cinematic version

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Why complain about this movie specifically? Because it’s the victim of the month movie? Why not write and complain about 50 Shades of Gray? To me, that is more of the brainwashing aspect that you are seeming to want to promote here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The reason why I’m complaining about this movie is that for decades, everyone understood this scene for what it was–a marital rape scene.

      But over the years, various elements on the internet–who I suspect are part of troll farms–started reinventing history.

      One of their beloved go-to disinfo talking points is that the controversy about the staircase scene is something completely new to our time and shows how we’re living in some SJW dystopian nightmare where “woke” assholes are “ruining” the past. In other words, according to them, everyone saw this scene as the most romantic scene ever; it’s only evil Feminist bitches, cucks and the woke brigade that are putting some new and twisted spin on it.

      But anyone who’s been around long enough knows that the staircase scene was always regarded as marital rape and that complaints about it go back decades. For example:

      Chicago Tribune, 1985–“A Sexual Battleground”
      https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1985-01-14-8501030645-story.html

      License to Rape, 1987 (book that mentions Gone with the Wind)
      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/232858.License_to_Rape

      On the Issues Magazine, 1997–“Tara And Other Lies Margaret Mitchell And The Real Rhett Butler”
      https://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/1997spring/sp97_GAGE.php

      Because so many trolls are playing this game today of, “It was always a romantic scene; it’s just these cucks, soyboys and SJWs putting a twist on it,” I HAD to write this entry to explain, point blank, why this isn’t true.

      You’re playing this game yourself with your accusatory question suggesting that I just wrote about this issue recently as part of some “victim of the month” trend when–if you had bothered looking at the calendar in the sidebar–you would’ve seen that I wrote about this two years ago. Not today.

      In any event,, I’ve answered your question as to why I’m complaining about this movie.

      Like

  11. You’re wrong about the movie glossing over the staircase scene with a “morning after” rapture scene. That morning-after scene is in the book and it’s how Scarlett got pregnant with the child she loses on the very same staircase several months later. But, I do agree with you on the idea that it was marital rape by today’s standards. That being said, it was probably not considered as such by the standards of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

    Like

    1. I didn’t say the movie glossed over anything. I said that it completely downplayed what happened after that scene. The morning after scene plays as if Scarlett and Rhett had sensual, passionate, romantic sex without any of the brutality that comes with rape. It pretends as if he just gently scooped her up in her arms, gently laid her down on the bed and then made sweet, passionate love to her. But that’s not what happened. He raped and brutalized her.

      Before you cite the book, the novel is unequivocal about Scarlett being raped:

      “The man who had carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger of whose existence she had not dreamed. And now, though she tried to make herself hate him, tried to be indignant, she could not. He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it. Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender.”

      I repeat: Scarlett was brutalized. She even experienced the natural feelings of hatred and shame that comes with rape. But according to Mitchell, Scarlett overcame those feelings. The reason she did is that she wasn’t a “real lady”. In other words, she was the type of classless and immoral vamp /tramp/woman of ill repute who would enjoy being raped, whereas “real ladies”–women of upstanding morals–would be ashamed and filled with hatred for having their virtue taken from them.

      Mitchell also implies that the rape felt so good that it superseded the natural feelings of hatred, shame and humiliation that comes with rape.

      Now, what am I getting “wrong” in the movie’s downplaying of Scarlett being raped? The book says she was physically brutalized and that she her herself knew it but rose above the natural feelings of hatred and shame to enjoy it.

      The movie says she wasn’t raped at all, that Scarlett had the kind of tender, sweet loving that comes with loving sex.

      Like

      1. When I first read the passage I thought it wasn’t a rape. Re-reading it, I think it’s somewhat ambivalent, but the balance points to rape. When they are going up the stairs Scarlett embraces him and kisses him, which suggests that there MIGHT be consent. But the next morning, she is thinking about how she was “humbled”, “hurt”, how she had been “at his mercy”, and “the ecstasy of surrender”. Doesn’t sound consensual. And if it was consensual, why would she feel such shame at having sex with her own husband?

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s