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"Gone with the Wind" (1939): Rhett Did Not Love Scarlett

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Gone with the Wind is a 1939 historical romance film starring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.

The film has long been applauded for the "epic" romance between Rhett and Scarlett who are -- admittedly -- two incredibly entertaining characters. But it suddenly occurred to me that -- yet again -- we the audience have romanticized what is little more than an abusive relationship.

Rhett didn't love Scarlett. In fact, he hated her the whole time.

When Rhett first sees Scarlett at Twelve Oaks, he leers at her. Leering at someone -- making it obvious that you're thinking of sex with them -- is pretty disrespectful, on top of straight-up dehumanizing, and Rhett does it openly -- in front of everyone at the barbecue! By his own admission, he is not a gentleman but a complete scoundrel, and Scarlett is not far off the mark when she calls him a "nasty dog" for openly leering at her.

To make matters worse, Rhett is in his thirties, while Scarlett is sixteen years old when he meets her. Maybe back then it was considered "normal" to marry children, but we used to normalize a lot of things that are deeply wrong. He was a grown man drooling over a teenage girl.

Rhett Butler's introduction doesn't sugarcoat it: he is a complete bastard. Margaret Mitchell, the woman who wrote the novel, didn't pretend otherwise. So it's a little amazing how Rhett has been romanticized all these years as some kind of hero.

He's not.

Love is Kind

Once Rhett discovers Scarlett's secret about Ashley, he goes out of his way to humiliate her at every turn. He says things to her that no sane woman would tolerate -- and he does it for the entirety of the story.

Scarlett's response is to call Rhett names in frustration, but she never quite succeeds in standing up to him. She is half his age, after all, which means she isn't as emotionally developed and lacks the ability to stand up to what is essentially a predator.

Love is Not Selfish

Because that's what Rhett is: a predator. He showers Scarlett with gifts as if he were luring a kid into his van. He does this continuously in-between belittling and mocking her. When Scarlett calls him out and asks what he expects in return, he is up front about his intentions: he tells Scarlett that he wants her to love him.

But love can not be attained with pretty hats and silks and fine things. Real love is not conditional. Imagine being with someone who only loves you because you give them pretty hats! And yet, that's what Rhett wants. He wants to acquire Scarlett's love like a thing to be purchased.

Does Rhett even see Scarlett as a human being or as an object to obtain? He is after love, something he can't even comprehend, something he has no idea how to give to Scarlett -- and yet he expects it from her! How selfish is that?

What's worse, Rhett shows many times just how much he "loves" Scarlett by abandoning her whenever she needs him. Throughout the story, she is often backed into a corner and in desperate need of his help, only to be insulted and belittled by him all over again.

During the scene where Rhett is helping Scarlett go home, Rhett decides to leave Scarlett so he can go and help the Confederates make a last stand.

There was no reason whatsoever to abandon Scarlett in a wagon with a pregnant woman in the middle of a war zone. None. It was a completely selfish act. Rhett essentially left Scarlett, Melanie, and Prissy to die so that he could soothe his ego by playing war hero at the last minute. Had he loved Scarlett, he would have stayed with her all the way to Tara.

Let's not dwell on the fact that he also forced a rapey kiss on her while she shouted for him to let go.

Love is Patient

Then there was the scene in the jail cell. Scarlett and her family are on the verge of homelessness because they can't pay taxes on Tara. Scarlett goes to Rhett trying to charm him into getting his help. She isn't honest because she doesn't believe he'll help her otherwise.

Rhett loses patience once he realizes the truth and launches a stream of insults at Scarlett. In the book, I recall it being ten times worse. He hates Scarlett because she doesn't love him -- as if loving someone were a choice, as if we could just force ourselves to fall in love with people.

Yes, it was wrong for Scarlett to try to trick Rhett. But Scarlett was also destitute and desperate, and given that Rhett had been so verbally cruel in the past, why would she believe he'd help her just because she asked?

Rhett couldn't access his funds to help Scarlett even if he wanted to, but if he loved her, he would have had more compassion for her situation. And he wouldn't have torn her to shreds verbally either.

Rhett's predatory behavior continues when he convinces a drunk Scarlett to marry him. Up until now, Scarlett has shown nothing but hatred toward Rhett, peppered with a grudging tolerance of his sometimes amusing existence.

What's more, when Rhett proposes, she doesn't need him. She's already built herself up from nothing and is fairly wealthy. There's no golden carrot Rhett can wave over her head to lure her now -- which he actually acknowledges in the film. The fact that Scarlett is drunk and vulnerable while grieving her mistakes with her (recently) deceased husband makes her easy prey, and Rhett just moves right in.

I firmly believe that, had she been sober, Scarlett never would have agreed to marry Rhett.

Love is Never Jealous or Envious

Without trust, there is no love, and Rhett never trusted Scarlett.

Rhett spends most of their marriage hanging out with his old girlfriend and probably sleeping with her. In the book, he was angry with Scarlett for thinking of Ashley while they were having sex -- as if he didn't marry her knowing she was in love with someone else. Scarlett flatly tells Rhett that she's in love with Ashley Wilkes the day he proposes to her (she never lied about anything), and his response is to grab her, force a kiss on her, and then demand that she marry him -- and she drunkenly says yes.

Rhett is responsible for his own misery yet continuously blames Scarlett. He complains to Belle Watling that Scarlett is cold and doesn't have a heart -- again, as if Scarlett were cruelly withholding her love because we all have the choice to just love anyone who demands it.

Scarlett can't help that she doesn't love Rhett. She has no control over that. And why the hell does Rhett expect Scarlett to love him after years of verbal abuse and sexual harassment?

Scarlett was no angel -- the most delightful thing about her character is that she's so (tragically) flawed -- but she did not deserve the way Rhett treated her.

A drunken Rhett later ravishes Scarlett after more rumors spread about Scarlett and Ashley. This was pretty much rape. The victim enjoying the assault doesn't make it any less of an assault. If I beat the crap out of an old man and he eagerly asks me to continue, I'm still wrong for beating the crap out of an old man. Rhett was wrong for forcing himself on Scarlett.

No. Doesn't matter that he was drunk. Alcohol doesn't create behavior. It gives people the courage to do what they already want to do.

When Scarlett announces that she's pregnant with Rhett's second child, Rhett's response is to verbally trash her yet again. He says incredibly awful things to her, which leads to her almost dying. She flies at him in a rage, and when he sidesteps her, she falls down the stairs . . . and loses the baby.

While Scarlett is feverish, she calls for Rhett, having developed affection for her serial abuser. Rhett never goes to her, instead remaining in the other room in anguish -- aka guilt.

Rhett and Scarlett's love is set up as a bunch of near-misses that eventually lead to the ultimate deterioration of their marriage. In reality, their marriage was in shambles from day one: Scarlett was in love with someone else and Rhett was forever bitter and trying to punish her for it.

Finally, after Melanie's death, Scarlett comes to the realization that she never loved Ashley and that he never loved her, only lusted for her. Realizing she has nothing left, she decides she "loves" Rhett and rushes home to tell him.

Ironically, Rhett has come to the realization that he never loved Scarlett and was wasting his time chasing a dream. There was a moment right before Bonnie's death when he realized what a bastard he was and decided to try to change, but Bonnie's death -- as he says in the film -- was the death of their marriage.

And so, Rhett finally admits to himself what should have been obvious all along:

He never gave a damn about Scarlett.

© 2019 Ash