Professor Gideon Burton
English 295 Section 01
8 June 2012
“Tomorrow is Another Day”: Using the “New Day” of the Internet to Strengthen Gender Roles
In Margaret Mitchell’s classic tale Gone With the Wind, white Southern plantation owners are struggling to get through huge societal change. The Civil War and its aftermath leaves some characters helpless while others use the change to their advantage. The title itself suggests that the issues of the time period are gone with the wind; however, we may be more similar to the novel’s characters than we ever supposed. We, too, are facing the struggle of learning to deal with the onslaught of the digital age and the Internet. Many of our traditions are changing, including gender roles. However, many don’t realize that while some aspects of gender roles are being left behind, others are being strengthened. Like Scarlett and Melanie of Gone With the Wind, modern women are benefited the most when they use the great societal change of the Internet to strengthen their social role as women.
Like the white Southerners in Gone With the Wind, people are dealing with the coming of the Internet in many different ways. In the book, the elite white Southerners rush off happily to war, excited to “lick the Yankees,” but as they begin to lose the war, they start dealing not only with tragedy and heartbreak, but many difficult societal changes. They are forced to abandon their entire way of life. Many don’t have the skills or the guts to find their way in the new society. The South is taken over by Carpetbaggers and “white trash,” while the former elite are left trying to figure out where their old ways have gone. The societal changes faced by the Southerners are remarkably similar to the changes our society is going through today. With the coming of the digital age, some are still shell-shocked, unable or unwilling to come to terms with the technology that is taking over our lives. The Southerners in Gone With the Wind faced many of the same challenges. Ashley Wilkes, an able, educated plantation owner prior to fighting in the Civil War, never recovered emotionally after his return, living off the charity of others and unable to take care of his own. Like Ashley, some of us who thrived before the digital age are now finding themselves helpless without the necessary skills to succeed in a world run by technology. Many, however, are using the powerful tool of the Internet as a new way to manage their social life, particularly women.
The characters of Scarlett and Melanie from Gone With the Wind are two distinct and opposite examples of ways that women were and are able to deal with great societal change. Melanie tries to expand and be proud of her femininity, while Scarlett either ignores her womanhood or only uses it for selfish purposes. Melanie abandons the most confining aspects of her gender role but holds on to the social aspect, which helps her to succeed. Scarlett, on the other hand, attempts to break free of her gender role but never fully can, ending up brokenhearted and alone.
Scarlett O’Hara provides a very different example of a way in which women can adapt to societal change. Before the war, Scarlett carefully learns tricks to attracting men. In order to conform to her gender role before the war, she learns to keep her true feelings a secret and to act demure and airheaded, contrary to her true fiery and clever personality. Giselle Roberts describes Scarlett as “anything but the embodiment of the quintessential belle ideal. . . . She possessed neither the piety nor gentility required of elite Southern ladies . . . Scarlett O’Hara was actually the antithesis of the exalted feminine ideal” (1). On the first page, Mitchell describes Scarlett’s attempts to conceal her personality: "For all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. . . . Her manners had been imposed on her by her mother's gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own" (1). The war allows Scarlett to break away from her gender role and to use her strengths. Once the war is in full swing, Scarlett’s true personality emerges. As Jillian, author of the blog A Room of One’s Own, points out, “If there had been nothing to survive, and she’d lived her whole life in the plantation South as a pampered, useless woman, her resilience would have gone to waste. She would have been ill-fitted to that world. But thrown into the midst of the American Civil War? Her resilience became a strength” (blog comment). Like Jillian writes, Scarlett’s strength is resilience; this resilience leads her to care more about survival than about her relationships. Scarlett’s break from her gender role does not simply mean she stopped wearing expensive dresses, batting her eyelashes just so, and eating like a bird in front of men; these silly traditions were abandoned by most of the characters in the book once necessity required more practicality. Scarlett also abandons a more lasting stereotypical behavior of women; she neglects her social life, an integral part of what her Southern society as well as our modern society believes it means to be a woman.
Scarlett’s abandonment of her traditional gender role, though in many ways admirable, only makes her miserable. She ignores her most important relationships--her closest friends, her husband(s), and even her children--in order to make money. In the end of the book, Scarlett’s husband Rhett concludes that one of the only two things Scarlett ever wanted was “to be rich enough to tell the world to go to hell” (Mitchell 858). Scarlett lives most of her life in pursuit of this goal, attempting to stifle her gender’s natural social tendencies and put wealth and business above her most important relationships. In the end of the book, Scarlett is living in a mansion and has all of Rhett’s wealth at her disposal. She has fulfilled one of her life’s goals, and yet she is unhappy, because she has lost her best friend, Melanie, and the love of her life, Rhett. Although she tried to get rid of her feminine social needs, in the end they are more present than ever--and unmet. Despite the many changes to the traditional gender role that took place during and after the war, her traditional feminine social needs are still apparent. Today, feminism is changing many of our preconceptions about gender roles, and in the midst of that we can learn from Scarlett that some things still have not changed. Using the Internet as a social tool has strengthened women’s ability and desire to use their talent for reaching out to others, and ignoring this social tendency could have as negative an effect on modern women as it did on Scarlett.
Scarlett destroys every chance she had of connecting with others, particularly women. She uses her various tricks to catch others’ beaux for her own pleasure, she ignores many of her friends’ needs, and simply does nothing to strengthen her relationships with the women around her. She does not realize how necessary those friendships are, and in the end finds herself all alone. Were it not for the kindness and charity of Melanie, Scarlett would not have a single female friend. Even before the war, Scarlett made no effort to gain favor with other ladies: “No girl in the County, with the possible exception of the empty-headed Cathleen Calvert, really liked Scarlett” (Mitchell 77). Similarly, women can ignore the social possibilities the Internet affords, or they can even use it to the detriment of their friendships. Facebook provides an easy way to post an unflattering picture of a friend, write something nasty about her on her wall, send mass messages about her to all her friends, or post cruel status updates. Unlike whispered gossip, Internet gossip can get around to hundreds of acquaintances with just a click of a button. Friendships have been ruined by Facebook gossip, “un-friending,” and Facebook photos.
Scarlett’s attempts to win Ashley over provide an important lesson of ways in which women can use the Internet and social sites to degrade their marriages and romantic relationships. Scarlett’s desire for Ashley continually kept her from having a genuine and loving relationship with Rhett. The Internet promises much more ease and opportunity to have extramarital relationships. For example, Carrie [Carrie Rose], who strengthened relationships by meeting her husband online, noticed ways in which others were not using the web as responsibly: “...In the same chat room where [my husband] and I used to hang out, we saw plenty of destructive use of the Internet (in particular, several extramarital relationships). We don’t hang out in chat rooms anymore because we see how easy it is to get caught up in those things” (blog comment). People are finding uses of the Internet that make their relationships more difficult, rather than strengthening them. Unfortunately, many find that their online relationships do nothing more than destroy all their most valuable relationships, like Scarlett eventually discovers.
Scarlett’s downfall is due not to her business success, but to her skewed priorities. Scarlett’s abandonment of her gender role provides many opportunities for her that she might not have otherwise; for example, she is able to run her own business, which she would never have been able to do before the Civil War. The pre-war Southern feminine ideal was, of course, flawed, and the changes that the new society brought were both necessary and valuable. The same changes can be seen as we progress into the digital age; many women are becoming entrepreneurs, from selling crafts online to pursuing a writing career from their home. Women are now able to pursue their dreams while still, if they choose, having a family and managing their home life. This aspect of the Internet is very important and valuable in the ways that gender roles are changing. However, Scarlett’s biggest flaw was not that she ran a business or wanted to make money; it was that she treated wealth as a much higher priority than building her relationships. Similarly, the Internet’s social tools can be ignored by women or used to the detriment of their relationships.
Melanie, however, used her society’s change to embrace the social aspect of her gender role, benefiting her and all those around her. Melanie is friends with everyone, earning respect from all those around her despite her reserved ways. One of her greatest talents is connecting with others socially. This aspect of her femininity is still, today, considered very feminine. Women are traditionally considered to be more social than men.
Before the war, Melanie is a graceful hostess, treats everyone well and avoids gossip. She is a sweet, reserved Southern belle, never stepping beyond the path prepared for her. When the war arrives, however, she doesn’t cower in the face of the new challenges. Instead, Melanie uses the Civil War and the Reconstruction as an opportunity to expand the definition of femininity through her expansion of her social network.
Melanie uses the Civil War as an opportunity to expand her social network in ways that would have been impossible before the war. White Southern women were expected to stay in their place and stick to associating with the proper sort of friends--people of their same class, race, and wealth. Among those Southern women avoided having genuine friendships with were blacks, “white trash,” Yankees, and anyone who could not measure up to the strict moral standards of the time. But Melanie is quick to abandon this hypocrisy and elitism once the war begins and necessity requires a different outlook on whom women could and could not associate with. She breaks social boundaries when she befriends Belle Watling, who is an “untouchable” because of her impure lifestyle. Other Southern women even refuse to take Belle Watling’s donation for the hospital, but Melanie is willing not only to accept the offering but to graciously praise Belle’s kindness. Modern women who seek to expand their social network, like Melanie, will find similar success. Before the Internet, women were limited to a small social circle consisting mainly of people they had met in person. Now, like Melanie, they have the opportunity to reach out to many different people, regardless of age, culture, or nationality.
Melanie shows us that societal change provides the opportunity to women to fulfill their dreams while still managing their social connections. Before the war, women were carefully protected from distasteful situations, but Melanie volunteered as soon as possible to help in a war hospital, working long hours when previously she had not been expected to do an ounce of work in her life. She used the war as an opportunity to change others’ lives through her work while still cultivating her social connections, and many women are doing the same today. Susan Taylor, founder of Living Equilibrium, writes, “[Without the Internet,] I would not be able to grow a business and still do all the things that are critical to family life. The potential for connection is amazing” (e-mail). Sarah, auhor of the blog Sarah Reads Too Much, writes, “I am . . . a wife, mother to two boys, a home day care provider, and . . . a student . . . I originally began [blogging] because I really needed an outlet, a way to discuss all the books I read. . . . Blogging has turned into so much more, and I am so thankful that I've found a place for myself in this incredible community” (SarahReadsTooMuch.com). These women and countless others are examples of how the Internet provides the opportunity for women to find a balance between their home life, social connections, and career. Scarlett’s abandonment of her gender role is not absolutely necessary for her business success, as Melanie and modern women are proving.
However, the majority of women are using the Internet to strengthen the social aspect of their gender role. This strengthening of the gender role may not seem desirable to everyone, but it is happening and women are finding happiness through their expanded social boundaries. Melanie is able to easily let go of many of the most confining preconceptions of femininity of her time, but it is important to note that she holds on steadfastly to the social aspect of her gender role. Melanie finds ways to expand her social boundaries, using the Civil War as a passage into deeper, more enriching, and more numerous relationships than she could ever have been a part of before the war. Melanie can be a wonderful model for us in the digital age as we try to expand our boundaries while holding onto the most important aspects of our gender role as women. Scarlett’s fate, on the other hand, can serve as a warning to us not to abandon our social relationships in favor of dreams of money and men.
The Internet has not forced us to become more masculine; on the contrary, women have used it to strengthen their gender role in the ways that matter most. As women, we should use the Internet to strengthen existing relationships and build new relationships, fulfilling our feminine social needs in a way that we have never been able to before. We can and should use the Internet to make a difference in our lives, our relationships, and in the world.
Carrie. “Comment: ‘Frankly, My Dear...’: Women Changing the World Through the Internet.” A Ghost-Ship Setting Sail. n. p. 31 May 2012.
Goldstein, Jessica and Sadhana Puntambekar. “The Brink of Change: Gender in Technology-Rich Collaborative Learning Environments.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 13.4 (2004): 505-522. JSTOR. Web. 19 May 2012.
Jillian. “Comment: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.” A Room of One’s Own. n. p. 12 May 2012.
McCandless, David. “Chicks Rule?” InformationIsBeautiful.net. v2.0. n.p. May 2012. Web. 6 June 2012.
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Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. New York: Macmillan, 1936. Print.
Roberts, Giselle. The Confederate Belle. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. Print.
Sarah Reads Too Much. “Welcome to Armchair BEA! Introduction & Personal Interview.” SarahReadsTooMuch.com. n.p. 4 June 2012. Web. 4 June 2012.
Taylor, Susan. “Re: (No subject).” Message to the author. 23 May 2012. E-mail.