Monday, June 4, 2012

“Tomorrow is Another Day”: Using the “New Day” of the Internet to Strengthen Gender Roles--First Draft

Here is the first draft of my paper. The citations are (obviously) messed up and I still need to provide documentation, it's not quite long enough, and it needs a lot of work. I would love to get your feedback.

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, is a story of Southern plantation owners trying to live through the Civil War and its aftermath. 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 begin dealing not only with tragedy and heartbreak, but even more 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 South of the 1800s may be gone with the wind, but 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. Many, however, are using the powerful tool of the Internet as a new way to manage their social life. In particular, women are using social networking tools to expand their social reach. As a result, women are expanding their traditional gender role while, at the same time, preserving it. 

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 is depicted as the picture of femininity. One of her most traditionally feminine characteristics is her social grace. For many years, women have been considered more social than men. Before the war, Melanie is a graceful hostess, knows everyone and never says a bad word about anyone. She is a sweet, reserved Southern belle, never stepping beyond the path prepared for her. However, she doesn’t cower from the tragedy of the war. Instead, Melanie uses the Civil War and the Reconstruction as an opportunity to expand the definition of femininity. 

Similarly, many women of the digital age are expanding their gender role. Women continue to be the more social gender. Research shows that the numbers of female users of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter far exceed the numbers of male users. In the words of Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer: “In general women adopt social networking tools more highly than men, and they are more engaged and active on those tools. . . . Women are actually the majority user base for most social tools online.” Women are seeking social relationships, but like Melanie, they want to expand their social network and meet people that, without the Internet, they would never have been able to connect with.
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 was quick to abandon this hypocrisy and elitism once the war began and necessity required a different outlook on whom women could and could not associate with. 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 broke other social boundaries as well when she befriended Belle Watling, who was an “untouchable” because of her impure lifestyle. Other Southern women even refused to take Belle Watling’s donation to the hospital, but Melanie was willing not only to accept the offering but to graciously praise Belle’s kindness.

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.

Scarlett O’Hara provides a very different example of a way in which women can adapt to societal change. Before the war, Scarlett carefully learned tricks to attracting men. She learned to keep her true feelings a secret and to act demure and airheaded, contrary to her true fiery and clever personality. Once the war was in full swing, Scarlett’s true personality emerged. As Jillian from 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.” As Jillian acknowledges, Scarlett’s “survivor” qualities were more inherited from her father, Gerald, than from her mother, Ellen; these were more typically masculine qualities that, in the antebellum South, Scarlett was forced to stifle if she wanted to appear ladylike. On the first page, Mitchell describes her 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" (Mitchell 1). The war allowed Scarlett to break away from her gender role and to use her strengths. 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 abandoned a more lasting stereotypical behavior of women; she neglected her social life, an integral part of what our society believes it means to be a woman.

Scarlett’s abandonment of her traditional gender role, though in many ways admirable, was not entirely successful. She ignored 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, 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” (pg). 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 miserable, 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 were more present than ever--and unmet. Despite the many changes to the traditional gender role that took place during and after the war, the traditional feminine social needs were 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.

Rhett says that the only other thing Scarlett ever wanted was Ashley. 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 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, 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 discovered.

Scarlett destroyed more relationships than just her marriage, however. She used her various tricks to catch others’ beaux for her own pleasure, she ignored many of her friends’ needs, and simply did nothing to strengthen her relationships with the women around her. She did not realize how necessary those friendships were, and in the end found herself all alone. Were it not for the kindness and charity of Melanie, Scarlett would not have had 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 abandonment of her gender role provided many opportunities for her that she might not have had otherwise; for example, she was 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.

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. This is what brought her to her downfall. Similarly, the Internet’s social tools can be ignored by women or used to the detriment of their relationships.

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 was 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 held on steadfastly to the social aspect of her gender role. Melanie found ways to expand her social boundaries, using the Civil War as a passage into deeper, more enriching, and more numerous relationships than she could have ever 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.

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