SCARLETT AND THE STATUE: WHY SUPPRESSION IS NOT EDUCATION

[This one is for Felicity, Esther, and Lola]

The brutal murder of African-American George Floyd by an overzealous, racist white cop, who thought that kneeling on the detainee’s neck for nine minutes was adequate police practice, has resulted in massive social unrest in the USA and other countries. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken to the streets in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to demand an end to racism, while white individuals and white-dominated corporations apologize for having disregarded blacks in a variety of ways, from personal interaction to fictional representation.

As part of this trend, earlier this week streaming giant HBO announced the removal from its Max platform of Gone with the Wind, on the grounds that the film’s racism is no longer acceptable, though recent news updates indicate that the movie will be returned to the platform with an accompanying statement on race. Scarlett O’Hara might then go not with the wind but with the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston, which was tipped into Bristol harbour a few days ago by a crowd of angry protesters. The local City Council has now retrieved it, with the intention of exhibiting it in a museum, complete with the graffiti and ropes the protestors used to deface and topple it down, as a History lesson.

There have been countless articles, blog posts, and tweets about Scarlett and the statue this last week all over the world, but the best I have read is by the geniuses that write satirical newspaper El Mundo Today. Their piece announces that after erasing all racist movies the only one that remains on HBO is Spiderman 2 but since that one has not passed the anti-sexist Bechdel test, the platform will only stream its own menu (https://www.elmundotoday.com/2020/06/spiderman-2-sera-la-unica-pelicula-de-hollywood-disponible-en-las-plataformas-de-streaming-despues-de-que-borren-todas-las-peliculas-racistas/). What else can one add?

The past (and the present) is full of texts of all types that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, ageist, speciesist, chauvinistic as regards nationality, and a long etcetera in the long list of human prejudice. We have no excuse now to produce offensive texts (I’m using ‘text’ here in the Cultural Studies sense of the words, which encompasses anything that can be subjected to interpretation), though political correctness is now a minefield almost impossible to navigate (see the J.K. Rowling tweetstorm this week on transphobic issues). What we cannot do is start erasing the texts of the past for we will be left with practically nothing.

Some will say that this is fine, and that the only way that a prejudice-free new textuality can emerge is by applying a sharp cultural rebooting, and starting all over again, from a completely different stance. Seeing this week how many comedians have apologised for having used blackface in their shows, there might be a point in asking for a radical revamping of culture. Still, it seems to me that retrospective apology and textual erasure misses the point without a deeper conversation.

Look at country band Lady Antebellum, now renamed Lady A: why did they think that was a good name? Why hadn’t anybody pointed out that the use of the word Antebellum has certain racist connotations in the fourteen years since the band’s foundation? And when comedians, singers, or even Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour apologize (in her case for not hiring black staff), to whom are they apologizing? It seems to me that there is a strange kind of ghostly tribunal out there deciding who is absolved and what penance must be done, and I wonder why a white policeman had to act like a beast for so many people to suddenly realize that they were being racist but should not be. How come they didn’t know before? It is not as if race is not discussed all the time.

I’ll leave for the time being the discussion of what kind of new textuality can emerge in a fully politically correct atmosphere to focus on why suppression is not education. To begin with, I believe that HBO Max’s decision may have had the opposite effect: attracting many new admirers to Gone with the Wind, a 1939 film which is hardly the type of fare that attracts young compulsive series watchers. I have fond personal memories of watching this film with my mother in its Spanish re-release, at some point in the 1980s, on the huge screen that Cinema Bosque used to flaunt before it was transformed into a multiplex. Any spectators could and can see, I think, that the original novel by Margaret Mitchell and its film adaptation are focused on white people of the American South in ways that are racist because that was a racist society. And least that was my impression: one thing is the racism of what is portrayed, the other is the film’s racism. The film does not defend that the South was right and slavery should have been maintained; in fact, it portrays what was wrong with the white society that Scarlett embodies, if you want to see it that way, and why they lost the Civil War.

Let’s not forget, besides, that actor Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American for her role as Mammy (the second win went to Sidney Poitier in 1963!) and that Scarlett O’Hara’s spunkiness (courtesy of English actor Vivien Leigh) was a refreshing innovation especially in comparison to the likes of bland, passive Melania (Olivia de Havilland) in the same film. With this I mean that context matters as much as text. We now read the scene in which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) drags Scarlett into their bedroom as marital rape and are outraged that next we see her blissful face the morning after. At the time what outraged the censors in Spain was Scarlett’s expression of sexual satisfaction. Times change and we cannot live in a constant presentism, measuring everything by our rod.

If, in any case, the values of a text are so deeply at odds with our values, what happens is that it is eventually abandoned. We show little or no interest in medieval texts that caused major rifts and much personal damage depending on which quirky religious tenet they supported. The ones we attempt to suppress still bother us, but it is much more productive to try to understand why they bother us than simply avoid them. The same applies to statues, a type of art that completely baffles me. I don’t understand what is the point of putting a reproduction of a person on a pedestal to be admired. Public spaces should be filled with art, but not of this kind. The same applies to calling institutions by person’s names. A dear friends who works at Universidad Juan Carlos I has started a campaign to have the name changed, which is the equivalent, I think of toppling down a statue. And with good reason.

I teach Victorian Literature, as I have often noted here, and there is no way that I can do that using texts which offend nobody. Even the texts by women carry a good measure of prejudice, often class-related, and on occasion notably androphobic. I believe that I did explain here that we chose to replace Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines because even though some comments by Conrad’s narrator Marlowe are clearly anti-racist the novella is not on the whole overtly so. It has generated too much admiration by snobbish literary people for its racial politics to be obvious (at least until Chinua Achebe protested in 1970 that for all its elegant prose this is a barbaric text). Haggard is so blatantly racist that, paradoxically, racism is easier to explain and to expose using his text: we do not teach King Solomon’s Mines as a text that needs to be admired but as a text that was extremely popular for a very long time for reasons that need to be looked into. Following the same engaged pedagogy we teach Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a deeply sexist text which is nonetheless extremely useful to understand the patriarchal concerns about women’s liberation.

I think that the crux of all this problematic situation is our personal and collective admiration for certain texts and persons. This is a tricky concept. In Carme Torras’s science fiction novel La mutació sentimental (2008), the future society she depicts has forgotten what admiration is about because individuals live in a totally egalitarian world. This is something she implicitly criticises. Admiration, of course, depends on acknowledging that something or someone is extraordinary and, so, worth our affection and respect. Thus, if a text or a person we admire is negatively valued, we feel an intimate hurt: don’t touch my Gone with the Wind, don’t touch my Edward Colston. I don’t care, for instance, for D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915) or for Alfred Hitchcock’s appallingly sexist Psycho (1960) and feel offended whenever they are discussed as great examples of artistic innovation in cinema. I wish they could disappear from collective memory because they offend me deeply, and if they do I’ll be happy (here contradicting my own argument that nothing should be suppressed). Now, try to suppress Blade Runner for being sexist, as I very well know it is since I am a feminist woman, and you will hear me scream, for I admire it. The same goes for Dracula, which is a superb novel.

The process of education, then, should consist of curbing down the admiration for questionable texts and persons and redirecting that feeling towards what truly deserves it (but according to whom?). The problem, as I am trying to argue, is that the process is more complex than it sounds because admiration has irrational, sentimental roots that have to do with personal experience. At the stage we are, most of us are fast re-educating ourselves but hardly willing to let go of certain texts: as a woman I am offended that men fully aware of sexism still admire sexist texts, but then I do the same if the sexist texts elicit my admiration in any way as I have noted. And nothing is ever one-sided. I admire Charles Dickens very much for certain qualities of his writing and deplore him for others of his personality. It would be very hard for me not to teach him in Victorian Literature but I have no problem not teaching Walter Scott in Romantic Literature because I do not admire him (of course, by not teaching him I am preventing my own students from admiring Scott, which might be very pig-headed of me).

The best I can do, in any case, is ask you do watch Gone with the Wind, even read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and learn who Edward Colston was, and then decide what you find there to admire or deplore. Just don’t tip both into History’s trashcan (why have I instantly thought of Donald Trump…?) for they are what History is about.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/