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Vintage projector

From Romance to Racism: Exploring fan responses to anti-racist criticism of 'Gone with the Wind'

The recent surge of progressive moral objections towards art and popular culture has extended to works from the past, such as the 1939 Hollywood classic Gone with the Wind (GWTW). The film has long been criticized for perpetuating painful stereotypes of people of color, glorifying the Antebellum South, and ignoring the horrors of slavery. Despite these protests, GWTW remains highly popular, especially among White women. To investigate how fans of GWTW experience and evaluate the film in light of the more recent surge in anti-racist criticism, researchers of the Radboud Institute for Culture & History (RICH) conducted an open-ended survey and follow-up interviews.

Gone with the Wind, a Hollywood classic from 1939, was temporarily removed from Warner Media's streaming service HBO Max in June 2020 due to its controversial content, which includes the glorification of the Antebellum South and painful stereotypes of people of color. The film depicts the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a White woman who regains her plantation and status after the Civil War, set on a cotton plantation in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1860s. Jacqueline Stewart, an African American film scholar, provided an introduction to the re-released version to contextualize the film's distorted depiction of history and its uncomfortable and painful impact on viewers.

Survey & interviews

The rise of politically charged criticism of art and popular culture in the mainstream media has resulted in progressive moral objections to works of art from the past. Liedeke Plate, a cultural theorist, Marcel van den Haak, a sociologist of art, and Selina Bick, a master's student in literary studies, conducted a recent study aimed at identifying audiences' decodings of GWTW and responses to anti-racist criticism. The study aimed to answer the question of how fans of Gone with the Wind experience and evaluate the film in light of anti-racist criticism, and how their experiences and evaluations have changed over time. The researchers conducted an open-ended survey and follow-up interviews, including both closed and open-ended questions.

The online survey received 38 responses, including 29 women and eight men, born between 1939 and 2000, with seventeen of them having seen the movie six times or more. Seven people were interviewed as a follow-up. Many respondents identified as fans of GWTW and expressed emotional investment in the film.

Three main narratives

The survey results revealed three main narratives among respondents. The first group did not reflect on the film's treatment of race, while the second group defended the film. The third group was ambivalent and tried to negotiate both dominant and oppositional readings. Most of them still like the film, but they "cringe at the slave portions." The racism in the film makes it "harder to watch" and causes "shocking" thoughts and "sadder" feelings that they have "to live with," but they feel entitled to not distance themselves from it entirely. They seek ways to combine their criticism with a feeling that it is still possible to like the film for other reasons, such as the visuals and the "still relevant" relations between the White protagonists.

In conclusion, the study found that while some respondents did not reflect on the film's treatment of race, others defended the film or tried to negotiate both dominant and oppositional readings. Despite the film's problematic aspects, many fans of GWTW still identify with its main protagonist and find it difficult to cope with criticism of the film.

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