Frustrated Fantasies: Misperceptions of Fandom and ‘Gone With the Wind’

[24 July 2011]

By Suzanne Enzerink

“Holding each other by the waist, they slowly made their way upstairs. The house was ghostly quiet, everybody else was sleeping, and each step they took made the wooden old floor creak in a way that sounded like an animal in pain.

Scarlett’s mind was a blur. She hated Melanie as much as she had always hated her, but there had been a confusing moment while they were downstairs; the contact of Melanie’s lips against her skin, her tight embrace, her hasty words demanding that Scarlett told her that she loved her.”

The above paragraphs form the start of one of the many fan fiction stories published about Gone With The Wind on the website, FanFiction.net. With over two million active users, the website claims to be the “World’s largest fanfiction archive and forum where fanfic writers and readers around the globe gather to share their passion.” This particular story about Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes was devised by a user named ArtemisMisteriosa, whose profile lists her as a 28-year-old female from Europe. Her four thousand-word story, titled “A Drink and a Secret”, mirrors the original text by selecting a setting—Ms. Pittipat’s house—and characters that are part of the narrative milieu of the source text.

However, the user realigns Melanie and Scarlett’s sexual preferences, hereby significantly altering the otherwise familiar environment. The resulting femslash (an often used nickname for ‘slash’ stories that depict same-sex relationships between women) is furthermore prefaced by a disclaimer that details that all characters spring from Margaret Mitchell’s pen, but that the fanfic author has taken the liberty of adding “romantic feelings and some physical contact between two adult women.” The resulting story is thus a hybrid of the source text and the reader-turned-author’s modifications and additions. To the fanfic writer, the additions naturally flow from a premise already set up by the source text; she expresses surprise at the fact that there haven’t been more Scarlett/Melanie storylines, as the “subtext [between them] is REALLY obvious.”

However, this begs the question, obvious to whom? ArtemisMisteriosa identifies herself as LGTBQ in reader comments, reveals her favorite fanfic pairing to be Xena and Gabrielle, and her stories all fall in the category femslash. They’re also all rated ‘M’, a letter that refers to the highest possible category in the site’s rating system and is applied to stories that contain mature adult content. The reader’s own framework of reference is thus as important as that of the original text. The author draws upon elements presents in the source text, but realigns and reinterprets them based on her own values and background.

Fandom of Gone With the Wind, of which these fictionalized stories are just one element, demonstrates how practices of meaning-making are not only constantly renewed by individual readers, but also by collective communities of fans. As readers/viewers become emotionally invested in Scarlett’s development, they form an opinion on her behavior. Communities such as FanFiction.Net serve to negotiate between different interpretations, and offer a platform for readers to publicize this opinion and actively stake a claim on the text. That is why stories such as that of ArtemisMisteriosa cannot be dismissed as merely corrupting the epos that Mitchell created, or as the wishful thinking of a loner; communities of fans have the objective of sharing one’s feelings and thoughts on certain cultural texts.  As such, they continuously reinscribe the texts with meanings that one the one hand effortlessly match with pre-existing values and interests of the readers, but that on the other hand remain alter the position of the original.

As Henry Jenkins has argued in his seminal work Textual Poachers, “unimpressed by institutional authority and expertise, fans assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” (Jenkins, 1992. Page 18). However, the active approach of fans goes even further than Jenkins’ model of claiming texts and “poaching” them. He always sees a “degree of affinity” between the meanings that fans produce and those of the original texts, as he presupposes that fans select texts that are compatible with their pre-existing “ideological commitments” (34). However, an investigation of fandom surrounding Gone With The Wind shows that this is not always the case.

With the advent of the Internet—which largely occurred after Jenkins wrote his work—fans actively connect, link, and discuss with other fans, and in doing so go beyond “poaching”: what they construct can no longer be seen as a mere reworking of the source text, as the aura attached to the source text has largely disappeared. The original authorized text is no longer at the center of the universe of fandom; storylines, characters and additions created by fans ensure that multiple readings and plots hold value. Linking to other websites is an important tool to spread these diversified interpretations, and through online discussion fans arrive at a multiplicity of interpretations that are in constant competition with each other. As Jenkins rightly observed, this fandom is far from static. Readers are “continuously reevaluating [their] relationship to the fiction and reconstructing its meanings according to more immediate interests” (35). Websites such as FanFiction.Net make this even easier by grouping stories on tone and characters.

The connotations of fandom are not exactly pretty. The most common perception has fandom as a form of occupational therapy, meant to fill the empty lives of housewives, socially inept teenage boys, or boy-crazed teenage girls that scream their lungs out when they catch a glimpse of the latest Disney starlet. Fans, in other words, are tasteless and obsessed, awarding too much attention to cultural texts or celebrities that seem rather mundane and trivial to most. Media coverage of Gone With The Wind fans has continuously confirmed fandom as an “undesirable” way to relate to a popular text (Jenkins, 1992. Page 16). New York Times- reviewer David Finkle’s article on four books published about Gone With The Wind is the most poignant example of this (Finkle, “Tara! Tara! Tara!” 10 December 1989. Page 1). It’s a little old—written in 1989—but a review of later articles shows that views have not changed much.

Finkle has read Mitchell’s novel twice, has seen the film at least ten times, and has visited several memorial sites in Atlanta. Yet the books lead him to sarcastically remark: “I’m a pretender, a piker. I don’t have a patch on being a fan. I’m nothing” (1). The reason for his dismay is that the books have exposed him to a fan experience that is much more intensive than his, which leads him to mock this group and attach negative traits to fans in general: “Genuine fans collect. They collect not just display cards and issues of Time magazine with Vivien Leigh on the cover, not just dolls and postcards. They collect facts, anecdotes, gossip and, in particular, books that contain facts, anecdotes and gossip.” Fandom in his opinion is thus characterized by a blind desire to acquire everything related to a text, an indiscriminate consumption without critical attitude. 

Finkle thus ignores that it’s possible to engage with a text on many levels, and that fans all have a different way of participating. His fandom is as valid as that of the authors he butchers, but his dismissal of fans as “laughable” and “naïve” demonstrates that there is a perceived divide between what constitutes valid engagement with a text and valueless obsession. Finkle favors a more disinterested attitude, which of course conforms closer to traditional academic approaches. Helen Taylor’s study of female fans of the film/novel (Scarlett’s Women, 1989) is dismissed as “an excuse for being a windy Windie” on the basis that she is a self-identified “fan” (4).

Twenty-five years later, on this year’s 75 anniversary of the book, coverage of fans is still predominantly focused on establishing them as obsessed, tacky, and even as elitist. A New York Times article demonstrates that self-perceived fans actively police who has the right to label him- or herself as such (Kim Severson, “Frankly, My Dear, The Windies Do Live for This.” The New York Times 12 April 2011). Fans that sell memorabilia are not always kindly accepted by the rest: “They are “eBay people,” sniffed Mrs. Sorrow, whose nickname among the Windies is Southern Spice. “A true Windy is not about the autographs,” she said. “It’s about getting to know the cast members as friends.”

Active and Interactive, Textual and Intertextual

Similar to the way in which Finkle’s article conveyed a sentiment of exclusion, Severson’s article thus differentiates between Windies, “fan[s] so ardent that recreating the burning of Atlanta in an airport hotel banquet room is not out of the question” and who combine intimate knowledge of the novel and film with the collection of artifacts, and non-Windies, who can indeed love the film or novel but who do not spend all of their money and time on Mitchell’s brainchild. Whereas for the interviewed fans their celebration of Gone With The Wind is a positive thing, a “whole social network” as Connie Sutherland, director of the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum calls it, the author immediately attaches a more negative function to their fandom: “It’s also…a way to get through each day” (Kim Severson, ibid). This suggests that Windies have no profound social experience besides their investment in the book/film, and again ties into Jenkins’ observation that fans are often stereotyped as “a lot of overweight women, a lot of divorced and single women” and as misfits (Jenkins 11). Indeed, Severson observes that most fans are “middle-aged straight women and gay men, and usually white.”

This is what fandom, of Gone With The Wind and of other texts, is essentially about: it’s active and interactive, textual and intertextual, but most of all, it is collective.

While Severson never outrightly condemns fans as Finkle did, and while her choice of words is most likely unintentionally negative, the effect is the same: fans are “tidy”, engaged in “full-blown worship”, regard Atlanta as “the promised land”, undertake “pilgrimage[s] there, and treat new revelations “like gold”. It’s hard to miss congruency between these typifications and religious fanaticism, in which the word “fan” does not coincidentally originate.  Fans are again seen as indiscriminate, decorating all rooms in there house with memorabilia and spending “thousands of dollars” on dolls, gowns, books, and other collector’s items. The creation of items related to the text does not stop at fanfics, as there are also fans that sew dresses modeled after the film and sell them. Selina Faye Sorrow sells dresses for $500, but takes most pride in “seeing the expression on a woman’s face when she puts one on” (Severson).

However, Sorrow does confirm Jenkins’ assertion that fans are drawn to a text because of a pre-existing compatibility with their own ideas about a desirable life and the text’s description of it. She remarks that the novel’s setting seems like a “glorious time to be a lady”. However, there are also plenty of examples of radical dismissals of the original. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which narrates the events paralleling Scarlett’s experiences in Gone With The Wind from the perspective of her half-sister and slave Cynara, is the best-known example of fan fiction emanating from the film. While many have critiqued Randall for her indebtedness to Mitchell’s work and the film’s setting, it is precisely through this intertextuality that her critique of Gone With The Wind’s ideology becomes evident. Referring to Scarlett as “Other” and to Rhett as “R”, Randall offers a potent critique of the white fantasy that Gone With The Wind portrayed.

FanFiction.Net also holds many stories that morally realign the characters, turning the O’Hara’s into slaveholding hypocrites. Eroticization (such as slash) and refocalization (foregrounding minor plot details or characters) are other dominant ways of fanfic writing for Gone With The Wind. There’s even the occasional crossover, when Scarlett encounters Bella from the Twilight series in one particularly unusual fan adaptation.

For fans, writing is serious business: some stories exceed 100,000 words and are novel-length, and all stories receive dozens of comments from other fans who suggest storylines or more technical improvements. A small group of fans also organizes fanfic contests, where stories are required to revolve around a particular theme (such as “sunshine” in the most recent one) or a particular character. An even more original way of engaging with Gone With The Wind is a listserv role playing game (RPG), where fans can take on the identity of a character and write to other ‘characters.’

YouTube and other video websites with user-generated content form other ways for fans to manipulate the originals, and a variety of interpretations proliferates. There are hundreds of websites that are all interlinked, and that together constitute a fan community that goes well beyond national or generational boundaries. These communities allow fans to give an account of their own engagement with the text, rather than academics or analysts who give accounts of what it constitutes to be a fan for them. 

PopMatters is such a hybrid enclave, walking the line between the popular and the academic, bringing together fans from different generations, classes, races, genders and nationalities. Collectively, we engage with different texts, different readings, and discuss interpretations. I’m proud to be a fan of many texts, of many artists, and also to be part of a platform that allows readers agency, that allows readers to communicate with producers of popular culture. This is what fandom, of Gone With The Wind and of other texts, is essentially about: it’s active and interactive, textual and intertextual, but most of all, it is collective. The central question that underlies it does not concern meaninglessness of meaningfulness, but meaning: after all, what is a text but what it is to the fan?

ArtemisMisteriosa’s reappropriation of the text is in fact still rather conservative, in that it does nothing to introduce new characters. That is the prerogative of the fan: an appreciation of the original does not preclude an alternate storyline, nor does a contentious relationship to the original producers or text preclude a genuine investment in a text’s characters. Fans are hugely influential, and have made their mark on the Gone With The Wind-enterprise from the very start. After all, if it weren’t for fans, Norma Shearer would have been Scarlett. Douglas Churchill reported for The New York Times and The Montreal Gazette that Shearer dropped the role after a “substantial number of correspondents” had objected to her casting (“Norma Shearer Drops ‘Gone With Wind’ Role.” 1 August 1938. Page 3). The reason for her unpopularity was a rumor that Shearer wanted the script rewritten to make Scarlett a “more sympathetic person”, a rumor perhaps not entirely unfounded as Shearer had done the same with the character of Marie Antoinette in the same-titled film. Collectively, fans are empowered. 

Special thanks: As avid Gone With The Wind fans will have noticed, the splash image is not original either. To further illustrate the liberties that modern technology allows fans, and of course to accompany my story, Melanie now sits where Rhett once was. Constantijn Smith was so kind to employ his photoshop skills towards this end.

Suzanne Enzerink is an MA student in American Studies at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and will be a visiting graduate student at Brown University from August-March. She has written extensively on cultural theory and has a particular interest in the American South and film. For her BA thesis, she was able to combine all three, and wrote on the imbrication of race, class, gender and nationality in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Victor Fleming's Gone With The Wind. During a semester at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she wrote film reviews for The Daily Tar Heel.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/145120-frustrated-fantasies-misperceptions-of-fandom-and-gone-with-the-wind/