They were both either immoral or amoral, depending on how you look at it. Neither completely follow the sexual mores of their time. Both had children that could basically be ignored. Both had substance abuse problems. Both followed questionable business practices. Both were very fond of conspicuous consumption. Both indisputably harmed any number of people by their actions—but one really harmed real people, on account of being a real person, whereas the other is fictional.
Oh, look, I don’t really defend Scarlett O’Hara. I think she’s odious. I think Rhett has her pegged pretty clearly when he says that she doesn’t care a lick about sinning but is awfully sorry to get caught. But I’m not sure that people understand that Margaret Mitchell is not holding Scarlett up as someone to emulate. She survived, but so did lots of other people who didn’t act the way she did. The book, I grant you, makes that more clear than the movie does, because the book has more room to explore the other characters. And that still doesn’t excuse how the KKK is portrayed, even without getting into slavery, which we will in a minute. But still, Scarlett is not a healthy role model, and Margaret Mitchell didn’t think she was.
I also acknowledge that few of the people I know who shred apart Scarlett and Gone With the Wind think that Jordan Belfort is someone to be emulated. They are quite reasonably concerned by anyone who does. On the other hand, they’re much more willing to get inside his headspace, much more willing to say, “Oh, the movie is obviously disapproving of his actions.” And honestly? I don’t know that The Wolf of Wall Street is all that much more condemnatory of Belfort than GWTW is of Scarlett. Part of that is, of course, the old problem of showing the fun he’s having while portraying his actions as bad and wrong. It’s hard to do, and one of the reasons I don’t like that movie is that I don’t think it succeeds. But I think Scarlett survives in many ways despite her actions, not because of them, and Belfort is the same way.
All right, slavery. Scarlett did, yes, grow up the pampered daughter of a slave-owning family. Up until the Battle of Atlanta, she took the owning of dozens, maybe hundreds, of slaves for granted. Even after the war, Mammy was always there. (And I suppose Prissy, too.) And in fact, she used slave labour after the war; her mill employed convict labour, and she knew full well the convicts were actually treated worse than her family had treated their slaves. All that is horrible. She does spend a considerable amount of time lamenting the fact that the system under which she grew up, which included the owning of other human beings, was gone.
No, Scarlett doesn’t interact with many slaves through most of the Civil War portions of the story; she’s in Atlanta, and there isn’t room in a townhouse for the number of slaves that were at Tara and Twelve Oaks. But there would have been at least a cook/housekeeper, whom we never see, and the luxury she lives in is based on the system of slavery, and the war the man she loves is away fighting is to protect slavery. And, no, the movie certainly does not acknowledge that.
Conversely, though, how much does The Wolf of Wall Street talk about Jordan Belfort’s victims? Indeed, the people who might be seen as his new batch of victims, the ones who attend his leadership seminars? That hedonism we see onscreen is built on the backs of the some fifteen hundred investors Belfort defrauded. If they are represented in the movie, it is not enough so that I remember it; Belfort’s crimes are represented by the FBI agent who wants to bring him down, not the people who still have not received their full restitution.
And even though I find her unpleasant, I also find Scarlett more sympathetic. For one thing, when the movie starts, she’s literally a child. It’s hard to remember that, since Vivien Leigh was twenty-six at the time, but the story begins when Scarlett is sixteen. And promptly gets married, of course, but were it not a time of war, she probably would not have married for another two or three years at least. Even in Southern planters, she was young to marry. She also suffers a level of deprivation that Belfort never experienced. She’s also widowed twice, and even though she didn’t like either husband, I feel that’s still a certain amount of trauma.
I think Scarlett became a role model for a lot of women because there is a fantasy of not having to care what anyone thinks. Scarlett survived. On her own terms, for the most part, too. Her life sucks for a while, more I think than necessarily gets discussed. (That Union soldier she kills was likely going to rape her, and she wouldn’t have found that nearly as pleasant an experience as rough sex with Rhett. Even though, yes, also rape.) Let’s face it, picking cotton is nasty and unpleasant work, and she did it because it needed to get done. She kept her family fed and sheltered even when it had to be sorely tempting to just let Suellen die whining.
The reason I think Scarlett has endured is that she is complex. Odious in many ways—slaves and convicts and Frank Kennedy—but also filled with a sense of determination that ignored repressive societal conventions of the time. There is something to be admired in her even as there is much to be despised. I’m not saying that the imbalance in how she’s seen versus how Jordan Belfort is seen is purely due to sexism. There are several other factors as well, not least being seventy-five years of distance. But she is a woman in a work aimed at women, and it’s hard not to see that as a factor at all.