The Ecstacy of Surrender
One of the most iconic love scenes in movie history is in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler overcomes the resistance of Scarlett O’Hara, scoops her up into his arms and carries her up to bed… to presumably force her to submit to his sexual lust. Cut to the next morning, Scarlett waking up smiling and happy and even singing in bed. Finally! After watching their power struggle over the years, now we are hopeful two star-crossed lovers can finally be together in peace. Then Rhett enters the room, and instead of kissing her and sealing their truce, he expresses regret for his crude behavior. Scarlett’s happy bubble pops, and they once again fall back to battling each other for the upper hand.
This scene is much loved by romantics – and often reviled by feminists. If I do a Google search for “Rhett Butler” and “dominance,” I find numerous feminist screeds – some vehement, some more vaguely scolding – against what is considered an obvious example of our cultural glamorizing rape. For example, the author of a book called Love Does No Harm, says this scene presents a “dilemma” to people of moral conscience in the way it eroticizes male dominance and female submission. It is a patriarchal choice to “portray” the power dynamic this way, says the author. As if the movie-makers had imposed a perverse frame around what happened between Rhett and Scarlett.
That is, in fact, the feminist argument, that we are culturally conditioned to believe male dominant behavior is sexually exciting. “In a million books, movies and perfume ads,” says the author of Love, Honor and Negotiate, we are inundated with images of “a powerful and passionate man, bent over a woman who, weak with rapture, is arched back in his arms…” As if such images have nothing to do with women’s true longings, or how sex might naturally unfold between a man and woman.
These authors are suggesting that a woman who does not recognize that Scarlett was raped by Rhett has been brainwashed by our culture. But did Rhett really rape Scarlett? Scarlett clearly didn’t think so. In the movie, we see her smiling and luxuriating in what happened the night before. In the novel, Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell describes Scarlett’s feelings about it:
He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it. Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive…
Ah yes, the ecstasy of surrender.
Clearly, Scarlett was not raped, and most women instinctively know this, despite what might be considered the cultural counter-programming of feminism. We, like Scarlett, might feel we should be “ashamed” to admit it, but Clark Gable as Rhett Butler can still send us into a swoon of longing for a man to sweep us off into a “wild, mad night.” Well, Clark Gable not just as Rhett, but as any of the dominating males he embodied so well. I’ve watched him throw Claudette Colbert over his shoulder and whack her on the ass, or pick up Joan Crawford and spank her with a hairbrush while holding her mid-air, without even having to sit down. (Later in the movie, Joan Crawford shows him she is ready to be with him by actually handing him a hairbrush.) Same goes for Cary Grant. Remember how he face-palmed Katherine Hepburn and pushed her onto her ass in Philadelphia Story?
Or, think about Burt Lancaster chasing Deborah Kerr up the beach in From Here to Eternity. She falls onto the blanket, lies submissively waiting as he looms over her, then he falls on top of her, gives her a ravishing kiss. She lies there as if in a trance, sighs and says, “I never knew it could be like this.” Oh yes, the glory days of Hollywood were full of dominating males, and you knew once a hero spanked the heroine, with her kicking and hollering to the playful music, they were destined to reach their happily-ever-after. Even all the way through the early 80’s, the macho men of the silver screen, epitomized by actors like Jack Nicholson, would take charge of their women in a hands-on way.
Meanwhile, on the print side, Kathleen Woodiwiss practically invented the historical romance in 1972 with her “bodice ripper” novel The Flame and the Flower, and it’s dominating hero. I read it as a teenager, not knowing how controversial the first sex scene in the book (in which the hero forces himself on his soon-to-be-love) would eventually become. I only knew it thrilled me, and throughout my teenage years, I devoured romance novels just like it, one after the other after the other.
But feminism has in many ways won the argument, at least on the female side. While action movies, video games and ads directed at men still push images of submissive women, no mainstream romance intended for women – whether in print or on the screen – now celebrates a dominant man in the bedroom. Only jerks or villains treat women in such a way. Female sexual submission has been shoved from the mainstream to the fringe, and is now reserved for BDSM porn, or naughty erotic novels. Although, once in awhile, some of those naughty erotic novels, like 50 Shades of Grey, explode in popularity and hit the mainstream anyway.
It is definitely a conundrum to feminists that, despite decades of female empowerment and consciousness-raising, so many women still become aroused at the idea of sexual male dominance. And it is now a conundrum to me, the first time I get down on my knees before my husband in response to his sexual command. However thrilled I am in this moment, I am not oblivious to the harm done by the sexual objectification of women in our culture. And in the months to come I will often have to beat back the disapproving feminist voice in my head, and give myself permission to do what my body tells me it wants. Cultural conditioning cuts both ways, and feminism is sometimes as guilty as patriarchy in telling us that we cannot trust ourselves or our desires.
At this moment though, kneeling in front of Michael as he unzips his jeans, I am experiencing a thrill unlike anything I’ve known before. I feel electrified. I feel alive. How wonderful to discover that all the rapturous language in movies and romance novels is not just reserved for fantasy, but can made real.
And not made real by the arrival of some impossible, fictional hero, but made real with my own sweet husband. As Scarlett O’Hara realizes about Rhett Butler the morning after he ravished her, a man she’d been married to for years: “The man who carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger whose existence she had not dreamed.”
Right now, I know how Scarlett felt, because the man sitting in the easy chair with the drink in his hand, watching me with his smoldering gaze as I take his cock into my mouth is now new to me. And he’s reminding me very much of Rhett Butler – unpredictable, powerful, irresistible. I don’t know what will happen between us next. But like Scarlett, I know I am going to glory in it.