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Prissy: Shuffling Southern Negro, or True Subversive?


slaytonf
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On the surface of it, Prissy is a no-account, feckless, irresponsible daydreamer.  It's no more apparent than in the sequence just before the burning of Atlanta during Melanie's childbirth.  Her dawdling, aimlessness, and self-aggrandizement exasperate the viewer along with Scarlett.  But is she that?  We get a momentary insight into her thinking on the staircase looking at Scarlet leaving to get a doctor.  Her look is almost of contempt, certainly of unconcern with the tragedies facing the white folk around her.  She can't rebel openly, but she does her best passive-agressively to frustrate white goals.

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And not unlike a LOT of people, black OR white, that I've known all my life and even today.  And since my wife's health issues arose (and her stroke) I've noticed they all seem to be in the MEDICAL field!

Sepiatone

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Prissy's charactor has always been a prickly subject. I never saw her as aggressive or spiteful, just simple minded. Her ambitions were to better herself, but she's young and does not have the skills (yet) to achieve it.
She deserved Scarlett's slap for lying about "knowing everything about birthin' babies"-a lie that consequently puts several lives in mortal danger, including her own.

I think Prissy is just a charactorization of any individual personality in a deplorable situation. Big Sam & Mammy learned how to make themselves valuable to the household to raise their "station". Mammy had more power (& dignity) than most in her position and controlled those she was in charge of - which is everyone!
Nothing beats Mammy's smug smile & nod when Scarlett reacts to her statement, "I ain't seen Ashley Wilkes askin' to marry ya!" The audience loves Mammy for it, and I love Hattie McDaniel for playing her so beautifully. (although my favorite line: "...and you waitin' for him just like a SPIDER!")

The idea these people's lives were "owned" and controlled is despicable. It's interesting to see different artistic portrayals as to how different people & their different personalities dealt with it.

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30 minutes ago, TikiSoo said:

She deserved Scarlett's slap for lying about "knowing everything about birthin' babies"-a lie that consequently puts several lives in mortal danger, including her own.

I don't see how she endangers her own life.  So what if she lied?    What does she owe to the whites around her?

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Well, every moment they stay in that house, the Yankees are getting closer, and Prissy wastes a lot of time going off to find Dr. Meade and not succeeding, so that then Scarlet has to go off and do the same thing. I don't know what would actually happen in the Yankees came across a house full of unarmed women. I would like to think they wouldn't just kill them, but as we see later in the film when Scarlet encounters the deserter on the staircase, there was evil intent on his mind, rape possibly, or worse.

I did notice for the first time ever almost a look of contempt on Prissy's face as Scarlet goes off to find Dr. Meade, but I don't think it was the intent of McQueen of the filmmakers to show Prissy as any kind of subversive, fun as the idea might be to a modern viewer. She was just there for comic relief, I think.

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14 hours ago, slaytonf said:

On the surface of it, Prissy is a no-account, feckless, irresponsible daydreamer.  It's no more apparent than in the sequence just before the burning of Atlanta during Melanie's childbirth.  Her dawdling, aimlessness, and self-aggrandizement exasperate the viewer along with Scarlett.  But is she that?  We get a momentary insight into her thinking on the staircase looking at Scarlet leaving to get a doctor.  Her look is almost of contempt, certainly of unconcern with the tragedies facing the white folk around her.  She can't rebel openly, but she does her best passive-agressively to frustrate white goals.

You're a very perceptive man, slayton!

You see, I've heard that GWTW's director(okay the second one, anyway) Victor Fleming actually filmed a scene in which he had Butterfly McQueen(no relation to Steve, I understand) gazing out upon Atlanta with an almost maniacal look on her face while that city was engulfed in flames and uttering for the first time in recorded history the phrase "Burn, baby burn", and years later of course a phrase to become most associated and synonymous with the Watts Riots of 1965. Well, and of course also later to be associated with that hit recording of the 1970's, "Disco Inferno".

However, and as is often the case, Fleming would later decide to leave that bit of footage on the cutting room floor.

(...supposedly his reason for this was that he felt the movie's running time of 221 freakin' minutes was already too damn long!!!)

;)

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15 hours ago, slaytonf said:

On the surface of it, Prissy is a no-account, feckless, irresponsible daydreamer.  It's no more apparent than in the sequence just before the burning of Atlanta during Melanie's childbirth.  Her dawdling, aimlessness, and self-aggrandizement exasperate the viewer along with Scarlett.  But is she that?  We get a momentary insight into her thinking on the staircase looking at Scarlet leaving to get a doctor.  Her look is almost of contempt, certainly of unconcern with the tragedies facing the white folk around her.  She can't rebel openly, but she does her best passive-agressively to frustrate white goals.

Interesting post! I think you make good points about Prissy. Having read the book, I think there may be more to discern about her character in the film, based on visuals, which of course might not have been Margaret Mitchell's take. But Prissy can be seen in more dimensions in the film, than just the one-note denial of her birthing skills scene. Even the most serious drama can have comic relief, as in something like "Uncle Vanya" and I see Prissy in those terms, as some have said above, as comic relief in general with some shading elements.

The controversies about this film and possible stereotypes, reminds me a bit of the Amos and Andy debacle. To some, the Kingfish as played by Tim Moore is an embarrassment and rude stereotype, and to others he is merely comic relief extraordinaire. Perhaps the only reason Tim Moore's comedic talents are not in view on television in reruns, is due to a surfeit of more reasonable characters on view in tv series at the time it was filmed, which made "Amos and Andy" stand out as a sole demonstrable vision of a societal group. Too bad, because the Kingfish's interludes with Andy as his dupe and arguments with Sapphire were classic comedy for sure.

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slayton said:So what if she lied? What does she owe to the whites around her?

I don't see it as a racial issue, but a "person" issue.

Everyone needs to adhere to what's decent, honest, especially if others are counting on you.
If Melanie's or Scarlett's sister offered to stay & deliver the baby, then backed out at the last minute she would deserve to be slapped too. While I abhor violence, I understand Scarlett's shock, fear & rage realizing Prissy wasn't worth trusting.
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2 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

slayton said:So what if she lied? What does she owe to the whites around her?

I don't see it as a racial issue, but a "person" issue.

Everyone needs to adhere to what's decent, honest, especially if others are counting on you.
If Melanie's or Scarlett's sister offered to stay & deliver the baby, then backed out at the last minute she would deserve to be slapped too. While I abhor violence, I understand Scarlett's shock, fear & rage realizing Prissy wasn't worth trusting.

Slaves were not persons or people. Slaves were owned by persons or people.

They had no rights. They were looked upon as sub-human.

That's why they called them slaves.

Slaves were listed with the county just like all the other property that a white person owned.

It's useless to put a modern spin on something that is so medieval.

Your comment is putting Prissy in a bad light because she doesn't perform on the same standard as a white human being - - but since she's not being treated like a human or classified as a human,  your comment doesn't make any sense.

 

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24 minutes ago, Princess of Tap said:

Slaves were not persons or people. Slaves were owned by persons or people.

They had no rights. They were looked upon as sub-human.

That's why they called them slaves.

Slaves were listed with the county just like all the other property that a white person owned.

It's useless to put a modern spin on something that is so medieval.

Your comment is putting Prissy in a bad light because she doesn't perform on the same standard as a white human being - - but since she's not being treated like a human or classified as a human,  your comment doesn't make any sense.

 

Great point;   Hopefully Tiki can see the irony in a statement like "Everyone needs to adhere to what's decent, honest,..":   

Everyone?????     

 

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13 hours ago, sewhite2000 said:

Well, every moment they stay in that house, the Yankees are getting closer, and Prissy wastes a lot of time going off to find Dr. Meade and not succeeding, so that then Scarlet has to go off and do the same thing. I don't know what would actually happen in the Yankees came across a house full of unarmed women. I would like to think they wouldn't just kill them, but as we see later in the film when Scarlet encounters the deserter on the staircase, there was evil intent on his mind, rape possibly, or worse.

I did notice for the first time ever almost a look of contempt on Prissy's face as Scarlet goes off to find Dr. Meade, but I don't think it was the intent of McQueen of the filmmakers to show Prissy as any kind of subversive, fun as the idea might be to a modern viewer. She was just there for comic relief, I think.

Comic relief does not preclude subversiveness.  In fact, it is an effective way of disguising it, if the comments of some of the posters here can be taken as evidence.  Remember what Preston Sturges said, that you could get anything past the censors as long as you put it in a comedy.  And he got a lot in his movies.

Prissy rightly didn't consider the approaching Union Army as a threat.  Judging from the dangers they encountered on the road from Atlanta to Tara, you could make a good argument it would have been better for her to stay.

 

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9 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

slayton said:So what if she lied? What does she owe to the whites around her?

I don't see it as a racial issue, but a "person" issue.

Everyone needs to adhere to what's decent, honest, especially if others are counting on you.
If Melanie's or Scarlett's sister offered to stay & deliver the baby, then backed out at the last minute she would deserve to be slapped too. While I abhor violence, I understand Scarlett's shock, fear & rage realizing Prissy wasn't worth trusting.

You may not see it as a racial issue, but Prissy sure did.  She was a slave.  The human qualities you demand of her would in no case be shown her by her owners or people of the owning class.  I don't think anyone would claim Prissy had no idea of her position in southern society, that she was vulnerable to the slightest whim of a white person.  Why should she care about anyone who would not return the concern in the least?  Her irresponsibility was her way of returning as little value as possible to the people who robbed her of her individuality, and perpetrated an outrage on her humanity.

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13 hours ago, Princess of Tap said:

It's useless to put a modern spin on something that is so medieval.

Your comment is putting Prissy in a bad light because she doesn't perform on the same standard as a white human being - - but since she's not being treated like a human or classified as a human,  your comment doesn't make any sense.

 

Ahhhh, the lightbulb goes on. You're right, I wasn't looking at her from that point of view, but was seeing Prissy as simply a household servant.

Guess it's not so simple an issue.

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6 hours ago, slaytonf said:

You may not see it as a racial issue, but Prissy sure did.  She was a slave.  The human qualities you demand of her would in no case be shown her by her owners or people of the owning class.  I don't think anyone would claim Prissy had no idea of her position in southern society, that she was vulnerable to the slightest whim of a white person.  Why should she care about anyone who would not return the concern in the least?  Her irresponsibility was her way of returning as little value as possible to the people who robbed her of her individuality, and perpetrated an outrage on her humanity.

I'm sorry, I can't buy any of that. You've got Prissy looking back on her own situation from some great distance of time (like our own modern time) and having the ability to be aware that there was the possibility that her circumstances could be different. Robbed her of her individuality? Perpetrated an outrage on her humanity? I'm not saying these things aren't true! I'm saying Prissy would have no idea what those concepts mean.

The thing about Gone With the Wind that I've never heard anyone discuss is that the war ends slightly less than halfway into the movie, and all of the O'Hara's slaves keep right on working for them in the exact same positions. Presumably they're being paid now, but who knows? It's not something the movie bothers to address, because frankly it doesn't really care about those characters. 

 

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11 hours ago, sewhite2000 said:

I'm sorry, I can't buy any of that. You've got Prissy looking back on her own situation from some great distance of time (like our own modern time) and having the ability to be aware that there was the possibility that her circumstances could be different. Robbed her of her individuality? Perpetrated an outrage on her humanity? I'm not saying these things aren't true! I'm saying Prissy would have no idea what those concepts mean.

The thing about Gone With the Wind that I've never heard anyone discuss is that the war ends slightly less than halfway into the movie, and all of the O'Hara's slaves keep right on working for them in the exact same positions. Presumably they're being paid now, but who knows? It's not something the movie bothers to address, because frankly it doesn't really care about those characters. 

 

So Prissy didn't know she was a slave and that the pending conflict was related to slavery and that those guys in Blue might change her station in life?

You make a lot of assumptions about what Prissy thinks or doesn't think and I disagree with them.

As for the former slaves keep right on working;  yea,  that is one of the things that makes the book and movie folly;  I.e. fantasy land notions of white slave owners.

PS:  One feeds and takes care of their dog.  They even love it.   But it is still their PET.

 

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Bragging about delivering babies when you don't know the first thing about it is an absolutely damn stupid thing to do, I don't care what race you are. 

Having said that I suppose Prissy never thought she would be put into a position where she actually WOULD have to help delivering a baby. Back in those days I bet a lot of folks, white and black, expected slavery to go on forever even with the Civil War breaking out.

I don't dislike Prissy, she simply is a victim of the times and the situation she's in, a situation she never asked to be put in. However, with the circumstances the way they were, I can't blame Scarlet for being angry about Prissy's deceit, especially when they all were in peril at the time.

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Yeah, it's pretty simple. Scarlett was the master, Prissy was the slave.

It's not a two way street relationship. You can't expect someone you

own to act like an angel. I don't really recall the exact plot points on

the whole baby thing. Have to pay attention to that next time it's on.

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16 hours ago, sewhite2000 said:

I'm sorry, I can't buy any of that. You've got Prissy looking back on her own situation from some great distance of time (like our own modern time) and having the ability to be aware that there was the possibility that her circumstances could be different. Robbed her of her individuality? Perpetrated an outrage on her humanity? I'm not saying these things aren't true! I'm saying Prissy would have no idea what those concepts mean.

Of course Prissy would not think of her condition in the terms I used.  But she knew she was a slave.  She knew she could not go where she liked when she liked.  And she knew what would happen to her if she did--and it wouldn't be a slap.  Scarlet's act is understandable not on a human level, as one angry at the mendacity of a close associate, but as the outraged white slave owner at a disobedient slave.  I don't sympathize with her in the least.

Prissy's conduct exhibits the best way African Americans could rebel against their captivity, through passive resistance.  Feigning ignorance or incompetence was the most powerful strategy for frustrating white aims and escaping (to the extent they could) the impositions of their persecutors.  Because this behavior fit in with white preconceptions and interests, they did not look beyond the surface and developed the stereotype of negroes we see so often depicted in studio era movies.

 

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Fair enough, and it's an interpretation I like, although I still think Selznick et. al. didn't intend for Prissy to have thoughts that deep. They just wanted her to be "a simple-minded ****", as Rhett puts it, for comic purposes. but maybe McQueen put some of that into her performance. Anyone who's interested can see her many years later in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast, if you would like to see her do something different than just play Prissy again, which she did in her earlier career.

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If I gave the impression in my posts that Prissy was intellectually profound, that was a mistake.  But you don't need to operate on the level of Lenin or Angela Davis to be subversive, you just have to resent mistreatment by The Man, and work to reduce the efficiency of the system.

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slayton said: Prissy's conduct exhibits the best way African Americans could rebel against their captivity, through passive resistance. Feigning ignorance or incompetence was the most powerful strategy for frustrating white aims and escaping (to the extent they could) the impositions of their persecutors.

(my bolding) Maybe not the "best way" but certainly "one way" or maybe even "a typical way" of showing rebellion. I'd argue Mammy figured out a different way to rebel against her captivity-some may see it as a "lemons to lemonade" way, while others may see it as capitulation. Mammy strikes me as the smartest, most powerful person in the story, she even has enough power to control Scarlett.
Rhett saw this right away.

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20 hours ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

So Prissy didn't know she was a slave and that the pending conflict was related to slavery and that those guys in Blue might change her station in life?

You make a lot of assumptions about what Prissy thinks or doesn't think and I disagree with them.

As for the former slaves keep right on working;  yea,  that is one of the things that makes the book and movie folly;  I.e. fantasy land notions of white slave owners.

PS:  One feeds and takes care of their dog.  They even love it.   But it is still their PET.

 

In answer to your question -  I don't know, and neither does the movie, and it doesn't care. Not once anywhere in the movie do any of the slaves express any unhappiness about being a slave or any self-awareness of what being a slave means. I don't think that's me making assumptions. That's just me seeing the way it's presented on screen.

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