The Holiday Season is here, and the T.V networks are trying to work in a few feel good movies now and then, squeezed in between bad sit-coms and perverse cop shows. Last week an obscure cable channel aired Gone With the Wind and I caught the end while sewing on a stubborn cub scout patch (I Sold Popcorn 2014!!).
My favorite scene in Gone With the Wind is where Scarlet must deliver Melanie’s baby, alone, while Atlanta is burning outside. It is one of the first scenes where we see Scarlet begin to transform from a shallow girl who does not even dress herself, let alone do hard work, into the woman who swears, with her dirty fist in the air, never to go hungry again.
I say it is my favorite scene; really it is just the one I remember the most. I first saw the movie in Mrs. Shiplett’s seventh grade classroom, because she deemed it a worthy and accurate portrayal of the Civil War, and because she had a lot of papers to grade. When the little slave girl says she ain’t never delivered no babies, so Scarlet does it herself, I had the epiphany that childbirth must be difficult and terrifying and dirty and—because everyone was so happy when the baby girl was born—wonderful, and I remember realizing that Scarlet was changing, that she was different. You had to kind of respect Scarlet after that; she’d just rolled up her sleeves and done what had to be done.
The novel was the quintessential best seller and the movie won Best Picture in 1939, and we’ve been comparing every heroine to Scarlet ever since. Perhaps because she was not perfect, but man was she strong when it counted. Strength has been a common denominator in literary heroines, going all the way back to Medea and Antigone and Lady Macbeth and all the others I can’t quite remember. But of course none of them were good or pure. Purity of heart is something we say we want to strive for, but the good characters are always a little boring. Jo March and Elizabeth Bennett were cool; Melanie was a little boring. We’d rather watch someone a little more sinful; a little more human.
Maybe this explains why, for all the reverence that Catholics have for the Virgin Mary, we forget to think of her as fully human. True, she is the only person other than her son to be born without sin, but her son was divine, and Mary was not. She was simply human, like you or me or the lady next door. Byzantine and Renaissance art is partly to blame: she is always pictured in a gauzy blue veil, looking passively down at her hands. In the Byzantine renderings, she looks angry or kind of queasy, and in later WEstern art she looks pure, and bored, and boring. And in her most famous scene ever, so to speak, when she gives birth to the savior of the world in a stable, it is warm and inviting, she is clean and dry and looks like a pretty on-looker.
Anyone who has ever had a baby or worked on a farm knows that childbirth is not tidy. And to give birth in a stable, realistically, would be cold, dirty, and frightening. It may even have smelled bad. Surely it smelled bad. Bethlehem was crowded! The stable wasn’t being cleaned hourly, and there were animals in there. Then there’s the pain of it: perhaps Mary was spared the actual pain of childbirth because she had no original sin, but even if she felt no physical pain, it would have been a messy, exhausting, bewildering affair, with only Joseph to cut the cord and clean up and help. (Imagine—to be chosen to cut the umbilical cord of the Son of God himself!) Yet Mary did it, because God asked her to and she looked straight through her fear and said, “Yes.” And all the other famous lines of all the other heroines in the world pale in compression.
Maybe she did wear a blue veil. I suspect that when she covered her head, it was with some neutral color, and that when she gave birth to Christ, her hair was messy. We make her look beautiful in the Christmas cards out of respect, and that’s as it should be. But I like thinking of Mary looking up, not passively down at her hands. I think she had a sparkle in her eye that puts Vivian Leigh’s to shame, and a spirit in her heart that makes all the other heroines I’ve ever read about seem dull. I know she had no sin, but I think she was just as fun as Jo March and Lizzy Bennett and Anne Shirley, and that like all of them, she changed into something stronger. Though her heart was pure the whole time, I like knowing that she went from a frightened teenager, who was surely scorned by some who knew her, to a mother who gave birth in a cave next to farm animals, only to watch her baby son grow up to be rejected and crucified, to the Queen of Heaven, with one foot on a serpent, a crown on her head and her eyes on fire with love for the world.
I will try to remember it this season, when my reality isn’t what I want pictured on the Christmas card. I want the cookies baked and the children in matching outfits, with homework all done and the house perfect and myself with not a hair out of place. Though I will never, ever be sinless, I will try to remember that real heroes get past the mess and the fear and the imperfection, and see only God’s will. They’re dirty sometimes; mud on their faces, hair flying wild. I will try to remember that if I fail, I can try again. I can change, and grow, and become the woman God wants me to be, dirty hands and messy hair and all. All I really have to do this season is say yes to God. Where there’s His will, there is a way, and it is always perfect.