Monday, January 28, 2019

The Hook That Sold Zillions of Women's Magazines (and Beauty Products, and Self-Help Books, and So Forth)


As I was thinking about first lines for this month's theme, I ran through so many wonderful famous first lines in my head. And then I happened upon this story in the news about a cosmetics company making women feel bad about cellulite on their thighs. And immediately I knew which famous first line I wanted to write about.


“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This, of course, is the first line of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, a book I might likely have never read had it not been assigned in a graduate class I took many years ago called Literature in Popular Culture. We read it alongside a fascinating book called The Myth of Aunt Jemima and had many interesting discussions about so many aspects of the novel, none of which I will get into here as I focus on this brilliant first line. 

First of all, I find it sort of hilarious that Hollywood completely ignored the first line of the novel by casting Vivien Leigh, who was most certainly beautiful. But I think what Mitchell did by making her book's heroine an average-looking woman was to make her much more interesting. And I think Margaret Mitchell was an ingenious salesperson because she tapped into the female psyche in ways that advertisers are apparently still trying to catch up to.

How many magazine cover lines have for decades promised to make women better looking, more interesting, and happier...but mainly, you know, better looking? Because if we were better looking, we'd be more interesting and happier, right? We'd be "the beautiful people," who are...well, a little better than us regular folk. Isn't that the bill of goods women have been sold for...forever? If we just buy this magazine, or this face cream, or this diet book....

I guess that's what makes me cheer a little bit when I read Mitchell's first line about Scarlett. She's not beautiful. But you know what she is? Charming. Unlike beauty, charm is a thing that can be learned. You can study it. Practice it. And of course, the promise of this ingenious first line is that maybe, just maybe, if you can stick with Mitchell through 1,000+ pages, you can learn it, too. 

I'm not an expert on psychology, but I have to think that that first line may have been the hook that pulled in so many readers. Say what you will about Scarlett (and there's a lot to say, no doubt), but she knew a thing or two about using charm to get her way. A romance novel with a heroine who's not beautiful? Certainly it was risky to buck the formula, and so boldly, from the very first line, no less! But Mitchell went for it.

I'm not saying Scarlett would've rallied women to show their cellulite with pride. In fact, I kind of think that she'd have been the first one to run the ad shaming cellulite if she thought she could make a buck doing so. She was all about female empowerment if the female in question were herself, but Scarlett rarely concerned herself with other women, whom she actually didn't even like, or big pictures about kindness and justice, which were things so overwhelming they would have to be thought about tomorrow (or in Scarlett's reality, never). Mitchell never actually said Scarlett was someone we should emulate, just that she was charming...

A crucial piece of characterization that proved to be an irresistible formula for hooking readers.



2 comments:

  1. This is fascinating. I've seen the movie several times, but never read the book. I had no idea that was how Scarlett was described!

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    1. I know, right? And even though they strayed so far from the very first sentence of the book, Vivien Leigh was wonderful in the role.

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