I have always assumed that a character could not become a staple of popular culture if she were not a heroine. Even Scrooge, miserly though he was at first, ended his miserable night having been redeemed.
Gone With The Wind was, to me, a commentary on the roles of both Southern Norms and Values and of women. I will speak to the latter first.
Scarlett was not a heroine in the traditional sense. She was a strong, intelligent and independent woman. She knew what she wanted, worked hard to accomplish her goals, and achieved finanical and professional success as a result. Yet, she was not likable, kind or someone who evolves into a better person. Throughout the novel, she carries with her a distain for others and remains incredibly unhappy. Let's be fair, few could have endured what Scarlett did and be supremely happy, but Scarlett continued to lose the relationships that mattered most to her as a result of her actions. Scarlett eschewed traditional values in return for financial stability and her relationships suffered as a result. To me, it appears as though Margaret Mitchell created a cautionary tale for all Southern women-- play within the system and you'll be happy. Try to break the rules and you'll regret it.
In many ways, I see pieces of myself in Scarlett. I'm fiercely independent and have always done things my own way. While I adore my friends and family, I do realize that I can be a bit cold sometimes, especially to my mum, my closest ally. While Scarlett was a bit more bold and callus than I'd ever be, I hope I'd have her strength of conviction were I ever faced with similar challenges. Scarlett had many admirable qualities and yet these are what led to her downfall. Mitchell seems to send the message that women should be servile and docile in order to be happy.
Mitchell balances Scarlett's insubordination with Melanie's fierce loyalty to her friends and her Confederacy. Melanie was everything that Scarlett was not-- kind, ladylike, docile, and seemingly weak minded. In reality, we come to discover that Melanie was an incredibly strong woman, but she often chose to hide that strength in order to fit within the order of Southern society. To Melanie, it was more important to be a Southern Lady than to be anything else. Just as Scarlett was wealthy and unhappy, Melanie was rich only in her friendships and was, as a result, happy in many ways. Certainly friends over money is a wonderful concept. However, Mitchell makes it clear that Melanie is intelligent and hard-working. Had she chosen to work outside the home, she could have succeeded in having both money and friends. But, Mitchell's implication seems to be that a lady's place is behind her husband; a lady is to be seen and not heard and she should never act in any way that butts against the values of the South or the norms of a Southern society.
I could go on for many more days about this novel. Mammy, Pork and the other slaves represented such an important historical perspective. So, too, did Rhett. His work in trying to tame Scarlett, in helping her succeed within his own limitations, and his frustrations when she didn't fit in to the mold of a Southern wife, it was reminiscent of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. I have no doubt that Rhett's character could also represent the South as a whole (shunned from its English forefathers, forced to succeed on its own, finally accepted and lauded for its strengths and class.) But, you know, this was Scarlett's story, her chance to stand up against the South and its often backward traditions. So, really, about Rhett, I just don't give a damn.