I just saw Gone Girl and it was one of the most offensive, flippantly sexist, arrogant, misogynistic excuses to make a film about a “crazy bitch wife who only wants babies and manipulates everything.” I am so mad, and everyone else in the world seems to love it.
This thread popped up yesterday on a women’s Facebook group of which I am a member. The thread is now 23 comments long, and the opinions of the commenters vary wildly. The truth is: no one knows quite what to make of Gone Girl, the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 pulpy thriller. Since its release last week, a flood of articles untangling the adaptation, by director David Fincher with Flynn as screenwriter, has swarmed the net – and they’re all asking a similar question.
Eliana Dockterman, writing for TIME Magazine, asks: ‘Is Gone Girl Feminist or Misogynist?’ So does Alyssa Rosenberg, for the Washington Post, who queries: ‘Is Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne a misogynist? A misandrist? Or both?’ In GQ, celebrated feminist blogger Lindy West writes about ‘Gone Girl’s Girl Problem’, Huffington Post’s Nikki Gloudeman opines on ‘Gone Girl’s Rape Problem’, while over at Vulture.com, Amanda Dobbins boldly declares: ‘Yes, Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem’.
Seems like there’s a problem, huh?
At the centre of this ‘problem’ is Flynn’s protagonist, Amy Dunne, WASPy wife of Nick Dunne. [Warning: spoilers.] Amy disappears from their Missouri home on their fifth wedding anniversary under suspicious circumstances. While America searches for Amy, and Nick is implicated in her presumed murder, Flynn is preparing for a clever half-time twist.
In fact, Amy Dunne is not dead; she is simply a calculating wackjob who planned to frame her husband for her ‘death’ after discovering his infidelity with his 23-year-old student.
Here’s where people run into trouble.
Amy Dunne is variously described in the aforementioned think pieces as ‘a sadistic, diabolical, murderous psychopath’, ‘the crystallisation of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behaviour’ and
a real grade-A bitch. Horrible. A truly legendary piece of work.
She is all of these things. She is a sickening, delicious villain.
What’s wrong with a female villain? Amy’s villainy is certainly an interesting contribution to the map of female representation in literature and on film. Bald-faced evil from a female character is a wholly unexplored trope, particularly in film. And Amy is certainly an advancement from Glenn Close’s Anne Archer in Fatal Attraction – a woman whose femaleness made a psychopath of her, and who is accordingly punished for stepping outside the bounds of acceptable femininity.
Frequently, when a female villain is accorded her own perspective in fiction, it is merely to shed a sympathetic light on her ‘badness’. Consider Wicked, which peddles the appealing idea that The Wicked Witch of the West (dubbed Elphaba), that iconic terroriser from Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, is just a misunderstood softie at heart. In Wicked, Elphaba is kind to her disabled sister; her love turns young cad Fiyero into a credible romantic partner; and she throws herself into the pearlescent waters of sisterhood with Galinda. She’s ‘acceptable femininity’ – a misunderstood hero.
How about Disney’s most recent fairytale revision, Maleficent, where Angelina Jolie gives a softer edge to the antagonist in Sleeping Beauty? As Lindy West points out, Maleficent is musty with tired feminine tropes – ‘the sullied innocent’, ‘the broken woman redeemed by motherhood’ – designed to make the character an appealing and (scourge the word) ‘likeable’ protagonist.
We deserve better, more complex baddies. We deserve a story that says: ‘women can be true villains’, like the character in Leslie Hedland’s brilliantly acerbic Bachelorette. Amy Dunne is a gloriously unflinching monster who, unlike Anne Archer, emerges as the overall victor in her grotty battle with her misogynistic and borderline sociopathic husband. She is a compelling terror: like Jamie Dornan in The Fall, she is revolting and yet troublingly watchable.
Yes, her scorched-earth attack against Nick is triggered by his infidelity – making her a ‘scorned lover’ – but her psychopathy is fuelled by something far more interesting: a narcissistic assumption that everybody should play by her rules. As Nick attests: ‘Here’s the thing you need to know about Amy: she likes to play God.’ If Amy is ‘playing God’ we should erect an altar, because she successfully moulds the world in her image and, at story’s end, everyone has bowed down.
Here’s the real problem: this twisty book, with its multi-faceted perspectives, was never going to make a faithful film adaptation. Fincher’s film is excellent. It is dark, cold and clinical; it’s stunningly shot and creepily scored. Fincher manages, against every expectation, to wring a genuinely captivating performance from Ben Affleck (that hunk of mashed potatoes moulded into a cleft chin and a smarmy grin). He sharpens the droll, playful camp of (the usually contemptible) Tyler Perry into the most appealing clown in the piece. It’s a great film – but it’s a terrible adaptation.
Flynn’s halftime twist (and Affleck’s star power) necessitates the privileging of Nick’s perspective in the film. We see everything through his dull, Poor Slob eyes, and we’re allowed to sympathise with him. Sure, he’s a cheater, but she’s a physcho! Sure, he briefly tries to throttle his wife, but she’s a murderer who is trapping him in their façade of a marriage! Book Nick, the Nick inside whose brain vitriolic ranting spins – about women, how they behave and, significantly, what they owe him – is gone. In his place is a hopeless man-child hero with whom we are all too familiar.
Even before discovering his wife’s deception, Book Nick imagines murdering Amy several times. The opening chapters are dotted with gory, noirish flashes, Nick’s visions of Amy ‘on the floor of our kitchen, her hands around her belly and her head bashed in’. Nick has an explosive temper – a violent streak that Amy exploits in her invented diary entries. When Noelle Hawthorne confronts him at the vigil, his first thought is for Michael Hawthorne: control your wife.
I wanted to smack her. This is Nick’s mantra, repeated as his mistress, his mother-in-law and his sister begin to doubt him. And Nick’s father is a crumpled, cruel misogynist, a spectre of Nick’s future. His words become Nick’s: I’ll kill her, I will fucking kill the bitch. Bitch bitch bitch.
None of this is in Affleck’s performance – not in his dialogue, not hiding behind his ‘killer smile’. So Flynn’s work, which I read as a dark satire of marriage and gender stereotypes, her dissection of hatred, becomes one-sided. It paints with the man-hating feminazi brush – the tool of choice for the Men’s Rights movement. As Gloudeman asserts, in Flynn’s convoluted novel it’s often hard to tell whether she is ‘trafficking in stereotypes or subverting them’. In Fincher’s film, the mud is cleared away, and subjectivity and interpretation are stolen from the viewer.
I return again to the moment in the film when Affleck, in a fit of rage that is both sickening and disturbingly understandable, throttles Rosamund Pike’s Amy against a wall. The violent movement was greeted with gasps in my cinema. It also – worryingly – elicited laughter. The thinking, no doubt, is that Amy (that ‘Psycho Bitch’) deserved it. Amy’s murder of Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) was received in a similar fashion. In the book it is never described in detail, but I imagined clinical Amy cutting away at sleeping Desi like a dispassionate surgeon. In the film, Pike, mid-sex, slashes Desi’s throat and rolls him and her (still … er … attached to one another) in his blood until he dies. It’s gory and silly, and I laughed along with the rest of the cinema.
The first moment is ridiculous. It trivialises domestic violence and steps towards explaining it away. The second moment is no doubt designed to sway the audience against Amy – as if we needed any more help.
At the end of Flynn’s novel, I had the sense that this horrible couple deserved each other. Gone Girl, as Dockterman asserts, ‘pits a feminist psychopath against a misogynist jerk in what might be the world’s most twisted marriage.’ Both Amy and Nick lie to and manipulate the reader, vying for sympathy and support, and joy of the novel is realising you should support neither.
But in the film, Nick’s cruel, misogynist voice – every bit as evil as Amy’s psychopathy – is lifted out. We’re left with a Mad Misandrist, a woman who lies, murders and (most egregiously – in plots I found distasteful both in Flynn’s novel and in the film, but which deserve more airtime than one or two lines in this article) invents rapes and domestic abuse. And she gets away with it! Who wouldn’t hate that woman? Who wouldn’t see her as a distillation of every grubby trump card anti-feminists hold against the movement for gender equality?
I don’t want to hand ammunition to those who would use Amy Dunne as some kind of feminist Sign of the Apocalypse (we give them the power, and they turn around and murder us). But I prefer to think about Gone Girl in the same way as Vulture.com’s David Edelstein:
a profoundly cynical portrait of all sides of all relationships: First you’re blind to the truth of other people, then you see and wish you could go back to being blind.
To me, Amy is a rare female depiction of a character that is frequently portrayed on page or screen – and that is always, unquestioningly, male. Because of that, Flynn’s story is important. Gone Girl is pulp fiction but it’s also a complex social critique, and it demands a more nuanced response than ruffled reprimand.