What The Huge Success Of ’Gone Girl’ Says About Us As A Society (Hint: It Isn’t Good)

My problem with Gone Girl isn’t the book or the writer or the film. My problem with Gone Girl is us.

Let’s start with this: Gone Girl is a great book, a really great book; one of those rare works of craftsmanship that make even we battlehardened correspondents from the front line of book reviewing drop our habitual sneers of ennui and let slip a small nod of respect. Gillian Flynn pulls off so many tricks in this novel, that it’s hard to believe that one brain could be so crafty—the careful set up in the first pages which wrongfoot us into believing that we’re dealing with a case of murder, the rug pull when we appreciate the game Amy is playing, the second rug pull as things do not go as planned (how can a writer pull off two rug pulls with such aplomb, dammit?), the nail-biting omigodnoshedidn’t climax, the dark, dark ending. Oh yes there are spoilers in this article and I’m not ashamed of that. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film by now, you live in a cupboard and you’re not reading this.

If you believe from the title of this article that I have Gone Girl in my crosshairs and are already composing an outraged comment about how I’m just jealous/wrongheaded/snarky/all three, you may step away from the keyboard now. Gone Girl is a great book from a great writer, a book I would enthusiastically endorse if anyone asked me for a recommendation or wanted an opinion on its quality. Yet, I do have a problem with it, just not the kind you would expect. My problem with Gone Girl isn’t the book or the writer or the film. My problem with Gone Girl is us.

Spool back to 1944 and the movie Double Indemnity. Based on the novella by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity starred Barbara Stanwyck (at that time the highest earning woman in the US) as a woman, Phyllis Dietrichson, who beguiles a hapless insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into helping her murder her husband and collect on his life insurance policy. The film, directed by Billy Wilder, was nominated for seven Oscars and won a grand total of zero, but who cares about that because Double Indemnity can lay claim to being the very first noir film ever, spawning a thousand imitations and a genre we’re still enjoying today. It also featured a femme fatale—a stereotype which caught on so hard and so fast that it became clear that there was nothing that western culture yearned for more at that point in time than a dirty girl who used her sexual wiles to get dumb guys to do her bidding. The 40s and 50s were full of these women—Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy, Kitty Collins in The Killers—the stereotype became so pervasive that Elvis Costello even wrote a song about them and for a while it seemed every bar in every town contained a scarlet-lipped temptress, using her compact to check her mascara and simultaneously scope out the room for a mark.

Then the craze subsided and in the history of female archetypes, the femme fatale became just another chapter. We moved on and started reading crime books where women solve the crimes instead of getting men to commit them on their behalf (or are the corpse, probably the most popular role for a woman in noir). The age of She’s No Good faded and other themes claimed our attention: A Loner Came to Town, Smart Guys Find a Novel Way to Rob a Bank, Two Mismatched Characters Try Not to Get Shot, and so on. Like all good themes, She’s No Good persisted, cropping up in cultural outliers like Body Heat, or the excellent Last Seduction but tellingly, never garnered more than polite critical attention and modest success in either book or movie form. In terms of mass adulation, She’s No Good seemed to have had its day and those of us who were never comfortable with the portrayal of women as conniving she-snakes with a moral compass where all poles point to Me, could breathe a sigh of relief.

Until now.

My problem with Gone Girl isn’t the book. It’s the success of the book. Plenty of books are well-crafted and well-written. Not so many succeed. When you pick apart the reasons why we choose some books to like and some to love, the success of Gone Girl says some disturbing things about who we are and what we think about women.

Here’s Amy Elliot Dunne, the femme fatale updated for the age of wheatgerm muffins and hot yoga. How does she differ from Cora and Kitty and Phyllis, her 1940s counterparts? Back then, bad girls did bad things for two reasons: money and sex, preferably both. Preferably lots of both.

Amy doesn’t want money. She’s not too interested in sex. What Amy wants is revenge. But revenge for what? What terrible wrongs have occurred which justify her actions? She makes that clear early on in the narrative, when she talks about her parents’ worry over her disappearance:

Then, after they siphoned off my money, my ‘feminist’ parents let Nick bundle me off to Missouri like I was some piece of chattel, some mail-order bride, some property exchange...They deserve to think I’m dead because that’s practically the state they consigned me to: no money, no home, no friends. They deserve to suffer too.

Because thinking your only child is dead is exactly the same as living in a place you don’t like. Amy is breathtakingly, mindblowingly entitled. The sins which precipitate her carefully plotted plan to frame her husband for murder include him losing his job and having an affair, the kind of small stuff that a thousand people go through every week without once sitting up in the middle of the night and thinking I know how to make that bastard suffer. I’m going to unleash a social media witchhunt on his ass. And notice how Amy tearfully uses the word ‘chattel’ as though her treatment resembles that of a Yemeni child-bride, not of an educated woman who has the skills and opportunities to remake her life the way she wants it.

Later in the story, this is exactly the point that Nick, her husband, makes to Amy when the extent of her subterfuge becomes clear.

You are a tough, vibrant, independent woman, Amy...You’re not a scared little girl. You’re a badass, take-no-prisoners woman. Think about it. You know I’m right: The era of forgiveness is over. It’s passé. Think of all the women—the politicians’ wives, the actresses—every woman in the public who’s been cheated on, they don’t stay with the cheat these days. It’s not stand by your man anymore, it’s divorce the fucker.

Amy’s response to Nick’s appeal to let him go? She gets pregnant.

...the success of Gone Girl says some disturbing things about who we are and what we think about women.

Amy is a Men’s Rights Activist’s worst nightmare come to life. The woman who gets pregnant to trap her man. The woman whose sweet exterior conceals a psyche composed entirely of vitriolic hate. The woman who fakes rape (‘I took a wine bottle and abused myself with it every day, so the inside of my vagina looked…right. Right for a rape victim’ Amy coolly admits to Nick after she returns). Amy’s actions present a text book case for those who believe that most rape victims are liars, that women are incapable of rational thought, that women are the controllers, not men, that you can’t trust a word a woman says because she’ll just twist everything to make you look bad.

But this is just fiction—right? Though reading about Amy might be an unpleasant experience, especially for women, she isn’t real. She’s a fantastically well-conceived creation, a vehicle for a particular narrative about modern marriage, a device through which Flynn can make some sharp, shrewd points about how some relationships work. Yes, this is just fiction. My problem isn’t with Flynn’s choice of character, or how she made Amy act. My problem is with how we reacted to it.

We embraced it. Something about Amy struck a chord with us. Just as audiences of the 1940s flocked to see Phyllis Dietrichson plot and flirt, the audiences of 2014 greet Amy Dunne with a smile (or wince) of recognition. We know this woman—the entitled, embittered, privileged woman who keeps lists of every slight, colour-codes her grudges and deploys her children in the same way a retreating army sets out landmines. This is who we think bad women are nowadays. Not hussies on the make, but cupcake-bakers settling emotional scores.

This is my problem with Gone Girl. It holds up a mirror and shows us what we believe about women. It explains why rape goes unreported or unprosecuted. It explains why women find it harder to gain positions of trust. It explains why many people still believe that victims of domestic violence were asking for it (see p412 of my edition). Of course Amy Dunne is #notallwomen but she rings a loud enough bell with many of us that we find her actions utterly and completely compelling and believable.

On her website, Gillian Flynn makes this point about women in fiction (and it’s a good one):

Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains—good, potent female villains Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.

The success of Gone Girl says we think we do.

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Gerd Duerner's picture
Gerd Duerner from Germany is reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm October 11, 2014 - 6:47am

I find it difficult to pair up "Gone girl is a great book" and then reading the many reviews about it that rather say it's a not overly logical constructed  story of a sociopathic woman lacking a grain of common sense in her brain while apparently able to coldly plot the perfect crime... well written probably, and compelling apparently, too, but great? Honestly?

I do agree with the point about the myth of women crying out "rape" as a revenge motive becoming (or having always been) unsettling popular. Something people are all too ready to believe to be true.

Sleepy's picture
Sleepy from Sydney, Australia is reading A Game of Thrones October 11, 2014 - 7:48am


I think its kind of limiting assuming that the appeal of a 'Gone Girl' and the character of Amy Dunne is that people think of women as manipulators. I also think it is an oversimplification to link the reporting of rape and domestic violence, which a plethora of issues contribute to rather than just one possible perception of women held by a minority.

. Some other possible reasons that this story and Amy have had such a broad appeal are:

- Amy as a femme fatale is a small part of her part in the book. It is limited to her seduction and murder of Desi. The broader appeal of Amy is her psychopathic traits. The psychopath  has fascinated and engrossed audiences, whether it is the horror of Hannibal Lecter or  sophistication Tom Ripley(which Amy seems to blend both with alot more).There role as the monster that hides in society in the form of a man of high society or as the  perfect girl has a lasting appeal with audiences.

- There is a revenge element to the book. Both men and women may know a self-pitying, bludging, cheating loser and in moments had dark fantasies about what they'd like to do to them. While very, very few will do anything close to what is portrayed in the story, they may find a carthasis of sorts in seeing their fantasies acted out in some form. I think alot of people have probably found relief in such thoughts, but it doesn't make them a horrible person. It's just a stress relief that very few act out.

- There is also the relief to realize that your not alone in the troubles you may have in your relationship and in fact some people are more miserable. The story captures the misery, despair and resentment of a breakdown of a long term relationship perfectly. Audiences may find this a relief because they may be in such a situation and they realize they are not alone and possibly things could be worse

These are just a few of the possibilities I could think of. I personally think respect and admiration for a brilliant story and character does go a long way. I think the point Gillian makes in that statement is a good one. There is a lack of interesting, well thought out, complex characters, especially women. I found Amy's character fascinating because she was a complex portrayal of a women, not because she confirmed my fears of women as manipulators and liars. I found myself with a respect for her intelligence, confidence and calmness on a level despite the nature of her actions and I found it sad that she never really escaped the difficulties of her childhood. It strikes me as tragic that she turned out how she did with the potential she clearly had. I think there needs to be more characters as interesting and thought provoking as Amy, both men and women.

MagpieSky's picture
MagpieSky from New York is reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson October 11, 2014 - 12:10pm

There's a reason this struck a chord with audiences: evil women exist as much as evil men do. As much as people love to diminish the existence of false rape accusations because they feel it harms victims, it's a very real fear for men. Even if it doesn't happen that often, it's something that really can ruin a man's life (I saw it happen at my school-- look up the Hofstra false rape case), so why shouldn't men be afraid of that?

Again, evil women aren't just fiction. Sexually manipulative women do exist. My aunt told my other fmaily members that when her husband didn't want to have another child, she poked holes in their condoms until she got pregnant.

That's -terrifying- to men, and rightfully so. The thing is, a lot of people don't care about those issues. My uncle doesn't even know what was done to him. Things like that go unnoticed all the time, but they're horrifying. And when they are noticed, they get waved off as, "Oh, that hardly ever happens" or "Oh, no women actually do that, you're just trying to excuse misogyny."

Things don't strike a chord for no reason. The character may be a fictional caricature, but she represents very real fears. Not for the hated boogeyman that has become "men's rights activists", but your ordinary men who get taken advantage of all the time because they are so often treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Erica Henson's picture
Erica Henson from Houston, Texas is reading Rereading 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' October 12, 2014 - 7:46am

So, first off let me tell you I'm now in love with Cath. What an analytical and sensible attack on the current state of affairs. I love this critique/whateveryouwanttocallit. 

But women ARE manipulative bitches: Enough of them not quite smart enough to pull off the Amy Dunne trick, but enough who want to exact revenge on being dishonored, betrayed, bored, whatever. I live in Texas and in Harris County, where even most moderate conservatives are also sent to Death Row. I personally know two women who make Amy Dunne look like a picnic. I'm not here to glorify black hole, somehow self-assured and bitter women who have been betrayed. I'm here to say there are enough weak and insecure women who justify their actions and blame them on men instead of looking in the mirror. Like Amy, they deflect their own responses and accountability for a reason to embrace rage and exacting their own form of justice. Amy is believable...I've even witnessed a much dumber version in my own house.

The problem is that "men as victims" seems implausible as well. I'd offer this doesn't just offer up the mirror of how we think of women, but assume men are a certain way and guilty-until-proven-innocent. It very well may be true that a good majority are the carnality-seeking assholes we have experienced them to be. I know I'd like to put a few in a blender on high and make jerk salsa. But the fact remains there are enough good men who have these horrid examples of self-centered women who are hell bent on wrecking their lives without looking at themselves as part of that broken equation. I also believe those men make up more than some very small minority.

The point? I agree with this but feel it is also how we see people in both genders vs. how we feel they should be. That is all. 

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... October 12, 2014 - 12:09am

This is one of those times where a writer's (in this case, Cath's) and my views are so diametrically opposed that I'm not sure my comment is even worth making. "Let's agree to disagreee" seems the likliest outcome, which would render my post a very long road to square one. Yet, I don't know, I guess I like saying what I think, so I'll go ahead and say it, even if I don't think I'll get much of a response and even though this means I don't feel like going in depth on any one point.

First of all—and even this much makes our views incompatible—I think Gone Girl is Flynn's weakest novel. I find both book and film mediocre. Sharp Objects? Really good. Dark Places? Even better. Gone Girl? Not bad, but Soderbergh/Burns do it better.

Even worse, my biggest criticism of Flynn is that her mysteries (at least in Gone Girl and Sharp Objects) aren't all that mysterious. 

But the biggest problems I have with this article are 1) it assumes, without citation, the reason why people like Gone Girl, and 2) it then tells us what people's liking it for this reason means. That's just a bit too much psychoanalyzing those Cath has never met for me to get behind this.

Is Amy believable? Her actions, as Gerd points out, aren't all that convincing. But her personality, as Sleepy asserts, is, and for reasons beyond her function as "femme fatale." For this one fictional character in this one fictional story, I completely buy a soulless, manipulative woman. But that hardly means I think all real women are soulless manipulators, or that rape accusations shouldn't be taken seriously. Call me an opimist, but I don't think I'm unusual in these regards, either. 

(You know, lots of people like Thomas Harris's books, too, but no one ever seems to use Hannibal Lecter to make sweeping generalizations about "our" views on men. Does liking Ketchum's The Lost as much as Gone Girl make me a misandrist or a misanthrope, or does it just make me a reader?)

Frankly, this article says much about Cath and very little about anyone else. All Gone Girl says to me is that we've come a long way since acquitting Lizzie Borden out-of-hand, and I'm with Flynn in thinking that's a good thing: I'd take an Amy Dunne over a Mary Sue any day.

Jami Shank Riley's picture
Jami Shank Riley October 12, 2014 - 8:07am

Quick, Cath Murphy, how is Amy Dunne different than Patrick Bateman? The answer: She isn't. No one gnashed their teeth and wailed about how Wall Street yuppies were all secretly psychopaths anymore than anyone actually believes there are PTA moms out there hiding the fact that they are the embodiement of Amy Dunne. I mean, there are no more of them than your usual amount of socio/psychopaths, of which there are plenty in America, both male and female.

Gone Girl happens to be the story of one fictional villian, in a literary sea of decidedly non-villainous Villains. If Gillian Flynn was tired of limp dishrag villains, doesn't it stand to reason we were, too?

You said yourself Gone Girl is a great, well-crafted book. Who are you to tell us that we are so stupid, that your literary prowess is so magnificent, that ONLY YOU, Cath Murphy, can like the book on its merits while the rest of us couldn't possibly like the book for the same reasons? If we like it, it must be because we hate women. Or because we ARE women and we are the secret Amy Dunne's of the world.

No one could like this book because it's well-written and a refreshing change from the usual, right Cath Murphy? We're so grateful you're here to lead us through the treacherous waters of contemporary fiction. We could not possibly understand it, or appreciate it, ourselves without someone like you explaining it all to us.

Tell us what we SHOULD like, oh Great and Fearless Leader. And don't forget to tell us WHY we should like it.


Erica Henson's picture
Erica Henson from Houston, Texas is reading Rereading 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' October 12, 2014 - 8:41am

^^Not sure why the author's opinion on the book is seen as an attack on freethinking readers? (What the hell...?)

The point is that Patrick Bateman is male, Amy Dunne is not. Therefore, the discourse on what Amy Dunne's character ignites within us to really believe about women is not remotely the same. Since the beginning of literary time, protagonist men have been brutally scheming and killing other people without challenging the readers (in real-world society) in their own beliefs about men. (My initial comment above also brought this into question about how we feel about Nick Dunne and his implied guilt.) 

Maybe this is just where trolls gonna troll and haters gonna hate. It just sucks it was taken to that level of attack while missing the point, too. 

Sleepy's picture
Sleepy from Sydney, Australia is reading A Game of Thrones October 12, 2014 - 9:54pm

I think people need to lighten up a bit. Its good to express an opinion and open a new way of thinking and if you do disagree then by all means state why with evidence. I think the argument is tenuous and narrow but it doesn't warrant personal attacks.That kind of nastiness takes away from the story and the ideas around it. Whether you think its a good story or not or if you think Amy is believable or not, it has caused a lot of people to think.

People have stated that they feel Amy is irrational, not believable and the story isn't logically constructed. I'm curious to know why as I find it by and large believeable. The one area that I find unbelieveable is the acceptance, of people around Nick and Amy who know her true nature, of the situation in the end. I thought the grounds for not pursuing her were a little flimsy. This is a small problem for me as the story needed to end somewhere. 

People assuming that someone in a relationship breakdown is going to be perfectly rational is a strange assumption. I know I'm not perfectly rational at the best of times let alone, under that kind of pressure. 

The story is structured to support an understanding of the characters, which are very well developed, rather than focus solely on the plot. To get characters like this to function as seamlessly as they do in a story as complex as this is a significant achievement.

However that all goes out the window if she is a psychopath, which is what I suspect. An I'll qualify what I have to say with I have no professional qualifications, I'm just particularly curious about psychopaths and have read up. I'll attempt to list where I found the information. 

An important thing about psychopathy is that it is at one end of the spectrum of behaviour, rather than you are or you aren't a psychopath. On the other end of the spectrum is the neurotic behaviours (anxiety, depression, obessesive compulsive behaviours)Most people fall somewhere in between. As such many people have psychopathic traits to some degree, the people who warrant the label are those that possess alot strongly.(The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton) One of the tools for diagnosing psychopathy is Psychopathy Checklist - Revised, developed by Robert Hare(PCL-R).  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy_Checklist provides a good overview of the list. People are given a score on whether they possess and to what degree they possess characteristics on this list over the course of their life. The offense for which they are being examined is deliberately ignored so as not to bias the diagnosis. Scores of 30 or higher are condsidered psychopathic, with 40 being the highest possible. Based on what I've seen in Amy would be above the 30 but no where near the 40, again I'm not a professional.

Amy as a psychopath makes her actions believable due to nature of what causes psychopathy and how psychopaths function. Psychopathy is caused by under development and lack of activity in the para limbic system in the brain, with links to the limbic system. The para limbic system is responsible for emotional processing, goal setting, motivation and self control. This means that the area of the brain involved in making decisions, the reasons for those decisions and how someone responds emotionally to different situations. In other words it makes them act significantly differently to most people. While their decision making is impaired they are still capable of being highly intelligent. It also means that their motivations may be weak or non-existent in some cases and their behaviours seem irrational. An example is a man who was arrested for the abduction, rape and murder of three women. Before he killed them he gave them his number because he genuinely thought they were having a good time and might want to again. When asked my he murdered them he said he didn't know why, sometimes he did things and he didn't understand why. A rationale far removed from normal but real. Also an example more extreme then Amy(the Psychopath Whisperer, Kent Kiehl)

What causes this deficiency in the para limbic system still isn't fully understood. Current theory is that it is a number of factors, possibly in combination, such as brain damage, genetic predispositon and emotional trauma during childhood and adolescene. The brain works like a muscle in that if you don't use a particular part of it, it atrophies. Meaning that experiences that force you to shut yourself of emotionally can impair your abillity process emotions for a long time. A study showed that psyhopaths have a lack of activity in the amygdala(part of the limbic system), in contrast with Post-traumatic stress disorder(neurotic), which patients have overactivity in the exact same region. Emotional distress in youth has proven to be linked to psychopathy. The man in the example mentioned above was taken by a construction worker and sexually assaulted at 14. He later identified him in the newspaper as John Wayne Gacy. A man who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys.(The Psychopath Whisperer, Kent Kiehl) This bit is my own speculation so keep that in mind when reading it. Amy was placed in a position of severe emotional distress by her parents expectations as manifested through the Amazing Amy books. She could either suffer PTSD like symptoms like anxiety and depression from never being able to live up to their unreasonable standards or as a defense mechanism she could shut down her emotions to protect her ego and sense of selfworth This repeated need to shutdown her emotions caused her para limbic system to atrophy. It is hard to redevelop this system and this affected her the rest of her life.

I think it is this understanding of Amy that makes her actions believable. She makes decisions to either disproportionately punish or control the people around her and succeeds. Typical of a psychopath, meaning her behaviour fits with her nature.

It's interesting to note that psychopathy affects about 1 per cent of the population, with the majority of psychopaths being men. This is one of the reasons I find Amy and this story fascinating. There's not a significant amount of material about psychopaths, particularly fiction. What is available is focused on men as most of the studies have been in male prisons or focus on male characters(Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman). It is a breath of fresh air to see some genuinely new material in the form of Amy and Gone Girl. I think the portrayal of Amy is the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath I've seen. The majority aren't Hannibal Lecters dismembering corpses but manipulative people living among us.

sbird's picture
sbird October 12, 2014 - 9:55pm

But this is just fiction—right? 

Right. And over-the-top fiction designed to get a reaction so it will find an audience. A tactic that more and more writers seem to indulge in, in order to be noticed in the vast ocean of published and self-published work now available everywhere online. It takes an over-the-top, edgy type of story these days to get people to read, apparently. Sensationalism may get you an audience but it doesn't mean you've written something worth reading. I didn't finish the book and didn't have any interest in the movie. I didn't find characters or story worth my time. It was a gimmick and I didn't feel like it was a thoroughly and honestly explored gimmick.

It is kind of amusing, however, to see the over-the-top reactions to it. Exclaiming it as a marker of the end of civilization or in any way informative of the way normal marriages work is just kind of sad. The character was a sociopath. Most women aren't. Most men aren't. Just as the author of the novel wrote it to get a huge reaction, so you're exploiting the unbelievable plotline in order to get a huge reaction with this blog post.

Do you read much? Do you know how many novels over the years have gone to storytelling extremes of the same variety? The world didn't come to an end when Barbara Stanwyck entertained us in Double Indemnity. I think we're fairly safe from Armageddon, despite Gone Girl's over the top "heroine."

All Gone Girl says about us as a society is that we're so saturated with high angst, high drama, vicious, murdering, nutso characters on TV and in movies that we're in need of some alka seltzer, a good nap, and a showing or two of It's a Wonderful Life as an antidote.



Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast October 13, 2014 - 5:45am

First off, thanks @Sleepy for sharing your research on psychopaths. Very interesting. Interesting views all round actually. Even the spammers are interesting. That's very cool.

I'm a great believer in Jung's ideas about archetypes. In a cultural sense, I think we respond to archetypes which reflect our current concerns, or 'fit' in some way an largely unconscious set of beliefs we have about the world. On that view, the reason some stories work for us is because the narrative or characters speak to those beliefs.

Now you could say, as some of you have above, that Gone Girl hit the sweet spot because it's just a really good book. End of. But that seems ingenuous to me. Lots of books are good, only a few really take off the way this one did.

So if you take a look at the world outside and what we're talking about right now with regard to women - Gamergate, Steubenville, Ray Rice, PUA hate et al - it seems to me that seeing something deeper in our response to Gone Girl (in it's entirety - I could have talked about Nick too, but space didn't allow) is just joining some closely spaced dots.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... October 13, 2014 - 3:33pm

To be honest, I don't really care about any single work's popularity too much, which is just another reason why my perspective is useless here. Gone Girl's is more mystifying than troubling, since I think Sharp Objects and Dark Places are all-around better books. Maybe Jung and his ideas on archetypes do provide some sort of answer to the question of success*, and maybe Jung's ideas on archetypes should have featured in the article.

Why commenters mention Double Indemnity and femmes fatales but not Carl Jung should be obvious. You cannot assume that people see the same thing when they "take a look at the world outside" any more than you can assume that they read the same books or watch the same news as you. If Gamergate, Steubenville, and Ray Price influence your views on Gone Girl's popularity, Cath, then you should say as much. After all, how can you expect someone to join dots they don't see (regardless of how "closely spaced" they are)? You can hardly call Jami or sbird "spammers" for not reading what you didn't write; that's like faulting a jury for failing to consider evidence you didn't provide. It's exhausting, and it's invconvenient, but many writers do include in their introductions the very kind of contributing factors you offer now. Framing a discussion this way can be very helpful, as it helps ensure that your readers are viewing your subject from the same angle you are. [Read Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style for his take on the "curse of knowledge" and the ways it weakens writing.]

*I remain unconvinced, however. No one here seems to believe what you say readers of Gone Girl do. Sure, we're only eight people, but it makes me wonder—what percentage does see Amy as a reflection of women they know, and what percentage must for your claims to be true? The slight novelty of a female pyschopath seems a more plausible catalyst for Gone Girl's popularity.

Marilyn Meredith's picture
Marilyn Meredith October 13, 2014 - 4:21pm

I just didn't like the movie. Plenty of plot twists, but hubby and I sat there and guessed each time what was going to happen next--and we were right. When the movie was over, our audience laughed. Not sure why, but I know it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast October 14, 2014 - 2:26am

Bret - I'd like to mention everything that influences my view, but my articles are probably long enough as it is ;) The comment was intended to expand helpfully, not pour scorn on those who didn't fully get what I was trying to say first time around. If it sounded like the latter rather than the former, then I apologize for that.

As for spammers, anyone who includes unattributed links in a comment get awarded that title from me. Nothing to do with reading or not reading.


Jake Leroy's picture
Jake Leroy from Kansas City is reading Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson, and Hot Water Music, by Charles Bukowski November 15, 2014 - 9:49am

I'd put it very simply. Sometimes works of art resonate with a large number of people but it's not an easy thing to quantify in advance. Mostly we figure it out after the fact. I personally know more than a few writers trying to pander in their writing. Most of them are little known or unpublished.

Style, timing and competency of storytelling all play a role in this book. I'd like to imagine us sitting around a campfire telling stories. The drippy s'mores have been eaten, and the whiskey flask is making the rounds. As the night rolls in and temperatures fall, we instinctively huddle closer to the embers and begin to speak of things. Which stories suck us in and keep us entertained to the point that we're sorry when it ends? It's often the seemingly simple but engaging story. It might be technically flawed and perhaps not the most complex, but around our dying fire, that story hits us just right.

Cath is correct. Even if Gone Girl is not high art, it strikes a chord that's worth noting and understanding as writers. Everybody wants to volunteer the "what." Few will reveal the "how." This is the "how." Whether you choose to believe it or not is up to you. As we humans gather around our respective fires, we want to be told a story that satisfies. Gone Girl does that.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing November 27, 2014 - 7:32pm

Great piece! Not-nice and provocative!

I do question this, though: "This is my problem with Gone Girl. It holds up a mirror and shows us what we believe about women."

I'd say instead that like Phyllis in Double Indemnity, "this is what men fear about women." There's a difference between fear and belief. Belief is certain; fear isn't. Exploring or even exploiting that fear is legit.

I should be so lucky.


Rob Duffy's picture
Rob Duffy from London is reading Chasing the Scream' by Johann Hari and by James Ellroy; 'The Black Dahlia December 10, 2014 - 8:57am

Nice article Cath.

I read the book but swerved the film, even though it was by David Fincher who has directed some great films. The reason was that the book was like Tony Blair's record as Prime Minister for me. Amazing and different at the beginning, completely ruined everything with the ending. 

Such a shame because the storytelling techniques, especially in the first half, were utterly compelling.

Etay Livne's picture
Etay Livne December 20, 2014 - 3:20pm

This is not the first article I read that tried to make this point. That tried to say that Amy and this entire story are wrong because they represent the embodiment of some paranoid men and show women to be conniving and obsessive.


Here's the thing, though.

First of all, the story has more than one woman in it. I haven't read the book but if the movie is any indication at all, then the characters of the detective and the husband's sister are two *very* strong female characters. They are interesting, likable, and most noticeably sane. To any viewer that does not already have some fairly radical preconceptions, it should be very clear that Amy is a nutcase. The movie does a great job of showing us just how unhinged she really is - at one point we see her entirely covered in blood. So not only is Amy not the sole representative of women in the movie, but she also obviously serves the role of a psychopath, which means that the movie wants us to not think that this is how woman behaves (that's what makes the character interesting and unique).

Secondly, that Amy is an interesting villain is not a suprise. She is clever, evil to her core and very distinct. I think that's the reason her story is popular. Recall a different villain that really struck a cord with audiences in recent history: Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight. People were drawn to the Joker's charisma and personal kind of insanity, so they are drawn to Amy now.  Just as nobody is reaching the conclusion that our society thinks clowns are dangerous anarchists just because the Joker was, nobody who isn't a radical (and thus already convinced) isn't going to change their opinions of women even a bit because of a movie villain.

Thirdly, recall that this is a movie and viewers are aware of this. In the genre of thrillers and crime novels, certain types of stories tend to repeat themselves, you know - tropes. In real life, framing someone for a crime they didn't commit is something that almost never happens - it's too elaborate and pointless in 99% of the crimes committed to even be considered as an option. In thriller movies, though? hack, I'd say almost every time a main character stands for trial it's because they were framed. and people understand that. They know that movie logic is different from everyday logic (And if they are not and they actually project movies they see unto reality, then some other popular movies say a lot worse about our society than Gone Girl does), and they come into a thriller movie expecting some twist. So when it comes and it turned out the wife was evil all along, well... they accept that as part of what happens in the alternate reality of movies. Or books.

Imagine the same kind of argument this article presents applied to an only slightly different case: a movie where a politician is framed for corruption she didn't really dabble in. In real life almost every politician that is suspected of anything illegal will try to claim that their political enemies are trying to bring them down with false accusations. This claim is almost never true yet it comes up just about every time. So would people be reacting to a movie about a framed politician like they react to Gone Girl? would they go around writing articles explaining how the movie is dangerous and reflects badly on society because now people are going to believe dirty politician and not prosecute them?

Of course not. Because it's ridiculous to think that. Because it's obvious that people can tell reality apart from movie logic, and because it's obvious that people liked the suspense story in the movie because it was executed well and had interesting twists and characters, because people like the Wrongly Prosecuted trope. Not because people trust politicians.


All in all I find the arguments against Gone Girl to be faulty, inconsistent and closer to a knee jerk reaction than an actual well thought out stance. They get to the obvious surface level of "oh but this character is a woman so somehow her actions are going to change public perception of all women everywhere, and her behavior kind of resembles the one described by nut case men's rights activists - feminism demands that we oppose this." But going just a little bit further along this line of thought reveals that really, all of that doesn't make much sense. To my mind, the very presence of such a diverse and interesting cast of female characters in the movie actually does quite a lot of good for the actual feminist cause of improving women's position in the world -as opposed to just being anti-everything, which is what a lot of modern feminism seems to be doing.


As a final thought I want to say that I'm not accusing the writer of this article of anything, it is very interesting and well written and I haven't thought of the connection to the feme fatale, and that brought another interesting angle to see the story from. I merely find the argument itself to be lacking, and believe it to be a nearly automatic response for a lot of people.


cheers :)

Kimberly Elle's picture
Kimberly Elle December 21, 2014 - 1:34pm

All this article says is that the author can't really handle female anti-heroes. Nothing new there.

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