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