By Alison Lanier '15
I’d been taunted by cinematically beautiful gifsets long enough: I tore through Gone Girl right alongside the rest of the trendy-bestseller readers on my subway commute. The internet’s obsession over Rosamund Pike’s Hitchcock-inspired stare wasn’t my only motivation for reading the book—because I always read the book first, but of course. I’d also seen the hotheaded flurry of online comments—and then Time article—in which intelligent, socially aware viewers couldn’t quite make up their minds if Gone Girl is doing wonderful or horrific things for women in popular media.
In case you by some wonder missed it: the book follows stunningly blonde Amy Dunne, who vanishes from her housewife life, leaving behind a trail of masterfully incriminating clues to frame—and ultimately, murder—her despised self-indulgent husband, Nick. And there you have it, the first of many twists that yank and shock the reader through Gillian Flynn’s revelation-heavy psychological thriller.
And at the center of what makes these twists so effective—and the overall product so engrossing—is the book’s earnest, convincing tone, which Flynn builds for the characters and their clashing viewpoints. For a long stretch there in the beginning, we see Nick carrying around a half-truth story full of plot holes and a suspiciously self-conscious attitude. Meanwhile his wife, missing, presumed dead, is represented to the reader through a chain of orchestrated diary entries: she is the perfect wife, the Amazing Amy of her parents’ idealizing children’s books, modelled on a cheerful but exasperated version of Amy.
This is the first Amy the reader is privy to in the book. The second Amy arises with the advent of what Time calls the “Cool Girl” speech: this version of Amy disdains the Cool Girl, the woman who “pretends to like what men like in order to attract attention. She’s the type of girl who unabashedly loves sex and drinking beer and eating burgers—while still miraculously maintaining a perfect figure—and is always ready to forgive her husband’s foibles.” Amy has had enough of being the Cool Girl: now she is going into hiding after faking her own death, in order to get payback on the husband who dismissed and underappreciated her.
And then we see the third Amy, as we realize the terror of Nick’s situation and Amy’s willingness to go to extreme and horrific ends to maintain control.
Amy is brilliant. She’s a genius, who we first pity, and then suspect, and then fear deeply. She is a complicated monster. And she has landed her creator in quite a lot of hot water. Flynn has been accused, she told Lev Grossman in an interview, of perpetuating all the “psycho bitch” stereotypes that Hollywood has made such a grotesquely recognizable trope in scores of similar blockbusters (read: everything Taylor Swift mocked in “Blank Space”). Amy’s menace does have all those trademarks, and more: she is an extreme inventor of narratives. False narratives of pregnancy, death, and sexual assault, all invented to keep her in control, to keep her husband under her thumb, to keep her in the spotlight as a media sweetheart, rather than a villain.
Eliana Dockterman wrote in Time that Amy Dunne portrays many of the most painfully typical anti-feminist narratives. Woman invents abuse. Woman invents rape.The delicately beautiful blonde prototype of a Hollywood love interest—now contorted into her vampish opposite. And these ugly tropes are definitively anti-feminist, says Dockterman. They reinforce the already two-dimensional image of women in media, and they make it easy to categorize Amy as a very specific kind of recognizable woman-monster.
But, she relents, Amy does not represent all of womankind; she’s not the Everywoman Next Door, but the articulate, nuanced, and intelligent sociopath disgusted by her own hyper-gendered performance of Cool Girl and Loving Wife. And, at the same time, writes Dockterman, Flynn’s anti-heroine is further redeemed by “the complication” of gendered behavior, gendered interactions, gendered identities of Amy’s life as a girlfriend-then-wife. She’s infinitely more complex than the typical blockbuster femme fatale. And now the movie’s heavily gendered issues are an active part of the conversation.
But I have to disagree to some extent with the assertion that the introduction of the anti-feminist tropes are inherently a bad thing. Amy is so well aware of these narratives—the Cool Girl narrative, the victim narrative, the loving wife narrative—that she is able to weaponize them. The narratives become explicitly dangerous and are all released, rampant, out of control: when Amy employs them, and when the media circus does, when Nick does, when Nick adopts his father’s furiously misogynistic mantra of bitch bitch bitch. The reader can’t read the book without picking up the obvious and painful consciousness from Amy and Nick, consciousness of the narratives they’ve been locked into, as wife, as husband, as suspect, as victim. And yes, as Dockterman says, all of those narratives are inherently linked to gender.
The gendered narratives are so obvious in Amy and Nick’s story that they’ve become, at the very least, a topic of discussion. But at the most, the Cool Girl standard gets thrown into the fray as a terrifying impetus, a damaging, despicable standard. But this point shouldn’t be as simple as “now gender issues are part of the conversation.” It should stretch farther, to say that the Cool Girl is now frightening. Those tropes and rigid boxes cannot be picked apart and dismantled. They’re there, and they’re vilified.
I don’t intend this to sound like an end-all defense of the negative misogynist tropes obvious throughout the book. That those tropes are recognized is a sign of a healthily critical media environment armed to respond to them. But the consciousness with which the book approaches those issues is a strong indicator, to begin with, that the psychobitch trope is not being put forward only as another usual bit of drama. Amy’s powerful narratives are not only complex; they’re important—and they can’t be summarized as a thriller about a “crazy lady.” Amy’s reasoning may be deeply flawed, but her context and what she sees as the roots of her suffering isn’t.
The real terror of Amy’s character is not the clingy “psycho girlfriend” plotline. Yes, that’s there, and it’s bad—but it’s also supposed to look bad. It’s so conspicuously trope-heavy in terms of that ugly stereotype that it’s difficult, or maybe more accurately painful, to believe that Flynn could have accidentally crafted it into such a self-consciously female narrative.
No, the real terror of Amy is that (Spoiler, spoilers, SPOILERS) when she returns as the fully realized complex monster, she and her husband both know that what the watching media world will see, or decide to see. Amy stands confidently behind the two-dimensional character of woman, victim, wife, mother, because as a woman she can be confident that she will be understood, as a woman, only in those terms. Just like she revels in her beautiful missing-poster picture and the flat, simple tragedy presented there, Amy’s two-dimensional mask—Loving Wife, Cool Girl—becomes the misogynistic construction of what she is as a woman. And that does not include complicated monster. The trope-mask is destructive, a hopelessly simple disguise that is so thoroughly ingrained, Nick can’t manage to dismantle it, to reveal the real individual, the monster, underneath.
From February 2015 Issue