Gone Girl: condemned or hailed?

David Fincher's Gone Girl, adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn, has been simultaneously condemned as a misogynistic portrayal of women and hailed as the birthplace of a feminist icon. Lily Kendall investigates: does it deserve either of these accolades?

, 11 November 2014

This review contains spoilers. Do not read further if you haven’t seen the film or read the book.

There’s been a spate of articles discussing whether or not Gone Girl, starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck as married couple Amy and Nick Dunne, is misogynistic. Sharing the fate of most articles mentioning “feminism” in mainstream media outlets, they’ve met with verbal snorts of derision in their Comments sections.

While I don’t think calling the film misogynistic is particularly helpful – it’s far more complicated than that – to ignore the ways in which gender is represented is to miss a significant part of the film. Any film in which a lawyer introduces themselves as the “patron saint of wife killers” should expect to be quizzed on its gender politics.

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David Fincher himself said in an interview:

“I can’t wait to see what will go on between couples at dinner after they see it. There are so many interesting tectonic shifts in the movie. There’s the moment where Andie [Emily Ratajkowski, who plays Nick’s student and lover] comes into it, and you watch the sexual dividing line in the audience. I’ve shown this movie to people and when they come out of it, they are either Team Amy or Team Nick. Team Amy doesn’t have a single quibble about her behavior, and Team Nick doesn’t have any problems with his”

Fincher’s statement is obviously problematic: why should anyone hold a default position depending on their gender? He seems to believe that when Andie (a young woman with whom Nick is cheating on his wife) enters the equation, the women of the audience will automatically sympathise with his wife’s desire for revenge and the men will automatically sympathise with Nick as the poor schmuck who’s fallen for his busty student.

Cinema could do with more unpalatable women

I find Fincher’s comment irritating in the extreme and wonder whether it is also indicative of what follows in the movie. Fincher seems to have a pretty defined idea about how people of different (binary) genders perceive the film – do his characters also sit within these proscribed roles? I’ll be weighing up some key criticisms and compliments the film has received from the online feminist community to find out.

She’s an interesting female character

Amy Dunne is an interesting character, and not just a ‘strong’ one. As Laurie Penny has excellently pointed out, ‘strong’ female characters are ‘spunky’ and ‘feisty’ – they’re rarely flawed and interesting.

In Amy we finally get a complex female ‘bad guy’. As Rosamund Pike herself said: “For me it was just a joy to play a woman who doesn’t have to be palatable all of the time”. Cinema could do with more unpalatable women. It’s high time we had more female antiheroes.

However, it’s not enough simply to behave like the ‘bad guy’. We need to think about why Amy acts as she does.

Her motivations are (un)feminist

Amy is apparently motivated by the need to keep her relationship ‘fresh’. Nick and Amy, like most of us, show their best selves when they meet for the first time. Marriage wears down the act. Amy apparently acts out of frustration that her relationship no longer looks the way it did when she first met Nick.

Perhaps, then, the film is about unattainable standards, particularly those up to which women are expected to live. Amy has always measured her successes against those of her animated counterpart, Amazing Amy, the character in her mum’s famous children’s books. She’s so busy trying to maintain the image of the perfect wife that she loses sight of who she actually is. Perversely, the time she seems most herself is when she’s in hiding pretending to be someone else.

Sitting in the cinema listening to a man accuse a woman of making false rape claims did not feel subversive

On the other hand, it could be argued that it’s not particularly ‘feminist’ to root a female character’s motivations solely in neurotic obsessions over her relationship. But it could also be argued that Gone Girl is a comment on the perils of holding relationships up to unattainable, rom-com style standards.Amy_cool_girl.jpg

When Amy leaves framing Nick for her murder, she talks not of her desire for him to be perfect, but of the disproportionate pressure on her, as the woman, to remain not just perfect, but effortlessly so. She engages directly with the trope of the “cool girl”: the girl who’s “one of the guys”, never gets angry, never nags, somehow always looks hot.

Her motivation might be rooted in her relationship, but it’s also rooted in her rebellion against the bored nagging wife that Nick has made her become, and in her dissatisfaction with her lot.

She’s got a troubled (and troubling) past

It’s not just Nick’s behaviour that Amy ‘punishes’. Amy, apparently, punishes all the men in her life who don’t live up to her expectations. When trying to prove his innocence in Amy’s murder, Nick visits two of her ex-boyfriends whom she’s apparently falsely accused of stalking and rape.

This is where the film takes a particularly uncomfortable turn. As much as the film up to this point plays with expectations surrounding gender roles, the back-story painting Amy as the stereotypical “psychotic bitch” is dispiritingly familiar. Amy’s ex-boyfriend, whom she accused of rape, details the ways in which she framed him for the crime. Sitting in the cinema listening to a man accuse a woman of making false rape claims did not feel subversive. It felt like reading the Comments section on an article about Ched Evans.

We live in a world where domestic violence is still not taken seriously enough by the criminal justice system

As the film progresses, Amy becomes the perennial bogey-woman of the patriarchal imagination: the “callous, calculating bitch” who seduces men and destroys their reputations by “crying rape”, then uses her “feminine wiles” and crocodile tears to escape detection.

That is why some have dismissed the film as misogynistic. Amy’s accusations of domestic violence, rape, stalking – crimes overwhelmingly committed by men against women – turn out to be nothing more than tall tales, reinforcing the damaging narrative of “the poor innocent men framed by a cold-hearted bitch”.

Who gets the last laugh?

To return to Fincher’s words – was I Team Amy? I certainly started rooting for her from the moment the film switched perspectives in the beginning of the second part, showing her driving away in the car, freeing herself from an unhappy marriage and getting revenge on her dull philandering husband. Who wouldn’t empathise a bit with a woman who had felt compelled to watch Adam Sandler movies and ape a frat boy sense of humour?

At the end of the movie, Amy appears the dominant of the two. Nick is terrified of her, and apparently trapped in the relationship. Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether we should feel sympathy for him and hatred for her, or vice versa. When Nick forces her against the wall and calls her a “fucking cunt”, are we behind him? Is the film behind him?

It’s the impossibility to answer the last question that relieves the film of the claims against it. If we can’t tell which team the film is on, we can’t call it misogynistic or feminist.

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Ultimately, though, it comes down to the social context in which the film has been made and received. If we lived in a feminist utopia, where all audiences would pick up on the undercurrents of its gender politics, we all could watch the film without any qualms. Sadly, we live in a world where the overwhelming majority of women who are raped do not report it, citing fear of disbelief as their main reason. We live in a world where domestic violence is still not taken seriously enough by the criminal justice system. Society still fails to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.

Reflect this in the world of the film, and put into this world a cold, devious woman who will scheme and plot her way across the screen making false rape and domestic violence allegations, and you risk further cementing these societal myths and reinforcing the position of those audience members who already hold troubling views about women. There are far too many men out there who see nothing wrong with holding a woman against a wall and calling her a “fucking cunt”.

Until we live in a world where everyone appreciates the nuances of the film’s gender politics, I don’t think we can call this a feminist film. It’s just too ambiguous. And with so many members of Team Nick in the world, we can’t afford ambiguity.

All pictures are from Gone Girl official Facebook fan page. First photo is of Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, sitting at her desk getting ready to start writing with her pink furry pen. Second picture is a portrait of Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, with a caption “Men always use that, don’t they? ‘She’s a cool girl.'”. Third picture is of Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne and Ben Affleck as Nick, sharing a meal at the restaurant.

Lily is a feminist human rights activist living in London. She is a founding writer of feminist blog The Hussington Post and spends her free time watching cats on YouTube

Comments From You

The Goldfish // Posted 11 November 2014 at 6:25 pm

Thanks for this review – I’m really curious about the film, having read the book.

One mystery for me is that, with both film and book, people have spoken about taking sides. My experience of the book was that, at no point was either character even slightly likeable. They were both awful people, and there was a lot of satirical humour about these two upper middle-class “creatives” and their status anxiety.

One major difference between the book’s depiction of the false accusations and those elsewhere in popular culture was that these acts were so extreme and extraordinary. Too often, false accusations are presented as something women do when they wake up with someone they’re ashamed to have had slept with. Amy’s false accusations were very carefully orchestrated, driven by an almost superhuman level of vindictiveness.

For me this was a good thing. One problem we currently have with rape and domestic violence in fiction and film is that these, very commonplace, acts are often represented as the behaviour of monsters, often with an eye-patch and an evil cackle. This is a problem because these things are commonplace, and nobody is made safer by pretending that otherwise ordinary people don’t do that stuff.

However, false accusations are extraordinary actions. They are not all carried out by monstrous geniuses – sometimes, tragically, an abused person can transfer what happened onto a more palatable perpetrator. However, I quite liked the portrayal of false accusation as something really weird.

It’ll be an age before I see the film as I can’t get to the cinema, but I hope they pulled that off.

Lou // Posted 11 November 2014 at 8:23 pm

I didn’t bother to go see this as I was disappointed with the book. Found this very useful and timely because I’ve just written a short piece on the sexual politics of Serena:

http://loumuddle.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/does-the-gender-of-a-director-matter-or-sex-snakes-and-serena/

Pam // Posted 12 November 2014 at 1:26 pm

I agree with The Goldfish about the book – I found both the characters fairly dreadful, and the alternating viewpoints made the narrative interesting. The introduction of Andie in the book wasn’t completely unexpected because there were hints of Nick being an unreliable narrator. Read as a thriller, it was thrilling enough to keep me turning pages.

I think I took Amy not as any kind of female archetype but the sort of baddie you get in a Hitchcock film. My antennae were up because I’d seen reviews of the film saying that she was an anti feminist character. I think on the balance it’s interesting to have a female villain without making her bear all the responsibility for how ordinary women are portrayed in the media.

Kirst // Posted 14 November 2014 at 9:09 am

The other thing which comes out more strongly in the book is the characters’ family backgrounds and how those have influenced them. Amy’s parents were never able to tell her off or express disappointment when she behaved or performed badly – instead they wrote a new Amazing Amy book where Amazing Amy effortlessly surpassed real Amy at whatever it was real Amy had just done badly in. And so Amy learned that you don’t talk about feelings of anger or disappointment, you manipulate people into behaving better. And Nick had a drunken, violent father and an intimidated, passive mother, so he learned that you don’t express feelings of anger or disappointment because if you do, either you lose control and become violent, or you invite violence against yourself from the person you’re criticising. The combination of those two damaged characters together is what creates the clusterfuck that is this relationship.

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