Lifting the veil on the violent woman

To move towards equality, the feminist movement needs to make space for the character of the violent woman, no matter how unlikeable she is, argues Charlotte Barnes

, 6 October 2016

Some time ago, David Cox argued: “Today, in polite society, you won’t hear a word against women.” While I do not wholly agree with this argument, there is some truth to be found in it, particularly in relation to the absence of certain kinds of female characters and personalities in literature and culture. While making this argument, though, I write with a very specific female character in mind: the frustratingly underexplored and underutilised violent woman. The mythological beast that seems to live only in back-of-the-bookshelf publications, the violent woman is a hugely downplayed literary trope who seems to be repeatedly explained away by a lukewarm logic: There are fewer violent women in real life than there are violent men and, as such, there are fewer in fiction.

While a large part of me would love to blame this underrepresentation on a patriarchal society that is led by the idea that women are inherently maternal, loving and in no way violent, I actually think feminism has to take some of the responsibility. I am a PhD researcher who is desperately trying to explore violent women in contemporary fiction and, in two and a half years of research, I have found a grand total of two – yes, two – feminist discussions that comfortably acknowledge that the violent woman even exists. Beyond that, I am forced to rely on psychology and criminology textbooks, and while their discussions of violent women are interesting, their ambiguous relationships with feminism leave me uncomfortable relying on these sources alone.

With a year remaining to develop my thesis, I had thought that my primary questions at this stage would be: “What does the violent woman mean for feminism?” and “How well is this trope explored in contemporary fiction?” Instead, as I struggle to find theoretical discussions and fictional explorations of this character, I find myself asking an altogether more basic question: Where on earth is she?

What is particularly troubling, though, is that these accusations have fallen on Flynn for simply having written what David Cox referred to as “a female psychopath allotted the amorality and obsessiveness that… have traditionally been the province of the male.”

The very mention of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl will undoubtedly cause a cocked eyebrow or an eye roll from many readers, and perhaps rightly so. Despite gaining little attention in the academic world, both the film and the book have been discussed to within an inch of their lives in the mainstream, hailed alternately as a feminist masterpiece and a misogynistic nightmare. Perhaps a worthy area of discussion, then, is not so much Gone Girl as a novel, but the author’s motivations behind writing a book that features such a psychopathic female lead.

Flynn has made no secret of the uncomfortable backlash that she has received for having written the Amy Dunne character. In a Guardian interview she remarked that she has become “accustomed to people assuming that she must have personal experience of “seriously bad things” to write on the topics that she does. Other criticisms of Flynn have been altogether less sympathetic, instead branding her as anti-feminist while accusing her of constructing “misogynist caricatures” and of harbouring “a deep animosity towards women.” What is particularly troubling, though, is that these accusations have fallen on Flynn for simply having written what David Cox referred to as “a female psychopath allotted the amorality and obsessiveness that… have traditionally been the province of the male.”

And herein lies our problem: Feminism is not quite ready for that much equality.

While Ellie Levenson’s frank discussion of feminism as a sisterhood, found in the wonderful The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism, does support the sisterly image, it also picks some worthy holes in the concept as well. There is little room for debate around the idea that women – in a world where women are often, if not always, the underdog – should support each other. However, Levenson is then quick to remind her readers that this sisterhood “doesn’t mean that every woman is nice” because, as she goes on to explain, “[W]omen can be stupid, they can be vindictive, and they can be shits.” If, however, you are relying on contemporary feminist discussions to support this refreshing attitude, then you – like I have in recent months – are likely to come up short.

Thankfully, there is a wave of new authors who are boldly offering up the idea that women, like men, can be horrible people. In Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s discussion of the female villain, she unashamedly proposes the idea that “perhaps true equality is admitting that women can be evil arseholes too”, before commenting:
We feminists cannot have it both ways – we cannot kick back against the portrayal of women as emotional, empathetic creatures and as victims, yet fall back on that same cliché when confronted with a cold-eyed psychopathic female character that we do not like.

Yet somehow, while Cosslett optimistically describes this as a behaviour that the royal feminist “we” cannot subscribe to, this is exactly the attitude that many feminist speakers have adopted – as evidenced by the lack of critical discussion of Gone Girl. Contemporary feminist theorists, working specifically in the realms of academia, have found that the best tool for dealing with a transgressive female is simply not to deal with her at all – which appears historically as a tried and tested technique for contending with women who break society’s boundaries. After over a hundred years of lifting veils, it seems that even this era’s equalitarian take on feminism has now pulled this latest shroud over the darker female, for no other reason than the violent woman simply isn’t stereotypically ‘woman’ enough.

Feminism has argued for women’s rights in relation to multiple components of this male space previously – so why not for violence?

Is that what it boils down to, then? Feminism not owning up to the shortfalls of women? Well, it depends on who you’re brave enough to ask. Robert Palmer would have readers believe that “the dearth of female villains can be easily explained by cultural misogyny”. For him, rather than feminism playing any part in this, the underrepresentation of violent women instead “has everything to do with a society that strongly circumscribes roles for women” and therefore limits them from entering the realms of violent behaviour. While there is some credibility to this perspective, it does feed into a discussion of why feminism has not addressed this limitation. Many feminist publications strongly oppose the stereotype of women as mothers – the same stereotype that Cosslett, prominent feminist author that she is, also refers to. But somehow the pull against these stereotypes has not yet extended far enough to allow women to claim violent behaviour, which is widely considered as belonging firmly inside the male sphere. And yet feminism has argued for women’s rights in relation to multiple components of this male space previously – so why not for violence?

Flynn, who discusses this in both her fiction and non-fiction, theorises on her website that the lack of discussion around female violence can be in part explained by the fact that men “have a vocabulary for sex and violence that women just don’t”, and because of that “[Women] still don’t discuss our own violence”. Perhaps this is because, as Flynn comments, female violence “is a specific brand of ferocity”; perhaps it is because the subversion of the mother figure into something that can inflict damage is too far a stretch – even in the realms of fictional narratives – for our minds to comfortably process. Understandable as that argument may be in theory, it then raises the question: When did fiction’s sole purpose become to provide comfort for the reader? Occasionally, yes, but exclusively? Certainly not.

Admittedly, Flynn’s discussion of violent women does render some audiences rightly uncomfortable. Her dismissal of the “brave rape victims” that one encounters in literature by addressing them in a way that makes them sound like a tired trope, has caused raised eyebrows. So, too, has her rebuttal to this trope with the character of Amy Dunne who fabricates not one, but three, false rape allegations over the course of the novel, if we include the recollections of her more recent sexual interactions with husband Nick. With these issues in mind, let me clarify something: Yes, there are glaring flaws in Gone Girl and in Flynn’s publication where she defends writing such fiction. The fact remains, however, that Flynn as an author and Amy as a character are working inside a niche that makes the world uncomfortable – so uncomfortable, in fact, that no one has thought to properly investigate it.

Amy Dunne is, at her core, an unsettling but much-needed reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Women can be evil

It may be said – justifiably –that, at this stage, those reading around this area are sick of the Gone Girl debate. Flynn’s arguments on the matter have been recycled; the grand jury of mass media has discussed, at length, whether Amy Dunne is a feminist character or not and after four years of discussing the matter, commentators and readers alike have delivered a resounding, “We don’t care anymore.” It is worth noting, though, that perhaps the reason why this author and her works are dragged under this same microscope with such high frequency is because Gillian Flynn, in terms of fiction, is operating alone. There is a hesitance in academia to join the debate, despite mainstream publications at last joining the discussion on violent women. For every one publication that supports the possibility of this woman, this character, there is another that brands her as unwomanly and there the debate ends – as though that is somehow the definitive argument for banning certain behaviours in women.

If you look to contemporary fiction for an example of the disreputable violent woman, you will find Amy Dunne. She is calculating, manipulative, vicious, and spiteful – and I truly believe that we should be grateful to this character for exhibiting those qualities. Borrowing from Eliana Dockterman’s discussion on the matter, Amy’s behaviour is very much “an extreme form of rebellion.” Very extreme, yes, but in this rebellion we also find “an interesting meditation on society’s expectations of women” and that is precisely what makes her important, regardless of how unlikeable she is.

Dunne may be, to quote Robert Palmer, “the crystillization of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behaviour”, but she is also, according to Nikki Gloudeman, “a complex female protagonist” who is eventually “revealed to be as vicious, violent and evil as any prototypical male villain.” There was a time when sex and violence were intrinsically tied together through masculine bonds alone, but even these are severed in Gone Girl with Amy’s mid-coitus display of violence against her white knight, Desi Collings. She is, at her core, an unsettling but much-needed reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Women can be evil. As such then, when it comes to enforcing this belief on a wider scale, Amy and her despicable behaviour can certainly be thought of as a step in the right direction – providing we can forgive the misogynistic undertones that many readers have found in her.

It seems sensible to note here that alternative examples of violent women in fiction can, of course, be tracked down. We can take a jump back as far as Emile Zola’s The Human Beast and find two women who are willing to kill for love – only to end up dead themselves. Or we can look at a more modern example in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat where our protagonist, Lise, is so attracted to violence that she goes out with the specific aim of having a violent encounter and is willingly stabbed. We can look through the microscope of Patricia Highsmith, who never shied away from holding an uncomfortable spotlight over women – her Little Tales of Misogyny is a particularly memorable example of this – and we can even look at Elena Ferrante, who time and time again returns to explorations of women, femininity and the female psyche through her exquisite prose. But Amy Dunne is in a different league and not simply because she embodies another level of maliciousness, but because of a second, and perhaps altogether more important reason, than that: Amy Dunne gets away with it.

And yet the violent woman – whether she be the scorned wife or the born-this-way killer – must still be punished and penalised as though it is a perverse rite of passage to earn a feminist defence

It is perhaps a fair argument to make that the lack of female violence in society is merely being reflected in our fictional realms. However, on that basis, we should at least see a small rise in fictionalised female violence, given that in recent years there has been a slight but regular increase in this in the real world. Hanna Rosin in The End of Men: And the Rise of Women goes as far as to suggest that in Britain and the United States, as well as women being “more likely to defend themselves or fight back” in a physical altercation, there will also be times when women actually “may be taking the first punch”. The violent woman may induce discomfort, but there are points throughout history that saw the ‘New Woman’ do the same and the feminist movement did not opt to abandon her. On the contrary, the New Woman who Elaine Showalter described in Sexual Anarchy as “sexually independent” and who “criticized society’s insistence on marriage as woman’s only option for a fulfilling life”, quickly became something of a feminist icon. She was deliberately embraced by feminism and her independence heralded as one of many early markers in equality. And yet the violent woman – whether she be the scorned wife or the born-this-way killer – must still be punished and penalised as though it is a perverse rite of passage to earn a feminist defence.

The most optimistic view to take, perhaps, is that it is simply not her time. The violent woman will be picked up at some indeterminate point in the future when society is more comfortable processing and discussing such a concept. However, given that Gone Girl was published in 2012 and we are yet to see a female character who replicates the psychopathy of the vicious Amy Dunne, there is perhaps more of a wait than some of us originally hoped for.

Women and their roles in patriarchal society are constantly changing. While there is no call here for women to be exclusively bad or violent, neither should they be called upon to be inherently good nor maternal. Patriarchal culture is broadening, creating more room for negotiation in terms of the space that women occupy and the roles that they can now claim. It is imperative, though, that with these developments we are cautious that we do not only take the good but also the bad, the violent and the offensive, because equality does not – should not – translate to moral superiority. Whether they be through fictional representations or through cold, hard facts, it is time – or, optimistically, nearly time – that we acknowledged that women can indeed be just as bad as men.

Image courtesy of Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.

The image shows the face of a blonde woman (Rosamund Pike) in profile turned towards the right. She is wearing a white top which is just visible on her shoulder and her hair is tied up with some strands falling around her fac. She wears a serious expression. Slightly behind her to her right is a dark-haired man (Ben Affleck) wearing a white shirt and dark-coloured jumper. He is blurrier than the woman, who is in focus. He is shown only up to his shoulders, with his head bend down so that he is almost looking at the floor.

Charlotte Barnes is a PhD researcher based in the West Midlands. She tweets about reading, writing and feminism at @charleyblogs

Comments From You

Zed // Posted 7 October 2016 at 8:49 am

I think the difficulty with having a “Violent Woman” trope isn’t a lack of acknowledgement that in real life women aren’t all kind, generous, caring balls of comfort ALL THE TIME! It’s that the accusation that all women are inherently violent in the tacit root of much misogynistic control. Women’s sexuality is dangerous, so their sexual behaviour must be controlled, women are more prone to flying off the handle and must be identified with accusations of “nag”, “harridan”, “psycho”, etc. to bring them back into line when they are upset or angry. There are plenty of examples of this in film, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Natasha Henstridge in species, for example. It is hard for feminism and it’s artists to create violent women when they will predominantly serve to justify misogynistic fear and control.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 10 October 2016 at 7:24 am

Read our review (and comments) of Gone Girl the film from 2014.

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