Does ‘Gone Girl’ go too far?

It wasn’t as if the last week’s think-pieces about David Fincher’s new film, roughly summed up as “Is Gone Girl a feminist masterpiece or supremely damaging to all women, everywhere?”, sprang out of nowhere. When Gillian Flynn’s novel was published in 2012, and became a bestseller, the American writer found herself accused of a “deep animosity towards women”. 

Her gripping, if ludicrous story, raised hackles. It told (be warned, the whole plot is coming) how Amy Dunne, a wealthy and beautiful psychopath, takes revenge on her cheating husband by framing him for her “murder”, making up rape allegations against men (one of whom she murders during her demented spree) and trapping her broken husband by stealing his sperm. 

One blogger neatly summarised the objections to the character, saying she “is the crystallisation of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behaviour. If we strapped a bunch of men’s rights advocates to beds and downloaded their nightmares, I don’t think we’d come up with stuff half as ridiculous as this plot.”

A piece in the Washington Post was headlined “Is Gone Girl’s Amy a misogynist? A misandrist? Or both?” (Both was the conclusion reached by its writer, Alyssa Rosenberg; “in fact, she hates pretty much everyone else on the planet”.) 

Even the men are at it. In the Guardian, David Cox, the writer and TV producer, worries that the film could bolster its misogynistic viewers. “Women, some seem to believe, are self-serving, venomous and deceitful but can get away with whatever they want. It’s this outlook that Amy’s adventures could foster.”

But writing on the news site Vox, Todd van der Werff proclaims Gone Girl “perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want”.

He goes on to say: “In destroying her husband’s life, she’s symbolically taking back power for women everywhere.” Which seems a little overblown, when most of the feminists I know just want, you know, equality.

Flynn, who identifies as a feminist, has become used to addressing accusations that she is anti-feminist. In an interview with the Guardian last year, she questioned whether feminism is “really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters — the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. 

“In literature, they can be dismissably bad — trampy, vampy, bitchy types — but there’s still a big push-back against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy — she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.”

Sharing that view in the New Statesman, Rhiannon Lucy Coslett writes: “By using society’s propensity to pigeonhole women as vulnerable victims against her drunken sexist of a husband, you could argue that [Amy Dunne] is taking back the power in her relationship. As a woman, she has been forced to embody a succession of tedious female stereotypes, but she twists this oppressive force in order to get her own way.”

Dunne isn’t likeable (but then neither are any of the characters, including the male ones — not selfish Nick, not his misogynistic father, not his exploitative lawyer). But she is compelling and there were truths in the novel that resonated with many female readers. 

In a piece for Slate, David Haglund describes Amy’s “Cool Girl” diatribe — in which she lays bare her contempt for the men who expect their female partners to acquiesce to their desires — as “the cultural legacy of the book”, but goes on to point out that, in the film version, it’s the women who pretend to be those “cool girls” who become the target. 

In an otherwise positive piece on the film for the feminist website Jezebel, the writer Jessica Coen admits: “Movie Amy pales in comparison to the vivid character we meet in the book. Strip away book Amy’s complexities and you’re left with little more than ‘crazy fucking bitch’. That makes her no less captivating, but it does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel.”

The writer Joan Smith, in a column for the Guardian, claimed Gone Girl is guilty of “playing on what we now know about the behaviour of abused women and undermining the credibility of victims”. She references a report by the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service last year, which found that, during a 17-month period, there were 5?651 prosecutions for rape and just 35 for making a false allegation of rape.

Smith’s argument wouldn’t carry as much weight were this film set against a vastly wider range of women’s stories, and characters in mainstream culture. 

One recent study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that, of the 100 top-grossing films last year, female characters accounted for just 15% of the protagonists.

“Because there are so few strong women in literature (or TV shows or movies) the burden falls on the writers who do write about women to make them represent all of womanhood,” writes Eliana Dockterman in a piece for Time (headlined, wearily, “Is Gone Girl Feminist or Misogynist?”). “And that’s simply not fair. We should have all sorts of women in our novels — just as we have all sorts of men.” — © Guardian News & Media 2014

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