Gone Girl: a film unable to surpass its underlying misogyny
One of the lovely things about working on this project with Heather is that we both love cinema. Frequently we will send text messages to each other about a recent release. We both love film for what pleasures it offers as well as how it stimulates ideas about sociological issues that we are engaged with. Very frequently these texts articulate things that our academic language cannot – similar to the ways in which Heather has written about fiction. Recently we both watched a film that generated very different reactions, as discussed by Heather in her recent blog on Gone Girl‘s Amy. In this post, Kim responds by exploring her anger at the film’s misogyny. (Please note there are spoilers so don’t read this if you are yet to see the film.)
Heather’s thoughtful discussion of Fincher’s Gone Girl (GG) argues that Amy – the female protagonist at the centre of the film – is an interesting contemporary embodiment of the Femme Fatale, and as such, cannot be read as a empty vessel for male fantasies or misogynistic ideas, nor can she (or the film) be read as simply ‘anti-feminist’ . Rather, Heather argues that Amy is agentic, authoring her own story and claiming power in various ways that are rarely seen in film. In this way GG is a refreshing exception to most Hollywood films.
Heather’s defence of the film has encouraged me to open myself up to thinking differently about how Amy and the film itself can be read. However, I have not studied Film Noir, and as such can not theorise Amy in the same way. All I can speak from is the feelings I had watching this and when I left the cinema. These were discomfort and anger. So why was this? The film has provoked an incredible number of blogs and think pieces which centre on the heated debate about whether GG was misogynistic, and I am wary of rehearsing these in full. Rather I will focus on two key aspects of the film which contributed to reading the film in a different way to Heather (and I recognise there are many different readings to be had).
My main issue with the film is that I feel that Amy is presented, ultimately, as a ‘psycho bitch’ . As such, my issue with the film relates to the power of wider cultural representations to feed into problematic ideas about women making false allegations about rape and sexual violence. Let me explain. In the first half of the film, we slowly get to understand some of the motives for Amy’s decision to stage her death in order to get back at her husband Nick (a egomaniac and adulterer who cheats with one of his students no less). While Amy was in no way particularly likeable (neither of the couple are), the revelation of some of Nick’s indiscretions made me root for her rather than feel sorry for Nick. We also, in a scene of Amy’s getaway, hear her deliver an interesting critique of the ‘cool girl’. Here Amy brilliantly exposes the male fantasy of the girl who will drink beer, play Playstation and happily watch Judd Apatow films while STILL looking sexy. Here’s an excerpt from the book (which was shortened and modified for screen I understand):
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)
I loved this scene – it felt like such a brilliant searing critique of the tightly patrolled boundaries of acceptability for women and the limited scripts available for women in a world where men still write the stories. The ‘cool girl’ or the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is ‘alternative’ but she represents just another male fantasy. She never really rocks the boat so far that male privilege is ever threatened. She embodies what Angela McRobbie calls the ‘postfeminist masquerade’, embodying a ‘faux empowerment’ that never threatens male hegemony. She’s the girl who ‘gets the joke’, who will never get angry or challenge your sexist views. The cool girl ‘goes along with it’ . Yet, as the scene and her rant develops, and Amy looks scathingly at the ‘cool girls’ she drives past, we find not men or male power the target of her critique, but the women who are deemed by Amy as foolish enough to create themselves in the ‘cool girl’ image. As Bim Adewunmi writes, ‘it’s easy to be scornful of these so-called cool girls, but they are also responding to societal cues, as are we all’. Resisting the ‘cool girl’ fantasy is hard when those who sit outside of these configurations are mocked, scorned and shamed.
Likewise, as the film develops, Amy’s motives for leaving her adulterous husband get lost as we see Amy get more and more evil. As she does more ridiculous things, she simply becomes a caricature. What I felt we were left with was the very thing that the writer of the book and screenplay sought to avoid (in an interview, writer Gillian Flynn said ‘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.’). As we lose a sense of Amy’s complex motives, we are left with another story of the evil manipulative (and narcissistic) woman who lies about rape and sexual violence (not just framing Nick but her ex Desi, and manipulating the police and journalists). And this is where I got angry. Yes, Nick was innocent of murdering his wife. But at a time where convictions for rape continue to be stubbornly low, the idea of ‘false allegations’ remains a go to reaction to claims of sexual violence, and where the murder or rape of women matters less than the ‘ruined lives’ of privileged and famous men, we need to ask what cultural work such depictions do. I agree with Heather in some ways that Amy should not be asked to stand for all women, and this discussion has forced me to reflect on the expectations I – we – place on women in our culture (from films, to music) in ways we don’t do to men. But allowing Amy to be read in her own right would be easier if we had a bigger and richer range of female characters within which Amy sat.
My second and very much related issue is that Amy was just one of a number of ill-conceived, narrow and thin female characters in the film. Discounting Nick’s sister, the other women in the film were all pretty awful. Nick bemoans how he has been harassed, framed and mistreated by women. At numerous times, we see Nick become a victim of other women, from his cold mother-in-law, to the the local women in his community who set him up in inappropriate ‘selfies’, and (worst of all) the female news anchor who declares on national television that Nick is a sociopath killer. The latter is a caricature which I feel was made to stand for sensationalist journalism in ways that were deeply misogynistic – the female bimbo newsreader of trashy TV representing the worst of contemporary media (see also the oft-circulated clips of racist and deeply conservative Fox News presenters: almost always female and blonde). While Nick was far from unblemished, exposed at various times as self-obsessed, vain and even weak, Fincher’s film did ultimately encourage the viewer to feel sorry for him as the victim of multiple manipulative women – and even of feminism itself, seemingly seeking to remove men of all their power.
Having debated the film with several people, and having read Heather’s excellently articulated defence, I have reflected a lot on why I felt the way I did about this film – sometimes wondering if I’m just the ‘feminist killjoy’ who gets in the way of other people’s pleasure. It is possible my views will continue to shift, but I remain unconvinced that this film can really surpass its underlying misogyny. However, like Heather, I agree that if nothing else, the film has provoked debate. So while the film failed to give me an ‘Amy’ that was truly subversive, it did at least at least get me and others thinking about what is is we want from the women on our screens.
Tags: feminism, film, Gone Girl, misogyny, rape
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