WARNING: This review contains spoilers for both Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife.
In the world of television, male anti-heroes dominate the genre of prestige. From Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White, there’s a certain narrative centred on the male protagonist that seems to gather critical and viewer acclaim by the boatload, although many have also argued that the above examples are all more villains than anti-heroes. The ever increasing popularity of Game of Thrones is also testament to that, and it must be emphasised how creatively and commercially risky it remains to have an ensemble piece populated with characters that toe the line between our standard definitions of good and bad. We like our defined boundaries, more so when it comes to women. Can you name as many female anti-heroes in film, TV and literature as you can male? Do they receive the same kind of support or condemnation that their male counterparts do?
As the trailer for David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was released, the novel’s publisher Crown revealed a blog giveaway prize for lucky readers: a pair of t-shirts blazoned with the slogans “Team Amy” and “Team Nick”, in reference to the enigmatic married couple the story centres on. Having just finished the book myself, I found myself surprised that people would even think about picking sides in a battle between two utterly despicable people, yet I also found myself completely unsurprised by how many readers leaned more towards Nick than Amy. Yes, Nick doesn’t go to the truly evil depths that Amy does in their battle of wills and vengeance, but he’s still a bitter selfish misogynist and compulsive liar who had no issues with expressing his desire to kill his wife after she returns to him. Look at how easily sexist slurs just morph from his brain. While it’s natural to want to side with someone in debates of any kind (we’re practically trained from birth to do so), the act of choosing one bad person over another in this instance implies that certain kinds of bad are more acceptable or understandable than others, and when that falls along gender lines, a whole other can of worms is opened up.
Flynn has received much criticism for the depiction of Amy in Gone Girl, including multiple accusations of misogyny. While I personally understand such claims and do not dismiss them, it feels too simple to define the story in such terms when it’s so dedicated to equal opportunity awfulness. Amy isn’t a hero or an anti-hero: she’s a stone cold villain, and that’s a rarity in contemporary fiction outside of Disney. Indeed, Flynn herself expressed a desire to see more such female characters in fiction, and I can’t say I disagree with her. it’s refreshing to have someone writing women without the slightest bit of consideration as to whether or not she’ll be considered ‘likeable’, still one of the most common and exhaustingly irritating terms thrown around to describe female characters in fiction.
Contrast this with A.S.A. Harrison’s debut novel (and sadly her only one as she died shortly before its release), The Silent Wife. While the central premise and he-said/she-said narrative style pretty much guaranteed comparisons to Gone Girl, the story is a far more clinical and detached tale than Flynn’s novel. Where anger permeates every letter of Nick and Amy’s story, Jodi and Todd are the epitome of WASP restraint; their preferred tool of attack is passive-aggressiveness. The meticulousness of both women’s plans grabs the reader, but Jodi’s feels more relatable. Scorned women are arguably more likely to fantasise about a murderous revenge than one that involves faking their own murder and framing their husband for the deed. In the end, this is what makes Jodi oddly a more sympathetic character than Amy: their aims are similarly terrible yet there’s something more anti-hero about plotting murder than going to the extreme sociopathic limits of Amy Dunne. This is perhaps because by the end of the story, Jodi exhibits feelings comparable to those of actual human beings. Heroes are sympathetic, anti-heroes don’t need that luxury, but they still need to display humanity in order to differentiate them from villains.
The tipping point that drives both women to their goals, although in Amy’s case it merely feels like an excuse to step up her game, is adultery. Both men cheat with younger, more naïve women who hang onto their every word yet prove themselves (at least in the eyes of unreliable narration) to be needy and more trouble than they’re worth. The trope of “the other woman” is hardly new, and its deployment in both these stories reasserts the warring women stereotype in a way I personally found weakened the narrative somewhat, although there is something undeniably satisfying about watching man-children realise their mid-life crises aren’t some kind of cool boy rebirth.
Jodi fits a more comfortable anti-heroine mould than Amy could ever hope to. For one, she doesn’t do the deed herself when it comes to getting rid of her ex. The narrative’s less driven by vengeance and shows her as more fitting of the Woman Scorned badge than Amy. She suffers in a way Amy doesn’t, as Todd leaves her for a younger woman he has impregnated and slowly strips her of her financial security and social standing, essentially leaving her with nothing.
The Silent Wife has been optioned for a film, with Nicole Kidman attached to produce and star as Jodi (a genuinely flawless piece of casting, in my opinion), but if the movie does ever happen, the Gone Girl comparisons will be frequent, as they are with the books. Gillian Flynn has played down comments that the ending of the film will differ from the book. If there is a change, what will happen to Amy? Will she receive “what she deserves” or will it be Nick that suffers more? I’m reminded of the test screenings that happened for Fatal Attraction that resulted in the now famous bunny boiling Alex, played by Glenn Close, being killed off at the end. Reports at the time said many theatre-goers cheered on her death, screaming ‘bitch’ as they did so. The prospect of a changed Gone Girl ending resulting in braying delight over the death of a woman, even one as terrible as Amy, leaves with many concerns. The demand that even our Bad Women be likeable on some level is a curious one, and there’s certainly no need to make it a team.