Warning: This post will be so full of spoilers. Sorry, it’s necessary. As such, it will also contain discussion of the often very dark and disturbing content of the novel, particularly of rape and assault. Please approach with caution.
It was inevitable that Gone Girl would be made into a film. The best-selling novel, which helped its author Gillian Flynn net $9m last year alone, has achieved the enviable dual status of commercial and critical success, sparking countless conversations about its genre straddling themes and deliciously twisted protagonist. It’s not hard to see why David Fincher, director of Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, would be so attracted to the material. The result is a critically acclaimed thriller set to dominate the box office after a successful run at the New York Film Festival. Oscars could be calling in the future if all goes well for the producers. All things considered, it’s a triumph all round.
Before I discuss the central theme of this piece, it’s necessary to offer a brief summary of the plot of Gone Girl. Nick and Amy are about to celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary. After a bout of unemployment and a downsizing move from New York to Missouri, things haven’t been good between the two of them. We, the reader, see both sides of the story as Nick narrates the tale from Amy’s disappearance throughout the investigation which sees him as the prime suspect, and Amy’s diary extracts that reveal a woman fighting for her marriage even as her husband grows more distant and cold.
And then we get to part two.
The narrative switches from Amy’s diary to her revealing the truth, or the truth as she sees it. After discovering Nick is having an affair, she decides to exact her revenge by faking her death and framing her husband for the crime. The lengths she goes to are precise and maniacally dedicated, evidence of a long history of manipulative sociopathic behaviour. After her plan falls apart, she runs into the arms of her troubled ex Desi, but decides to go back to Nick, so murders Desi and fakes being repeatedly raped in order to convince the authorities that he kidnapped and brutalised her. The novel ends with Amy pregnant and together with Nick, forever tied together whether they like it or not.
It is, to put it as succinctly as I can manage, a fucked up story.
It’s fucked up and not at all feminist, but I don’t think it’s necessarily misogynistic because of that.
Modern crime fiction has never been the most socially progressive of genres, but it is one with a long and colourful history of fascinating female centred stories. The post-war period, where women were driven back into domestic roles after years of service outside of the home, saw anxieties about the female role in the world pushed to the forefront of fiction in several various forms. I’ve previously discussed the rise of lesbian pulp fiction during this period, and many crime writers fit this mould too, creating narratives centred on women trying to find their place in the world while subverting the extremely limiting expectations put upon them. Sarah Weinman defines this genre as “domestic suspense”, with authors like Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith setting the foundations for Flynn, among others.
Gone Girl is a book chock full of anxiety about almost everything – marriage, family, the economy, creativity, sex, gender, and very importantly, the media. The last one is so often forgotten when the book is discussed but it’s one of the most crucial components in shaping the story and the character of Amy. As the investigation into Amy’s disappearance unfolds and Nick becomes public enemy number one, the story introduces Ellen Abbott, a raving cable news host who’s such an obvious stand-in for Nancy Grace that I’m surprised she hasn’t sued already. Abbott, acting as judge, jury and executioner to her faithful audience, practically declares Nick to be the next Ted Bundy and spends night after night insisting that is fact, regardless of the lack of solid evidence. The audiences, and the reader, are whipped up into this typhoon of sensationalist finger pointing, and even Nick himself is aware of how he’s painted because he’s seen enough movies to know how it all ends for men like him.
This is common practice, not just in the media but in our daily expectations – in such circumstances, the husband is always the prime suspect. This is partly due to our own assumptions but also because in the majority of domestic deaths, the spouse is responsible. That’s not the story Flynn is interested in telling. Her priorities lie with that slither in the middle, the dissenting voice amidst a sea of Nancy Graces – what if he didn’t do it? What if the world of Headline News, that paints all women (or at least all beautiful middle class white women) as perpetual victims of evil men is entirely wrong? What happens when the domestic mould is broken beyond repair?
It’s not especially believable but once again, that’s not the story Flynn wants to tell. Her tale has more in common with pulp fiction and melodrama than gritty true life documentaries. The world of Gone Girl is one where the battles of the emotionally bankrupt reign supreme and where the expected is never going to happen.
The anti-hero is the backbone of modern fiction these days. The trope dominates film, television and literature – or at least it does for male characters. There’s no female Walter White on TV, and if there were I doubt she’d be as rapturously received as Cranston’s character. Skyler, Walter’s wife, receives some of the most vitriolic comments from fans of the show for daring to be as complex and ethically grey as her husband. Amy is by far the smartest, most complex, most interesting and most sinister character in Gone Girl, but she’s not the only one revelling in her own darkness. Nick may not be what Abbott says he is but his thought process reveals a man who’s often perilously close to joining his wife in that abyss.
Women don’t get to be as dark as Amy in fiction all that often, and certainly not in something as wildly successful as Flynn’s novel. Nobody claims Walter White or Tony Soprano or Hannibal Lecter are universal representations of their gender, so why is Amy Dunn’s existence seen as a bad thing for women? Many have argued that she buys into too many anti-feminist stereotypes, and it’s true that many female villains and anti-heroes are just lazily characterised as ‘bitches’, but Amy is too deft a depiction to fall into that trap. She’s not a flattering portrait of women, if you so choose to read it in a universal manner, but she’s never supposed to be anything remotely close to realistic.
That’s not to say that the fantastical is immune to criticism, far from it, but to dismiss Amy outright feels a little too close to claiming that women can’t ever be devious or evil, in my opinion. Amy’s existence and her lying about being raped doesn’t validate the claim of some misogynists that all women are inherently evil and revel in false rape claims.