Last night, Travis and I saw Gone Girl with a couple of friends. Our immediate reactions were not positive, and twelve hours later I’m still attempting to synthesize how I really feel about what Gone Girl attempts to do and what it really does.
If you aren’t familiar, Gone Girl stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and is based on the acclaimed novel by Gillian Flynn, published in 2012. I have not read the novel, so I can really only speak to the movie itself–although friends who have both read the novel and see the movie say the movie sticks to the book relatively well.
The movie has a 79 on Metacritic, based on 39 positive reviews and 10 mixed reviews from “a large [curated] group of the world’s most respected critics.”
Because it got no negative reviews from “the world’s most respected critics.”
At best, Gone Girl is a dark and suspenseful narrative that illuminates what happens when two shitty people are trapped in a toxic relationship: resentment, distrust, head games, cheating, abuse. It illustrates the way that modern-day media paints those accused of murder (and other, high-profile crimes) as unquestionably guilty without trial, as well as the ways their every move is discussed, analyzed, and condemned. It contributes to a society that seems to say, “You are guilty until proven innocent, and sometimes not even then.” This is not to say that the real-world justice system works or is always right or isn’t flawed or doesn’t work against oppressed and marginalized groups. This is merely to say that, the only positive message I can find in this movie is that the media has the potential to significantly skew the way that we interpret and understand the very topics the media has chosen to present to us. As a relatively critical person of anything I consume, this is not new to me, and I highly doubt that the people who need to hear this message are actually picking up that take-away from Gone Girl.
At worst, Gone Girl propagates the myth that women will lie about being raped to punish the mean in their lives, displays a negligent and possibly abusive husband as the victim of malicious journalism and a dangerous, mentally unstable femme fatale. The movie–and probably the book, too–forces us to sympathize with a unreliable, unlikable character who does not deserve our sympathy. And this is not a positive. If we don’t sympathize with Nick Dunne, the character through whose eyes we enter the world, we’re left to sympathize with Amy, whose ghostly voice haunts the first half of the film and whose presence as a living, breathing, conniving woman who is not, in fact, dead alters significantly the way this movie portrays violence and oppression toward women.
If we took out the contrived-rape-and-faked-murder plotline, we’d have a movie about two shitty people stuck in a shitty relationship who can’t deal with it. Amy’s spent her entire life trying to live up to a fictionalized, glorified version of herself (written into children’s book form by her parents) and attempting to assert control over her actions. We see this when she and Nick attend a publisher party for the Amazing Amy series and her mother chastises her for not wearing white to go along with the wedding theme (because Amazing Amy is getting married!) and forces real, not-so-amazing Amy to have a pretty horribly and sexist conversation with journalists who only seem interested in knowing how she feels about Amazing Amy while she, herself, is still utterly and horribly unmarried.
In short, Amy lived most of her life without being an autonomous human being, and a very generous reading might conclude that the entire plot is just Amy attempting to assert control over her life and tear down the patriarchal forces that have resulted in her being married in small-town Missouri with no real friends and no real family and a shitty husband whose been cheating on her for over a year with one of his college students.
I cannot support that reading.
Instead, I see Gone Girl as a dangerous piece of media that represents women as inherently “crazy” individuals. I keep coming back to the idea of “crazy” because, in class yesterday, we had to have a conversation about generalizations after a man student said, “All women are crazy.”
All women are not crazy. I would argue not even most women are crazy. And yet Gone Girl depicts a crazy woman who will stand in for women everywhere, and especially for women who accuse their partners of domestic abuse or who have experienced rape and sexual assault.
As Lindy West over at GQ wrote in her review, in a much better way than I could put it right now:
Where he goes (courtesy of author Gillian Flynn, of course) is deep into the psyche of a sadistic, diabolical, murderous psychopath, who just happens to be a woman. Which isn’t, in itself, a problem–female villains often have more personality, and more fun, than snoozeville heroines–but Amy isn’t just your average stabby black-widow criminal mastermind, she’s the ultimate crazy bitch trope, a validation of every hysterical misogynist lie (or, to be more charitable, every fluttering male anxiety) currently on the books. And the problem is, in our present culture, that “a woman” is always interchangeable with “women.” Taken as a fable about modern gender relations, which isn’t a particularly far-fetched reading, Gone Girl confirms what so many woman-haters have long suspected: that women readily use rape accusations as a tool of revenge or escape; that women take some perverse pleasure in weathering rape kits and intrusive interrogations; that when a woman says she was victimized, she deserves suspicion as much as support; that women have some privileged, almost mystical sway over law enforcement; that women take things too far, that we are ungrateful, we are controlling, we are ruthless, we manipulate, we drive men to cheat and then punish them for it, we chew men up and spit them out, on to the next one, the next one, and again, and again.
And this falls into the virgin-whore dichotomy that persists in most of western literature, leaving women to fit into two camps: the “ideal,” innocent woman who will bend over backwards to make her man happy and the stereotyped man eater whose actions are manipulative and self-serving.
This is not a dangerous movie for critical thinkers, for people who are used to engaging with or discussing or analyzing the ways that movies portray characters, offer commentary on real-life issues, or feed back into the cultural understandings of groups of peoples and individuals.
But this is a very dangerous movie for people who don’t actively engage in this kind of thinking, who mindlessly consume media and then praise it for it’s “suspense” or characterization or it’s provocative plot.
Michael Lovan at I am Not a Motivational Speaker addresses the problems of Gone Girl‘s Amy with considerable insight, and it’s reassuring to know that Travis is not the only man to have problems with how Gone Girl depicts women and undermines the stories of rape and sexual assault victims/survivors. Lovan asserts that the films producers could have at least called attention to the fact that the movie “knowling propagates and reinforces the myth of woman-as-oppressor. . . But they didn’t. Because they don’t give a shit.”
But I might additionally argue that all the individuals busy praising Gone Girl for its narrative or its characterization or the way its shot or whatever they might praise about it without critically acknowledging its tragic flaw also do not give a shit about the women in their lives who may have experienced or have yet to experience sexual assault in some form. They, too, do not give a shit about the individuals who are doubted and questioned and made to feel less than for reporting a rape, the individuals who do not see justice because there is no “evidence” of their rape, the individuals who are told not to dress a certain way or do a certain thing or even where a particular expression so as to avoid being the target of unwanted (male) sexual advances, the individuals who will not come forward out of fear of such victim-blaming and doubting and criticizing that comes with being a victim/survivor of sexual assault in a patriarchal society.
And, frankly, as a society, we need to give a shit.