***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: DO NOT PROCEED IF UNPREPARED***
Just cast her already, will you?
Reading Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s feverishly hyped, midnight-dark page-turner of a psychological thriller that was released in 2012 to thunderous critical acclaim, is like being in a particularly volatile relationship (not that I claim to be an expert or even a competent individual in such things). It starts out promising enough, a little tentative yet still enjoyable, until something unexpected happens, like a punch to the gut, and you start to think that maybe, just maybe, this could be the real thing. Either way, you’re sucked in; the ship has officially left the harbor. What follows is a whirlwind of emotion, ranging from hold-your-breath suspense to cathartic glee to soul-melting heartache and, most vividly for me, red-hot, all-consuming RAGE, that leaves you feeling dazed, giddy and more than a little exhausted.
You may not be able to tell from the above description, but I absolutely loved Gone Girl, almost to the point of unhealthy obsession. Packed with mind-blowing twists and turns, memorable characters, witty dialogue and astute (often scathing) observations of relationships, social politics and the media in 21st century America, this is the rare bestseller that is as original, thought-provoking and brilliantly composed as it is addictive. However, what firmly elevates the novel above your everyday pulp noir is its clever subversion of gender stereotypes. In short, besides being just a damn good book, Gone Girl is fiercely, at times belligerently feminist, an uncompromising “fuck you” to the contemporary patriarchy.
All of this probably sounds like a lot of hyperbolic, grasping-for-straws hooey, and I won’t deny that I have a tendency to overpraise books, movies, etc. that I like. Only two years ago, a sizable portion of the population treated Bridesmaids like the second coming of Thelma and Louise. Look, I have no problems with people who enjoyed the movie (which I found a perfectly alright mainstream comedy), but when it was released way back in 2011, Bridesmaids was accompanied by articles that insisted that, among other things, women had a “social responsibility” to see it and the future of women in Hollywood depended upon its box office success. That’s a lot of praise – not to mention pressure – heaped on a film that doesn’t actually do or say anything radical about gender roles beyond the fact that the majority of its cast is of the female persuasion. Despite what some people may have you believe, the idea that women can be just as dirty-minded, uncouth and funny as their testosterone-infused counterparts is not revolutionary, as women have been raunchy and hilarious for decades, ever since Marilyn Monroe held down her skirt in The Seven-Year Itch and Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally… Also, for a movie widely touted as a feminist game-changer, Bridesmaids engages in a fair amount of sexist tropes and stereotypes, such as a prominent subplot revolving around petty competition and jealousy between women and its depiction of the perpetually single female lead as hapless and depressed (because women can’t possibly be happy and self-confident without the support of a man). In the end, the hoopla that surrounded Bridesmaids is more indicative of the general state of female representation in pop culture, which is still so dire that the Bechdel Test is often considered a reasonable benchmark, than any groundbreaking qualities of the movie itself.
My point being: there is always plenty of gray area when it comes to feminism (and pretty much everything else) and art. If one person proclaims a character or work to be the ultimate incarnation of female empowerment, I can guarantee that someone else will point to some detail that suggests otherwise. In fact, a fair number of people thought Gone Girl contained some misogynistic undertones or at least presented a somewhat problematic portrait of modern women, and I think a reasonable case could certainly be made for that viewpoint, even though I disagree with it. I'll even admit that while reading the book, I found myself conflicted. On one hand, I gleefully applauded Flynn’s examination and indictment of various pop culture-approved stereotypes, yet on the other hand, it was impossible to ignore the fact that, at the end of the day, Amy exhibits all the traits of your textbook sociopath, making her an unquestionable villain (albeit a compulsively fascinating one). And in the other, other hand, even while acknowledging that Amy is an all-around terrible person, I couldn't help but root for her, rather than the more ostensibly sympathetic Nick. To say the least, it was an unsettling and rather frustrating experience (especially when compounded with the fact that despite the beyond-toxic nature of their marriage, a small part of me vainly hoped that Nick and Amy would somehow reconcile and live happily ever after together, but that’s another story).
Not until several days after I turned the last page, when I had had plenty of time to mull it over, could I finally start making sense of my feelings. Now, I feel like I can say with some measure of certainty that I found Gone Girl not only an interesting and, at times, brutally honest portrait of gender dynamics in the Internet Age but also an inventive, passionate, disturbing and ultimately empowering subversion of conventional perceptions of feminism.
To begin with, let me talk about one of the novel’s best and most frequently cited passages:
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 in 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… 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.
“Cool Girl” is essentially a variation on the now-infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, except this time tailored toward generic, vaguely narcissistic wannabe-jock types instead of brooding, introspective loners with low self-esteem. I was surprised by how many people seem to have misinterpreted Flynn’s epic takedown of the Cool Girl, contending that there are lots of women who genuinely like video games and dirty jokes and football. Which is true; as a fervent, verging on maniacal, baseball lover, I clench my teeth with self-righteous fury whenever someone acts as though sports are the exclusive domain of men, and it’s absurd that people are still constantly surprised by the revelation that not all women are dainty, naïve Victorian-era ladies who need to be protected from the horrors of profanity and normal bodily functions. However, that is missing the point of the passage. The Cool Girl isn’t just some ordinary woman who happens to enjoy stereotypically masculine activities; she is a woman whose sole purpose in life is to satisfy the needs, whims and desires of men. She’s a mess of contradictions, tough and independent yet also passive and lenient, someone who can alternate between being “one of the guys” and the ideal ‘50s housewife, depending on what her man wants at any given moment. Like the MPDG, she doesn’t exist in real life, nothing more than a fantasy conjured up by men who think they’re entitled to total freedom and control while also getting blowjobs whenever their libidos act up.
Attention, filmmakers: this is how you do it right.
A former staff writer at Entertainment Weekly, Flynn has an in-depth understanding of how the media and entertainment industries deliberately or subconsciously perpetuate and exploit conventional expectations of gender roles, and her expertise suffuses Gone Girl with singular insight into the psychological effects of pop culture. Among most prominent themes woven throughout the novel is the interplay between fiction and reality, the disconnection between a person’s public and private selves. In a clever twist, Flynn has her media-savvy protagonists take advantage of the narrative-centric nature of modern journalism, constructing false personalities (such as Cool Girl, Nice Guy, Contrite Husband, Dead Girl, Abused Wife, etc.) in order to manipulate each other and the stupidly engrossed public. By showing the stark contrast between Amy and Nick’s true identities and the various personas they inhabit, the author reveals how much our perceptions of other people are shaped by archetypes that have long been engrained in our collective psyche. She also revives the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture: are we the product of our genetics or of society? Gone Girl seems to side more with the latter.
Indeed, even though Amy is a full-blown, no-doubt-about-it psychopath, Flynn suggests that her behavior may at least in part be motivated by external influences. The only child of a well-adjusted, happily married pair of psychologists, who have achieved something resembling fame due to a series of young adult books they wrote inspired by their daughter, Amy spends a considerable portion of the novel talking about the pressure she felt to be perfect while growing up. According to her, Marybeth and Rand, her parents, used her fictional doppelganger Amazing Amy as a way to passive-aggressively hint at their disappointment in the real her. “I can’t fail to notice that whenever I screw something up, [Amazing] Amy does it right,” she muses. It’s little surprise that Amy turned into an adult obsessed with excellence, with always being right and controlling every aspect of her life.
More importantly, though, Amy’s attitude and actions are shaped by her relationship with Nick. Over the course of five years, they went from soul mates to bitter adversaries, trying their damnedest to destroy each other. In addition to the understandable turmoil that rose after they were fired within two months of each other and forced to move from New York City to North Carthage, Missouri, Amy grew tired of pretending to be Cool Girl, and to her annoyance, Nick resented her for it:
I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. He truly seemed astonished when I asked him to listen to me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That I did mind when he didn’t show up for drinks with my friends… Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?
This is what ultimately differentiates Amy from the cartoonish “psycho bitches” that dominated cinema during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, appearing in movies like Fatal Attraction, Disclosure and Basic Instinct and serving as Hollywood’s backlash to the rising power of feminism. Unlike those films, which cast the man as the innocent hero and the woman as a heartless lunatic, Gone Girl gives Amy her own voice. Not only does this lend the novel an extra nuance, as the reader has to sort through the lies and deception to find the truth, but it also compels us to wonder if Amy really is a monster. Yes, she's manipulative and uptight, but should she really be punished for being herself? There's something troubling about the fact that type-A women are always portrayed as hysterical shrews who need to be “tamed” and place absurd demands on their husbands (like expecting them to actually listen when they talk), whereas lazy, immature men are depicted as innocent, carefree charmers who patiently put up with their wives' womanly needs.
Some critics have complained that Gone Girl makes it too obvious that Nick is supposed to be the sympathetic one and Amy the monster, and in the traditional sense, it’s hard to argue with this since Nick is technically innocent. To the contrary, I found Nick no more likable than Amy (Flynn herself has said that she roots for whichever point of view she happens to be writing at the time). He’s clueless, self-absorbed, vengeful, narrow-minded and cowardly, and for all his efforts to hide it, he has inherited traces of his father’s misogyny. When he discovers Amy’s plan, his first reaction is to lure her back to kill her, and once he realizes that he can’t do that, he decides that “Amy in prison, that was a good ending for her. Tucked away in a box where she couldn’t inflict herself on me”. This is how bigots respond to things they can’t understand: eliminate it, repress it or, if the first two options fail, dismiss it as less than human, an “other”.
Nick may not be an outright terrible person (after all, he never physically or sexually assaults Amy, at least not before he found out that she framed him for murder), but that does not make him any less of a misogynistic asshole. He represents the kind of casual sexism most prevalent in modern-day society: the kind practiced by men who think they're entitled to a medal or at least a satisfying fuck for behaving like decent human beings (for example, not forcing yourself on an unconscious girl, helping with the chores once in a while, etc.). If anything, Nick's ignorance makes him all the more infuriating, as it enables him to maintain the illusion that he has the moral high ground – that he is a “Nice Guy”. These sad sacks populate everything from classic literature like Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac to modern romance movies like Hitch and The Notebook. They think that passivity is the same as selflessness and everyday kindness is noble, and women are obligated to reward them for their difficulties. As this Cracked.com article helpfully points out, what these Nice Guys don't realize is: a) being nice in order to gain something for yourself or to mindlessly obey social norms, as opposed to being nice because you actually think it's the right thing to do, is its own form of arrogance; and b) just because you're nice (aka polite), it doesn't mean other people have to like you or be attracted to you. It's refreshing to read a novel that explores sexism outside of your usual sadistic rapists and alcoholic domestic abusers, one that shows how prejudice is so internalized in our culture that it has become natural.
Another common criticism of Gone Girl is that the whole plot, especially the ending, seems over-the-top and stretches the bounds of plausibility. And sure, it's hard to believe that even someone as brilliant as Amy could both concoct such a complicated scheme and have it succeed without a hitch, and no matter which way you look at it, her justification for faking her own kidnapping and framing her husband is hardly, ahem, justified, even if Nick is kind of a dick. For me, though, that's partly what makes Gone Girl so powerful: it doesn't compromise. Whereas most authors probably would have softened it up, maybe turned it into a parable about forgiveness and the power of love or whatever (or at least have had Nick be rational and get a divorce), Flynn hurtles down the darkest route possible at NASCAR speeds. Amy ultimately wins, if you could call being stuck with your boring, resentful husband a victory, but neither character finds anything even moderately resembling redemption – and that is how it should be.
Because at its heart, Gone Girl is a cold-blooded, no-holds-barred revenge fantasy. I'm sure I'm not the only person who felt a just a tiny bit of schadenfreude as I watched Amy slowly yet surely demolish every last shred of Nick's ego, and to be honest, I don't care if that makes me a bad person or a bad feminist. This isn't to say that Flynn (or I) advocates man-hating, violence or crime as a solution to sexism. But in a world where women are expected to accommodate men, where men's rights are rights whereas women's rights are often seen as privileges, where woman-hating is condemned and scorned but man-hating is downright unthinkable, it's nice to see the tables flipped for once. One of the reasons why Amy is such a captivating and, dare I say, feminist character is her utter unwillingness to tolerate men and their bullshit. None of that outdated “boys will be boys” nonsense. If there's any message to take away from Gone Girl, it's that women don't have to accept the status quo. We should be allowed to rage and fume and demand that something be done (or, better yet, do something ourselves), and we should be allowed to call people out for being sexist douchebags or saying/doing things that make them seem like sexist douchebags.
If Fight Club is a rebel yell for men disillusioned by the mind-numbing superficiality of yuppie consumerism (which, of course, isn't to say it can't appeal to women as well), then Gone Girl is a furious call to arms for women unsatisfied with our allegedly post-feminist society. Elizabeth Hand puts it best in her spoiler-filled article in the Boston Review: “If rape and other sexual violence, religious servitude, and the politically determined inaccessibility of contraception can be seen as acts of war, stories like these may not just be a means of escapism. In the mind's eye, they might be weapons, to be picked up, opened, and deployed.”