~I’m about to spoil this entire book. Fair warning.~
Some folks would have you believe that feminism is dead. It accomplished its goals, perhaps went too far sometimes, and now it’s dead. Buried. Indeed, we are post-feminist. True equality and all that. I’m not one of these people. I think feminism is very much alive. But were I to be forced to accept its death, I would have to submit that its specter still haunts us all, sometimes crying out from the pitch black. And I am its harbinger. I have come to let you know that feminism has given Gone Girl a rating of “W” for: “Wow, totally fucked up bullshit.”
Gone Girl is a novel largely concerned with the failed marriage of its protagonists, but this plot thread is inextricable from the narrative’s mystery/thriller elements. Amy and Nick meet as beautiful, young, successful people in New York City. Nick is a working-class Midwesterner, now writing for a magazine. Amy is a lifelong New Yorker. She writes personality quizzes, and is substantially wealthy due to a series of children’s books written by her parents, but based on her alter-ego, Amazing Amy, who breezes through life’s challenges with aplomb. Their relationship appears to go smoothly for quite a while, but there are early warning signs. Both Amy and Nick seem like Grade A narcissists. On each yearly anniversary, Amy creates a scavenger hunt filled with clues based on their year together. The problem is that Nick is so unobservant and self-centered that he can’t actually figure the clues out; at the same time, Nick sees the scavenger hunt as less about them as a couple and more about Amy. In short, both characters are shitty to each other.
Eventually, Amy and Nick are laid-off from their respective jobs. Money problems begin to crop up. They live in a leased apartment in Brooklyn paid for by Amy’s parents, but her parents aren’t as well-off as they once were. Turns out, they need to take money out of Amy’s trust fund, to the tune of 600k+, to deal with their own financial issues. When Nick’s mother falls ill, he decides to move back to Missouri with Amy, in order to help his sister care for their dying mother. In Missouri, Nick takes a loan from Amy to finance a bar, which he runs with his sister, Margot. Obviously, this adds even more tension and resentment to their relationship.
I think this may actually be the best part of the novel. It’s all about people’s expectations when going into a relationship. How does one balance what we expect of those we love with the stark reality that they are flawed human beings, just like us? That, in all likelihood, no matter how much we love our partners, they will fail, disappoint, anger, and sadden us? What if the person you love just isn’t who you thought they were? In a way these are super basic themes, but no less resonant because of that. This novel’s depiction of a relationship that just isn’t working for a number of reasons (lack of affection, lack of sex, outsized expectations, changing circumstances, plain incompatibility) feels achingly, painfully real. For the entire first half of the novel, I was just deeply moved by these people who seemed to be in love but were just too fucked up to fix their problems.
Then, one day, Amy is gone. She has disappeared. Nick is blindsided, wandering around in a bit of a fog. And not appearing to be the distraught husband one might expect. Gradually, suspicious details emerge. Nick is obviously withholding information from the reader. Why does he have a second cell phone that keeps ringing? Why does he keep imagining his wife’s skull? Why can’t he account for his location during the time of Amy’s alleged disappearance/murder? There is other, alarming evidence: cleaned-up blood, a strangely disheveled living room, and a stockpile of Man Toys that Nick appears to have bought on credit but claims to know nothing about.
If the disintegrating marriage is the best part of the novel, this may be the second best. Gillian Flynn, the author, does a wildly successful job of building the case against Nick. Up until the actual reveal, I entertained three theories:
1. Nick actually killed Amy
2. Nick and Amy faked her death to get the insurance money
3. Amy is alive and framing Nick
It is all to Flynn’s immense credit that she had me more or less convinced of 1. even though 3. seems to make much more sense. The detail that sealed it for me was Nick’s father’s misogyny clearly having taken root in Nick himself. I got all wrapped up in the idea that this might be a story about generational misogyny. How we learn attitudes like misogyny from our environment, whether from our parents, friends, the things we consume, etc. It felt really exciting. That novel still needs to be written.
So, yes. Amy’s alive. She’s framing Nick. She discovered his infidelity, and planned her “death” for months. Honestly, when the reveal happens, it’s kind of amazing. There’s a surge of relief that Amy’s alive and exacting some kind of revenge on her husband. The fact that the revenge is fairly extreme is reasoned away by the genre’s inherent silliness. But problems quickly surface.
As much as one wants to root for Amy for getting back at (what appears to be) a truly awful husband, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the extent of Amy’s plan is truly monstrous. She plans to commit suicide to conclusively incriminate Nick. What’s more, we discover that the Amy we’ve known up to this point is basically a lie; all of the chapters we’ve been reading from Amy’s point-of-view are faked diary entries, meant to make Nick-as-murderer even more plausible.
But let’s stop here for a moment. There’s nothing wrong, or inherently unworkable, about a novel featuring thoroughly unlikable or heinous characters. Amy is essentially a sociopath. Nick is a wormy, adulterous man-child. They are both terrible, and that’s fine. However, I do want to think a bit about why Amy is how she is.
Throughout the novel I tried to make sense of the backhanded comments toward feminism. Early in the story, Amy says something about “post-feminism” men who are too afraid to be sexually/romantically aggressive. Later, she will make a comment about how her “feminist” parents exploited her childhood to sell books. I don’t quite know what to do with this. What’s clear is that Amy is something of a feminist. There is a delightfully acerbic passage, near her “alive” reveal, wherein she savages the idea that women should stand by while their partners casually ignore them and anything they might deem important. But I don’t know what to say about the rest of this. I mean, clearly, the comment about “post-feminism” men is total bullshit. If men were that reserved about sex we wouldn’t have the problem with rape that we do now. I guess the bit about her parents is meant to signal that “feminist” parents wouldn’t exploit their daughter? I suppose that’s true.
But what I’m really interested in is this: what are we to make of an evil character who is stereotypically evil in the same way that many would characterize “evil feminists”?
So I went to the author’s website, which turned out to be instructive. She described a kind of modus operandi in relation to one of her other novels, but one that also appears evident in Gone Girl:
It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.
To be frank, my first thought upon reading this was: “Oh, so this woman’s just an asshole?” I mean, really? You’re tired of the “brave rape victims”? Considering what you do in this novel, give me a fucking break. That aside, Flynn’s project — that of writing interesting female villains — is a fascinating and completely worthwhile endeavor. I just think the thought process by which she’s arrived at this project is deeply flawed. Let’s pay close attention to what she blames for the lack of compelling female baddies — the lack of the female dark side: “The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.”
Essentially, she blames feminism. There has been too much girl power — almost enough to be parodic — and now we can’t have proper female villains. This conclusion is ludicrous. Has uncontested male dominance for, like, ever, also failed to produce compelling male villains? Then why should it be true of the last 40 or so years where women have basically said, “hey, we’re human beings, too”? I would submit that the dearth of female villains can be easily explained by cultural misogyny. It’s the same reason we don’t see a variety of nuanced female characters across popular mediums, which is to say that we simply value male experience over female experience. It’s why we have Women in Refrigerators and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s why many brilliant actresses are relegated to roles in terrible romantic comedies. The lack of female villains is indicative of a larger cultural problem that has little to do with feminism; instead, it has has everything to do with a society that strongly circumscribes roles for women.
But if we’re going to take a ride on the Gillian Flynn Thriller Train, we should pay close attention to how the female villain manifests in Gone Girl. What’s her MO? What makes her particularly villainous? Coming away from this book, it’s hard not to get the impression that a large part of what comprises this particular female dark side is lying about rape. Repeatedly. Fake rape accusations make up no less than three major plot moments in the novel. It’s kind of staggering. She falsely accuses an ex because he lost interest in her. Her fake diary implies that, at some point, all of Amy and Nick’s sex becomes de-facto rape. Finally, to conveniently explain her disappearance (so she can reunite with Nick), Amy murders a man and claims that he had been keeping her hostage, raping her every day.
Ok. Is rape a horrible thing to lie about? Absolutely. Do women lie about it? Sure, but statistics tell us that false rape accusations are no more or less common than false accusations for other crimes. It’s really troubling, as I’m sure it’s supposed to be, that Amy lies over and over about being raped. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a character like Amy. But should we pretend this is an act of subversion? At the end of the day, doesn’t Amy play into a historically ubiquitous narrative that says women lie about rape constantly? Simply to be malicious. Because they wanted to have sex, but were ashamed afterwards. For any number of other coercive or manipulative reasons.
Before we set out on the path of writing an Amy, I think we should take care to note that our society makes real-life survivors of rape into villains every single day. We assume ulterior motives. We invade and question their sexual history as if it’s relevant. We make rape survivors into whores and sluts, into evil, evil women who are only out to hurt and punish men. And that’s if we don’t ignore them altogether, or if they can summon the courage to report the rape at all. I think the brave rape victims that Flynn is so bothered by are likely a literary reaction to this hard reality.
And I understand the other part of what Flynn meant to accomplish here. She wanted to take the narrative of “wife disappears, husband obviously killed her” and turn it on its head. That’s a fascinating idea for a novel, and for the first half of Gone Girl she nails it. Then all of the twists happen. I mean, isn’t it the case that the husband often is the culprit? Like, that’s reality. I guess I’m not exactly sure where the value is in this particular application of that concept. The value feels even more suspect when the result is a character so outlandish and over-the-top that she is less villain, more supervillain. She should be going up against Batman, not some washed-up loser. Amy’s gift for foresight and planning is truly remarkable. She’s being totally wasted here. I understand Flynn’s impulse for subversion, but the realization of that impulse is kind of bizarre. As Marlo Stanfield once famously said: you want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.
So, Gone Girl ends with Amy and Nick reunited, and it feels so awful. Aware of her deception(s), Nick rightfully wants nothing to do with her. As her final act of malice, Amy impregnates herself with Nick’s sperm, thereby trapping him in their loveless, terrifying marriage out of pure spite. Let’s recap here: Amy framed a man for murder, murdered another man, repeatedly lied about rape, and ruined the lives of at least several people. And to top off a year of emotional torment she gets pregnant to trap her husband? Comparatively, Nick’s only sin was being a terrible and adulterous partner. However terrible he may have been, that’s the extent of what he actually “did.” Amy is not an interesting or compelling villain. She is the crystallization of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behavior. If we strapped a bunch of Men’s Rights Advocates to beds and downloaded their nightmares, I don’t think we’d come up with stuff half as ridiculous as this plot.
It’s such a shame. Flynn is super-duper talented. This is a really well-written novel, downright insightful about the rigors of relationships and marriages. It’s almost tempting to say that the book is ruined by the trappings of the genre, but I don’t think that’s a fair conclusion. Ultimately, Gone Girl is done in by its ambition. It desperately wants to do interesting, subversive things, but in trying to, falls into some really misogynist narratives and implications. The specific ways in which Amy is evil (lying about rape, using pregnancy as a manipulative device) feel so entangled with misogynist caricatures created by anti-women and antifeminists that it really sinks the entire novel.
In the end, I suppose Gone Girl is really indicative of a post-feminist mindset, wherein the problems of misogyny become somehow the fault of feminism. Perhaps this is why the novel has a weird jab at post-feminist men. Perhaps that’s how one can say brave rape victims are tired, and go on to write a novel like Gone Girl. Or how we can blame the lack of diverse female characters on girl power. It’s a strange world out there for feminism, but this particular mystery isn’t fooling me.