Why David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ Isn’t Anti-Women
Critics have accused the film of sensationalising false rape allegations, and furthering the "crazy bitch" stereotype. But they're reading it wrong.
This piece deals explicitly with all the spoilers that could ever spoil Gone Girl for you, book AND film. You have been warned.
For a revenge satire about the daily microaggressions women experience from men, Gone Girl’s cinematic adaptation is getting into a lot of trouble, particularly from some feminist critics. Critics of the film have accused it of sensationalising false rape allegations (which in real life are statistically rare), of furthering the female stereotype of the manipulative “crazy bitch”, and of robbing valuable cinematic space from more relatable, more overtly feminist female characters.
But then satire, described aptly by Ambrose Bierce as “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another,” might be too close to the bone when it comes to gender politics, especially when audiences – including feminist audiences – aren’t ready to interrogate the gender biases they arrive at the cinema with. Because writing off the film as anti-women requires a critic to identify and sympathise with the male lead Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a burned out dudebro and arch misogynist, over his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) who, although doubtless a psychopath, is a very slick one, driven to the edge by a lifetime’s worth of impossible expectations imposed on her gender.
Yes, there are scenes which portray the fabrication of rape. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of gender-based violence knows that false allegations of rape are extremely rare, and that their significance in pop culture functions to silence experiences of rape. But anyone with that knowledge also understands rape within a spectrum of violent, possessive, and ultimately sexist attitudes towards women, which are more often so subtle that they seem banal. These behaviours, these microaggressions, are often impossible to call out when they occur, because calling them out comes at the price of sounding crazy, victim-y, unbelievable. The default position is that women don’t make reliable witnesses; that they’re not all that believable. Unless they have wounds to show, but I’ll get to that later.
Beware Nick Dunne: The Everybro
Why should audiences think twice about identifying with Nick? A few reasons. He’s a former men’s magazine journo who uses Amy’s money to sit around and not-write his “novel” (forget that his wife, too, used to write. Now she’s a housewife). Ew. He’s a philandering bar owner who forces Amy to move to a Missouri backwater, where he tries to coerce her into having a baby she’s not interested in. Nick is an everybro, but Gone Girl names it: everybros get away with whatever they want, and almost always at the expense of what the women in their lives want.
He’s the guy who hits on the waiter while his wife’s in the bathroom; he’s the guy who tells you every detail of his unwritten novel without ever asking what you do for a living; he’s the asshole you might just end up with if you’re desperate and dateless and in Manhattan, being eaten alive by the cut-throat dating scene.
Maybe you’re dating an everybro, or maybe you are one. Everybros can all go to hell.
No one likes a woman who calls out an everybro’s endemically shitty behaviour. And Amy doesn’t, for a long while. She plays along, because what else is she supposed to do? She’s not a regular girl, she’s a “cool girl”. That is, until she masterminds the greatest, most twisted payback.
That she frames her everybro husband for her murder is not playing into narratives of false accusations made by women, but rather embarking on a narrative of psychopathic revenge; making a husband pay for spiritually and symbolically killing his wife. Turn down for what?
What strikes me as bizarre about feminist readings of the film that have been negative – Nick as an innocent victim; Amy as the manifestation of every MRA’s nightmare – is that it requires the audience to identify with Nick over Amy. Yes, Amy’s terrifically unlikeable — she’s cold to the bone — but since when is a burnt-out sexist jock an okay point of identification for a feminist?
Last year, Gone Girl’s author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn defended Amy from accusations of misogyny by saying that feminism isn’t “only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be”. She told the Guardian that “it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing … there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish.”
Beware Amy Dunne: The Cool Girl
Gone Girl makes uncomfortable allusions to violence against women. When a fake rape allegation arises, the audience is invited, at first, to take the falseness of the accusation at face value; Nick delves into Amy’s past and finds exes who claim to have been falsely accused of rape, stalking, and more.
But look closer: later in the film, when Amy is trapped in her high-school boyfriend and life-long stalker Desi’s lake house, it seems that her accusations against him might have been on the money after all. I mean, he’s built a high-security lake house in fantastical anticipation of Amy’s arrival. Desi’s aggressive and obsessive kindness shows us how much of “Amy” he has imagined to satisfy his misogynistic imaginings of the woman. So if Desi, after all these years, is really the stalker Amy accused him of being, doesn’t that call into question whether her false accusation of rape against another ex was indeed false?
Nothing is quite right in Gone Girl, nothing quite fits. So why, if it is shown to us that the layers upon layers of fiction are so inseparable from the characters’ visions of themselves, do audiences assume that Amy’s ex, the one who says she falsely accused him of rape a decade ago, was telling the truth?
When Amy does stage a rape scene in order to escape, she’s totally calculated; but she’s utterly pragmatic. There is no moral excuse for her fabrication, but inside the plot, it’s not for nothing: Desi may not have raped Amy in the moment we bear witness, but is he innocent of false imprisonment? Is he innocent of the suffocating violence of banal sexism she endured?
The very fact that Amy is pragmatically required to stage an act of sexual violence to justify her escape points to the idea that women are only believed when there are physical scars; her testimony of patriarchal aggressions are useless without wounds. Rather than valorising the myth of false rape allegations, this infers the extent to which women are driven to the edge by the relentless possession of men. Or in other words, that without blood to show, a woman is not really victimised. Wounds or it never happened.
The banality of violence against women sits on the surface of this film. There is a spectrum of violence, of course, with on one end the terror of rape and spousal murder, and on the other end the million dismissive asides that everybros deal out daily. Violence against women is the accumulative dismissal of women, the constant reification of gender ideals, as much as it is their rape and murder. Yet while symbolic violence belongs on the same spectrum as physical and sexual violence, it’s not the same thing entirely, and Amy’s never justified in crying rape. Besides, what her character does is never — ever — for any person or ideal beyond herself. Amy’s bad to the bone, she’s a she-devil with amazing hair, and in fiction, and there’s just nothing wrong with that.
The “Cool Girl” monologue Amy makes while driving on the open road captures a sentiment that every woman who’s existed inside a dudebro’s world knows: “Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
It’s a long one, and oft-quoted, but here’s the crux of it, lifted from the book:
“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 into 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.”
This speech provides the explanation for the plot’s very existence. All the terrible things that Amy does hinge on the symbolic violence of being made into a Cool Girl. That this point seems to have been overlooked by many viewers means that we still, by default, identify with the everybro. Perhaps feminist satires, satires that impose the reality of domestic imprisonment onto an entire plotline, won’t be possible until we can critique the internalised misogyny we take to the cinema with us.
Everyone loves a good revenge fantasy: I mean, Tarantino is not for nothing. So why can’t not-very-interesting middle-class women have their own revenge in fiction — even if it is filtered through the spectacular wrongdoings of the most pragmatically evil woman imaginable? A simple fantasy of, you know, getting back at every everybro who has wasted years of her life by imposing on her “Cool Girl” nonsense, using the manipulative “skills” that have been levelled against them their whole lives?
Vale everybros. Long live the queen.
Gone Girl is in cinemas now.