thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Where Has the Girl Gone?: Post-Recession Marriage in Gone Girl

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2014 at 7:42 am

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Sarah S.

This post discusses plot points from both the book and the movie versions of Gone Girl. The filmmakers made a very close adaptation of the novel so the primary difference comes from the lack of nuance and character development that tends to be inevitable in book-to-film adaptations.

It also contains SPOILERS, so if you have managed to not learn THE TWIST, and you care to remain in the dark, do not read further. You have been forewarned.

I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in a binge between 4 pm Saturday and 8pm Sunday last weekend. I saw the film adaptation—directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike—on a sunny autumn afternoon last Wednesday. I suddenly felt caught up in one those micro-tornadoes of chitter-chatter swirling through the zeitgeist.

But what makes this book and, more so, its film version such a teapot tempest right now? It enjoys a decent but not overwhelming 87% fresh score on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Two friends on Facebook logged complaints about female representation while declaring themselves Fincher-fans. But another declared it the “worst movie [he’s] seen since The Social Network,” leading me to wonder if reactions were breaking on the Fincher love-hate axis. (And here I expected to be debating the merits of everybody’s least-favorite Batman.) But it’s obviously more than that.

I think that at least some of the reactions to Gone Girl have to do with its allegorical nature. It’s a tale of the Great Recession and its effects on America’s iconographic “best and brightest”: the Midwestern bootstrap-boy and the complicated, mesmerizing girl. Moreover, it does not just focus on these characters but attempts to say something about what they mean individually and as a metaphorical representation of middle class, American marriage. The book even stages this conceit with section breaks subverting romantic comedy plot points—”Boy Loses Girl,” “Boy Meets Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back (or Vice Versa).”

The book begins with the disappearance of Amy Elliot Dunne, a lifetime New Yorker dragged to her husband Nick’s Missouri hometown after a series of recession-related hardships: both are laid off from their jobs as writers; Amy’s parents have frittered away their fortune from the children’s books they wrote starring their daughter’s doppleganger, “Amazing Amy,” and now need to reclaim most of her trust fund; and, most of all, Nick’s mother is dying of cancer and her care is too much for his twin, Margo—”Go”—(Carrie Coon), to handle alone. Nick and Amy also live in one of those suburban ghost towns, their home a lingering testament to the real estate market collapse that kicked off a recession that most Americans still feel the effects of.

With Amy’s disappearance, Nick finds himself a suspect in the disappearance of the wife he has come to loathe, while Amy’s diary reveals her to be a sweet, unique woman who only wants to make her increasingly-distant husband happy.

Of course, then we come to the THE TWIST. Nick realizes he is being framed for his wife’s murder by Amy herself, bent on punishing Nick for failing to be the impressive man she thought she married (oh, and also for shagging a student from his creative writing class). Amy turns out to be a narcissistic psychopath who feels she’s never been appreciated for how amazing she actually is and further resents never finding people who are her intellectual and social equals. Narratively, Nick-the-suspect then transforms to a hapless everyman, imperfect, but undeserving of such punishment from Amy the Psycho Bitch from Hell.

As I pondered the book and then the movie, which gleefully wallows in Amy’s depravity, I couldn’t help getting that squiffy feminist gurgle in my belly. At least in the first half of the book, I was seeing a portrait of American masculinity feeling petulant and besieged due to social change, all the bootstrap knocked out of him once the rules changed and he couldn’t figure out the new ones. Nick is kind of a tool but does that mean he is a murderer? Further, Amy in the diary embodies her own post-feminist quandary: how to honor the self while also shoring up your companionate marriage? But after THE TWIST, Nick becomes masculinity abused by female power run amok, with its impossible expectations and domestic cruelties. It was entertaining, sure, but was it a problem?

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But then I noticed that for every “poor little Nick” moment we’re graced with a subtler “up yours, Nick!” that highlights the impossible expectations women are put under while simultaneously being expected to constantly massage men’s egos. It’s enough to, dare I say it, drive a woman mad.

For example, Amy rails against the trope of the “Cool Girl,” that mythological creature who “act[s] like a dude but look[s] like a supermodel.” Amy writes:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. 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. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl” (223).

She further rails at Nick’s stupidity in not realizing that the Cool Girl is not reality, for refusing to see the real Amy. Her self-involvement is not exactly admirable but I couldn’t help feeling that Amy had a point—”up yours, Nick” indeed.

Amy’s point resounds again when she calls on her high school boyfriend—rich, spoiled Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris)—to protect her from Nick’s alleged abuses. Amy discovers, ironically, that Desi’s obsessed with her and with remaking her into the doll-woman he’s fantasized for decades. Again, our audience sympathies primarily remain with Nick and yet Desi’s expectations for Amy highlight how constrained she is by others’ visions of her—and how much she uses those expectations to manipulate and control. Is it any wonder that the book and movie never pin down a definitive version of “Amy”?

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And with the concluding TWIST TWIST, Amy seduces and kills Desi, and then returns home covered in blood and lies. She then insists to Nick that a. they will be happily married because now they really know each other, in a perversion (or fulfillment) of the companionate marriage ideal, and b. Nick has no choice because he will never be contented with an ordinary woman again. In the film version (not the book), Nick explodes at this quandary:

Nick: You fucking cunt!

Amy: I’m the cunt you married! The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I’m not a quitter… I’m that cunt.

The double entendre here between the pejorative and the body part speaks exactly to this point. And by the end, particularly of the book but also the movie, I couldn’t help feeling a grudging admiration for Amy. Not in the sense that I wanted to be her (perish the thought!) but she certainly is, in an abstract sense, amazing—intelligent, beautiful, savvy, uncompromising, and capable (in the ugliest way possible) of improving everyone around her.

Or at least that seems to be Gone Girl‘s quiet rebuttal to the pro-Nick over-plot. And rounding out it’s allegorical pretensions, Nick ultimately chooses to play house when Amy reveals she’s pregnant via his stolen sperm. The narrative thus ends with a cynical, satirical jab at how America fetishizes pregnancy and the nuclear, heterosexual family.

So is Gone Girl feminist? Nah. It’s too trashy, and delighted to be so. Moreover, it’s too committed to the “poor little Nick” fantasy. But as a fable for post-recession America, it suggests that the social structures remain standing even though their foundations are rotten to the core.

***

Some other interesting articles:

Gone Girl as…rom com?

Every era gets the Psycho Bitch it deserves.”

More on the “Cool Girl” with notes on Gone Girl specifically.

There Is No True Version of Gone Girl

***

Stray observations:

-I thought the film made really good use of star text. Pike is generally cast as generic wives and girlfriends so making her the dark underbelly of that stereotype is fun, and the shifting love-hate relationship the audience has to Nick winks at the similar love-hate relationship with Affleck. It was also fun to see the famously “out” Harris as the effete, obsessed Desi. Overall, the casting was good. It’s nice to see Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit getting work. And Tyler Perry was quite charming as Tanner Bolt, attorney to wife murderers everywhere, even if his characterization had a whiff of the “Magical Negro” about it.

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-From one perspective, Go is the real hero of the narrative, or at least its moral center. (Sidebar: I really love the name Margo and its iterations.) But in the heteronormative logic the story simultaneously shores up and undermines, she is also the single, childless woman who must fall in line as a tertiary character, a mere sister, only an aunt.

-The film more or less drops Nick’s father as a side plot. But there’s a fun irony in the man who hates all women, reducing them all to “bitches,” being dazzled by Amy, the ultimate Bitch.

-This thing totally evokes Gatsby in a way that could use its own essay. Amy is Daisy, Go is Jordan, the Elliot parents are Tom Buchanan, Andie (Nick’s mistress) is Myrtle, Desi Collings is Gatsby, and Nick is, well, Nick, our hapless narrator dragged into horrifying, tragic circumstances beyond his control. Am I right?

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