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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Further Thoughts on Gone Girl

It's possible that I underrated Gone Girl in my review. After all, it's a week later and I find myself still thinking about the movie, going over bits and pieces of it, trying to tease out its subtleties, thinking about what it all means. For a film that seems, on the surface, like just another lurid thriller (albeit one expertly put together), Gone Girl leaves you with a lot to think about and a lot to debate. So, with that in mind, here's a few more thoughts about the film that I've been turning over in my head since writing my review.

Gone Girl is Misogynist

I stated in my review that I don't think the film is misogynist and, after some more reflection, I still don't, though I think it contains elements which make this reading valid. Amy is, after all, the nightmare woman that men's rights activists see in every woman, a vindictive force of evil who has a habit of making false rape accusations against any man who displeases her and who uses the threat of withholding a child from his or her father as a means of manipulating that man. Admittedly, the story's flippant treatment of rape - characterizing rape as something a woman can fake, and rather easily, in order to solve a problem that she's having with an innocent man - made me feel a bit queasy. It's not that false rape claims never happen in real life, but that people in some corners tend to latch on to that as a means of negating all rape claims that makes this such a sensitive topic. Moreover, while I understand what Gillian Flynn, author of the novel and the screenplay, was going for in terms of having a protagonist who is female, unlikeable, and ultimately victorious - after all, male protagonists get this treatment all the time and are revered for being "anti-heroes" - I can't help but think that there were other ways to make it clear that Amy is bad to the core than by making her the girl who cried rape. As I understand it, in the novel one of Amy's victims is a woman she falsely accuses of stalking, and maybe if that plot point had been included in the film then it would have seemed less like Amy is a one woman man punishing army.

Gone Girl is Feminist

I don't think Gone Girl is misogynist, but I wouldn't characterize it as feminist either, although I can understand why some others have been. Fundamentally, Gone Girl is a story about a woman taking control of the narrative and becoming its determining force. As a child, Amy was at the mercy of her parents who, finding her deficient, literally rewrite her life so that it conforms with their expectations. Amy lives in the shadow of the far more impressive "Amazing Amy" until she marries Nick, at which point she thinks that she's gained control over her own "story." However, she instead finds that Nick has the control, which he demonstrates when he unilaterally decides to sell their New York home and move them to Missouri ("I didn't mind," Amy states in voiceover, "I just wish he'd asked."), and then underscores when he begins shifting Amy out of the role which he's designated for her - to him she's not Amy, a specific person with thoughts, desires, and values, but the more generic figure of "wife," a woman Nick doesn't know anything about other than that she lives with him. When Amy fakes her death and frames him, she thinks that she's seizing the narrative, but she's mistaken in that belief because the story of her disappearance is all about Nick - did he do it, how did he do it, why did he do it - and to a lesser extent it's about her parents, who use the attention her disappearance has garnered as a means of self-promotion. "Death" means surrender, giving up her identity in its entirety, and it means that she will be immortalized as "Amazing Amy" or Nick Dunne's murdered wife; it isn't until she makes her triumphant return that she actually claims her victory, becoming not just the true center of her story by the author of it as well. Everything that happens from that point happens on her terms - she controls the interview with the FBI, easily pulling focus away from Detective Boney's attempts to expose the holes in her story, she controls her media image by immediately arranging an interview with the woman who spent weeks publicly savaging Nick, and she controls Nick, telling him how it's going to be as they move forward and how they are going to present themselves to the world. So, in the sense that the story is one in which a woman gains agency over herself and her life, Gone Girl is feminist, but...

Since the cornerstone of feminism is equality, then a story in which a woman completely breaks and demoralizes a man really isn't feminist. Further, Amy develops agency, but she does so while conforming to the societally approved notion of what a woman is. What's the first thing Amy does after she dies? She let's herself "go." She stops wearing make up, she dresses in comfortable clothes, and she eats junk food without worrying about losing her size 2 figure. She stops trying to live up to the impossible and unfair standards of femininity as determined by our culture. Once she places herself in Desi's hands, she starts being reconditioned (at Desi's insistence) into her former image as a woman whose purpose is to be attractive to men. It's that Amy, the Vertigo'd, conforming Amy, who comes home so that while she has taken control of her story, her victory is compromised. She looks like she's "supposed" to and she's entering into the role that women are supposed to value and desire more than any other (motherhood) - she's in control, but she's in control while confined a very strict and specific set of standards.

Reversal of Fortune

Gone Girl is the story of Amy's emerging dominance, but it's also the story of Nick's surrender. At the beginning, Nick presents as a "man's man," or perhaps simply as "Man" - physically powerful, capable of attracting women, and in charge. He spends without regard to Amy's opinion even when she's the only person bringing in an income, he decides (again without pausing to consider Amy's thoughts) to pull up stakes in New York and move to Missouri, he finds Amy inadequate as a wife and so he finds a replacement. When Amy meets him, he's working for a men's magazine, advising men on how they should dress, what they should drink, how they should act - in other words, how to "present" as men. Nick's masculinity is as much a construct as Amy's femininity, but with one key difference: Nick is the author of that construct. Nick has agency, and though he saves his own life by essentially challenging Amy to come home, he also loses that agency once she returns. By the end of the film, Nick has transitioned from the protagonist role into what is traditionally the "female" role in film. He's a victim, a submissive figure (best illustrated in a scene where Amy tucks a cowering Nick into bed), marginalized and so symbolically robbed of his manhood that Amy is able to conceive his child without his participation.

Yet, for all that, Nick is a participant in his own imprisonment in his hell of a marriage. There is really no reason why he couldn't come forward with the truth about Amy. Her story, once she returns, is so full of inconsistencies and things that just flat out make no sense that it wouldn't stand up to the least bit of scrutiny. Detective Boney tells Nick that she's not in a position to expose Amy as a liar, but there's nothing stopping Nick from, say, hiring a private investigator to unravel Amy's none-too-tight plot and exposing it to the world (I mean, really, since Amy's story about being held captive by Desi apparently hinges on the security footage of her in his place, wouldn't the tapes also be the undoing of her story? Desi doesn't exactly drag her into the house, for one thing, and for another, where was she being kept beforehand?) and thereby forcing the FBI to actually examine her case. But Nick doesn't want to do that; Nick wants to be with Amy so that they can keep playing out their war with each other. He tacitly admits as much to Margo, much to her horror, and maybe, deep down, Nick is actually grateful for Amy's emergence as the dominant partner because it means that he can stop trying to live up to the image of manhood and can just cede control to Amy with the convenient excuse that she's "won" the power by virtue of her pregnancy and the potential control she will have over the child once born.

Amy is a "Crazy Bitch"

All the talk (within the film and without) of Amy being a crazy bitch made me think of pop culture's original crazy bitch: Medea (the character from Greek mythology, not the Tyler Perry character). In the Argonautica (the story of Jason and the Argonauts), Jason is given several tasks by King Aetes, who promises to reward his success by him by giving him the Golden Fleece. Medea, daughter of Aetes and in thrall to Jason after being shot by an arrow by Eros, helps Jason first by giving him a drug which will give him the strength he will need to complete his trials, and then by helping him steel the Fleece after Aetes reneges on the deal. During their escape, Medea and Jason murder her brother, and Jason agrees to marry her and take her back to his homeland. In Euripedes' version of Medea, Jason and Medea are married for some time following his adventures with the Argonauts and they have two sons. Jason has left Medea in order to marry a Princess of Corinth, reasoning that since the opportunity has been presented to him, he can't decline the chance to take such a high born wife, and half-heartedly offering to keep Medea on as his mistress. Medea gave up everything for him, and now she's being cast aside as if she's nothing, so she gets revenge for the betrayal by killing Jason's would-be bride, and then killing her and Jason's sons. It pains her to kill her children, but she sees that act as the her only means of punishing Jason. Medea has nothing; she committed treason against the family she was born into, so she cannot return to them for protection or subsistence, and as a woman in a society in which women have no value, she is wholly dependent on Jason. Her only recourse against him is to destroy what he holds dear: his house, the lasting legacy which would be created by his sons carrying on his name and ensuring that the tales of his glory live on. Jason disrespected her by throwing her over to start a new family with a new woman, so Medea finishes the destruction of the family he's left behind and ensures that a new family can't be created to replace it. Euripedes' story then ends with the ultimate deus ex machina in which Medea is taken away in the chariot of Helios, the sun god.

So what does all that have to do with Gone Girl? Like Medea, Amy gives up her home to follow her husband back to his home and, like Medea, Amy can be said to give Nick his potential for glory. Medea makes it possible for Jason to attain the fleece, Amy gives Nick what remains of her trust fund so that he can open his bar, which in turn becomes highly profitable due to the media storm around Nick during the period that Amy is missing. After many years together, Jason leaves Medea for a new woman who is appealing to him now that he has gotten everything he can from his wife, which is not unlike the situation between Nick and Amy. Medea commits a grievous act and harms herself in order to hurt Jason the only way she can. Amy commits a grievous act by faking her death, harming herself by sacrificing her identity and opening herself up to the dangers of trying to live off the grid, all in order to hurt Nick in the only way that she thinks she can. Both Medea and Amy's actions seem disproportionate to the betrayals of their husbands unless you view these stories through the lens of disenfranchisement. Medea and Amy are women who have given everything to their husbands, who have neither physical nor economic power, and whose existences are not valued by the men who have some degree of power over them. So they do the only thing they feel that they can, even though doing so is an act of cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Medea's story ends with the deus ex machina of the gods coming to her aid, Amy's story ends with the deus ex machina of the world shrugging its shoulders and deciding not to question her outlandish story.

In the end, Jason calls on the gods to punish Medea for what she's done, and her response can apply to Nick just as much to Jason: What god or spirit listens to you / a man who doesn't keep his promises / a man who deceives and lies to strangers. Like Jason, fate turns its back on Nick. He's brought his torment on himself.

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