Reel Women: How ‘Gone Girl’ Defies the Strong Female Character
Gillian Flynn's 'Gone Girl' was a divisive novel upon release in 2012, analyzed and picked apart, often scrutinized and questioned for its depiction of central character Amy Dunne -- was she a "strong female character" or a strong enough female character, and just what the hell does that phrase even mean anymore? It's almost derogatory now. There was perhaps no one better to adapt Flynn's pulpy work than David Fincher, whose film version hits theaters this week and faithfully adapts Flynn's story, serving as an indictment of media vultures and the toxicity of marriage. But it goes one (and even more) further than that, hitting on something imperative to Flynn's novel: how we want to perceive Amy, and how we feel about her as a character when that perception is challenged.
The conflict that relentlessly challenges every relationship is when a significant other continuously fails to be the person we want them to be, but the film smartly challenges us as an audience to wonder just who we wanted or expected Amy (Rosamund Pike) to be. 'Gone Girl' in both book and film form is a story about perspective, just as every relationship is about perspective: there's what he said, what she said, and what really happened. You are, of course, warned of spoilers involving the "twist" of the film from here on out.
The first half of the film is told from Amy's point of view, using entries from her diary, painting the picture of a put-upon and devoted wife, who gave up her ideal life for her husband, moving to his small hometown and committing her life savings to him so he could care for his ailing parents and open a bar. There are but hints that Amy is perhaps embellishing and a bit melodramatic; she is, after all, the daughter of parents who wrote a series of children's books based on a glamorized version of her youth ('Amazing Amy'). "This man may kill me," reads the final entry before Amy vanishes, leaving only a convenient crime scene with a perfect smear of blood.
'Gone Girl' lures the viewer into a false sense of security in that first half: this is the Amy we want to believe in and root for. We want her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to be guilty. This the all-too familiar scenario, not just from books and films and episodes of 'Law and Order: SVU,' but, sadly, from real life. She is charming and casual, even when her layabout husband is laid off and playing video games and spending all of the money they don't have, Amy plays it cool. But this is Amy's perspective.
The key to understanding Amy's perspective in 'Gone Girl' lies in the shift that comes halfway through the film, when a very much alive Amy delivers a modified version of the "Cool Girl" speech from the novel, while symbolically tossing the pens she used to write her falsified diary entries out of the window of her getaway car, one by one. The Cool Girl is the type of girl who watches sports and eats crap like chili dogs while somehow staying impossibly thin, who never gets jealous and tosses back craft beers. The Cool Girl is a put-on, a contrivance, a way to get the guy you want. It's a mask we wear and it's as exhausting as always being perfectly waxed and made-up and washed and shiny -- it's doing something for someone else instead of for ourselves, and that's the crux of so much of what this film is about.
Amy and Nick's relationship problems are centered around that fight that plagues every relationship: this person isn't being who I want them to be. During the courting process, we are the best versions of ourselves, an embellished document that conceals our flaws. We do this not only to ensure that we're attracting the best possible mate, but also because we think we truly can fake it until we make it. In the case of Amy, as much as she resents the kind of women who treat their men like trained monkeys and pet projects, she is the very thing she detests: she believes that through manipulation, she can force Nick into being the kind of man she always wanted or believed him to be, the kind of man he was when they first met.
In this way, 'Gone Girl' is a metatextual narrative -- while Amy and Nick's central conflict revolves around neither of them behaving the way the other expects or desires, the supporting characters and the media act reflect the audience's need for justification, resolution, and blame; all the while, we as the audience sit outside the fourth wall assessing the myriad dimensions of perspective, the messiness of it all, and how Amy Dunne has essentially become the villain of this piece. It's an element that divided readers and may still divide audiences, if only because it feels so antithetical to the idea of the Strong Female Character, a notion that has in such a short span of time (at least to this writer's mind) become bullshit.
Just as Nick (and everyone in the film, from the media to the local residents) have built up expectations of Amy, so have we as an audience, so perhaps it is frustrating to a degree that Amy stands in defiance of conventional representations of women. Here is a woman who has not been victimized brutally in a traditional sense; she has falsified rape and abuse in acts of revenge, and she has faked her death to force her husband to be the husband she always wanted. She's not a likable character by any means. 'Gone Girl' doesn't ask you to necessarily empathize, but to recognize that both Nick and Amy are at fault, that both of these characters have done horrible things to each other, and sure, it asks you to derive some sick pleasure in the entertainment value of an allegory on the toxicity of marriage.
We are only asked to empathize with Amy in the sense that this is a woman whose husband has been unfaithful, just as we are asked to empathize with Nick in the sense that his wife is a totally brilliant manipulator exacting an insane revenge plot, cutting into him piece by piece to make him into the shape of her ideal husband -- Amazing Amy, indeed.
Those angered by a perceived bait and switch should ask themselves why: why are you so maddened that a woman should be allowed to be the villain of her own piece? Amy Dunne in 'Gone Girl' is a victorious moment, not for any vicarious reasoning, but because it allows women to be portrayed in all lights, just as men are, putting us on equal footing. The problem with the Strong Female Character is the same problem with the Cool Girl: she's been constructed as an impossible, aspirational figure that no woman can or wants to live up to for the rest of her life, fictional or not.
Women, like men, are all things, and Amy Dunne thankfully shows our cinematic bad side.