What’s Missing From the Gone Girl Debate? Privilege!

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WARNING: THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS

Gone Girl has been called misogynist, an amalgamation of negative stereotypes of women, a text that perpetuates rape culture, and a narrative that fuels men’s rights activists’ ugly depiction of the gender equality feminists are trying to achieve.

Putting the talent of the author aside—because I do think Gillian Flynn is an incredible writer—I want to address the feminist ire directed at Gone Girl.

To an extent, I agree with it. Yet what is missing from the discussion is a focus on privilege.

Amy Elliot Dunne, the protagonist of Gone Girl, is white, wealthy, heterosexual and conventionally attractive (many privileges which her creator, Gillian Flynn, shares).

Yes, Amy is a woman, but she is an excessively privileged one. So privileged, in fact, that she has the necessary funds, skills, know-how and spare time to concoct a near iron-clad story in which she convinces the media, the law, her community and her family that she has been raped, abused by her husband, kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly murdered.

Flynn, even given the worldwide success of her writing, is, I would guess, not nearly as privileged as Amy. Plus, if details at the author’s website are correct, she worked odd jobs throughout high school. Amy is not the type of woman that had to work in high school, and especially not at anything where she would be made to dress up as a cone of yogurt.

Is Amy in fact a compilation of the evils MRAs spout on about in relation to “strong” women? In ways, yes. But this is just it—she is able to be strong and even evil because she has the privilege to do so. As the saying goes, idle hands make the devil’s work.

Amy is narcissistic, vain and shallow, and has enough time on her hands to fill her calendar with carefully labeled, color-coded Post-Its with details of her murder plot. And once the plot is set in motion, she has secured enough cash to buy a car, to fund a new wardrobe and to keep her going for who knows how long. When that falls through, there is the very rich former boyfriend, Desi, who will put her up in his “lakehouse”—a spare house that makes many mansions look shabby.

Yes, this is fiction. Yes, it’s a dark, twisted mystery. The author made it clear that she “wanted to write about the violence of women” after her first book, Sharp Objects. And this is not a problem, but what is vexing about Gone Girl is that at the heart of its narrative is a woman who falsely accuses several men of rape and assault and tries to frame one of them for murder. Rape and assault are at epidemic levels in our society, and along with the horrible statistics is a pervasive narrative of blaming the victim. At the heart of this narrative is the myth that women lie about rape. Not once in a blue moon; often.

This is not what I want to focus on, though: I want to focus on how privilege allows the fictional Amy to get away with the atrocities she commits. If she “cried rape” (as MRAs and the media often suggest women do), would she be as readily believed if she were a woman of color? What if she were a prostitute? What if she committed murder and tried to convince the cops of her innocence with mere words? Would she be believed if she were, say, a young black male? If she accused her partner of physical abuse and adultery, would she become America’s media darling if she were not cisgender?

Consider the story of Kalief Browder, featured in The New Yorker, who served three years at Rikers Island, most of it in solitary confinement without trial before he was deemed innocent. Of Renisha McBride. Of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri. They’re all proof that innocence does not mean much for people of color in a society that frames those with non-white skin as born guilty (to borrow Dorothy Roberts claim made in her classic, Killing the Black Body).

Gone Girl is not making a critique of privilege though, nor of how Amy’s whiteness and wealth puts her in some ways above the law. Instead, Amy’s ability to frame others for crimes they did not commit and become America’s media darling has been acclaimed as a wonderfully concocted mystery by a talented author. As for Amy’s ability to pull off her fictive story-within-a-story in the novel and the film adaptation, this ability is never overtly linked to her privilege (unless you count the fact the film nods towards how wealthy she is, given that her cat has its own bedroom). Rather, her success at framing others is presented as a very well-planned revenge plot carried out by a very smart, very malicious woman.

Admittedly, there are things the story does well in terms of critiquing societal problems. As with the novel, the film delves into the media circus, giving us talking heads that spin hypotheses about Amy’s whereabouts and who is to blame for her disappearance—hypotheses that quickly lead to the narrative Amy intended: that her husband Nick is guilty and she is the innocent, the abused spouse all America should be rooting (and praying) for.

Amy clearly knows how to play straight into the hands of the Ellen Abbot Live show, a fictionalized version of the likes of Nancy Grace. Amy notes, while concocting her plan, that “America loves pregnant women,” and, indeed, Ellen plays up Amy’s pregnancy to garner sympathy for her, and ire for her husband Nick. However, had Amy been a pregnant Latina, or working class, or a single woman, would she still be framed this way by the real Ellen Abbots of the world?

In fact, if Amy’s accusations of rape against not one but three men were to be reported in real-world media, it’s likely she would have been blamed, interrogated and have her reputation besmirched, especially if she lacked many of the privileges Amy’s character has. As noted in “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism,”

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.

And though just 2 to 8 percent of reported rapes are determined to be unfounded, it is, as Lindsay Brookshier writes, a “norm of the media to question the authenticity of rape victims that dare to step forward and seek justice.”

As argued in “The Misogynistic Portrayal of Villainy in Gone Girl,” Amy makes a magnificent, unreliable narrator. Sadly though, she is believed—by the media, by the community, even by us, the audience.

While the narrative condemns what director David Fincher calls the “tragedy vampirism” of the media, it never takes the next step of pointing out how the poverty and homelessness of the community in which the story takes place plays a role in why Amy becomes a media darling, and allows her husband to plausibly suggest the “homeless” are to blame for Amy’s disappearance.

Though much has been written about Flynn’s comments on feminism, her portrayal of women and her writing, I have not come across anywhere in which she has ever mentioned privilege being something she was interested in exploring, even though her characters and even her own discussions of why she chooses the focus matter she does, drip with privilege. Not addressing Amy’s privilege directly has the effect of making the novel seem, as argued in “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism,” a piece that serves as a “crystallization of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behavior” as if we had “strapped a bunch of men’s rights advocates to beds and downloaded their nightmares.”

In “Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny,” The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman writes, “This is a recurring theme in Flynn’s life: the psychological bungee-jump that permits an author to plunge into barbarity precisely because she’s securely moored in its opposite.” Detailing how Flynn locks herself away in her writing basement for hours, Burkeman notes that, “In the early afternoons, she surfaces from the gloom into daylight, to play with her son for an hour or two.” Then, in Flynn’s own words, “it’s back down through the basement again, to write about murder.” Ah, the joys of a post-feminist life!

So, to wrap up this privileged take on Gone Girl: is it a good film? Yes and no. Fincher is a great director and Flynn is a great writer—they both tell dark stories well. The movie is compelling and Rosamund Pike is great as Amy, as is Kim Dickens as Detective Boney.

It is good as a film, but it is not a feminist film.

As Esther Bergdahl asks rhetorically, “Is a film feminist if a female character vindicates every men’s rights activist on Reddit?” Of course not. But, just as obviously, this doesn’t mean feminists shouldn’t see it and discuss it. In fact, just the opposite.

natalie

 

Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.

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    Comments

    1. I really dont like this argument.. assuming that only somebody with privledge is smart enough to frame somebody for murder is naive. Not to mention, just because this character cried rape somehow means as a whole society will not be more skeptical when.a.woman.is.raped is silly. Its fiction.. and not the kind of fiction that has that much influence outside a few hours of entertainment. This article is reaching.

      • I don’t think the article is suggesting only a privileged woman would be SMART enough to carry out her own murder plot, but that you’d have to be privileged in the sense of time and resources to carry it out. In other words, it would be hard for a low income mother of 2 working a full time job to have the time and money to carry out this plot. As far as the ‘it’s just entertainment’ argument, media has a huge effect on our society. We are all shaped by it as a whole whether we realize it or not. So I think it is a worthy discussion to have regarding the films narrative within the context of societies rape culture problem.

    2. C0untered says:

      I don’t think it’s right to say that rape and sexual assault are at epidemic levels. If the statistics show anything, it’s that rape, sexual, and domestic violence at all time lows, largely due to the efforts of feminists over the last few decades, starting with pushing for rape shield laws for states, and when certain states attempted to reject such protections for victims, a federally mandated victim protection law, the Violence Against Women Act. I think it’s very important to stress at every chance you can that feminism is and has made a significant a difference for rape survivors, even though there is still work ahead. Using words like “epidemic” doesn’t give feminists credit at all, and makes it sound like it’s an issue that is entirely unsolvable. Furthermore, it gives so called “mras” (I maintain that no such group really exists, and those that claim to care about men’s right’s certainly don’t care about my rights as a man) ammo to claim that “feminists are unwilling to admit that rape has decreased over the years”, and they can follow up such faulty reasoning with statistics that show that rape has decreased over the years.

      Otherwise though, I agree with everything else you wrote. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie and I don’t plan to.

    3. Lola Kelly says:

      I started working on a genre piece a few months ago and went on a search for related materials. I wanted to find a real, female villain, an anti-hero that was written like a man would be, someone identifiable, but extraordinarily cruel. I was also hoping to find gender forward horrors or thrillers that explored the concept of marriage as the monster. And then, much to my delight, I found Gone Girl.

      I tore through the pages. When I got to the “Cool Girl” passage I read it three times and when I got to the end I wanted to applaud Gillian Flynn for not giving us what we expected or wanted, but instead giving us a chilling, supremely haunting “happy ending”. I loved it. I felt that Amy Dunne was the female anti-hero I’ve always wanted. Smart, charming, complicated, emotional and completely manipulative and cruel. I am as sick of “good women” as I am of bimbos, girlfriends and secretaries.

      So when I read this backlash against Gone Girl by a feminist journalist I am perplexed. We want equality. We want to be afforded the same rights, privileges and treatments as men. Men are written as heroes, yes, but they are also written as monsters, often. So why should we balk at a female character being written as a monster? If Amy Dunne were a man would we be upset? Are women not allowed to be cruel? Are we not allowed to do terrible things, including cry rape? Even in literature? What are the boundaries of what are and aren’t allowed to let our females characters do as good feminists? Who decides these boundaries? I want a world with more freedom for female characters and to me that includes the freedom to be cruel.

      And the question of privilege… well, yes, obviously this particular novel has a very wealthy heroin. Are we also not allowed as female writers to create women of privilege and examine/criticize the effects of privilege? To me, Amy Dunne read as what would actually happen to the male created “perfect” woman. She is a sort of heroic Medea to me, her cruelty a direct result of her privilege, her marriage and having been written into a corner as “Amazing Amy”. It was as though all the perfect women of literature cracked and went on a slow, manipulative rampage. And to me it provided a great catharsis and made me think a great deal about gender, privilege and the pressures on women in traditional, heterosexual marriages.

      I also love that all of these hot button issues are snuck into a compelling pop novel. That people who aren’t usually thinking of these things, might pick up this book due to it’s accessibility and popularity and start thinking about these issues.

      I particularly take issue when feminists deem something “certainly not” feminist. Men have told us what to like, watch, read, and consume for centuries. I don’t like it when my sisters in arms dole out the same presumptuous mandates. I haven’t seen the movie, but I read the book as feminist and a criticism of patriarchal expectations of women. So where does that leave us? Criticism is wildly important and of course I want feminist critical opinions of female author’s works and works I love. But this to me, feels counter productive.

    4. Alison Slow Loris says:

      Leni Riefenstahl made absolutely beautiful films glorifying Hitler’s Germany. This is not quite that bad, but it’s still amoral. It’s still actively supporting some of the worst belief systems of our culture. There is a huge difference between demanding that artists to make politically art — which I abhor! — and asking artists to be aware of the potential effects of their work in a particular time and place. Right now we are dealing as a society with a huge boiling up of men’s rage at being told that rape is not their right, and a big part of the angry men’s movements is calling women liars. That makes it irresponsible, at the least, to make such a movie now.

      • Absolutely astute point. Despite humans being able to rationalize their perspective or actions with slick propaganda throughout history…it doesn’t mean we should do it or do it without thought to what role it will then have on the masses in response to things like sexism and the rise in rape culture.
        Thank you for posting this.

    5. The title of the book and movie made me curious. Now that I’ve read this analysis of the missing privilege idea I no longer want to read something that seems to me completely masculist, reinforcing the worst stereotypes of women and men. It sounds like it may be too much like everyday life.

    6. Bren Elliott says:

      Bravo.

    7. Thanks you for this post. It highlighted many of my issues with the book. Often critical thinking is not encouraged or rewarded and any criticism on books or movies around privilege is dismissed. However, privilege is essential to the story. Amy would not believed as easily is she lacked racial, hertrosexist and economic privilege. The author and critics inability to grapple with this is troubling. But we have to deal with it to move forward as a society.

    8. Celticpole says:

      We would like to relegate feminism across the board as available in some perfect state to all women. Be all you can be. Live your full potential. That’s a myth. To be a feminist in the US you have to start with privilege. The feminist opportunities for a Helen Gurley Brown as an Editor in NYC and the feminist opportunities for a working class woman in a factory in Missouri are universes apart. World view depends on whether you’ve eaten that particular day. I used to believe that American feminism was about empowerment and fostering strong women with a sense of self. It appears to have devolved into arrogance and an inability to adequately address women’s issues across the planet; although it appears in fine form if you’re an upper class, prestigious university educated female who travels in the proper social circles. Skin color notwithstanding.

    9. Great review! I totally agree this movie takes Amy’s privilege for granted. The plot wouldn’t work without it, as you point out. A real-life woman, especially a woman of color, wouldn’t be believed even once regarding rape, to say nothing of three times. But there’s one place the movie did seem to throw critical light on the issue of privilege, and that is when Amy meets the ‘white trash’ character of Greta at the cabin motel where she’s holed up. Amy colors her hair and does other things to disappear and shed the trappings of her privileged life, but Greta easily sees through this and calls her on it. It was satisfying to watch a non-privileged female character, the kind movies love to denigrate, call a privileged woman on her entitlement. Doesn’t happen often. Thanks for the review!

    10. Hal Corley says:

      How persuasive. This is the single best discussion I’ve read of the disturbing (and very much worth parsing) sociopolitical aspects of this novel and film. The character’s access to seemingly unlimited resources — and the (white) privilege they provide her — enable the plot proper to spin. Without them, Amy’s creative revenge scheme would merely be untapped fantasy. Her financial and class-provided profile allow her to actualize a baroque revenge via a ludicrous pile-up of money- and race-protected opportunities. What’s perverse — and to my thinking it is a powerful feminist point — is the synergy of privilege and unchecked mental illness. Amy and FATAL ATTRACTION’s Alex have that in common: two upscale, highly educated women seek revenge on undeserving men, rendering them victims of insanity-based thinking. In both, the women derive violent payback via class-afforded manipulation of circumstances in the lives of the men. Both women are portrayed as monstrous walking and scheming cautionary tales. (And if the original ending of FATAL ATTRACTION — available on the DVD — is considered, it’s worth noting that both women seek self-destruction via suicide. No accident. These are dangerously ill human beings. The message is: Men, beware! They will take you down with them. Isn’t that what happens in the final 20 minutes to the hapless Affleck character? He’s brought down by his wife’s insanity? With the promise of being held-hostage to it … forever?) The model for this type of female villain actually dates back to Daphne Du Maurier’s REBECCA. Amy and Alex are tethered to the same package oft-discussed in the Hitchcock film version of that classic: money + power + female sexuality + untreated insanity. (Someone asked me the ending of GIRL GONE, and I said “It’s the Hitchock film as if Max gets stuck married to Rebecca.” ) Thank you for giving us so much to consider.

    11. You are on point. This was literally the first thing that cropped up in my mind as I watched this film. Privelege. She reeks of it. This woman can drive herself and withdraw cash. Just that, on a global level, puts her leagues ahead of the average woman in a developing country. The audience collectively gasped as Amy was struck but even the director knew he had to make the assault on Desi gruesome to generate a close to similar reaction. Feminism will be a lost cause as long as white women are the poster child for it.

    12. I just watched this movie and was horrified at the audience laughing at scenes which if the roles were reversed they would have gasped at. Nick was a psychologically abused man who by the end of the movie was convinced there was no way out.

      I am not claiming that abused/battered men are anywhere as prevalent as abused/battered women (and indeed have no idea since abused/battered men tend not to report). But the fact that the effect of Amy’s abuse goes seemingly unrecognized seems troubling to say the least.

    13. David Adler says:

      Look, it was simply a bad story with a zillion plot holes. That is what ALWAYS afflicts plot-driven thrillers. The plot is first, logical human character a distant second. Distant as in not really existent. The police are inept, Affleck’s character is inept (really, it took you THAT long to figure our you’d been had by evil wife, oh writer man?), everyone HAS to be inept to allow this artificial plot to “fit.” I mean, come on, this lady is SOOOOOOOOOOOO smart, but she’s too dim to realize that slicing two lousy inches of hair off, dying it slightly darker, and speaking in a bad southern accent isn’t going to be enough to get you by people, real grifters, who actually know how to size a person up (i.e., the white trash lovebirds at the apartment complex who end up robbing her)? This movie was LAUGHABLY bad. Then entire story, when actually staged with humans, reveals itself just a farce of forced bullsh*t. And no, I disagree with the author of this piece, Gillian Flynn is no amazing writer, not by miles. Amazing writers don’t churn out pure psychological ignorance, which this story is on EVERY level for EVERY pitiful excuse for a human marionette, er character, that “peoples” it. Pun intended. What’s really funny is that people are debating this at length. IOW, it made Weekend at Bernies seem like Citizen Kane when it came to actual human psychology at work. The end.

      • Agreed. There is no larger message or discussion of feminism to be had in this film; that would be giving the writer too much credit for what this film is: a hackneyed potboiler with eye-rollingly bad dialogue, cartoon characters, and a laughable, poorly constructed plot. There’s no more of an intelligent discussion to be had over this trashy film than thete would be for Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction.

    14. I completely disagree. As someone who’s neither feminist nor mra (fuck me! right?), I think you are imposing an ideological system onto this book and then decrying the book for not aligning within the parameters of said ideological system. MRA’s do the exact same thing with literature they deem to be misandrist, gynocentric, and whatever other ideological-specific terms they want to dig up out of the men’s movement slander box. Ditto for this article, especially when it comes to the final conclusion Gone Girl is definitively not Feminist. When did journalists become arbiters of gender politics?

      To get to my point if I may, the book mostly explores one, particular individual’s cruel pattern of behavior (i.e. Amy’s false rape accusations and multiple framed murders). To make the inference from the author’s casting of one character in one setting during one time period that she represents through that character behavior and opinions inconsistent with feminist ideals is to believe that every single person in a novel (whether we are to see them as protagonists or antagonists, good guys or bad guys, is irrelevant) must conform to feminist thought or that book as a whole and that author as a person are anti-feminist. This is bullshit reasoning. This prevents any female villains from appearing in novels and movies and even prevents most male villains since evil people tend to have evil prejudices like sexism, racism, etc.

      All in all, it’s a bullshit review, because DEPICTION IS NOT ENDORSEMENT. And to say so is to be an authoritarian ideologue who cannot stand to have authors depict things which you don’t like. Newsflash: if I depict Nazi Germany in a documentary, I’m not a Nazi; and no matter how much you hate all things Nazi Germany, I don’t become a Nazi because of that hatred.

      • It is, I think, part of the definition of a psychopath to use your strengths (or, if you will, privileges) to your advantage without consideration of the feelings of others. Men’s advantages are their strength and the perception (and expectation) of them as competent. Womens’ advantages is our willingness to protect them and believe in their innocence. It would be appropriate, would it not, that a male psychopath would tend to abuse his physical strength by violating and murdering his victims, while a female psychopath would tend to abuse society’s willingness to protect?

    15. I don’t see anything wrong with the writer making Amy out to be a person with privilege – in fact, she gives her the ultimate privilege, above any other wealthy, white, young, beautiful, talented woman in America, of being “America’s darling – Amazing Amy”. Her privilege is what makes the media respond to her in this way. Look at how the detective moves into action after discovering that she is “Amazing Amy”. She also bests someone who supposedly has more privilege than her – a wealthy young white man.

    16. Dear all,

      I don’t agree with the criticism of the movie. There is, first of all, no paucity of movies that fully represent our side of the rape debate. Second of all, the movie has much, much more delicious complexity compared to the standard “cry rape” scenario. The discussion here alone is a symptom of that.

      I also don’t agree that scrunitising rape accusers have become a media mainstay. I have lost count of how many outlets have roundly condemned Strauss-Kahn, Cosby, and Allen without much in the way of evidence. Hofstra and Duke sparked, in the beginning, an almost unanimous media reaction.

      But the media outrage in one direction of course makes cases in the other direction all the more outrageous. But I would not talk of a substantial media bias in favour of the accused – far from it. We believe victims, and we want to believe victims. Fortunately.

      Finally, no acceptable voice in society, not even fringe MRAs, believe that “women cry rape”. Even by the most egregious estimate of false rape accusations (I read 40% somewhere based on a survey in one town only, was it?) would make false rape accusations exceedingly rare compared to rapes (assuming a non-reporting rate of 75% to 90%). It is misleading to talk about false rape accusations as a percentage of rape accusations. They are separate crimes, and such a comparisons polarises the debate unnecessarily. There is no false rape epidemic. But it happens, and we have to be cautious and fair. That is all.

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