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 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.