Yes, Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem

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Photo: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises

We will be discussing Gone Girl plot and twists. If you’ve read the book, you’re fine. If you haven’t and plan on seeing the movie unsullied, you might want to save this essay and read it afterwards.

In 2013, the author Gillian Flynn did an interview with The Guardian in which she was asked to explain why her books — consistently filled with nightmarish women — aren't hateful. This is a charge that gets thrown at Flynn a lot, particularly when discussing her third novel, Gone Girl — a story about a married woman who disappears, except (again: major spoilers from here on out) that, in actuality, she faked her own disappearance in order to punish her philandering, ungrateful husband. There are those who thought the book was misogynistic, in part because it could be seen to undermine the realities of domestic and sexual abuse, but also because Amy is a real grade-A bitch. Horrible. A truly legendary piece of work.

"To me, that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is," Flynn told The Guardian. "For me, it's also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good." The piece then links to an essay Flynn wrote about 2006's Sharp Objects, in which she defends the female dark side. "I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books," it reads. "I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes … not chilly WASP mothers … not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some." So: Gillian Flynn has been fighting these charges for a while.

I have been thinking about the misogyny question since I saw Gone Girl, in part because I can't have a conversation about the movie without it coming up. It was a major talking point after early screenings, and it is there lurking in the reviews, both directly and obliquely. I'm not convinced, because I think Flynn is fundamentally right: Women can be antiheroes and villains, too, and the portrayal of such women and their actions does not automatically constitute contempt. There is also a difference between misogyny and stories about misogyny, or about women and men who hate each other, or simply about "unlikable" characters. But as a devoted fan of the book, I will say this about the movie, which Flynn wrote the screenplay for herself: Somehow it took a story about the worst impulses of a straight woman and turned it into a feature-length film about a dopey man. That is not misogyny, exactly, but it is a problem.

Depending on your reading of Gone Girl, the book — to borrow some of its language — is either (a) a gothic portrait of marriage; (b) a confession of a mythically unstable woman; (c) a misandrist revenge fantasy; or (d) a misogynistic summary of all the ways that a woman can falsely accuse a man. I am partial to option c, but however you interpret the book, you are still reading the actual words of a female character on a page. Amy is the whole point of Gone Girl, which is why I don't believe the book is misogynistic: This woman is too specific. And vivid, and given total agency: It is Amy's deception that sucks us in, and her angry reveal that turns the story. When everyone talks about the shifting perspectives and slippery personalities of Gone Girl: That's Amy. When everyone quotes the famous Cool Girl speech — a venomous passage about what women will do to please men, and what men expect of women: That's Amy. At least half of the book (and real talk: all the memorable parts) is devoted to her fiery, alarmingly lucid ramblings about men and marriage and disappointment. She is ultimately a sociopathic, morally indefensible character, but she — in her own words — is present to the very last page.

That does not happen in the movie. Which seems obvious, in retrospect: Double and triple points of view are unwieldy on film, and the big reveal of Gone Girl — Amy's a faker! — forces David Fincher and Flynn to tell the story from Nick's perspective and timeline. This means that the movie loses most of Amy's scary mind; it loses her propulsive anger; it loses subjectivity. Meanwhile, the film opens and closes with a shot of Rosamund Pike's head, and the Affleck narration that accompanies it essentially asks, "What the hell is happening in there?" Gone Girl is deeply interested in the rift between personal experiences, but in the book, we are privy to both Nick and Amy's concerns. On the page, there is absolutely no mystery about what Amy is thinking.

To be fair, they try to re-create her in the movie: There are voice-over flashbacks to her diary, and Rosamund Pike reads a large, if warped, chunk of the Cool Girl speech. (Though neither are served by the actress’s chilliness. I am aware that I am in the minority on that.) But those scattered moments can't compete with the reality of Ben Affleck, whose bloated movie-star face fills the screen for the better part of two hours. "Affleck carries the movie," wrote New York's David Edelstein, and it's true; I like a good dick shot as much as the next human, but it's telling that we've spent the last week yelling about Ben Affleck's penis. He and his little friend are front and center, fighting off women (his mistress, his mother-in-law, the news anchors) at every turn. Gone Girl is his horror story to survive.

Those supporting female characters and their mostly unsympathetic portrayal are a valid complicating factor; you would not be wrong to say that women are a source of misery throughout the movie. I am not as bothered by them, if only because they seem an accurate, if cynical, representation of the personalities involved when a woman disappears. (And also because Fincher enjoys watching the news anchors terrorize Nick. To be honest, I do, too.) But no, it is not a flattering portrait of women. It is not a flattering portrait of anybody, not even Nick; Fincher dislikes every single person in this movie, except for maybe the dream team — Margot, Tanner Bolt, and after the return, Detective Boney, two of whom are women — that assembles at the end. Even them I'm not sure about. Everyone is pretty shitty in this movie. Trust no one is one of its morals.

That was also a moral of the book, except that it was explored from both perspectives. "I don't write psycho bitches," Flynn says in that same Guardian interview. "The psycho bitch is just crazy — she has no motive, and so she's a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness." I'm afraid this is the problem with Movie Amy: she is stripped of her motivation, or at least her self-justification, by the necessities of filmmaking. This is not woman-hating; it's a failure of adaptation — and maybe not even a failure, since the resulting film is a very entertaining story about a man whose crazy wife ruins his life. That story is in the book, too; it's just one side of it. I suspect I am not the only person who was more interested in the other half.