What did you think of Gone Girl – you’re a feminist, don’t you love that kind of stuff?

October 20, 2015

Written by Susan Karpasitis

A while ago a former student proudly declared that they had found a book that they actually enjoyed reading. ‘It’s really good – you should read it, there is loads about how bad men are, and representations of strong powerful women – you love that stuff don’t you, you’re a feminist?’ Not really sure where to begin in reply to that comment, I walked off with my copy and decided to humour the student for old times sake! I fully expected that by the end I would have a strong and definitive opinion on how, and indeed whether or not, Gone Girl was something I could endorse or reject. I was instead left confused, and deeply affected by the polarities of the novel and film regarding its representation of women from a feminist perspective.

Let us begin where most discussions of female characters begin, with the Madonna/ Whore dichotomy. We all know this one. A woman is either a submissive, meek and willing sexual and emotional servant of the man/ patriarchal figure (think 50 Shades of Grey) or she is a sexually independent, passionate but ultimately treacherous ‘whore’ – (Gone Girl’s Amy). This is a tried and tested construct of female characters presented and firmed up in the good old Victorian era. The twentieth century continued to build upon the whore image, but added a little pop psychology into the mix – the sexually independent ‘whore’ becomes a man-eating psychopath – Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure – a danger to herself, to society and of course to the rational and stoic man. And that is where I assumed that Gone Girl would fall – into the category of intelligent but psychotic female lead.

The problem is that it refuses it sitting comfortably in its categorisation like an Angel in the publishing house. On the one hand, we have all the archetypes of the “bunny boiler” genre – the women obsessed by an emotionally unavailable man, deluded about commitment and marriage, controlling, violent and manipulative (all the excesses of constructed female vice).

On the other hand, the book and film portray a powerful and intelligent woman, who is also sexually assertive; a woman who is not merely a passive vessel for sex but actively seeks out her own pleasure and gratification. Both versions present a woman in control of her body and self-image, an educated and self-reflective female lead. Horray I hear the feminists cry! Further to this, she is actively aware of the socio-economic constructs of her femininity. She recognises of course that her identity and image have never been hers to control – they are themselves the product of her parent’s creation both in the developmental psychological sense, and quite literally as the fictional character ‘Amazing Amy’ a more successful and idealised version of herself written by her mother through a series of children’s stories. By diligently ascribing to the characterisation set out for her, by the time the flesh and blood Amy is in her twenties she is an expert at adapting her identity to suit changing societal needs…and one could argue market trends.

What follows in the novel are a series of cynically accurate monologues whereby Amy tells the reader that she knows exactly how to construct the female ideal. From an Anglo-America feminist perspective this ability to manipulate male constructions of femininity for her own gain is at once both commendable and a sad necessity.

More interesting psychological feminist territory presents itself when Amy ‘disappears’ and frees herself of men. In this deconstructed and liberated realm of identity, what version of the feminine will she choose? In fact, she takes pleasure in becoming ugly, fat, and unattractive to men. No surprises so far in the rejection of male versions of the ideal woman and the re-alignment of external image and appearance with a seemingly more authentic ‘real woman’ identity. Of course this freedom of identity cannot last – this too is a construct. Amy having had her identity passively moulded for her by birth is unable to assimilate a real version of herself. She presents herself as a working class, tough ‘been around the block’ abused woman (even hitting herself in the face with a hammer to produce a bruise- itself an interesting attempt at obliterating her past ‘face’ and persona). However she is not any of these things; they serve only as a façade or mask to hide her other equally inauthentic persona. This working class mask is punished for its lack of authenticity by a ‘real’ version of what she was attempting to embody – a working class, abused, tough female who sees immediately through the construction.

In an ironic twist Amy is subsequently left in the exact circumstance she was trying to portray artificially – destitute, homeless and beaten. Her ‘Amazing Amy’ persona has been killed (self-killed I suppose), the tough drifter identity has been revealed as a sham, consequently the shell of all these broken constructions – the real Amy – becomes desperate. She has no tangible identity to cling to and is about to deconstruct into nothingness. She turns to the only thing she knows well – constructions, untruths and facades to play on another archetype of male fantasy – the damsel in distress – the vulnerable victim.

Amy depends on the need for society to position woman as victims for the last stage of her journey. Having failed to find herself or her real identity, her only refuge is to re-imprison herself whole-heartedly into the role of ‘Amazing Amy.’ This time however she supplants the parental role and becomes the architect of this persona; she rewrites herself as passive victim and her intended victim as classic Gothic villain.

Though her subsequent story to the police is laughably implausable, the archetypal constructions are so simple, so entrenched and feel so natural after centuries of instilment, that it takes more effort not to go along with them than to simply sit back and accept an all too familiar tale. Just as she accuses her husband of becoming lazy, so too she believes are the viewing public of America who are represented as craving simplistic and easy stereotypes in a confusing and constantly evolving world.

So it would seem that this novel is a feminist victory? The protagonist – constructed in every way by others – turns the tables and uses patriarchal chauvinistic representations of women to her own advantage. The problem here is that there is no advantage. Amy remains trapped by an artificial construct (‘Amazing Amy’) that she has helped to build. She becomes part of patriarchy and in so doing condemns herself to her own impossible construction of the ideal wife and mother – of being America’s sweetheart. Therefore, in some ways this is a poignant but sad story for feminism. We have not moved forward at all.

So finally where do I stand? I have no idea – the novel and the controversial film adaptation are brilliant depictions of the danger of the artificial and unachievable constructions of femininity that feminists have highlighted for decades. However, problematically Gone Girl follows a long line of films and novels which align self-aware and intelligent females with psychopathy and violence…and yet it also presents the most interesting and complex female role to have passed our screens for a long time (a character certainly preferable to the subservient and dubiously naïve Anastasia Steele in its box office rival 50 Shades of Grey). The inability to position oneself firmly on the side of the proverbial fence or the other is ultimately irrelevant. Feminism is not a categorisation process but an intersection of discussion of this mess of contradictory constructs that constitutes contemporary gender identities. In that sense, and in line with the post-Emma Watson rebranding of feminism for a younger contemporary audience, Gone Girl positions itself as a worthwhile, perhaps even important text on feminist landscape.

———-

Susan karpasitis is an English lecturer. Her interests include representations of madness in literature, her PhD thesis focused on representations of psychological trauma in Renaissance literature.

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One Response to “What did you think of Gone Girl – you’re a feminist, don’t you love that kind of stuff?”

  1. […] us of Australia’s colonial past and White Australian identity. Finally, Susan Karpasitis in What did you think of Gone Girl – you’re a feminist,  don’t you love that kind of stuff? examines the challenges of reading contemporary film narratives through the lens of an […]

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