Madwoman in the Suburbs: A Feminist Critique of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
As the biggest literary phenomenon of 2012, Gone Girl, penned by former television critic Gillian Flynn, was at one point a household item, commonplace among coffee tables, airplanes, and offices alike. Ubiquitous among both the older and younger generations, the novel stood as the subject of intense speculation and countless debates. Having waned in recent months, the widespread media scrutiny surrounding the novel may have baffled some, but nevertheless resurfaced due to the 2014 release of the movie adaptation, also written by Flynn. The root of the argument has remained the same, however, with many still wondering if Gone Girl is as truly groundbreaking as it first seemed. While some insist that it should be heralded as a feminist text for the complex portrayal of the psychotic female protagonist, Amy Dunne, other critics have painted Flynn as a misogynist because of the inherently unflattering, vengeful image of Amy that plays right into the societal stereotypes that her character abhors. While dualistic in these circumstances, it cannot be denied that through Amy’s cunning manipulation of her husband and society at large, Gone Girl offers a subversion of male power and a rearranging of standard women’s roles uncommon in the history of literature. Moreover, the reader is forced to acknowledge and scrutinize the gender roles which pervade the novel by means of Amy’s sexist husband Nick, his mistress Andie, and other background characters. When applied to feminist criticism, these featured gender dynamics, along with Amy’s succession of female archetypes, such as scorned lover, madwoman, and femme fatale, provide an interesting exploration into how the work as a whole is made complicated when viewed through a patriarchal lens.
Anti-feminist critiques of Gone Girl simplify the character of Amy into that of a misandrist and a lunatic, essentially limiting her to the role of Gilbert and Gubar’s “madwoman.” They state that the madwoman is “usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage” (Moi 78) and go on to elaborate that “in projecting their anger and dis-ease into dreadful figures, creating dark doubles for themselves and their heroines, women writers are both identifying with and revising the self-definitions patriarchal culture has imposed on them” (Moi 79). Flynn herself has admitted to having sadistic urges as a child, confirming in her autobiography, aptly titled I Was Not a Nice Little Girl, that the character of Amy Dunne was partially based off her own inner monologue. In the piece, she also argues that women have been systematically taught to suppress their violent impulses, and so by integrating them into her own narrative, she came to the realization that “libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women” (Flynn, Powells). Flynn expounded on this idea in response to critics casting her as a misogynist, maintaining that she feels there needs to be more villainous women in literature. Self-identifying as a feminist, she clarified “the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish” (Flynn, The Guardian). The reception of her work by critics and by the general public alike reveals how the operation of patriarchy seeks to place female characters into specific boxes, however Flynn typifying “the most recurrent theme of Anglo-American feminist criticism” rebels against this phenomenon through her “feminist rage,” which embodies “the author’s ‘female rage’ against patriarchal oppression” (Moi 61). Perhaps what Flynn is trying to suggest is that literary equality can only be achieved once the female figure can be just as implicitly malevolent as the male, which as of now still goes against the grain of literary tradition. The problematic nature of anti-feminist reception towards Amy therefore becomes clear through the scrutiny of Flynn’s work, as it’s obvious that what is being criticized is the act of having a female character fulfill more than one role in a text.
Gillian Flynn’s characters are shown to struggle with established literary tropes which are abundant throughout the novel and aid in its progression. Images of the “angel and the monster, the sweet heroine and the raging madwoman,” which all stand as “aspects of the author’s self-image, as well as elements of her treacherous anti-patriarchal strategies” (Moi 60) drive the unconventional narrative and impart themselves onto the unreliable narrators until the self-aware aspect of the roles become a reality. Since childhood, Amy’s life has been one large attempt at fulfilling the roles that society demands from her. The reader comes to learn that ‘Diary Amy’ was merely a facade of a dutiful wife (I am fun. I am playful. I am game. I feel naturally happy and entirely satisfied. I am a wife!) (Flynn 39). When her true self is first revealed, Amy confesses, “the way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities.” (Flynn 222) By switching her personalities to fit into societal expectations, her character represents a manifestation of how “women are denied the right to create their own images of femaleness, and instead must seek to conform to patriarchal standards imposed on them” (Moi 57). She first strives to find an identity separate from her “paper-bound better half” (Flynn 26), the embellished ‘Amazing Amy’ books written by her parents, disclosed when she states “I’ve never been more to them than a symbol anyway, the walking ideal. Amazing Amy in the flesh. Don’t screw up, you are Amazing Amy.” (Flynn 259) The girlhood burden of having to personify a flawless fictitious character has driven Amy crazy, and thus continuously throughout the novel the reader sees her assuming desirable female archetypes that she feels she must inhabit.
Once Amy meets the laidback, misogynist Nick at a party, she immediately adopts the role of the ‘Cool girl,’ recalling: “That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, and drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding, Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner, and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl” (Flynn 222). Amy’s preoccupation with the ‘Cool girl’ role is one of the most ingrained roles in patriarchal society. The ideal, pure women is expected to be exactly what a male wants, which Gilbert and Gubar touch upon in The Madwoman in the Attic, asserting, “from the eighteenth century on, conduct books for ladies had proliferated, enjoining young girls to submissiveness, modesty, selflessness; reminding all women that they should be angelic” (600). Women thus have a societal obligation to enjoy all that men enjoy whilst maintaining a perfectly ‘feminine’ image, and as a result, as discussed in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, “all such visions of women are contaminated by male-defined notions of the truth of femininity” (Felski 38). The expected role of women is to subjugate their own desires while appeasing those of a man, and accordingly women allow their identities to be determined by someone else’s desire. Amy recognizes this disparity, expressing “it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to be the girl every guy wants…but then I had to stop because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me” (Flynn 223-224). Amy’s critique of patriarchal society is that women allow themselves to be erased and replaced by someone else, which feminist criticism posits as a fundamental examples of ‘otherness,’ in which the silent image of a woman is controlled by a man. By coming to the revelation that she does not wish to be confined by the Cool girl image, she decides instead to use her next form of programming to get what she wants. Amy kills the version of herself designed to please Nick, thereby becoming the novel’s paragon of self-awareness. As conceived by Gilbert and Gubar, She kills herself “into a ‘perfect’ image” (597) of what the media will exploit. By willingly creating a new image as the vulnerable woman ordinarily assumed by society, Amy once and for all disposes of the Cool girl and becomes the ‘Gone girl.’
Amy’s ‘Gone girl’ image is arguably the most important in the book, because it capitalizes on society’s tendency to pigeonhole women as the helpless victim in the clutches of their abusive husbands. As a direct response to Nick’s philandering, Amy assumes all power in the marital relationship by framing him in this way, however she does so with no enjoyment. The role of the wronged woman is one she despises, stating: “I know women whose entire personas are woven from a benign mediocrity. Their lives are a list of shortcomings: the unappreciative boyfriend, the extra ten pounds, the dismissive boss, the conniving sister, the straying husband. I’ve always hovered above their stories, nodding in sympathy and thinking how foolish they are, these women, to let these things happen, how undisciplined. And now to be one of them! One of the women with the endless stories that make people nod sympathetically and think: Poor dumb bitch.” (Flynn 234) Amy exhibits her strength as a female character by using the patriarchal oppressive force to her advantage. Asserting that women shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as a doormat, she states that she “gave, and he took and took. He Giving Treed me out of existence” (Flynn 238). This represents a rejection of the “realm of the Gift,” in which the ideal woman “gives without a thought of return” (Moi 111). At this point in the novel, Amy has completely replaced her role as the selfless, ideal woman with that of the monster woman, who “acts on her own initiative, has a story to tell- in short, a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her” (Moi 57). By utilizing the pre-written, feminine roles that society has assigned to her against her will, Amy definitively comes out on top in the power relationship between the sexes. Flynn’s choice in having Amy follow these socially constructed expectations can be viewed on either side of the feminist spectrum, but it’s undeniable to the reader that idea of subsumption and destruction of gender roles is being put forth in a flagrant and unavoidable manner.
While Amy challenges the divisions between each archetype, Nick is shown trying to decipher and uphold his own throughout the text. According to Gilbert and Gubar, as a female voice, Flynn was able to effectively use the “female textual strategy” of “assaulting and revising, deconstructing and reconstructing those images of women inherited from male literature” (Moi 59) to write for Amy, however Nick’s character is presented as downright sexist and more one-dimensional, though still challenging society’s expectations for him to live up to his seemingly unsympathetic ‘killer husband’ disposition. The reader first sees him portray a role when, on the day of Amy’s ‘disappearance’ he admits, “like some awful piece of performance art, I felt myself enacting Concerned Husband” (Flynn 23). Similarly In front of Diary Amy, Nick claims to be “the sitcom-husband version” (Flynn 211) of himself, while in front of the police he plays the part of the “hero narrative: the husband who sticks by his wife” (Flynn 180) through thick and thin. Flynn often depicts him as emotionless and inappropriately reacting to situations, which all stems from his father’s influence on his life. His stunted emotions during the investigation are proof of this, as he is haunted by his father’s axiom that “men don’t cry” (Flynn 64) and must later remind himself to “act the way a man acts when he hears the news” (Flynn 202) that Amy is pregnant. In Nick’s patriarchal ideology, masculinity is constituted by being unemotional and detached, as he detested stooping to the “womanly art of articulation” (Flynn 133) and “lauded the emotional solidity of midwesterners: stoic, humble, without affectation (Flynn 146). Nick tries desperately to avoid growing into the image of his misogynistic father, but his recurrently sexists thoughts are not few and far in between. For example, after talking to Amy’s “best friend” Noelle Hawthorne, he experiences “the unkind thought, one of those that burbled up beyond my control…Women are fucking crazy. No qualifier: Not some women, not many women. Women are crazy” (Flynn 131). Fulfilling his “daddy’s-boy attitude” (Flynn 130), Nick repeatedly refers to women as ‘bitches’, ‘cunts’ and ‘whores’, and must fight his propensity for violence against them (“I wanted to smack her, right then, the obliviousness, the girliness of her”) (Flynn 96) in order to maintain the “Good Guy Nick” (Flynn 204) narrative. His role is defined as the quintessential ‘nice guy’, who is laidback and universally liked, and he embodies these traits by appearing flippant and phlegmatic. However this only reflects his external identity, as the reader knows that his internalized misogyny resides just below the surface.
Amy and Nick’s reunion at the end of the novel sheds light on her roles of the ‘perfect wife’ and ‘mother figure’, and can also be applied to the theory “Infantile fantasy.” As stated in Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, a heroine will “rebel against the tyranny of the loved men,” and yet “the qualities which make these men so desirable are, actually the qualities which feminists have chosen to ridicule: power…emotional distance…and singular love for the heroine (the inability to relate to anyone other than the sexual partner)” (Coward 174). In this example, we see why Nick cheating on Amy was a necessary obstacle in their twisted hero/heroine narrative. According to Coward, “a rival for the hero’s affections is almost obligatory…and the crunch point in the narrative often comes when the heroine sees the hero and the other woman embracing” (Coward 175). Exactly paralleling the reveal of her true self and the subsequent transition into the gone girl, Amy follows Nick to Missouri and watches him with “the mistress” Andie, as “he pressed her up against a tree- in the middle of town- and kissed her” (Flynn 233) Andie personifies the typical ‘whore’ image within the novel, however her character only serves to drive the plot along, and eventually “we discover that the hero was thinking about the heroine all along” (Coward 175). Nick confesses this fault at the end of the novel, stating “the indulged mama’s boy in me wouldn’t be able to find peace with this normal woman, and pretty soon she wouldn’t just be normal, she’d be substandard, and then my father’s voice-dumb bitch-would rise up and take it from there” (Flynn 397). Admittedly, Nick stays with Amy because he can’t live without the tension and excitement that she adds to his life. Due to the relationship he shares with his parents, on one hand being “always mothered” by his mom and receiving “the best of everything” (Flynn 8, 24) as a child, and on the other hand being turned into a constant people-pleaser by his pejorative, unsatisfiable father, it’s safe to assume that Amy fulfilled the “mother role” after his own mother died. On Amy’s neurotic perfectionism, Nick notes that she “made me believe that I was exceptional, that I was up to her level of play” (Flynn 214). Amy clearly bolstered Nick’s egotism, and vice versa, and coupled with his misogynist tendencies and her sociopathic behavior, their characters belonged with no one but each other in the end.
The popularity of Gone Girl landed Gillian Flynn with the heavy burden to appease all with her representation of women. One of the main facets of feminist criticism is that female characters should not have to uphold the societal expectations of women in literature, and this is exactly what Gillian Flynn sought to do. Very few popular female writers have successfully created complex, evil characters with intriguing motivations, and Flynn stood by her choice to create them despite receiving constant flack for her past works. Amy as a character may borrow from established literary tropes, but by acknowledging them and turning them on their head, Flynn did something not commonly seen in literary history. Breaking from literary tradition, Gone Girl critiques and subverts one-dimensional figurines and in the process creates an intelligently self-aware, layered villain that, because of its rarity alone, should be considered a feminist text.
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