Gone Girl is about control, but it can’t control its own message

by Emily West

Spoiler Alert – This blog post is only meant for those who’ve seen or read Gone Girl, or those who have no intention of doing so anyway.

Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn’s bestseller, and directed by iconic American director David Fincher on a screenplay by the author, is a bone fide hit. Its plot features a woman who lies about being raped and abused in an effort to punish the men in her life who have wronged her. What could a feminist possibly find of value in a powerful screen image that undermines women who experience abuse in real life but are so often disbelieved or discouraged from reporting? This is by no means a new issue, but it has become even more salient given recent revelations of how reports of sexual assault have been mishandled by so many American college campuses. Is it ‘empowering’ or a sign of ‘progress’ that such an unflattering portrait of a woman can be represented, as has been suggested? Does Amy Elliott Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike) offer an ultimate revenge fantasy for women, using feminine vulnerability as a weapon? My own analysis, and pleasure, in Gone Girl lies not in the idea of gender transgression, but in the notion that the performance demands of certain gendered identities can produce something monstrous.

As a feminist who was thoroughly entertained both by Flynn’s book and the new film, I certainly have to grapple with the questions raised by Gone Girl’s critics, as we so often have to ponder the politics in the pleasures of popular culture. I can’t deny that those who already believe, or are predisposed to believe, that women who report abuse are manipulative liars will find grist for the mill here. Although it’s hard to imagine that these readers were part of Flynn’s intended audience for Gone Girl, it doesn’t mean that they’re not in the audience, and that the text won’t be used this way. Regardless of authorial intentions, texts find their ultimate meaning only in their reception, interpretation, and cultural circulation, and sometimes texts are “open” to (in Umberto Eco’s term) uses that their authors, and fans, might object to.

In reflecting on my own engagement with Gone Girl, I find myself seeing the story, and the main characters of Nick and Amy Dunne, as largely allegorical. These characters and their actions are in some ways everyday and recognizable, but as the story progresses the beyond-belief twists and turns add up to something that feels much more apocryphal. The fact is Amy and Nick Dunne are both struggling to live up to idealized cultural scripts of gender and class. In Amy’s case, there’s a literal script that she has consistently failed to live up to, in the form of her parents’ series of children’s fictional books, Amazing Amy. The expectations for Nick in terms of his hegemonic, upwardly-mobile masculinity are less literal, but no less real, and perhaps over-determined in light of his all-American, screen idol looks (perfectly embodied by Ben Affleck). Nick shows tremendous weakness of character when the world fails to deliver on the promise of his white, middle-class male privilege. However, it’s Amy who has been, it gradually becomes clear, profoundly damaged by expectations to both appear and be perfect – in physical appearance, manners, intellect, career, and love. The notion that the pressures of idealized femininity are great enough to turn a woman who ostensibly has it all into a sociopath is an exaggeration, but one that nevertheless points to a broader social truth.

Here Rosamund Pike’s performance contributes much-needed subtlety since the movie cannot, by necessity, accommodate as much of Amy’s voice as the novel. In flashback there’s something inaccessible about the Amy we see, something slightly unreal (and there are some very good reasons for this feeling, it turns out). By the end of the film we’re confronted with a living doll, an eerie facsimile of a real person who is relentlessly scripted for public consumption. And the Amy we see in the middle of the film is also a consciously crafted performance, although a less controlled one that perhaps provides glimpses of a more authentic self. Where is the real Amy? Does she even exist? And isn’t Nick also called upon to perform – by the police, by the media, and ultimately by Amy herself – in very particular ways?

It’s this theme of the performance demands on the self, and the ways they are gendered, that hooked me on Gone Girl. But I couldn’t go so far as to argue for this as a progressive text. After all, the pressure of social expectations and dashed dreams on some of the most privileged among us (as both Amy and Nick’s social positions in racial and class hierarchies represent) are not exactly the most urgent social issues facing us. And I don’t doubt that Gone Girl makes a cultural narrative about women who lie about sexual assault and abuse more resonant, at precisely a time when such an attitude needs to be challenged more than ever. This is the meta-lesson about popular culture: that it always interacts with the context of its reception to produce meaning, and that no one – not even its creators – can control how it will be used. As will be clear to those familiar with the narrative conclusion of Gone Girl, the irony is that Flynn’s creation Amy Dunne is more successful in controlling the narrative about her ‘work’ than Flynn is about her own.

Emily West is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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