Sunday, May 19, 2024

Cool Girls, Marriage & Cynicism: The Legacy Of “Gone Girl’s” Complex Feminism

By Ryan C. Showers 

Practically every element of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is of the highest cinematic quality. The formal elements are as perfectly carved out and aesthetically realized as possible; Fincher’s direction provides a crisp and thrilling vantage point for the beloved text and has one of the greatest film cast ensembles of the century. Rosamund Pike’s sensational breakthrough performance as Amy Dunne should have catapulted her into the career of someone like Marion Cotillard or Olivia Colman after their Oscar wins. But most of all, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay left such a mark on the screenwriting landscape with the adaptation of her own book in “Gone Girl,” and it’s an accomplishment that no adapted screenplay has lived up to since.  

It may be difficult for readers of Next Best Picture who may not have been active in film punditry six years ago to fully understand how audacious the existence of “Gone Girl” was in 2014. Apart from being simply a wickedly fun, entertaining, and shocking movie, which made audiences flock to it, the discussion of “Gone Girl” on social and cultural grounds was explosive and divisive. Hundreds of think-pieces have been written about the feminism – maybe more appropriately, the feminist critique – Flynn explored within her adaptation. There was such a heightened discussion about the film six years ago that it divided even like-minded people into disagreeing about whether the film presented feminist themes or counterproductive images about women. “Gone Girl” is a complicated piece of art and the beauty of its art is its contradictions and ability to allow for such varied viewpoints on these characters, the storyline, and the themes. 

As a motion picture, apart from the source material, “Gone Girl” can be looked at through a feminist film theory and within that the results are intrepid and dynamic. Even on its most basic level, Flynn dared to write a story about a woman protagonist who is an “unlikable, criminal narcissist.” Traditionally, audiences typically accept men without redeeming qualities at the center of narratives, while the same has not been true of female protagonists. Instead, audiences generally recoil if there is not something for them to latch onto, a relatability component, or a sympathetic anti-hero quality.

Gone Girl - Rosamund Pike

In “Gone Girl,” Amy epitomizes this and swims against the tide of audiences’ unconscious, misogynist, and sensitive views of the female lead. That fact alone locks into the ring of feminist discourse. In order for something to be seen as feminist does not mean the representation has to be of positive moral standing because, there are unlikable women in the world, just as there are unlikeable men. There are women who are felons and sociopaths in real life, just as there are men. Therefore, it should be represented. “Gone Girl” pushes the convention that in order for a piece of art to be feminist that it must be a virtuous representation, which is an assumption that itself is limiting, unfair, and even antifeminist.

Flynn calls audiences on their bullshit with this exact point.

Beyond that, “Gone Girl” is packed with the exploration of gender roles and the female identity. “Gone Girl,” at its most strapping, is an allegory for marriage. Albeit, it is an extreme, cynical allegory and not meant to be taken literally. It depicts a basic, logical arc of a marriage: a couple meets, falls in love with idealized versions of each other, the man cheats, the wife seeks retribution, they weather a storm, yet remain married because of societal forces, especially since children are involved. Yet, Flynn tells this familiar story of marriage in a fantastical way. But it still represents marriage as, what her text would suggest, a dark, cynical institution where two people “resent each other and try to control each other.” 

The concept of gender roles is something Flynn plays with in every scene: her writing plays on not only our expectations about men and women but society’s enforcement of those nuclear gender roles. Some of the most telling are the scenes as told through Amy’s diary entries describing how a man like Nick could turn her into a woman she did not like nor recognize, or Nick using her for sex, and her isolation in Missouri after she rerouted for his sake. The sick fact about “Gone Girl” is that these journal entries turn out to be falsified, yet the effect of gendered elements still echo deeply because they are rooted in the truths about men, women, and bad relationships. And oddly, one of the film’s most powerful themes, the modern media, almost becomes an enforcer of gender roles by raising Nick and Amy into prominence when they accept on traditional gender roles and alienating them when they diverge. The media thrives when Amy fulfills the molds as “the victim” and “the pregnant wife”, yet tarnish Nick as the husband who does not even know the basic facts about his wife, such as who her friends are or how she spends her time during the days.

​The claim to fame of “Gone Girl” on a feminist level is the iconic “Cool Girl” speech, which Amy recites about midway through the film, where it is finally revealed she is alive, she is pissed, and she wants her husband to pay for his infidelity. The substance of what Amy describes in the “Cool Girl” speech is something that relates specifically to women within a patriarchal culture, where men want a woman who, plainly, does not exist, and is essentially extensions of themselves, rather than a fully realized person with whom they respect as a partner.

​“The Cool Girl” monologue is perhaps the single most discussed aspect of the book and film, yet it is rarely tied into Amy’s overall identity, which is something so frail because alternative identities have imposed upon her since she was a child, from her parents’ idealized version of their daughter in “Amazing Amy”, to the identities Amy took on in each of her romantic relationships. This is something women face constantly: being subjected to what other people, namely men, want them to be without complaining, while not embracing who they actually are or want to be. The feminism of “Gone Girl” pushes a viewer to an uncomfortable place if you dig deep enough and acknowledge the fact that it is not only a critique of men but rather also of women because so many women take on roles like “Cool Girl” and keep the myth alive. “Gone Girl” is inevitably a movie that is meant to tangle into knots, especially if you put forth the effort to think about it.

Next Best Picture recently undertook re-evaluating “Gone Girl” during our 2014 film retrospective where it won 3 NBP Film Awards & 2 NBP Film Community Awards. Check out our podcast review here.

What do you think of “Gone Girl?” Are you excited to see David Fincher’s follow up film “Mank?” Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818

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