What Tells Us about Feminism

Carol Iannone*

“I killed feminism. Why did I do that? Rats. I did not mean to do that,” Gillian Flynn reports thinking upon completion of her gothic-edged, thriller novel, Gone Girl, a runaway bestseller in 2012. After twenty-four hours hovering under the covers, however, Flynn decided that she was quite comfortable with what she had done.

Why did Flynn think that she had “killed feminism”? Well, the novel, and notable film of the same title (2014), for which Flynn wrote the screenplay, could be seen as a scathing allegory of contemporary feminism. Of course, that is not all it is—it is a true page turner that, despite its substantial length, could probably be read in one day, although other duties might have to be set aside. It is the mesmerizing stuff of mystery and mayhem that we see sketched in real life murder shows, 48 Hours, Forensic Files, Snapped. As fiction, Terrence Rafferty sees it as having launched a whole genre of “doomy domestic thrillers” by women, “blockbuster bourgeois nightmare[s] about terrible relationships, told in the voices of more than one profoundly unreliable narrator.”

Sure enough, Gone Girl is narrated in the first person in alternate chapters by husband and wife Nick and Amy Dunne, and, unsurprisingly, the woman’s story is especially enthralling and acutely perceptive. An interesting parallel story threads alongside the main action, in which Amy’s self-involved parents have been using her as the model for a series of popular children’s books, Amazing Amy, in which the literary heroine always outshines the real girl. But when all is read and done, what really lingers is that unmistakable subtext subversive of feminism.

Amy Dunne finds herself in a marriage gone bad. Unemployment, money woes, increasing estrangement from each other, a move from chic Brooklyn to the sleepy confining Midwestern town of Nick’s family, have worn down what had seemed to be a superior relationship. Crushed by the loss of his job as a journalist, the husband loses ambition and settles in as a lowly adjunct professor of creative writing at a local college. Instead of addressing the deterioration of their marriage and his wife’s increasing discontent, he grows more distant and escapes into adultery, and with a younger woman, one of his own adoring students, at that.

Our heroine, or anti-heroine, decides on revenge. She carefully arranges her disappearance from the house one day, with meticulously and cleverly constructed clues left behind that will frame him for her “murder.” In the weeks preceding her departure, she minutely fabricates a tale of his growing abuse and her mounting fear of him through a diary she makes sure will be discovered in her absence. Her plan at first was to take her own life eventually, her body to be found to seal his conviction in a court of law, but she changes her mind when she sees the possibility of getting him back and forcing him to shape up. During her time on the road, an old admirer comes to her rescue when her stash of money is stolen. He knows the truth of her “disappearance” and grows ominously possessive, so she kills the luckless fellow in grisly fashion in the very act of intercourse, readying a tale of kidnap and rape to explain her absence and to justify the murder in supposed self-defense.

Meanwhile, the story of the sudden disappearance of “Amazing Amy” has become a media obsession, with the husband under heavy suspicion, his sins and infidelities, real and imagined, fully exposed to the public. When she returns home, a blood-spattered “survivor” of the supposed kidnapping and rape—but really of the murder she has just committed—ready to forgive her wayward spouse for his derelictions, the waiting, watching cameramen and reporters ecstatically capture the scene. And aside from a besotted media, a servile medical establishment and parts of law enforcement are also captivated by her story.

Flynn has depicted a female character capable of premeditated evil, extreme dishonesty, and utter ruthlessness, the kind of scheming witch we might see in film noir of the old days (absent the sensationalistic blood spatter). Flynn’s defense, more or less, is that depicting evil female characters is feminist, and some are willing to agree with her.

But that doesn’t quite explain other dimensions of her story, which suggest further that a woman can employ false charges of abuse and rape and domestic violence to garner attention, exact revenge, punish a man, and that, again, large segments of society have been primed by feminism to listen and not ask too many questions or “blame the victim.” This dimension of the novel/film becomes, as one feminist objector put it, “the crystallization of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behavior.” It also echoes aspects of the #MeToo movement, some Title IX procedures on college campuses, and highly publicized instances of false accusations against men.

Even further, going deeper, the narrative can illustrate how feminism has taken the more ordinary difficulties of man-woman relationships and made them into a tale of predatory male monster and suffering female victim, as has the Gone Girl heroine. Unemployment and infidelity are bad enough problems in a marriage, to be sure—but these no longer particularly garner outstanding sympathy. With the advance of feminism, women are expected to be entirely independent, financially and emotionally, no more needing a man than the now proverbial fish needs a bicycle, as the feminist cliché has it.

You need a greater tale of woe to gain society’s empathy nowadays, as Amy realizes, inflating her ordinary problems into a tale of physical and emotional abuse that she pretends has reached the point of desperation and despair, her own part carefully constructed to look entirely innocent. And in all this, too, she is aided by a smitten, fatuous society ready to “believe the woman.”

In yet another of the grimly salient twists of the novel, the husband too goes along with the lies about himself, as, it might be said, many men have consented to the caricature that feminism has fashioned about them. At first reluctant, he soon agrees. Perhaps because of guilt at his infidelity and other failures in the marriage, and because she is expecting their child (another bit of treachery on her part; she uses his semen from an earlier fertility treatment in which she had previously lost interest), he is willing to take up the cross as a sinful male in need of atonement, the chastened, penitent husband. For a man rather adrift, her reconstituted scenario of their lives actually gives him direction. The truth is known to very few people, two of them clear-thinking women, as it happens, and they strenuously object to his acquiescence. But they will remain quiet, trapped in the new scenario of Gone Girl’s making, which defies the demands and expectations of the thriller genre and the ordinary reader/viewer’s aesthetic need for the world to be made whole once again. (Think of the reassuring street scene at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, for example.)

So too, it can be extrapolated, modern feminism has been built on layer upon layer of fabrications, exaggerations, and distortions of reality. And it’s possible that the popularity of the novel and film was due to a certain satisfaction at the feminist vision being exposed, if indirectly, despite politically correct restraints. (How different from The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, one of those “doomy domestic” female thrillers that came in the wake of Gone Girl, closely scripted to predictable feminist outlines.)

By the end of Gone Girl, both novel and film, the pair is locked in an uneasy truce in which the husband suppresses the desire to smash his wife’s skull. Let’s hope that part has no bearing on real life.

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