GONE GIRL’s Cool Girl: Hero or Villain?

GONE GIRL’s Cool Girl: Hero or Villain?

nullSpoiler Alert: The following piece contains spoilers.

Gone Girl is a prickly, cerebral film, not unlike the dazzling villain who sets Gillian Flynn’s immaculately constructed
story into motion. It’s shot in bruised grays, with cold, antiseptic lighting;
the plot leads to a  dénouement that has sparked a thousand
thinkpieces and awkward dinner date conversations about gender and violence,
and the nature of marriage itself. However, I left the theater thrumming with
emotion: inchoate half-thoughts made more potent by their rawness. I couldn’t
articulate the power of what I’d seen until the following night, when I sat in
the back row of a burlesque show. One of the performers took the stage in a
gold sheath dress, fabric wings, and a dragon mask.  She whipped her lithe, muscular body around
the stage, shimmying out of her dress, down to g-string and pasties; towards
the end of the song—Lorde’s “Royals”—she removed her mask, revealing an
elaborate make-up of jewel-bright gold, blue, and green that made her face look
as if it were covered in scales. Underneath her dragon’s head was a female
body, pale and pliant. Woman as fantasy. Woman as monster. Object of desire.
Destroyer of worlds.

return to this image, and the awe it inspired in me, as I take stock of the
discussions buzzing around Gone Girl, film and novel alike: the importance of
likeability in male and female protagonists; the ethics of constructing a
central character like Amy Elliott Dunne, who falsely accuses men who’ve
angered her of rape and abuse; and feminist deconstructions of the Cool Girl.
Gone Girl is a sardonic horror story that upends the tired Primetime tropes of
the suburban hubby with a heart of darkness beating under his pastel polo
shirt and his angelic-looking blonde victim by repositioning that
angelic-looking blonde as the predator. The story has a chokehold on the zeitgeist because it offers something
exceedingly rare and unimpeachably vital: a protagonist who shows that women
don’t have to be the sheep fleeing as the winged shadow swoops down. We can, in
fact, be the beasts with the long teeth.

In an essay
excoriating our cultural scab-picking over “likeable” female characters, the novel’s author and the film’s screenwriter Gillian Flynn writes: “[Men] have
a vocabulary for sex and violence that women just don’t. And we still don’t
discuss our own violence … women have spent so many years girl-powering
ourselves—to the point of almost parodic encouragement—we’ve left no room
to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important.” Most mentally healthy
women who settle down in the dark to watch Amy Elliott Dunne frame her
philandering husband, Nick, for her murder, and take a box-cutter to the throat
of her Nice GuyTM ex-boyfriend, the king of condescending micro-aggressions,
certainly wouldn’t follow suit or agree that her reactions were proportional to
the offenses against her. Similarly, most men who watch American Psycho don’t
get their jollies shooting homeless people with nail guns. And yet, any woman
who has ever been cast aside for “a younger, bouncier Cool Girl” or had a man
explain to her what her best interests are has burned with the incandescent
rage that lights Amy’s torch, that glints off the axe she grinds.

is the first film in recent memory, and, arguably, one of the few films,
period, to offer a female villain who isn’t just the token henchwoman to the
true nemesis—the figure who exists so that the hero, amidst the rock ‘em-sock
‘em violence, can demonstrate his fundamental goodness by agonizing over
whether he can hit a woman, as in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World; or so that
the hero’s love interest can prove her pluck (and be counted as a “strong
female character”) by relieving him of the burden and fighting the evil bitch
herself, as did Mariko in The Wolverine—but
a vicious mastermind out for her own ends. Her drive for power and control
doesn’t manifest in a rah-rah “girls run the world” way; it emerges with an
arctic darkness that aligns her with characters like Michael Corleone or
Patrick Bateman or Walter White. These men’s violence and cunning often
articulate—and complicate—particular modes of masculinity: the boss of all
bosses, the soulless executive, the one who knocks.

The novel winks
slyly at the conventions of the anti-hero, the man who transfixes us
despite—or, more likely, because of—his badness. Nick is a case study in
internalized misogyny: “… my father, a mid-level phone company manager who
treated my mother at best like an incompetent employee … his pure, inarticulate
fury would fill the house for days, weeks, at a time, making the air humid,
hard to breathe … He just didn’t like women. He thought they were stupid,
inconsequential, irritating.” At first, we think we’re reading yet another
account of another white man struggling with his savage nature; then Amy wrests
the narrative from him in ways that the Carmela Sopranos and Sklyer Whites, or
the countless movie femme fatales who need the love of a good man to get out
from under a bad man’s thumb, never do.

machinery of Amy’s plot whirls and grinds on the standards and ideals of
feminine identity: “Amazing Amy … Ultimate-Frisbee Granola and Blushing Ingénue
and Witty Hepburnian Sophisticate. Brainy Ironic Girl and Boho Babe … Cool Girl
and Loved Wife and Unloved Wife and Vengeful Scorned Wife.”  Her Lecter-like precision in orchestrating
Nick’s trip up the river; the machete-sharpness of her observations about
gender, power, and identity; and the tremulous divide between the Amy who
outlines her plan and her motives with a crisp alacrity and the Amy who churns
with a pure, inarticulate fury make her a more compelling, even charismatic
character and a more effective predator.

Amy shifts through
a Kaleidoscope of identities to court, hold, and ultimately destroy the man of
her dreams. More than that, she wants to thrive—to win—in a world that still
just doesn’t like women. She uses the tropes of female victimhood—“a wonderful
good-hearted woman—whole life ahead of her, everything going for her, whatever
else they say about women who die—[who] chooses the wrong mate and pays the
ultimate price”—as the scaffolding of her plan. She is Snidely Whiplash in
damsel’s clothing, and this feels like a liberating alternative when women’s
suffering is treated like the wallpaper decorating so much of our

The week before Gone
was released in theaters, I saw The Equalizer, an extravaganza of
slow-motioned, nü-metal soundtracked, fetishized violence; the scene in which
our hero, a former black ops assassin, drives a corkscrew into his mafioso
opponent’s throat is almost loving in its meticulousness. However, his
berserker fury is acceptable, even heroic, because he is taking on the Russian
mob to ostensibly save a teenager trafficked into sex work—a character that
only exists to sport mini-skirts and black eyes, to be beaten and degraded so
that our hero can be stirred into righteousness. By contrast, Amy is her own
avenger; she will play victim, but she will not be one.

Gone Girl has been
rightfully praised as a satire of our media’s bloodlust, especially for the
stories of violated women: kidnapped co-eds, teenage sex slaves, battered
wives, rape victims; stories that are intended, on the surface, to shock and
appall with the scope of women’s suffering but can, instead (and perhaps
deliberately) turn that suffering into something titillating. Amy weaponizes
this suffering. When she’s forced to turn to Desi, her controlling ex, for
shelter and support, she plies him with sob stories of being beaten into a
miscarriage, fearing for her life; to con him, she becomes a fusion of broken
girl and happy housewife. In a New York Times interview, Flynn says that, “She
embodies [these stereotypes] to get what she wants and then she detonates
them.” And after Amy murders Desi—slitting his throat mid-coitus in a moment of
Grand Guignol that rivals Hannibal Lecter’s face-eating or Patrick Bateman
shimmying to “It’s Hip to be Square” as he hacks a rival to death—she plays to
the chivalric impulses of the mostly male FBI team handling her case, spinning
a graphic yarn of rape, torture and debasement; the things that, on some level,
every woman fears when she walks through a parking garage with her keys between
her knuckles or leaves a Match.com date’s name, number, and photo with a good

As she gives good
victim, Amy wears the blood of the man she fucked and killed, blood that mocks
the willful naiveté and complacency of the cops—who prove all of her theories
about how men regard complex, difficult women correct when they silence the
lone woman detective who dares to ask probing, potentially damning questions.
Home from the hospital, she strips down in front of her husband, and that blood
is war paint; her naked body isn’t an object to be punished or desired—it is a
threat. The remainder of the film is a sly inversion of the typical domestic
violence narrative: one shot of Nick locking himself in the spare bedroom,
pensively staring at the door as the monster-he-married sleeps one room over,
is a mirror image of “Diary Amy,” the persona Amy created to frame Nick,
cowering under the covers, confessing on the page that the man of her dreams
may truly kill her. That shot provoked a nervous twitter of laughter throughout
the theater I attended, a sign that we’re still so ill at ease with a woman
assuming the full potency of the villain archetype, an archetype that will keep
its hold on us as long as there are slasher flicks and crime dramas, action
blockbusters and gritty indies.

There’s been a lot
of editorial hand-wringing over whether Amy’s actions make her Bad For Women.TM
Yet, we don’t wonder whether Patrick Bateman, skinner of women, represents a
misandrist’s wet dream. We don’t insist that Hannibal Lecter or Alex De Large serve
as exemplars of masculinity, or Michael Corleone be led away in handcuffs for
ordering the hit on his brother—in fact, we don’t want to see him humbled or
reduced. We want the vicious, vicarious thrill of watching him get away with
it. Think of the fans who study that diner scene that ended The Sopranos as if
it were the Zapruder film, searching for proof that Tony lives to lie and
scheme and kill another day.  Male
characters don’t have to be moral in order to be complex or aggressive.

Novel Nick unwittingly
articulates how our culture’s supposedly full-throated endorsement of the
strong, independent woman is, in some ways, merely a hiccup: “I can celebrate
and support and praise—I can operate in sunlight, basically—but I can’t deal
with angry or tearful women. I feel my father’s rage rise up in me in the
ugliest way.” We embrace Katniss Everdeen and Danerys Targaryen and Michonne
because they are heroes (even if they don’t want to be). Though they can be
killers, their anger and tears are funneled into liberating innocents and
protecting the people they love. Each of these women is an important,
empowering figure; still, she is lethal, but not dangerous. And we need
dangerous women on-screen; women who can claw open and bite down into the scarred
center of any woman (every woman) who has suppressed an unfathomable anger, a
will-to-power that can’t be contained in a pin-stripe suit. We need women whose
talons break through skin and spread bones to rip out the great, thick
throbbing heart. We need women who breathe fire. 

Laura Bogart’s work has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Manifest-Station,
The Nervous Breakdown, RogerEbert.com and JMWW Journal, among other
publications. She is currently at work on a novel.

6 thoughts on “GONE GIRL’s Cool Girl: Hero or Villain?”

  1. Amy is my hero the only problem I have with the movie is that she doesn’t castrate and kill her piece of shit husband.


  2. Robb it’s because you are basically saying: Amy is an apple, Alex is orange, and I don’t like apples or oranges. Then you think ah…women are going to immediately think the reason that I don’t like apples or oranges is a thinly-veiled misogyny/gender warfare when I said nothing about gender. But believe or not by saying the last part, you have shown that you are misogynistic. If you had said, well I find both apple and orange equally repulsive despite gender. You would have actually sounded enlightened. Get it?? Or is the math logic too ambiguous??


  3. Attempt 2:

    Why do I get the distinct impression that if I fully expounded on why (as a MAA-AAAN!!) I find Amy an overall repulsive character–albeit not without some zest and charm ala Alex DeLarge–and on how gender is a total non-factor in said reasoning, the author of this piece and/or its proponents would still find a way to dismiss the whole shebang as thinly-veiled misogyny/gender warfare?


  4. Why do I get the impression that if I fully divulged my reasons for finding Amy an overall repulsive character (albeit not without some zest and charm ala Alex DeLarge–


  5. I think your spoiler alert comes too late. You’ve already spoiled a key element in your deck copy, where you identify the "predator" in the film.


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