ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Girl Found: GONE GIRL’s Boring Masochism

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Girl Found: GONE GIRL’s Boring Masochism

nullBefore I saw Gone
I had seen enough plot spoilers to know that Amy Dunne was the icy
villain, a femme fatale who devours male victims like a praying mantis. I
expected rage; what I didn’t expect was her willingness to hurt herself. Amy’s
aggressive behavior and her ability to manipulate the system hinges on how she
cuts, bleeds, tears at and otherwise desecrates her own body. 

I know, I know. Feminist champions of Gone Girl claim that Amy’s ability to play with the cookie-cutter roles
that women are cast in is somehow triumphant, but Amy’s self-inflicted wounds,
coupled with her meticulously constructed calendar, complete with yellow sticky
notes questioning whether now would be a good time to kill herself, struck me
as boring, rather than subversive. While male villains like Batman’s The Joker and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman thrill
us as they play the role of sadists, female villains, even at their most evil
and vindictive, are still relegated to the role of masochists.

Just as horror films love to torture their female victims,
feminist films and literature are often obsessed with female debasement. We
watch brilliant 19th century women slowly deteriorate into insanity
in stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We lament the smart, talented young
women who try to off themselves in Girl
. We watch Dove ads where rows of normal looking women shed
tears when talking about the pressure to have poreless skin and gaps between
their thighs. From Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” to the return to Twin Peaks and its obsession with the
tragic death of the young and beautiful Laura Palmer, what defines femininity
today is pain. The recently released short animated feature, “Sidewalk” by
Celia Bullwinkel, shows a girl’s journey to womanhood and old age, during which
she is always uncomfortable in her skin. She endures stares and whistles from
men as she enters puberty, the discomfort of pregnancy, the pressures faced on
older women’s bodies and, finally, the invisibility of old age. “Sidewalk” is
touted as a journey to “self-love,” but when the protagonist reaches old age
and helps a young girl walk along the same sidewalk, the mood is one of
resignation, rather than joy, the path to womanhood still presented as an
obstacle, rather than a pleasure.

This downtrodden story of what it means to be a woman is
just as limited a view of the female experience as the more cheerful,
empty-headed views of womanhood portrayed in such musical numbers as “I Enjoy
Being a Girl” from the 1958 musical Flower
Drum Song
and “How Lovely to Be a Woman” from the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie. Both songs feature a
young, beautiful woman enjoying her sexy new curves and newfound attention from
men. Certainly these songs, along with 80s and 90s jams like Cindi Lauper’s,
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like A Woman” aren’t
particularly deep or challenging of gender norms, but at least their view of
the female experience is upbeat.

In contrast our modern day obsession with female suffering
is as much a throwback to earlier tropes, as it is a kind of pushback against a
consumer culture that claims that by purchasing the right product women can be
happy and free. Amy Dunne’s desire to disappear certainly fits this model. In her
now famous “Cool Girl” speech, she describes the social pressure on women to
fit into a man’s fantasy, at once inhabiting and also casting off the “Cool Girl”
persona in the process.

Perhaps Amy’s “Cool Girl” theory would have been more
meaningful to me had I thought that Amy was truly making a feminist manifesto
and wasn’t just angry that her husband was having an affair with a “younger,
bouncier Cool Girl.”  Throughout the
film, Amy is not only vicious to her philandering husband and other men who she
tortures using her feminine wiles; she is also equally hostile to women,
speaking ill of the “stupid” neighbor she tries to quickly befriend, and
throwing venomous barbs at the large-breasted student her husband is having an
affair with. Amy’s self-involved, beautiful, blond, white, trust fund brand of
feminism just rings tone deaf to me in a world where women of all colors,
creeds and classes are claiming the feminist mantle in the name of justice,
rather than a plea to “have it all.” Amy’s self-victimization presents feminism
as its worst possible caricature: one of spoiled rage and privilege, rather
than a very real call for women’s stories to be told and women’s voices to be

In this way, Gone
heroine is not reclaiming her identity when she stages her escape;
she’s just another in a long line of self-destructive women, obsessed with
finding ways to disappear completely.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

14 thoughts on “ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Girl Found: GONE GIRL’s Boring Masochism”

  1. This is a simplistic reading of the film and even more so of the book. Amy has been controlled her entire life and has been taught – by her parents! – to live up to some ridiculous unreal standard "Amazing Amy" while constantly falling short. Consider the psychology not just her gender; expand your lens. Amy is also being controlled and betrayed by her husband; she sacrifices a lot to go with him and all he does is leave her alone and cheat. So she starts playing parts/roles, again, just as she has done all her life. She’s not masochistic; she’s been conditioned to perform and uses that skill as a way to escape. Only she backs herself into a corner she has to find a way out of – which is actually a very sadistic/dominating scene – and she empathizes with her husband, who, she realizes, has learned to "act," just like her, through his experiences with the media.


  2. I get what you’re saying, but this was about psychopathy, not feminism, though Amy is definitely stabbing at the Man-Made roles they are forced to inhabit without question, and how that Amy doesn’t see other women as above and beyond those roles, only herself.


  3. It’s amazing how people get their panties in a twist defending this airport novel and its thriller movie. Aside from a discussion feminist obsession with misery and how privileged women can’t have it all (or something) isn’t an excellent point for discussion in terms of social/aesthetic consideration. Feminism has come to mean too many things, very often having to do with cushy problems like "I shouldn’t have to feel bad in my designer pants!" and "Why don’t I look like a super model?!" But, at the end of the day, Gone Girl isn’t exactly worth the trouble. The story stretches beyond the realm of plausibility, with a hilariously over-the-top depiction of cartoonishly monologuing villainy, a plan that only works because the plot says so, paper-thin characters, clunky YA-style prose, a plot twist stolen from Leave Her to Heaven, and whiny self-obsession. Furthermore, the entire notion that we lack female villains who are more than "psycho bitches" is undermined by A.) the proliferation of better female villains and B.) the fact that this is actually about a psycho bitch whose "evil" amounts to a one-note gig of "the girl who cried abuse" and a lot of cattiness. She is a psycho bitch because she is psycho and she is bitchy. She’s only called a brilliant villain by characters, and we never see this because, like many developments, the author just tells us things. (Other examples include Nick’s fear of puppets. We never see this until she decides to tell us why she used puppets to scare him. It’s not intense if we don’t know it’s supposed to be intense until we’re told, "Oh, BTdubs, this har’s some intense shit." I am always shocked at how fans of this material shriek every time anyone criticizes the work, as though this were some sacred text. It’s a paperback thriller, guys. The book and the movie are not relegated to some sacred cloud that is beyond scrutiny. Hell, even great art should be considered critically, and… yeah, this ain’t.


  4. Wasn’t the movie really more about class anyway, specifically post-recession aspirations and unearned wealth? It’s Fincher’s WASP bookend to the Cali-Jewish outcast conforming to Harvard’s class system no matter how much he harnesses the Internet’s illusion of democracy. Sounds super boring to me.


  5. This article is pretty lame. Your understanding of masochism is somewhat shallow. Also the commenter named Lisa nailed it when she said "This is a fascinating story with a woman as the star. Why does it need to be the perfect feminist manifesto?"


  6. Look, I think the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ is stretching a hackneyed metaphor a bit far, but this article really addressed a key concern of mine. Why is it that The Joker has such an air of chaotic insouciance, gleefully smashing established ethical paradigms to pieces, and Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of a "psychopath" is sterilized to the point of occupying a parodistic, self-castigating subsistence? SHe seems to be endorsing some kind of penitential masochism that strips the character of what could potentially be delightfully insidious.


  7. Agree with the comments – this seems like a real stretch for clicks "I think this popular film with an interesting character is un-feminist and boring! What a revolutionary opinion! Click now to learn more!" Amy is a fascinating sociopath, every bit as charming, beguiling, controlling, maniacal, sadistic, and chilling as any classic male equivalent, including those mentioned as comparisons in this article.


  8. feminists are badly reaching for straws in contemporary america. They try to turn porn into a feminist manifesto (p.s. at the end of the day, you can’t. think about it: it’s about plumbing and will never be, by the sheer act of it, a part of the feminist agenda). And somehow, maybe because it’s popular, try to spin this movie into a feminist manifesto critique? Wow. This movie is more of an indictment of how vindictively bat sh@#%t crazy’ women can be. I’ll just stop here: There’s nothing more to be said about anyone holding a character like this as a ‘role model’ or in a positive light.


  9. I am completely at a loss as to what point this article is trying to make. It seems to be all over the place with no real focus except to somehow prove that this movie isn’t feminist, I’m assuming? First of all, I wouldn’t say that Amy is a masochist. A masochist takes pleasure in hurting themselves; Amy doesn’t take pleasure in hurting herself. Hurting herself physically doesn’t seem to be something she either likes or doesn’t like. It’s simply the means necessary to destroy the men around her. She’s a sociopath, not a masochist. If she’s comparable to anyone in Girl, Interrupted, it’s Angelina Jolie’s character, who from what I remember doesn’t try to "off herself" like Brittany Murphy’s character did. Lumping all the characters of Girl Interrupted together is completely pointless in and of itself. They’re all completely different with different struggles.

    Also, why does every movie have to include a "feminist manifesto"? I doubt that either the character or the author were attempting to write a feminist manifesto with this story. Of course the character of Amy is lashing out against her husband in particular because…well…that’s her character’s major motivation. That doesn’t mean that her inner monologue can’t ring true for women’s experiences in the real world. And of course she’s writing from the point of view of trust fund privilege. THAT’S HER BACKGROUND. I don’t think Amy, Gillian Flynn, or Gone Girl as a book or film were ever trying to be paragons of intersectional feminism. Why would you be upset at a movie for not achieving something that it never set out to do?

    In terms of Gone Girl being received as ‘feminist,’ I think it’s as simple as: Amy is a strong female character (virtue is not the issue) which is a refreshing change from most of the Hollywood dreck. She is smart, fascinating, complex, and she actively proves wrong many stereotypes of the female experience. Because, yes while not everything about the female experience is as dark as Gone Girl, not everything about the female experience is "upbeat" as you say. Are you really trying to fault one film for a perceived trend of dreary feminist narratives? Maybe you should go watch Broad City or Obvious Child for some humorous female leads, because Gone Girl would not exist with an upbeat Amazing Amy.


  10. This is idiotic. Remember that masochism of slitting Doogie’s throat with a box cutter? And what of masochism anyway. The ‘model’ it fits is that of any woman, that we’re slaves/submissive. It’s part of the symbol of female oppression. What you should be talking about is how many critics are undermining and underestimating this character. And how Amy underestimates women.


  11. This isn’t about Gone Girl, as I have not read or seen if (YET as I really think I will love it), but wasn’t The Yellow Wallpaper point not that she is in pain, but that men and society’s loathsome views of femininity caused her to be mentally anguished? I get what you mean that women are always degrading to themselves, not to others like men are, but can that not be in itself a statement on what society does to us, not showing what femininity itself is?


  12. I always kind of roll my eyes when someone says something is "boring" only to offer up a whole article on it. There’s a weird tic in feminist criticism (and I consider my self a feminist engaged in criticism) where someone uses the word boring to describe something that makes them angry or annoyed. That’s not being "board."


  13. This is a fascinating story with a woman as the star. Why does it need to be the perfect feminist manifesto? If there were more stories about women, maybe we wouldn’t feel a need to find everything we want in just one. And Amy’s spoiled rage and privilege? It seems to me that’s exactly what she was going for with the story. It’s not supposed to be some perfect vision of feminism, it’s a thriller about a particular woman.


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