Gone Girl: Trope Busting, Liars and the Feminism of Horrible People

Note: this post is just about the movie version of Gone GirlI’ve yet to read the book, so any differences between the two versions or adaptation-related criticisms are totally lost on me.

Before finally seeing Gone Girl this past weekend, I had heard it described as every incarnation of “feminist” and “anti-feminist” under the sun. It was “feminist” because Strong Female Character. It was “feminist” because it showed how psychotic feminists want to treat men. It was “anti-feminist” because all the women in the movie are awful or because it made Nick sympathetic and Amy unsympathetic. It was “misogynistic” because it portrayed the kind of villainous female character that anti-feminists imagine most women to be. And on and on and on.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gone Girl didn’t fit any of those descriptions. Gone Girl is not a “feminist story,” in the sense that Amy is a feminist character, although I think it does have some intriguing feminist angles hidden inside it. And it’s not an “anti-feminist” story, in a “women are lying psychopaths and we should all feel sorry for Nick” sort of way. It’s far too surprising and morally complicated for both of those readings.

It is, in essence, a story about a whole bunch of really horrible people, doing horrible things to one another. It eschews every narrative and character trope we know, and it uses those tropish expectations to outwit both the viewer and the characters themselves. No one fits into the simple boxes that we might like to place them in. If you read Amy as a representation of “women” as a whole, you’re missing the point, just as you’re missing the point if you see Nick as a victim, or, god forbid, Amy as a Strong Female Character.

Unless, of course, you’re reading Amy as a criticism of a Strong Female Character (TM). Because if Gone Girl has any message to convey about female characters or about people in general, it’s that none of them are as straightforward or as good as you would like to believe.

While the main focus was on Nick and Amy, I actually found Neil Patrick Harris’s character Desi to be the most memorable, in part because of the moral complexity he added to the story. It would have been incredibly easy to simply make Amy a sociopath who preys on poor, sympathetic men. Nick may not be the nicest person, but he certainly didn’t kill her. And after we learn that she (at least allegedly) framed her ex-boyfriend for rape, we naturally jump to the conclusion that her “stalker ex” Desi was also a victim of her scheming. But although she does frame him for kidnap and rape in the course of the movie, and goes to incredibly graphic extremes to do so, he’s not an innocent victim either. He’s probably the most unsettling character in the story, because of how normal and understated his awfulness is. He puts Amy in a house surrounded by cameras, and makes a point of her ensuring that Amy is aware of them, “so she feels safe.” He controls her actions — what she eats, what she watches — for her own good. He buys her hair dye and sexy clothes and criticizes the traumatized way she acts, after thinking she has been abused, because “she’ll feel better if she goes back to being the old Amy.” And he “reassures” her by telling her “he won’t force himself on her,” because he’s a good guy and he’ll wait until she comes around herself.

And then she slits his throat. She makes up lies about how he held her prisoner and she had to kill him in order to escape. But they’re not all lies. No, Desi did not kidnap her like she claimed, and he didn’t physically abuse her. But he did take her to a remote location, lock her in, and make clear, without any actual threats, that she needs to act to please him and that he could be a danger to her if he chose to be. She takes things to the dramatic blood-gushing next level, but there’s an incredibly realistic element of danger in all of his scenes that makes me wonder what would have happened if Amy wasn’t a scheming murderer, and if she had been telling the truth about her situation whens he met him. He’s certainly not completely innocent here.

But of course, it’s impossible to tell how Amy feels about Desi’s threat, just as it’s impossible to tell how Amy feels about almost everything. She is a masterful unreliable narrator, even beyond the lies of her diary. We almost always see her performing a role based on what others expect of her — Nick’s “cool girl,” “Amazing Amy,” Nancy, Desi’s image of “the real Amy,” the brave kidnapping survivor. Even when Amy tells the truth to Nick in the shower at the end, it’s difficult to know if this is the “real her,” since she’s still potentially performing a new persona for Nick. We get very few reliably honest moments with her, moments when absolutely no one else is around — her watching Nick kiss his student, her driving away, her scream after being robbed. So it’s unclear whether the weaker, more vulnerable Amy around Desi was a performance, or whether she was genuinely unsettled by his threat.

If you wanted to make Gone Girl into a “feminist story,” the unreliable narrator angle would be the one to use. Amy is an unreliable narrator in part because she’s constantly trying to act like the person others want her to be. She’s trying to be the perfect cool girlfriend and wife, the one she thinks every guy dreams of because she never has too many opinions or needs of her own. She’s trying to be sexy and vulnerable for Desi. She’s trying to be the poor, loving, dutiful, abused and probably murdered wife. She tries on role after role, and she does it easily, because no one seems to expect her to have depth or intricacies or unpredictable elements to her personality. She’s certainly not expected to have flaws.

And there could be a narrative lurking here about how the need to perform for everybody else created the “real Amy” who is willing to kill herself to frame her husband for murder. The idea that she was constantly compared to Amazing Amy and found wanting, the knowledge that her husband liked Cool Amy and not Real Amy, the college boyfriend who genuinely is a terrifying stalker and didn’t want Amy to have any depth or independent feelings of her own… the societal commentary is lurking there. But Gone Girl refuses to even fit that semi-expected narrative. Amy is a fascinating character, but she is not a sympathetic one. She’s a character who will scheme for years to frame her husband for murder. She’s willing to kill herself to take him down with her. She slit Desi’s throat, and in the end, it’s not freedom that she wants. She’s so in love with all the lies and manipulation that she returns to Nick, because she wants them both to be trapped in their performances for each other. She’s absolutely horrific.

A compelling kind of horrific, yes. “Feminist” in the sense that she’s a pretty evil female character with a lot of depth who rejects both the “innocent victim” and “femme fatale” narratives. But horrific none-the-less.

13 comments on “Gone Girl: Trope Busting, Liars and the Feminism of Horrible People

  • Courtney , Direct link to comment

    Great commentary! I agree with everything you said about Amy being neither feminist nor anifeminist, she’s just a terrible person in general. I think all the complexities of the characters kept it from being another Lifetime movie.

  • voodooqueen126 , Direct link to comment

    I have just bought the book from amazong, I am going to do a presentation for uni on how it is an innovative work of crime fiction.
    So your post was timely.

  • Monique , Direct link to comment

    Oh, your comments about Desi! I felt exactly the same! I watched the movie with my boyfriend and his brother and none of them saw this creepy side of NPH’s character. We even agreed to rewatch some scenes, but have not come to do it yet. I just think I’m already so alert when it comes to creepy guys, that it was natural that I found him threatening while they could only see him as victim and poor fooled guy.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I had a similar, strange conversation with my roommate after watching the movie. After talking about it, she agreed that his attitude and words were creepy, but at first she couldn’t see the character himself as creepy. I think it says a lot about how much we normalize unsettling or controlling behavior in relationships. As long as it’s not too blatant, we tend to look right past it.

      • Ivana , Direct link to comment

        In addition, Neil Patrick Harris is has this ability to look like a nice, likable guy even when he’s playing someone completely creepy – something put to good use in some of his creepy roles, from Dr Horrible to American Horror Story: Freak Show.

        *spoilers for Dr Horrible*

        The former is a particularly good example as some fans completely bought into the idea of his character as a lovable, put-upon nerd- Nice Guy who “deserves” to get the girl and beat the annoying “jock” Captain Hammer, and disregarded the fact that he not only keeps telling the audience that he wants to be a supervillain all along (so the ending should not have come by surprise), but is completely at fault for “not getting” Penny as he acts never does anything that could appeal to her romantically or even signify his interest, and that it would be best for Penny to get away from both of them and not be an object in their pissing contest. Essentially, Joss Whedon made an amalgam of his Trio from season 6 of Buffy, made him a protagonist, cast a likable, attractive actor in the role, and this proved how easily the audience can be manipulated to essentially treat a villain as a hero.

        • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

          Wow, I really hadn’t thought about Dr Horrible that way before, but you’re completely right. There’s something so damn likeable about Neil Patrick Harris in particular that makes it work particularly well — I think we see it in a less blatant way in HIMYM too. He’s awful yet somehow still endearing.

          I think for me, that made Desi’s character even more creepy — the contrast with NPH’s likeableness was really unsettling. But someone else I watched with did say that it was really hard to find him creepy, precisely because NPH is too likeable for that.

      • Ally , Direct link to comment

        That’s sort of the beauty of Neil Patrick Harris’ talent. He can play the creepiest guy, and say the creepiest thing and still make you identify with him. Then you think about it later and realize how creepy he had been. It speaks to how we’ve been programmed to ignore micro-aggressions. Plus, by contrast with the sides that we saw of the other characters, he came out looking squeaky clean. In essence, he was the lesser of the available evils.

    • Ivana , Direct link to comment

      I think the audience, or some of them, in the cinema where I watched the movie did get the strong creep vibes from Desi – there was loud laughter mixed with gasping at several moments when he was talking to Amy in a super-controlling, creepy way, while having a loving smile and look on his face.

  • Julie , Direct link to comment

    Thank you for this review. I haven’t read the book, and when I saw the movie, I really had no idea what to think. You are exactly right that the story doesn’t fit anything we know, which is why it’s so hard for me to figure out the point of it. I also saw Desi as a bit of a creep and maybe a representation of domestic abuse/emotional control, but certainly not deserving of violent death. I had a problem with all of the framed rape because I don’t want people to see the movie and assume that that is a normal situation and use it in the backs of their mind as justification for victim blaming. I just don’t know about this movie. As you say, the characters are all so unbelievably horrible and Amy so monstrous that it has no realism or relatability and that makes it hard for me to see any meaningful social commentary. But thank you for making it a little clearer for me.

  • Amelia , Direct link to comment

    I really do recommend the book and I only say this because it’s directly relevant to your criticism — I think the film adaptation in itself was good (well shot, well acted, etc.), but one of my biggest criticisms of it was that it didn’t go far ENOUGH as the book does in showing how awful and creepy Desi is. Seriously, if your roommate wasn’t sure his character was supposed to be creepy, she should definitely read the book. I love NPH and think he played the character well, but Desi still just wasn’t written for the screen version as well as he should have been. Book or movie, though, I 100% agree with you that it should be viewed less as a feminist or anti-feminist tale, and more as a story of awful people being awful to each other.

    I’m also curious about your take on the character of Nick’s twin sister Margo, who’s probably the closest thing approaching a sane, not-awful person who is more of a participant than third party observer to the drama (i.e., she’s not the police). She’s not exactly the “Cool Girl” in Amy’s famous monologue, but I think she shares some of the salient traits Amy lists in her interactions with Nick, at least the ones that have nothing to do with sex — the ones that have to do with being the woman who agrees with the guy all the time, isn’t too “difficult,” doesn’t challenge him. It’s been a few months since I’ve read the book or seen the movie, but my impressions from both (more so in the movie than the book, but still in both) were that she’s Nick’s sympathetic ear all the time before Amy disappears, drinking with him in their bar and constantly affirming her brother’s complaints how Amy’s so awful and he’s just a victim. Although once he attracts more suspicion from the cops, she briefly does start to question her underlying assumptions about Nick and Amy’s relationship dynamic and whether her brother is REALLY just the longsuffering husband he makes himself out to be — but that all goes by the wayside relatively quickly once Nick figures out Amy’s still alive, and she goes right back to viewing her brother as purely the victim and Amy as the only villain in that marriage. There’s a little evidence she might start to be realizing it’s not so black and white once she realizes he’s not going to leave Amy, but even that seems more like she might be thinking he’s a victim of Amy’s abuse and he just can’t summon the will to leave a toxic relationship. I DON’T think Margo’s playing a part the way Amy’s monologue suggests “Cool Girls” just fake who they are and play a part — I think her feelings and reactions are all genuine — but she never seems to get to a point where she thinks more critically about the kind of man her brother really is, the role he’s really playing in his nightmare of a marriage, and whether she’s enabled some of his behavior by constantly affirming how he’s the victim and is basically a good guy. I would’ve liked the the book (and movie) more if she’d gotten at least a little closer to that point, because I think most of us can’t relate to either Nick or Amy because they’re both such terrible people, but we can relate more to Margo and her loyalty to her (twin) brother and dislike for her miserable sister-in-law. She has her own set of blinders and assumptions about a marriage’s she’s not a part of, just like Desi, the media figures in the book, and everyone else believes what they want to believe about Nick and Amy because it serves their own ends, whether it’s to “win” Amy (Desi) or sell more papers (the media). Margo believes what she wants to believe about Nick and Amy to maintain the relationship with her brother, keep his approval, and maintain her own sense of self as Nick’s source of support against his awful wife — all of which are understandable, human motives, but it would have been a better, more interesting (and, hey, more feminist!) book if her character had been allowed a little more growth, even while Nick and Amy stayed trapped in the prison of marriage they’ve built for themselves.

  • Laura T , Direct link to comment

    I like this post and it’s really helped me organise my thoughts on where I stand in the feminist/anti-feminist debates that have been raging around Gone Girl. However, while I agree with your assessment of Amy, the presentation of social attitudes to female accusations in the film did make me uncomfortable, i.e. characters like the female talk show host, the female police officer and Nick’s lawyer made it seem as if the characters lived in a world where abused women are always and easily believed, while men have to fight for the truth to be revealed. This sets the interplay between Amy, Nick, and Amy’s other lovers – which I agree is not anti-feminist in itself – in a more troubling light. As far as I remember, this was not a problem in the book, but it’s been a long time since I read it.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and now I’m definitely reevaluating things a bit. It’s made me think about the scene near the end, where the police officer tries to point out the holes in Amy’s story and she’s shut down by everyone else for being unsympathetic. It could definitely be read as suggesting that all women have to do to be believed is play the victim, and everyone will be eager to tiptoe around them and take everything they say at face value. Or could there be a commentary in there about how Amy is believed because she looks like the perfect victim — pretty and blonde and rich and famous for being Amazing Amy?

      I also wonder what it says that Desi’s stalking seems like common knowledge at the start of the movie, but he hasn’t been punished, while everyone she lies about is (or almost is). When she can concoct the perfect victim story, she’s believed, but when it’s true (and so messier and less clear), she isn’t?

      Yeah, I really need to read the book.

  • Linda , Direct link to comment

    I think Amy is a fascinating character. Scary but fascinating. The movie´s strengh is that we don´t get any real answers. We never find out why she is like she is, we can only guess. (And the other characters are flawed and often unsymphatetic, rather than “evil”.)

    I had the same feeling when I saw “We must talk about Kevin”. Like Amy, Kevin remains a mystery, and that partially what makes the movie so interesting.

What do you think?

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