Part of what makes “Gone Girl,” first Gillian Flynn’s novel and now David Fincher’s movie adaptation about a woman, Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike in the movie), who goes missing and her husband Nick (played by Ben Affleck), who appears to have murdered her, is its fascinating stew of gender politics. Though I was unconvinced by the book the first time I read it, I have since found myself repeatedly drawn into Flynn’s deft sketches of Amy, a woman stunted by her parents’ use of her life as material for a popular book series, and Nick as a man terrified of turning into his hateful father.
And as I have re-read the novel and watched Fincher’s excellent, unnerving adaptation of it, I have come to the conclusion that part of the fascination of “Gone Girl” is that Amy Elliot Dunne is the only fictional character I can think of who might be accurately described as simultaneously misogynist and misandrist. In fact, she hates pretty much everyone else on the planet, except, briefly, her husband Nick.
But describing her as a simple misanthropist, though she might meet that description, too, ignores the ways in which Amy’s distaste for many of the people around her is expressed in terms of gender types and the ways she thinks her family and acquaintances play into them.
In Slate, critic David Haglund worries that that “Gone Girl” director David Fincher has siphoned the fierce, feminist energy out of one of the novel’s signature moments, a monologue in which Amy explains the creature called the “Cool Girl” by framing it as Amy’s outrage at the women who embody it rather than the men who require it.
“The essential targets of Amy’s critique are men who think of women as extensions of themselves, as creatures who are meant to fulfill their own desires and not to have independent wants or needs that might occasionally come into conflict with them,” Haglund wrote.
It is true that in Fincher’s interpretation, we see Amy’s words juxtaposed against images of women who meet the Cool Girl description. But in Flynn’s novel, Amy has a rich vein of contempt for women who she thinks are dumb enough to play the game men invented to deceive them.
“I don’t get it,” the Cool Girl monologue ends. “If you let a man cancel plans or decline to do things for you, you lose. You don’t get what you want. It’s pretty clear. Sure, he may be happy, he may say you’re the coolest girl ever, but he’s saying it because he got his way. He’s calling you a Cool Girl to fool you! That’s what men do: They try to make it sound like you are the Cool Girl so you will bow to their wishes.”
Amy refers to her husband’s mistress Andie as a slut, an epithet she extends to other women who pursue Nick, and despises her in part for what she imagines must be Andie’s willingness to play along with the most degrading sexual acts Amy thinks Nick could conjure up.
She describes Andie’s social media usage as “surprisingly discreet for a girl of her generation,” extending her contempt to a whole cohort of girls she finds deplorable in their, well, girlishness. Amy says ugly things about Andie’s genitalia, a fascination that she also extends to the mother of her high school ex-boyfriend. She remarks of a neighbor, “ugly girls can be such thunder stealers.”
And “Gone Girl” has a male equivalent of the Cool Girl dynamic, in which women set the expectations and it is men who respond and are foolish for responding.
“Nick and I, we sometimes laugh, laugh out loud, at the horrible things women make their husbands do to prove their love,” Amy writes in her diary. “The pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders. We call these men the dancing monkeys.”
Part of her fury at Nick’s affair is that Amy feels like Nick has regressed to the mean for men, a group she has a low opinion of, and dragged her down with him. “I had a new persona, not of my choosing,” Amy fumes. “I was Average Dumb Woman Married to Average S—– Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy.”
Appreciation can raise Amy’s ire just as easily as betrayal. “I can feel my bottom move sometimes, on its own, when I walk,” Amy reflects when she gains some weight. “My body was a beautiful, perfect economy, every feature calibrated, everything in balance. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss men looking at me. It’s a relief to walk into a convenience store and walk right back out without some hangabout in sleeveless flannel leering as I leave, some muttered bit of misogyny slipping from him like a nacho-cheese burp.”
And she is as disgusted by the caretakers as by the exploiters, seeing something sinister in men, like her high-school ex-boyfriend Desi, who gravitate towards women whose pain makes it harder for them to reject him. “Desi is a white-knight type. He loves troubled women,” Amy tells us. “It is fortunate for Desi — the eating disorders, the painkiller addictions, the crippling depressions. He is never happier than when he’s at a bedside. Not in bed, just perched nearby with broth and juice and a gently starched voice.”
For all she hates gender norms and is repulsed by the way that men and women play into them, Amy is no rebel on the subject. Much has been written about how “Gone Girl” is what critic Peter Suderman calls a “marital procedural,” a deeply uneasy portrait of how married people investigate each other and negotiate the shared compromises of their life. Flynn’s novel, and to a lesser extent Fincher’s movie, capture the way that negotiation is so often about gender roles and our relationships to them in ways that go far deeper than fights over housework.