Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and breakout star Rosamund Pike, is a smart, intense crash course on public perception and the twist-of-the-knife, cutthroat media circus that surrounds the national exposure of often small town tragedies. Based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, the story revolves around “fictional” — we’ll get to the air-quotes around “fictional” in a second — Nick and Amy Dunn (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, respectively); Nick comes home on the morning of his anniversary to find his home had been “broken into”; the door is unlocked, the living room is in disarray, there is a small splatter of blood on the hood of the oven in the kitchen, the iron is plugged in, and Amy is nowhere to be found. It’s not long before this local missing persons case is upgraded to possible murder and picked up by the media, who runs with the notion that Nick Dunn, who seems to be hiding something dark, murdered his perfect wife.
** SPOILER ALERT **
It’s extremely hard not to notice the striking similarities between the Scott and Laci Peterson murder case, which was a media tour de force in early 2003. In both narratives, the men left their houses early in the morning and returned later that day to find their wives missing. In both narratives, the men were described as, “too good to be true.” In both narratives, the men seemed cool and calm and collected when their wives disappeared. Both men have one sibling — a sister. In fact, much of the first half of Gone Girl reflects the Scott Peterson media circus in 2003. And let it not go unnoticed that Ben Affleck looks a lot like a suave, charismatic Scott Peterson.
The major difference? Gone Girl is a work of “fiction.” At least according to the author. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2012, author Flynn said, in response to whether or not the book was modeled after a real-life case:
I definitely didn’t want to do anything specific. One could point to Scott and Lacey Peterson — they were certainly a good-looking couple. But they’re always good-looking couples. That’s why they end up on TV. You don’t normally see incredibly ugly people who’ve gone missing and it becomes a sensation. It could be any number of those types of cases, but that was what kind of interested me: the selection and the packaging of a tragedy. In a way, I reverse-engineered some of it. What’s going to amp up the media’s interest in this, and what’s going to make it believable that the media’s going to descend on this?
So. The author claims the only real similarity is that the Peterson’s were beautiful people engulfed in a media circus. However, the story lines are too similar to be coincidental. And this is where it gets hairy. Halfway through the film, it’s revealed that Amy Dunn is not dead; she faked her own murder in order to punish her husband Nick for cheating on her. Throughout the second half of the film, Amy is depicted a calculated, yet certifiably insane, psychopath who is very capable of committing murder, all because her husband cheated on her after she became a boring, domesticated housewife in Missouri.
The film itself is brilliantly paced, and exquisitely acted, filled with twists and turns that not only engages audiences, but keeps them guessing through a rollercoaster of emotions. This is not a critique on the buzzy film, which is sure to garner Affleck a Best Actor nod at next year’s Academy Awards. The real question is this: When will we reach a point where tropes like the bored, domestic housewife who becomes a murderous psychopath cease to exist? This film, while brilliant on many levels, recalls a time where men could do no wrong, despite their many flaws, and women are the root of all the unhappiness in a marriage. To stick so closely to the Laci Peterson murder case in narrative for half of the film suggests on a subconscious level that perhaps it was Laci Peterson’s fault. Maybe she wasn’t the victim. Maybe she had lost the spark that kept Scott interested. It’s a film that ultimately says the original victim is the man.
While we may think we’ve moved forward from living in a white patriarchal society, it’s films like this that point to men — white men — being the original victims (Adam, the first man, was corrupted by Eve) and that women are the original source of all the “evil” in the world (again, dating all the way back to the story of the Garden of Eden.)
As I’ve written before in my piece, “Men, Objectified,” Michelangelo’s “The Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” from the Sistine Chapel depicts this original sin as Eve’s.
If you read the image from left to right, Eve, the female in the image is seen sitting on the ground in what could be interpreted as a casual pose that covers her genitals. She’s actively taking the fruit from the serpent, who, by the way, is depicted as female (notice the visible breasts.) Meanwhile, Adam is not engaging in the interaction between Eve and the serpent. He’s standing with a strong pose looking past the serpent, not engaging in the temptation. On the right, Adam and Eve are being expelled by an angel; Adam has a shamed look on his face, and it’s notable that his genitals are bathed in light. Eve, on the other hand, is seen as sinister, with an evil look on her face. Her body, including her genitals, are cloaked in darkness.
Men = strong, incorruptible, free from sin.
Women = weaker, easily corrupted, the root of all sin.
In that respect, this film is quite backwards. Perhaps if it had detoured from the Scott and Laci Peterson storyline, my reaction would be different, but, as I said, the first half is too eerily similar. Nick Dunn, of course, is not free from sin, but Amy’s actions almost negate Nick’s actions and make the audience feel sorry for him.
And, in true media fashion, the news cycle focus on whatever angle best suits their ratings. In this case, it was easier to focus on Nick as the prime murder suspect, destroying his character every step of the way because that’s how Amy orchestrated it. Her string-pulling unleashed an unknown evil on Nick’s life.
It’s subtle, but the message against women is strong. Is the book’s author Gillian Flynn playing into the patriarchal society? In the same interview on Entertainment Weekly, Flynn is asked, “How have you seen male and female readers react differently to Amy and Nick’s marriage?” Her response:
Several of my guy friends relate to that feeling of no matter what you do, it’s not going to be good enough — the idea of being cast as the permanent schlub in the marital story. That definitely seems to hit a nerve. And for women, that idea of constantly needing to be in charge of everything definitely seems to click. Some men think Amy’s the greatest and think she’s completely within her rights to do what she does, and they would have done it too. It’s funny to see what triggers people.
Women are too often depicted as detrimentally controlling. But aren’t we all controlling in certain aspects? Why are women the ones who get the blame when it comes to marital problems? They don’t. Not always. But they always seem to when discussed from a male perspective.
One could take the perspective that Amy Dunn is actually a strong woman because she was able to mastermind a masterful kidnapping-murder and frame her lying, cheating, no good husband. But halfway through the charade, Nick goes on TV and suddenly becomes sympathetic when he admits to his extramarital affair, apologizing and (appearing) sincere, which turns him into a media darling. If Amy were truly a strong woman, she would have just left his cheating ass and took him for every dime he wasn’t worth, since every single possession they had was in her name. She would have come out top. But the high road is a road women don’t often take in the media, who often depict women as scheming and manipulative instead of straightforward. Amy’s actions made her look like more a coldhearted shrew than I’ve ever seen in a film. In fact, films like Julia Roberts’ 1991 film Sleeping With the Enemy and Ashley Judd’s 1999 triumph Double Jeopardy, which are similar in tone and subject matter, are decidedly more feminist and forward-thinking, showcasing how women pulled themselves up from rock-bottom patriarchal relationships to come savvy, no-frills heroines.
Those films bookended the 90s. It’s now 2014.
Can we separate art/entertainment from political statement? Sure. Should we? No, not when we live in a patriarchal society where issues like equal pay are still valid concerns.
It’s so important to be aware of this because, like Amy said in Gone Girl, “the more you think you see, the easier it’ll be to fool you” — a line that resonates with the need for media literacy in a time where media is literally everywhere we turn.
Also, I think it’s important to note that so much of media is still very white-washed, and that doesn’t go unnoticed in Gone Girl, despite Tyler Perry as the suave, savvy lawyer who represents Nick Dunn.
Last week at The New School (my alma mater!), Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black sat down with author/feminist/social activist bell hooks for hooks week-long residency to discuss feminism in popular culture and the intersection of racism and homophobia in a world run by a white patriarchal society. One of my favorite parts of the discussion comes after Laverne talks about the fears associated with speaking out about these issues because we live in a white patriarchal society, but that there is a necessity to do so. hooks then says:
No matter how popular [Laverne] Cox becomes, Orange is the New Black, she still has to go out into this mean world of hatred, that we, as people of color, as people of buried sexual identities and practices, will always, until we change the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy have to confront. And so the question becomes: “What gives us the strength and power to confront and to change?” […] “What gives us the will to change?”
This is a conversation that needs to be had. How do we change? Why do we seek out change when so much is stacked against us [us = women, gay men, lesbians, transgendered men and women, black men and women, etc.] in a white patriarchal society? Click here and listen to what bell hooks and Laverne Cox have to say; it’s long, but it will get you thinking.
Orange is the New Black is a show set in a women’s prison, and, like Laverne said during her talk, because of that, the show is “inherently political.” The show has a very diverse cast of women of all shapes, sizes, colors, religious affiliation, sexual orientations, etc., and (nearly) every episode dives into one woman’s backstory, and for the most part, they are the driving forces of their own actions. They are flawed, but the show embraces these flaws, and in such a short time span shows are incredibly three-dimensional these characters are. The viewer understands these complicated characters. And yes, they can sometimes be evil or mean as bell hooks points out, but they’re not mean or evil without specific purpose, without some sort of reason or dimensionality. OITNB acknowledges sexism, racism, and homophobia, but places a microscope on these issues by observing them through the lens of a women’s prison, where it’s confronted head-on and then allows the viewers to confront it within themselves.
Even though some of the women from Orange is the New Black are convicted murders, schemers, mentally challenged, they’re all also human beings with stories. The difference between creating sympathy versus propelling stereotypes is the presence of dimensionality. It’s hard to see dimensionality in Amy Dunn’s character in Gone Girl. Despite actress Rosamund Pike nuanced performance, the character was hard to swallow because of how the film presented the theme of media perception. I never confronted any truths as I watched Amy Dunn, and despite the general gray area presented in the structure of the film, the audience is left blaming Amy, hating Amy, and calling her “crazy,” which effectively eliminates the gray area that Flynn originally intended with the book.
When I left the theater after Gone Girl, I was — and still am — very conflicted. The film itself is a thrilling, brilliantly acted and paced piece of cinema. Ben Affleck was smarmy and charming and sexy. Rosamund Pike was utterly enthralling. It kept me guessing. On one hand, I thought it was brilliant and interesting. One the other, I found it too one-sided, too patriarchal, too eerily similar to Scott and Laci Peterson, which made the psychotic woman storyline too hard to swallow and pointed out just how patriarchal it is. However, it’s a great film to study for media perception.
And maybe that is what needs to be confronted and discussed: media perception, especially of women. As long as we continue to feed into the patriarchy, we’ll never leave the stereotypical evil housewife behind.
Let’s work toward leaving these stereotypes, these social constructs, these outdated tropes behind!