[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
Gone Girl is a film that begins by presenting the audience with the image of an ideal married couple (one that is both heteronormative and not a cliche) only to reveal later on that it is anything but idyllic. But it doesn't stop there. This is a film that posits the theoretical impossibility of the heteronormative couple that isn’t a cliche. Put another way, the only way to avoid being a cliched couple is to avoid the presupposition of normative gender roles. On a meta level, Gone Girl is a story about the impossibility of finding the proverbial “girl” in the narrative of the happy couple. She is always already “gone”. If this resonates with you and doesn't sound (only) like esoteric theoretical b.s., then you have to wonder how Gone Girl is not fundamentally sexist and potentially misogynistic (this depends largely on your definition of the term). This is not just a film about a fictional married couple--this is a film about the fictional narrative that is the heteronormative married couple. I am amazed at how many critics have come out as apologists for the gender politics of this film, including feminist critics from Slate and NPR. Don't get me wrong--it's great entertainment and it resonates broadly precisely because it is insightful on multiple levels. Nevertheless, that does not excuse it from a critical eye towards gender roles that define and limit people arbitrarily. What makes Gone Girl an exception in contrast to a film like Basic Instinct, which most critics and viewers alike wouldn't think twice about calling misogynistic? Gone Girl and Basic Instinct have so much in common that I can't help but wonder if Flynn based her book on it or was speaking to that film in some way. Both films are thrillers about a man named Nick trying to find the "truth" of the women that they are in love with. Both women are seen as cold, calculating, intelligent, ruthless, and unknowable (to the very end). Both women are authors both literally and figuratively--they manipulate male authority with ease by scripting narratives that take advantage of our expectations and prejudices regarding the woman's role in a heterosexual relationship. Both depict in great detail a bloody and sadistic sex scene that is key to the entire narrative--with both scenes featuring bondage and death at the moment of climax. Both are career breakout roles for their female leads playing opposite well known and established male leads playing relatively sympathetic and relatable characters. In the end, both male characters are redeemed socially, in the eyes of the law and the public, even if their morality and ethics are questionable. That is a key part of the double standard that Amy’s character highlights in her “cool girl” monologue. Both directors, Fincher and Verhoeven, are known for their “interest” in the theme of perversion. The similarities go on and on, and yet somehow one is obviously misogynistic while the other one finds some loophole (artistic merit?) making it an exception to the scrutiny of gender politics. What's the saying about exceptions? Oh right, they prove the rule. Here's a little experiment, ask yourself which of the following quotes from major film critics (and one from the screenwriter) belongs to Gone Girl or Basic Instinct:
"As for [the lead actress], [the director] gets a multilayered performance from her that holds us at emotional arm's length. Her body stands fully revealed, but her psyche is left to the imagination.”
“[Gone Girl/Basic Instinct] transfers Mr. [Fincher’s/Verhoeven’s] flair for action-oriented material to the realm of Hitchcockian intrigue, and the results are viscerally effective even when they don't make sense. Drawing powerfully on the seductiveness of his actors and the intensity of their situation, Mr. [Fincher/Verhoeven] easily suspends all disbelief.”
"It is in [Amy’s/Catherine's] specific, defined character that she will do anything. She is that smart, that angry and that unfettered by conscience.”
"I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes … not chilly WASP mothers … not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.”
"It is the conceit of [Flynn’s/Eszterhas’] enterprising screenplay, which does what it can to insert an obscene thought into every situation, that the recently reformed Nick and the reckless [Amy/Catherine] are two of a kind, and are thus inexorably drawn together.
The degree to which we see how screwed up Amy is psychologically and emotionally at the end of Gone Girl is much worse than than what we see of Nick and this is key to why the film feels sexist (although not the only reason). While Nick is as bad, or worse, than Amy deep down inside as far as their subjectivity goes (referring to each character’s inner state of mine, intentions, motivations, etc.), objectively his actions are relatively normal. The result of a comparison of their actions has the unfortunate effect of making his otherwise despicable acts seem mundane. How do you compare Nick's cheating on his wife and physically assaulting and intimidating her to Amy’s faking her own kidnapping to frame her husband and the cold-blooded murder of Desi (Neal Patrick Harris) while having sex? They’re not even in the same ballpark, and that’s a big problem with this "he said she said" story. When we compare the depths to which each goes to maintain the illusion of their happy marriage and the consequences of not being true to themselves the results are so disparate and one-sided that we can’t help but sympathize with Nick and see Amy as a monster.
For her part of the bargain, Amy does everything she can to maintain the illusion of the Cool Girl—including maintaining her physical attractiveness to conform to mainstream ideals, her femininity, and her potential as a mother while being compliant with all of Nick’s demands including moving to Missouri and having sex whenever he wants. This is a gender issue that many women experience and lies at the core of Amy’s discontent—the double standard. Why does Amy have to live up to all the expectations of her husband and society while Nick only has to live up to his own, just because he’s a man and she’s a woman? At first, Amy’s’ response to this lopsided bargain is to even the score (frame him for kidnapping/murder) and escape (suicide). The rationale for her seeking revenge is that she’s done all the compromising in the relationship while Nick goes out and has an affair with one of his young students—a total cliche. From a moral standpoint, the problem is not that Amy wants revenge, the problem is that she takes it too far. Among other things, Amy tries to frame Nick for her murder. But then Amy comes to a realization that Nick is capable of holding up his end of the marriage bargain and fulfilling the role of the dutiful husband. This epiphany occurs when she sees how capable Nick is at manipulating the public and the media during his televised interview. The public spectacle that was supposed to crush his credibility and mark him as an adulterer for life gets turned around in a masterful reversal into a moment of confession and staged vulnerability that results in the near total exoneration of his publicized sins. This is the moment when Amy realizes that Nick too is willing to go to great lengths to preserve and maintain appearances. It turns out that for Amy, marriage is all about appearances with substance being nearly irrelevant—that is the cruel lesson of the Cool Girl story. Thus, she pivots and decides that she will do anything and everything to save their marriage.
To preserve the illusional consistency of their happy marriage, Amy must add a new branch to the narrative that introduces the bad guy—an external party that comes in and threatens the status quo. Amy uses her creative talents to turn her ex, Desi, into the Big Bad Wolf of her fairy tale so that all her and Nick’s bad intentions can be projected onto him. Through no act of his own, Desi unwittingly becomes her pawn and assumes the critical role of the Other—monster, rapist, criminal, psychopath, etc. in her revised narrative. Through Desi, Amy can absolve herself and Nick of any wrongdoing—at least in the eyes of the media and the law. To accomplish this, Amy commits premeditated murder in a scene that feels like the climax of the film in more ways than one. The graphic scene of murder during sex where blood is splattered orgasmically stigmatizes Amy in a way that makes Nick seems like a saint in comparison. Nothing Nick does comes anywhere close to that kind of disregard for human life. It's a naked act of calculated manipulation and raw destructiveness that shows Amy's complete lack of concern for human life (at least for people that she do not fit into the pleasant parts of her narrative). Nothing Nick does in the film comes close to that degree of misandry.
The other key to why we see Nick differently than Amy is in the way the story is told. In the first part of the film, Nick appears to be the innocent victim of circumstances and he is clearly the main character with who we learn everything. He is the detective in this noir-ish story. Like all detectives in noir, Nick is a flawed person but he’s still likable enough to identify with. We root for him throughout the story even if it’s just to find out how it ends. Even though Amy takes over as narrator in the second part, Nick is still the protagonist. We still root for Nick—in fact, we root for him more and more as we discover the depths of Amy’s psychopathy and the extent of how much he has been played (manipulated) by her. The more monstrous we discover Amy to be the more sympathetic we become for Nick.
Again, a comparison to Basic Instinct is helpful here. In Basic Instinct, we never know in absolute terms whether Catherine (Sharon Stone's character) is the killer (or one of the killers if we consider the possibility of multiple killers). It's crucial to the sustained tension (and disbelief) that neither Nick (Michael Douglas’ character) nor the audience know for certain that Catherine is the bad guy. The only thing we know for sure about her is that she doesn't have much regard for people's feelings. On the other hand, Verhoeven's Nick has a much more questionable moral character than Fincher's. In Basic Instinct, we know that Nick sleeps with the psychologist that evaluates his mental "fitness," we know that he has killed innocent people (hence the nickname "shooter"), we know that he sleeps with a suspected murderer that he is personally "investigating," we know he has used cocaine, and the list goes on. Compared to Michael Douglas' Nick, Ben Affleck comes off as a saint. Even so, Douglas' Nick is still somehow relatable--the audience still identifies with him as a flawed cop that may have been the victim of circumstances. As a detective he is like us--someone trying to find the "truth" of Catherine. We want to know what he wants to know, we learn as he learns. He is an open book compared to Catherine. We feel bad when his partner, Gus, is killed and to some degree understand how a reasonable person might have shot Beth under the circumstances towards the end of the film. If anything Basic Instinct doesn't give us enough satisfaction regarding the "investigation" into Catherine Trammell to make any meaningful conclusions, hence the Rosebud-like ending (ice pick under the bed as they have sex). At the end of the film, she retains her agency (she is on top) and power without being stigmatized as a criminal/murderer (at least not in the eyes of the law or Nick). I don't think the audience feels bad about the outcome because Nick and Catherine have chosen each other with neither one having any leverage over the other. The feminine mystique remains impenetrable. At the end of Gone Girl, the feminine mystique also remains impenetrable (hence Nick's desire to crack open her skull and see what she's really thinking), but we know for certain that she is a cold-blooded murderer and psychopath which results in an outcome that doesn't feel like they've chosen each other equally. Amy has to twist Nick's arm to keep him in the relationship, using the unborn child as leverage. Without the pregnancy, Nick clearly would have walked away from this, and this is the reason why I felt sympathy for him, even if they're both compromised people. It's the reason why I would argue that despite surface impressions, Gone Girl is much more sexist than Basic Instinct according to the narrative logic each presents. Gone Girl is a much slicker film than Basic Instinct but I think its gender politics are actually less progressive (less egalitarian).
The film's characterization of Amy as a calculated murderer retroactively negates most of the effect of her criticism of the Cool Girl double standard (gender bias). Through Nick we learn of Amy’s contempt for their neighbors and people in general. Amy is a person with no regard for other people unless they serve a purpose in her subjective narrative. Stories about her past reveal the costs of playing the Cool Girl to her psyche—she may have played the part but she hated it inside. As with most narratives, what is the point of the story if you’re not invested in it—if you don’t believe in it in some sense? These revelations seem to expose her as a fraud and a maybe even a hypocrite although we should be asking ourselves why does it matter what she thought and felt subjectively while playing the Cool Girl part? It matters precisely in cases like Amy's where a woman can play the part of the Cool Girl perfectly while internally harboring resentment. We should feel sympathy for women who feel the pressure to live up to this double standard that favors the normative man’s role. Unfortunately, Gone Girl gives us a story of a woman who rebels against this heteronormative role only to turn out to be a psychopath with little regard for other people.
The thing is, Amy's act of murder is not part of her revenge scheme—in fact it’s part of her attempt to save the marriage and restore heteronormative gender roles. In Amy’s reversal from trying to frame Nick to trying to save their marriage we see how disturbing it is when the logic of a false narrative (the ideal heterosexual marriage) is taken to the extreme. At the end of the film Amy shows that she’s willing to do anything—kill, get pregnant, lie to the police about kidnapping and rape, etc.—to make sure she and Nick maintain the appearance of a happily married couple even when they know it’s not true. That is the true horror of the illusion of the happily married couple—that it maintains appearances even when it subjectively harms the people involved. At the end we can’t help but feel sorry for Nick but shouldn’t we feel sorry for Amy as well? She was the one that went to the greatest lengths to maintain the illusion—one that every party/agency in the film also went to great lengths to support and protect, including law enforcement, media, neighbors, towns, family, etc. The problem is, there is an implicit understanding among the sane that a pragmatic illusion is still an illusion and therefore can only be taken so far. Explicit rules and appearances can only go so far before they contradict and betray the implicit rules that lie underneath. When things go too far, as in Amy’s case, the contradictory logic is exposed and in this case Amy becomes the scapegoat. The result is a narrative that seems to demonize strong women, especially feminists, particularly the archetype of the liberal white variety--Ivy League Grad, New Yorker, author, sophisticated, intelligent, confident, charming, attractive, etc. The extreme nature of Amy's actions and her disregard for human life negate most of the effect of her insights about the Cool Girl double standard and her brief rebellion against it. Mainstream media supplies us with so many depictions of women that maintain and support the illusion of heteronormative gender roles, including Cool Girls doing their best to live up to impossible expectations, that it’s unfortunate that this example of a women who rebels against them for a brief moment gets recouped into a story about how one woman took it to the extreme only to miss the point. But perhaps this can still be recouped for a feminist agenda if we recognize that the flawed logic of binary gender roles inherent in heteronormative marriage was exposed in this way only because Amy missed the point and took it to the extreme. Although this type of feminist read goes beyond the scope of the film as a part of popular media it still resides in the context of culture at large and is not exempt from such a read.