As I eavesdrop on people leaving the theater after their Gone Girl screening I hear many iterations of “What a crazy psycho bitch!” and all I want to do is scream, “BUT SHE’S SO MUCH MORE!” Since I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a few years ago I’ve ranted at anyone who will listen that Amy Elliot Dunne is one of the great female characters of literature — and now film. With anti-hero’s basically ruling network and cable television it seems strange to me that people are so ready to just write off Amazing Amy as just another crazy bitch. The only acceptable reason for loving Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, Alex Delarge, The Joker, Chuck Bass, Don Draper, Francis Underwood, and Walter White while totally overlooking Amy is because Amy is a woman and the others are men. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around it.
Amy is the rare embodiment of a woman who is allowed to be truly feminine and truly powerful. That portrait of women is not one we are used to seeing in mainstream culture. The film gestures to this when it shows the constantly streaming cable news of Amy’s disappearance. She is seen as the helpless kidnapped wife, the poor murdered wife, and in Nick’s interview, the wife upon a pedestal. Noelle Hawthorne, the child-rearing, nosy, ditzy, next-door neighbor who is Amy’s ‘best friend’ is included as the representation of the suburban mom and Andie, Nick’s naive student, is the epitome of a young, bumbling girl who takes much too long to realize she is being used. All of these depictions of women show the weak, submissive portraits we’re constantly bombarded with.
On the other hand, Nick’s twin sister Margot, Detective Boney, and Greta, who befriends Amy at her country hideout, are representations of a stronger woman. Although these women are less submissive than the previous group they all have distinct, traditionally masculine characteristics. Margot is a tomboy who owns The Bar with Nick. She is boyishly dressed throughout the film with a wardrobe consisting of jeans, denim jackets and tank tops (the first time we see her she’s wearing a ‘Protect your Nutz’ shirt, so that’s something). Detective Boney is the no nonsense woman heading up Nick’s case. Boney speaks candidly and unemotionally, donning the ‘tough-guy’ persona which is most likely essential to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field. Greta eventually turns on Amy, using violence and physical intimidation to rob her with the help of her new beau. Though these women are less banal than women are traditionally portrayed in the media, this has only come after they adopt masculine qualities. I think that it’s worth noting that none of these women have significant others in the story, articulating that in our culture having dominant qualities makes women less attractive to men.
I know, I know. You think I’m impossible to please. I want strong female characters who don’t have to rely on being masculine to be dominant—crazy right? Wrong. Enter Amy Elliot Dunne. Amy is not physically intimidating, as shown by her encounter with Greta. Amy isn’t empowered by just making her character a man with boobs and a vagina. Amy wasn’t created under the assumption that male=good and female=bad. Amy’s character has grown organically from the culture that created her. Our culture. The tools Amy uses to empower herself are the very tools that women developed (and still develop) to survive under centuries of male-oppression, namely: manipulation, the desire to cultivate and beautify their environment (homemaking), and last but certainly not least, physical beauty.
Amy takes these traditionally female characteristics and uses them as weapons, not weights. I think that as a society we view manipulation with great disdain (probably because it is more feminine), but is it really worse than actual physical violence? The idea that physical violence is more noble than manipulation seems to be a residual of the idea that masculine traits=good/desirable and feminine traits=bad/not as desirable. Amy is a master manipulator, playing the cable news networks as though they were puppets, turning the masses against Nick. She knows how the media reacts to pregnant women and even uses that distinctly feminine characteristic to get what she wants. She is acutely conscious of how America and the media respond to situations like hers and uses those tropes to dominate the story of her own disappearance. Amy’s desire to cultivate her life and home with Nick drives her to be ceremonial and detail-oriented, as indicated by the yearly scavenger hunts she prepares for their anniversary. This same desire for cultivation that drives Amy to please her husband with elaborate gifts also allows her to meticulously plan the demise of her cheating husband. She even uses calendars, sticky notes, and checklists to keep herself organized. Finally, she uses her physical beauty and sexuality to manipulate men into naive servants. She uses the allure of the submissive and sexually willing woman, the object to be owned rather than understood, to convince her old boyfriend Desi to rescue her. When he begins suffocating her individuality, she leads him into a trap with the same tactics she initially seduced him with. Amy embodies these traditionally feminine traits, but instead of allowing herself to be exploited she uses them to empower herself, to control her own narrative, and to dominate others. To act for herself rather than just be acted upon.
When Amy discovers that Nick has been unfaithful, instead of resigning herself to letting Nick change her into a woman she never wanted to be (the scorned wife), she took action. Amy acts out of frustration with her own marriage, but this can also be seen as a metaphor for revenge against the oppression of patriarchy. No matter how dirty and possibly evil Amy’s deeds, she is acting to avenge not just herself, but all of the women who have come before her.
Amy was treated not as a person, but as a trophy to be shown off by her parents (women are to be looked at and admired), she had to be the ‘cool girl’ to attract a mate (women with strong opinions are unattractive), her husband felt threatened because she owned the property in the marriage (interestingly enough this is where women have found themselves throughout most of history), people would judge her for not wanting to have children (it’s unnatural for a women to not want a family), she sacrificed a life in the city to be a housewife to please her husband(duh), and when she was no longer young, exciting, submissive, and completely adoring, her husband moved on to a younger woman who was. Amy’s revenge is not just a revenge on her husband, but a revenge on a culture which has and continues to treat women unfairly.
Although I think that Amy’s meticulously exacted revenge does provide catharsis for oppressed women, I would also argue that Amy discovers that there is something she wants even more than a satisfying revenge. She wants to be seen. Women are asked again and again to not only be themselves, but also to be aware of how she is viewed by others. Art Critic John Berger once wrote, “A woman’s self being [is] split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” This is certainly true for Amy. She is conscious of how she is viewed by others at all times and is concerned that this constant evaluation and redirection to please her husband and society may one day turn her into someone she doesn’t wish to be.
In film criticism, Laura Mulvey argues that because of the “male gaze” inherent in most films, women are constantly forced to identify with a male perspective that objectifies women, thus marginalizing the women watching the film. Amy throughout Gone Girl seems to always be one step ahead of Nick. She knows him almost better than he knows himself. Because of our culture, Amy is well-versed in seeing things from a male perspective. This brings greater weight to Nick’s inability not being able to solve Amy’s treasure hunt clues. Amy can see that in the beginning of their marriage, Nick was able to solve the clues with little difficulty because he knew her and he saw her. He made the effort to identify with her. When he fails to solve her riddles it indicates to her he is no longer willing to make the effort to alter his own gaze and see things from her perspective. Nick thinks she is blowing something seemingly small out of proportion and this causes Amy resents him for marginalizing her own point of view.
The key moment when Amy decides to return to Nick, thus proving his innocence and reversing her entire plan, is after she sees him on a cable news interview program saying exactly what she wants to hear. Amy is even willing to commit the greatest crime (murder) to get back to him. When Amy comes back, Nick believes he has tricked her in some way. He believes that she thinks he really meant all of the nice things he said about her, but Amy is under no such illusion. What impressed her is not that he really meant what he said, but that he knew exactly what she wanted to hear. He saw her not as a woman, or a trope, or as a crazy bitch, but as a person. As Amy. He forces himself to identify with Amy’s perspective, to be conscious of Amy as a self-actualized being with her own thoughts and will to act rather than just to be acted upon. Amy doesn’t care that he doesn’t necessarily LIKE the person he sees. When Amy realizes that Nick sees her as a person, even the darkest, meanest parts, then her resentment for him melts away.
Though their relationship is dysfunctional and poisoned in many ways, it can’t be denied that Amy and Nick know each other. All of their lies, secrets, and resentments are now out in the open. In a way it’s the only possible happy ending. Amy is certainly extreme in her methods, she may even be bitchy, but to think this is the story of poor, normal Ben Affleck who fell in the sites of some crazy psycho bitch and paid the ultimate price is just wrong. Nick and Amy both act out flawed and complex roles as Gone Girl addresses deep seated resentments between genders that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Amazing Amy shows us all of her ugliest parts, most heinous acts, and deepest resentments, knowing that it’s the only way to be truly understood. She pushes the boundaries of how we think about women in culture.
So instead of leaving the theater talking about this crazy bitch or how you will never trust another person again just think like Tyler Perry’s Tanner Bolt. No matter how crazy she is, you have to be impressed.