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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Girl Found: GONE GIRL’s Boring Masochism

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Girl Found: GONE GIRL's Boring Masochism

Before I saw Gone
I had seen enough plot spoilers to know that Amy Dunne was the icy
villain, a femme fatale who devours male victims like a praying mantis. I
expected rage; what I didn’t expect was her willingness to hurt herself. Amy’s
aggressive behavior and her ability to manipulate the system hinges on how she
cuts, bleeds, tears at and otherwise desecrates her own body. 

I know, I know. Feminist champions of Gone Girl claim that Amy’s ability to play with the cookie-cutter roles
that women are cast in is somehow triumphant, but Amy’s self-inflicted wounds,
coupled with her meticulously constructed calendar, complete with yellow sticky
notes questioning whether now would be a good time to kill herself, struck me
as boring, rather than subversive. While male villains like Batman’s The Joker and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman thrill
us as they play the role of sadists, female villains, even at their most evil
and vindictive, are still relegated to the role of masochists.

Just as horror films love to torture their female victims,
feminist films and literature are often obsessed with female debasement. We
watch brilliant 19th century women slowly deteriorate into insanity
in stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We lament the smart, talented young
women who try to off themselves in Girl
. We watch Dove ads where rows of normal looking women shed
tears when talking about the pressure to have poreless skin and gaps between
their thighs. From Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” to the return to Twin Peaks and its obsession with the
tragic death of the young and beautiful Laura Palmer, what defines femininity
today is pain. The recently released short animated feature, “Sidewalk” by
Celia Bullwinkel, shows a girl’s journey to womanhood and old age, during which
she is always uncomfortable in her skin. She endures stares and whistles from
men as she enters puberty, the discomfort of pregnancy, the pressures faced on
older women’s bodies and, finally, the invisibility of old age. “Sidewalk” is
touted as a journey to “self-love,” but when the protagonist reaches old age
and helps a young girl walk along the same sidewalk, the mood is one of
resignation, rather than joy, the path to womanhood still presented as an
obstacle, rather than a pleasure.

This downtrodden story of what it means to be a woman is
just as limited a view of the female experience as the more cheerful,
empty-headed views of womanhood portrayed in such musical numbers as “I Enjoy
Being a Girl” from the 1958 musical Flower
Drum Song
and “How Lovely to Be a Woman” from the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie. Both songs feature a
young, beautiful woman enjoying her sexy new curves and newfound attention from
men. Certainly these songs, along with 80s and 90s jams like Cindi Lauper’s,
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like A Woman” aren’t
particularly deep or challenging of gender norms, but at least their view of
the female experience is upbeat.

In contrast our modern day obsession with female suffering
is as much a throwback to earlier tropes, as it is a kind of pushback against a
consumer culture that claims that by purchasing the right product women can be
happy and free. Amy Dunne’s desire to disappear certainly fits this model. In her
now famous “Cool Girl” speech, she describes the social pressure on women to
fit into a man’s fantasy, at once inhabiting and also casting off the “Cool Girl”
persona in the process.

Perhaps Amy’s “Cool Girl” theory would have been more
meaningful to me had I thought that Amy was truly making a feminist manifesto
and wasn’t just angry that her husband was having an affair with a “younger,
bouncier Cool Girl.”  Throughout the
film, Amy is not only vicious to her philandering husband and other men who she
tortures using her feminine wiles; she is also equally hostile to women,
speaking ill of the “stupid” neighbor she tries to quickly befriend, and
throwing venomous barbs at the large-breasted student her husband is having an
affair with. Amy’s self-involved, beautiful, blond, white, trust fund brand of
feminism just rings tone deaf to me in a world where women of all colors,
creeds and classes are claiming the feminist mantle in the name of justice,
rather than a plea to “have it all.” Amy’s self-victimization presents feminism
as its worst possible caricature: one of spoiled rage and privilege, rather
than a very real call for women’s stories to be told and women’s voices to be

In this way, Gone
heroine is not reclaiming her identity when she stages her escape;
she’s just another in a long line of self-destructive women, obsessed with
finding ways to disappear completely.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

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