Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gone Girl is this the updated Fatal Attraction--which is a bad thing

When I was in the english department at the University of Iowa, I took a great class called something like "Sex and Single Women in Literature." We read the classics of the genre like Scarlet Letter and Imitation of Life, but we also watched some pop culture representations like Sex in the City and Fatal Attraction.

This class did what a liberal liberal arts education is supposed to do: teach us to be on the look out for some of the themes that are too often unquestioningly expressed in our society, and to teach us how to question those themes.

The insight I was exposed to in that class was the following: single women in western cultural narratives meet one of three fates by the end of the story: married off; killed off; or punished for being single in a way that contains them.

The Woman as Monster storyline is an offshoot of this. Like in Fatal Attraction, she is single and therefore has the freedom to lure married men into her trap, where she will stop at nothing to keep them. Because even though she is single, the woman monster is obsessed with having a man in her life, or so she does in the patriarchal fever dream that spawns her.

Gone Girl is only a slight variation. Here the Woman Monster, Amy, is not single, but married. Don't let that fool you. The film's pretensions are that married life (and even the economy) made Amy a monster. But depicting that story is not where screenwriter and director put their energy. This movie is as much about Great Recession family struggles as Star Trek Into Darkness was about the morality of drone warfare. Gone Girl is all about the Woman Monster (and the affable but stupid men who enable them by not being more controlling, Ben Affleck here in the Michael Douglas version of the stereotype).

So it is surprising to read this Scott Mendelson post on how feminist the movie is. Here is his thesis:

"By virtue of its plethora of varied and quality female characters, Gone Girl is one of the most feminist films of the year."

Really? I get that Mendelson is so tired of movies that only have one female lead who must stand in for all of womankind. But the fact that Amy, with so many different and dynamic female co-characters, "is not burdened with representing womanhood as a gender" does not begin to counterbalance the deep-seeded stereotype she represents.   

Quoting and critiquing Sasha Stone's review of the film, Mendelson writes that "if we really want 'strong female character' to mean more than 'Kristen Stewart as Snow White wearing armor and wielding a sword,' we have to embrace a plurality of female characters that represent all character types." 

So, for the sake of diversity we have to be fine with Hollywood regurgitating one of the oldest minsogynst stereotypes in the book? This movie is not trying to be feminist. It is trying to be thrilling by trafficking in our near-ancient cultural fears of evil women and weak men. 

This is not just about movies. Right now there is a debate among conservatives about California's new affirmative consent law regarding sexual assault--the law where consensual is now defined by having the partners say Yes. It is interesting that in this particular sliver of the debate, here between Ponnuru and Conn Carroll, the woman's voice is left aside. There is great concern about the innocent men who will be improperly labeled rapists due to this new law. Now, why would men in general be so worried of being caught up in an inescapable web of accusations and legalese lies regarding their relations with a woman? Where might men have learned that fear? It is because, in part, of movies like Gone Girl. The stereotype of the Woman Monster has taught many men, especially young men, to believe that girls think and act like Bond villains. And that they better not get caught slipping. Women are their adversaries, and they are their conquests. The fact that no man would want to be Ben Affleck in this movie only proves the point.    

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