Monday, December 29, 2014

When Is The Villian Not Just A Villian? When It's a Woman!

I know I came quite late to the party on this one, but I recently read Gone Girl. I also managed to avoid all of the hype before I read it, so I really didn't know much about the story other than it was a very dark and strange story about a woman's disappearance.

(Spoilers ahead)

Once I read it, I found it a fun, if somewhat disturbing, story.  It sucked me in pretty quickly.  If you are unfamiliar with the book, I'll give a short synopsis of how it flows.  Protagonist Nick comes home one day to find his wife Amy missing with a few signs of a struggle.  He becomes the main suspect in her disappearance.  The chapters alternate between Nick's discovery of evidence against him, and Amy's diary entries.  The diary talks at first about her deep love and devotion for Nick, but then takes a frightening turn as she begins to worry that he is a danger to her.  As the story progresses, Nick becomes a much less sympathetic character.  We learn that since their move from New York to Missouri that he has not been a very loving or devoted husband.  He is also having an affair.

When the novel begins to shift to Amy's perspective, we don't just see a woman scorned, but an evil genius.  She knows about Nick's affair and doesn't want to divorce him so he can live happily ever after with his mistress.  She wants to frame him for her murder so he will be executed for his crimes.  Her deceptions are elaborate and extreme.   She would have succeeded if she hadn't had her money stolen from her, forcing her to take a new path.  We learn she is willing not just to hurt herself, but to kill others to make her story believable.  Nick learns from her past friends and boyfriends that Amy has gone to extremes, even physically harming herself, in order to seek revenge on those who have hurt her.  Amy is also contemptuous of her parents and cares little for their pain.  There is no question that Amy is a dangerous psychopath.  I found that the more I learned about Amy, the more I rooted for Nick with all of his flaws.

What I don't get about this novel is all of the analysis of Amy's character.  Is this the ultimate feminist story, or is it a deeply misogynistic story?  Should women look up to Amy's character as someone who took matters into her own hands when her unhappy life became unbearable?  Did she rightly take revenge on her uncaring, cheating husband?  Is she the ultimate example of the danger of a woman scorned?  Nick saw her as petty and unpleasant woman who refused to even try to be happy.  Is Amy proof that women are just so horrible that they would send their long-suffering husbands to their deaths because he sought comfort in the arms of someone who cared about him?

My answer to this is, who cares?

Why do we have to analyze Amy's character?  Why do we have to decide if she is a feminist or if she is the confirmation of the MRA's worst nightmare? Why isn't this just a story about a dopey guy who married a crazy woman and the chaos that ensued when their marriage inevitably fell apart?

I suppose it's because it's a story about a crazy woman.  Woman is the key word here.

If I wanted to analyze Amy's character I would be asking if her psychosis were due to her parents spoiling her to the point where she felt entitled or if it were due to just being biochemically screwed up.  To me that's a more compelling question.  I rarely ever see a critique of the novel that asks that.  We only look at whether or not she is a role model for other women.

Imagine if the roles in the story were reversed.  Would anyone be giving the character this much scrutiny if she were a man?  Film and literature are filled with stories of antiheroes.  There are any number of stories in the canon of Western literature that glorify criminal behavior in men.  We love stories of outlaws in the Old West or Prohibition-era gangsters, or modern day mobsters, or even psychopathic killers.  No one analyzes if these characters are good role models for other men.  They're just stories about criminals.  There is no deeper meaning attached to them.  Either you like them or you don't.

I find myself thinking of other stories that feature female criminals.  The first one that comes to mind is Thelma and Louise.  That was another film that was held up as some kind of feminist celebration.  Thelma and Louse were more sympathetic as their cross-country crime spree was triggered by rape, but the screenwriter was very clear that she did not create the characters as feminist icons.  She said they were outlaws and nothing more.

Maybe there is something more compelling about female criminals.   I prefer my entertainment to be happier and less dark.  I don't like stories that glorify criminal behavior, or even unethical or misogynistic behavior.  I have never had any interest in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or even Mad Men.  I read through Gone Girl to the end though.  Although I didn't like Amy, there were times I rooted for her.  I remember hoping she would leave the campground before her so-called friends would find her money.  I felt sorry for her when they did steal it.  I identified with her desire to keep her husband from finding happiness with someone else.  Am I more likely to stay with an unpleasant story if the protagonist is a woman?  Is this why the story is ultimately feminist?

A story should just be a story.  If the antihero is female, it shouldn't make a difference in how we perceive that story.  Whether or not we enjoy a story shouldn't be dependent upon whether or not the antihero is female.  Did you enjoy Gone Girl?  Whether you enjoyed it or not has little to do with the kind of example the character has set for other women.  Let the villain just be the villain. 

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