In David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the media is a character in and of itself. It acts with considerable agency, guiding our thoughts and perceptions, casting autonomous judgement with an unquestioned air of authority. From an early point, the film wisely encourages us to ask “Whose story is this?” and as the tale unwinds we’re presented with a variety of answers, none of which feel complete without the others.
Gone Girl is based on the 2012 book of the same name by Gillian Flynn. In the film, Nick Dunne comes home one morning to find his wife missing and his house in a state of mild, yet alarming disarray. He calls the police who conclude that his wife, Amy, has been kidnapped. From there, the story unspools as various pieces of a highly disordered puzzle start to emerge, toying with the roles of Nick and Amy and questioning the boundaries of victim and victor in complicated ways.
Because Amy fits the standard view of the archetypal American housewife, the media leaps on the opportunity to turn feminine ideal into feminine spectacle. Her bright, smiling face is plastered across billboards and missing posters, beseeching passersby to aid her safe return. Her teary-eyed parents deliver pleading speeches during a morning after press conference, extolling the grace and charm of their delightful daughter. Impassioned friends and neighbors offer assistance to investigators, heartbroken over her disappearance. The media generates an idealized narrative of their life before Amy’s disappearance, and even in her absence it’s impossible to escape the scrutiny. But it works to her advantage.
The media is less kind to Amy’s husband Nick, at first questioning his apparent lack of emotion during the press conference, then ridiculing him for a misjudged selfie photo op with a “helpful volunteer.” Finally, a Nancy Grace-inspired news spin-off even brings in “experts” to diagnose Nick as a sociopath and ignite public sentiment to see him arrested for Amy’s presumed murder.
Now, in a unique reversal of roles, it is no longer the woman’s body that is so carefully judged and scrutinized under the dominant gaze of the media, but Nick’s. (There’s no other choice, Amy’s body is nowhere to be found!) He sits through agonizing coaching sessions with his lawyer in order to appear more human, massaging his expressions to fit within the acceptable range for a man whose wife has gone missing. His sister advises him on how to look unkempt enough to convey worry, but not so unkempt as to convey apathy. Nick’s opening and closing lines are spoken to us almost as if in response to interview questions, but they are answers that he could never speak aloud.
And Amy wouldn’t have it any other way. We soon learn the closest thing that can be taken for any sort of objective truth as Amy reorients the all-too-familiar narrative of the young woman taken from her home, never to return. Amy does indeed return, and the circumstances are unprecedented. We learn that she had originally abducted herself, staging her death (and framing her husband) as an act of revenge, the ultimate affront to a man who she claims killed her spirit in ways far more devastating than he could have ever killed her body.
Sitting in the theater, my initial inclination was to interpret Amy’s acts as a reclamation of the feminine body, removing it from the dominance of the patriarchy to resurrect her identity, even using an inversion of the familiar victim narrative to do so. As she escapes, she eagerly rejects the “cool girl” role that acceptable wives and girlfriends are forced to play. She cuts away her long blonde locks, stuffs her face with junk food to cast off the shackles of the “size 2” prison that contained her. She self-injures, leaving bruises on her face that tell a story of her creation. She even grimly marks in a calendar the potential days on which she could kill herself and complete the narrative. For a woman whose girlhood antics were the subject of an aspirational (and seemingly unrealistic) children’s series, she violently rewrites her own story. Her actions beg to be read as the autonomous indulgences of a free and newly reclaimed being, but still, this interpretation doesn’t feel right.
The truth is that the result of Amy’s actions are less about claiming agency for her own body and identity than they are about destroying those of her husband. Amy’s actions recast Nick as the victim of this affair — unfairly setting him up as the potential predator in an effort to see him executed after a mistaken conviction. In the end, with that goal failed, she resorts to using his banked sperm without consent in order to conceive a child that will keep him tied to her forever.
And this is where the film becomes problematic — is this a story in praise of women or in condemnation of them? Flynn and Fincher present a unique twist on the familiar woman-as-victim narrative in which a brief glimpse of feminist assertion quickly melts into a far worse representation — the femme fatale who uses her seductive charms to ruin the lives of men who love her.
Unlike many of the thousands of women who go missing every year in the U.S., Amy is fortunate in that her case receives national media attention. Many women, particularly women of color, receive no media coverage at all. The unspoken presumptions about Amy’s story, and the stories of similar women who go missing, present us with glimpses of the privileged feminine ideal. The media’s gaze accentuates the blonde slender housewife who was loved by friends and neighbors and lauded as an infallible partner for her husband.
The irony is that it is only because Amy is so adept at enacting the feminine ideal as conceived by the media — to play the part of the “cool girl” — that she is able to ensure that her absence will receive adequate attention, and thereby condemn her husband. The narrative she writes for the onlookers is one of feminine triumph and heroism, as she boldly saves herself from her “abductor’s prison.” In the eyes of the media, her tale has a happy ending. But we know better, even if the media doesn’t, and perhaps the film doesn’t choose a side, doing its best to remove itself from the dominant gaze and instead leave the choice up to us.