Oct 4, 2014

'Til Death Us Do Part

From my piece about Gone Girl for the FT:—
'The sex war was supposed to be over.  Feminism had won all its arguments — moral, political, cultural — leaving only the legislative to catch up. “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders,” wrote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In of a corporate landscape whose middle management is increasingly dominated by women, 40% of whom are now out-earning their husbands. On campuses across America, where young women now earn 60% of all master’s degrees, young millenials of both sexes sport “THIS IS WHAT   IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” t-shirts. Feminism has become culturally ubiquitous, a pop cultural cliché, and while first generation feminists may turn up their noses at the sight of Beyonce dancing in front of a giant, lit-up FEMINIST banner at the MTV Video Music Awards, such ubiquity is a sign of how much part of the mainstream their arguments have become.   These days, feminists looking for a fight with anything like the old fire have had to turn their attention to fresher geopolitical pastures, to Afghanistan, India and the like.      
And then came Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn’s bestseller proved a feminist flashpoint when it was first published in 2012 and this week arrives in movie theatres trailing its own sulphur- cloud, thanks to an adaptation by Hollywood’s reigning prince of darkness, David Fincher.   The film stars Ben Affleck as New York writer Nick Dunne, who loses his job and has to move back to his home town in Missouri, only to become suspect number one in a murder investigation when his wife Amy, a glacial beauty played by Rosamund Pike, goes missing. Taking it’s cue from the grisly domestic murder cases that hold American cable viewers goggle-eyed — Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony, and of course, O J Simpson — the story unfolds in a glare of flashbulbs, TV lights and smart-phone image-grabs, as two-bit pop psychologist and body language experts deduce innocence or guilt from a passing smirk. As played by the burly, shifty-looking Affleck in jackets just a shade too tight for him, Nick is one of those guys who is most insincere when telling the truth and picks up suspicion like moss — a media whipping boy par excellence. That’s the film’s hook: How easy it is to frame someone in the court of public opinion.  After the film’s premiere at the New York film festival last week, Affleck noted that it seemed to act like a gender Rorshasch test.  “Most women journalists are like, what’s it like playing a jerk. Most of the men just go, ‘Yeah.'” 
But that is only half the story. To describe the half that has kicked up controversy is not just to risk spoilers but to embrace them with open arms, so be warned. The movie’s many twists and turns eventually reveal a sociopathic villainess who is the architect of Nick’s downfall and whose m.o., when she is not framing innocent lunkheads for murder,  is fabricated charges of rape. It is this that landed Flynn in the cross-hairs of feminists critics who have charged the author with peddling “misogynist caricatures”, and “a deep animosity towards women”. “Gone Girl is the wet dream of every misogynistic men’s ‘rights’ activist,” alleged Interrogating Media in a post entitled Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism. Defending her book on her website, Flynn wrote, I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains… The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.”  
Certainly, the movie’s timing could not be worse — or better, depending on your point of view — coming as it does in the middle of an ongoing conversation about sexual assault in the US military and on college campuses, where what Millenials quaintly refer to as ‘rape culture’ has prompted petitions demanding the cancellation of a Robin Thicke concert because the lyrics of his song “Blurred Lines” allegedly celebrate “systemic patriarchy and sexual oppression”. (The song has already been banned by more than 20 British universities.) Activists at Wellesley College, in Connecticut, recently demanded that administrators remove a statue of a naked sleepwalking man they said could “trigger” memories of sexual assault for victims.  “To bring up a conversation about rape sets off everybody's discomfort buttons,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. “Rape is one of those crimes that generally includes only two witnesses, which makes it very fertile ground for imaginative fiction, especially when you're talking about interpersonal drama. It's like two-person Rashomon — it’s the ultimate he-said-she-said.  To see the monster we all have within us, to show our little sexual monsters, is uncomfortable.   We can have our brand new feminist ideas about workplace economics, equality, about reproductive rights, and so on, we can have all those ideas, but still have this voice within us telling us these really old ideas about how sex works between men and women. I’m not condemning the book. It’s a page turner, sold a zillion copies, I read it right to the end.   You're going to have troubling gender elements in fiction, because these are the troubling gender elements in life, but it becomes far less liberating when you understand that they are trading on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it's troubling.” 
At the same time, says Traister,  “Gone Girl explodes marriage,” says Rebecca Traister. And it explodes precisely the one kind of marriage that is still idealized, between white, urban sophisticated people that meet in mid-life. There are many marriage models out there but this is the one that is still viewed aspirationally:   between white, beautiful, privilege educated New Yorkers. That is the picture of marriage that is sold to us, the one we all must desire. And that is the one the book vandalises. So there is a subversive argument being advanced about marriage in the film, that it's not an institution that can tame women any longer.”'  
And, since we're here, my Fincher top ten:—
1. Zodiac
2. The Social Network
3. Se7en
4. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
5. Panic Room
6. Gone Girl
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
8. Alien 3
9. Fight Club
10. The Game


  1. An interesting piece in today's FT - thanks for sharing this. As an aside, please note that Wellesley College is in Massachusetts, not Connecticut. The incident to which you referred happened there.