I have a confession to make: I love Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I think I’m not supposed to, because it’s not particularly literary, it involves some pretty sadistic murders, and, most of all, it really doesn’t paint women in a great light…or at least one woman. Yet, this is exactly why I like it.
At some point in time, women needed an image boost in the arts, somewhere around the beginning of Third-Wave Feminism, and because of this, we went hog-wild with inclusionary politics, casting a wider net to bring the issues of non-white and non-wealthy women into sharper focus. Without this attention, we wouldn’t have Kathleen Hanna, Bitch, or Vagina Monologues, the latter I could do without now, but it was groundbreaking in the 90s…I think. Suddenly film festivals were sprouting up specifically to support female filmmakers, and women were earning their seats at the table of publishing, specifically with feminist presses like the incredible Seal. But while we’ve clearly made progress in creating and disseminating women’s work—at least to other women—we’ve also strayed a little closer to Second-Wave politics that prevent us from telling the whole of women’s stories, most notably that women are just as capable of being the multi-dimensional villain as men are.
In this article about the Swedish film industry requiring that their movies go through the Bechdel Test, the absolute worst quote emerged, the kind of thing that makes me want to punch a dick. A male film critic disagreed with the test and said, “There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel Test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and a lot of films that don’t pass the test but are fantastic at those things.” There’s much wrong with this, but I’ll try to break it down simply.
Are women inherently the makers of a better society? I don’t think so. I actually just don’t think I’d be able to handle that pressure. Must our appearances and conversations in films have to create a significant positive impact on the world? God I hope not. Again, the pressure. And sometimes I want to write jokes. What this Bechdel critic seems to say, however, is that we must, but if you’ve ever watched a movie before, you might notice that Mother Theresa is not the leading lady. No matter what your gender, the most complex characters are always the leads, and complexity requires that one sometimes think, say, feel, and act on bad thoughts. Evil thoughts, even. The worst thoughts in the world, the ones that torture you and make you not want to think them, because you’re afraid that society will ostracize you and no one will like you, and that is your biggest fear in life. Being alone with your terrible thoughts.
Flannery O’Connor understood this better than most. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is perhaps my favorite example of a woman writing a complex female character, because there is absolutely no reason to like the grandmother, yet we understand exactly why she does all of it, why she insists on bringing her damn cat, why she insists on visiting her old home, why she’s irritable when her family doesn’t listen to her, and ultimately why she attempts to preach to the bandit who will then walk her to the woods and shoot her dead. And then we identify with the bandit, because we kind of wanted her dead, too, and that was OK. When I first read this story sometime in high school, I’d felt like I finally gotten everything I wanted. I didn’t even think O’Connor was a woman at first and was surprised and gleeful when I found that she was, because she’d written my favorite story in the world, one of violence, paradoxes, emotional savagery, and, as she would say, “grace.” The grandmother was as flawed as you can get, but I remember and feel for her some 15 years after I first met her. The same holds true for the female protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
[spoiler alert] For the first half of Gone Girl, Flynn wrote an incredible female character who reveals herself through notes and diary entries, with the kinds of words and feelings I’ve felt my much of my life on some level, little feminine voices that tell you that you always need to be the “cool girl,” the Zooey Deschanel of girls, whose niceness is measured in perky breasts and adorable bangs. But out of the blue, and halfway through the narrative, Flynn flips a switch, and that “cool girl” you thought you knew comes out as a sadistic embodiment of entrapment, and what’s more is I actually identified with her even more than before. As the narrator, she explains how she tried to be the “cool girl,” and it left her cold, bowing to her husband’s weak will, hiding her own power to make him feel comfortable, when all she really wanted was an equal. Later she talks about pregnancy, her fears of being further hobbled by becoming a caregiver for a child, along with her husband, while he’s out cheating on her with one of his students, and even though she’s a murderer who uses as she pleases, I still can’t help but identify with her, because her thoughts are the bad, bad thoughts that many women think, because we’re always analyzing power dynamics, and it’s a terrifying thought to be powerless.
In terms of violence, Flynn’s got everyone covered in blood, and, no, her books probably aren’t doing anything to better the world, but her stories and the bad female characters she creates are arguably just as important to the canon of feminine arts as one of the hundreds of short documentaries about nice women doing nice things for other people or a thousand talking vaginas. She’s writing memorable anti-heroes, and they are actually women, and for the million female fans of Breaking Bad out there, perhaps you understand why this is so important, because women are surprisingly just as human as Walter White and we can be pretty killer protagonists. (Sure, pun intended.)
Partly, I think we got it backwards, and I think we’re stuck in a destructive loop, because we’re calling for more developed female characters, but we didn’t do the work to make a space for them first. We shot ourselves in the foot, promoting our own goodness, because after all, the only thing women have to do in art to make way for more developed characters is exist. And once we exist—and I mean exist in the Bechdel way, like truly exist, controlling our own existence as makers—we can start up that PR image campaign, but even then I’m probably not going to like the “cool girl.” And I definitely won’t ever be the “cool girl.” Honestly, it just doesn’t sound fun. I love you, Susan Lucci; you’re the worst.
Want to read excerpts from my story collection, Sorry Too Dark? Send me an email, and I’ll send a few to you. I promise you the women are terrible humans. In the meantime, you should definitely read Gillian Flynn’s article, “I was not a nice little girl…”