Gone Girl. Some call it a traditional gothic horror tale that reveals the truth of marriage. Others have derided it as a misandrist revenge fantasy or a misogynist validation of every paranoia American culture teaches men to hold. Certainly, this controversy highlights gendered double-standards in the United States. But more, Amy Dunne, the main character, displays methods of violence typically ascribed to women, and for it, she is called mad. In this way, Gone Girl provides a look at how madness can become gendered.
Before I talk more about Gone Girl, specifically, it is important to frame this conversation in terms of dialogues about mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, and false reporting. Maybe this conversation about feminism seems out of place in a health magazine. But gender, domestic violence, and sexual assault are topics of health just as much as mental health itself. It’s not just a matter of physical wellness; it’s also that people who experience violence have significantly worse health outcomes, and women (cis or trans) are disproportionately subjected to violence. As FilmCritHulk says in his own essay about Gone Girl, “THE RITUAL SUBJUGATION OF WOMEN HAS BEEN THE UNFORTUNATE TIE THAT BINDS MOST OF OUR CULTURES TOGETHER.”
Men, women, and nonbinary individuals face sexual violence every day in massive numbers. The full spectrum of gendered violence is a much larger conversation than I can have here. What’s important to understand for my purposes is that more than 4 million women experience physical assault and rape by their partners every year. One in three female homicide victims are murdered by a partner, either current or former [same]. The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women conducted a thorough study that concluded around only 2 percent to 8 percent of rape reports are false. However, there persists an insistence that women must be mass-misreporting rape. When I Googled false reporting to find some information on how many people believe that false reporting is common, I couldn’t find any actual information because there were so many opinion pieces about how common false reporting is. Men are terrified that women en masse are faking their ways through a grueling process often characterized by being humiliated and doubted.
People with mental illnesses are one of the most stigmatized, underserved, and ignored populations in the United States. In Missouri, life expectancy for people with mental illness is twenty years lower than it is for people without mental illness. When people with mental illness go in to a clinic, they’re often not served because of the way they act or communicate. Doctors often believe that they’re just trying to get expensive pharmaceuticals, or that there’s nothing really wrong with them. Historically, “madness” has, as a label, been used to discredit, pathologize, and control people who disturb societal status quo—the poor, the gays, the blacks, and, also notably, the women.
Why is all this relevant?
Amy Dunne’s story goes like this: Nick and Amy Dunne lead a beautiful life. One day, she dies. The police find her blood, a trail of clues leading to a diary that details her relationship and its domestic abuse, and hints that suggest she’s been murdered because of a pregnancy. Her husband and friends insist she’s just disappeared, or been kidnapped; the police investigate her husband. One day, she reappears covered in the blood of a man named Desi Collins who kidnapped, groomed, and assaulted her. Amy reunites with her husband and gets pregnant. It’s happily ever after. Everyone believes her.
Except that isn’t what happens. Really, Amy frames her husband, pretends to be abused, fakes a pregnancy, runs away, spends a bit living in luxury with a rich guy who stalked her in high school, frames him for sexual assault, murders him, returns to her wrong husband, and traps him into marriage with a new pregnancy. Nick calls her a “crazy psycho bitch,” and we as the audience are tempted to agree.
Except—is that agreement justified? Because her husband does seem angry and violent. The man Amy kills stalked and threatened her in high school, and takes advantage of her when she had no money or resources because people believed her dead. Can we really say that Amy’s actions are diagnosable as disordered, illogical, or uncontrollable (like most mental illnesses)? Do her actions, viewed in one light, not make an uncomfortable amount of sense?
My point here is that all of the ambiguities in Gone Girl have caused endless controversy not because of the content itself, but because of the way those ambiguities challenge cultural narratives we have about women who experience sexual violence. And the easy way to deal with those ambiguities and erase those challenges is to agree with Nick Dunne and call Amy “crazy”.
Amy has created herself as the ultimate picture of female victimhood. Take her at her word, and she has experienced rape, domestic violence, and death. Her invented story appropriates the narratives of hundreds of other fictional women. But looking at the truth behind the lies she tells, Amy has turned this iconic victimhood into victimizations of those who she believes has wronged her.
Amy Dunne, unlike the madwomen that precede her, is never crushed down to victim size. She hurts people, hurts herself, ruins lives, all remorselessly. It is difficult to deny the sentiments behind Nick’s accusations of insanity. Faking victimization does seem identifiable as “psychotic.” And yet, this doesn’t seem quite a satisfactory explanation for Amy Dunne’s story.
Let’s explore the two options. First, we agree that Amy is mad, as Nick says. Second, we deny that she’s mad and assume that she’s just doing what women do, as many people seem to believe when they accuse women of faking rape and pregnancy to harm former lovers.
If she’s insane, she’s insane. That’s easy. When we label her with mental illness, we don’t have to think much more about her story because we can just believe Nick. We can just believe everyone in the real world who believes inaccurate stereotypes about mental illness and insists that there are real Amy Dunnes out there. It’s the second option that gets complicated.
Her ambiguous sanity coincides with some of the most common cultural paranoias about women: false reporting for rape and domestic violence, faked pregnancies that trap unwilling men into marriage. These paranoias create the “real Amy Dunne.” While popular, public, and media dialogue often raise fears of such manipulation, there’s an absurdity in the effort Amy takes to orchestrate such lies. For trapping Nick, she spends God knows how long writing a presumably fake diary, she plans clues, she maxes out a credit card, she drains a gallon of her own blood to fake her death, she steals a pregnant woman’s urine. For trapping Desi, she remains in captivity in his house for ages, stages partially-visible scenes of violence in front of cameras after learning their whole layout, stores spare materials and injures herself gravely. If that’s what it takes to convincingly fake domestic violence, rape, and/or pregnancy, it’s difficult to give credence to this insistence that women must be doing it all the time. Gone Girl challenges the narrative of “false reporting” by showing just how absurd it is.
However, the story is more complicated than that. Amy identifies the tensions and hypocrisies of sexual and romantic relationships; she targets a husband with violent rage and a suitor who held her captive. People hurt her in ways many other women have been hurt. The difference between her and others is that she does not try to gain justice through socially-approved avenues. More, she seeks her vengeance by taking advantage of common narratives of rape, pregnancy, and jealousy that are applied only to women. She knows how the world works, and she uses that.
If it were truth and not fiction, Amy’s vengeance would seem not unjustified, but also not at all possible. So if we sit back and try to make sense of this, what do we get? If Amy’s “crazy,” nothing she’s saying about men, women, and society is legitimate. If she’s “crazy,” she’s dismissible. It’s even better for this argument that she’s “crazy” because she does things that only women could ever possibly do. That way, people don’t have to think about the fact that she does seem justified in wanting some sort of justice, that society would not have given her that justice if she had not orchestrated her own vengeance, and that Amy taking action on her own behalf was probably the only way she could have realistically gotten herself away from several bad situations. More, if viewers accept that Amy is “just crazy”, they don’t have to think about the fact that Amy is not real, that real women cannot do this, that real women have very few ways to seek justice.
People don’t want to believe that violence happens to women, so they concoct a narrative that says, “women who claim these things happen to them are crazy.” But Gone Girl troubles that side of the story. The only way to dismiss Amy Dunne is to call her mad; to agree with her, though, is to accept a world that people do not want to see. The only way to validate the fear of women like her is to accept a fiction and a farce.