I don’t know the author Gillian Flynn personally, but it’s probably safe to say that she has been having a very good week.
First of all, the movie adaptation of her best-selling novel, Gone Girl, was number one at last week’s box office taking in $62.5 million globally, and the book is number one on The New York Time’s Bestseller List of paperback trade fiction.
Still, like most good things, there is also a downside. Namely, Flynn has been accused of being misogynistic, given her portrayal of the lead female character, Amy Elliott Dunne.
(Note: For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading right here.)
Amy is nothing less than a sociopath—a woman who frames her cheating husband for her murder, makes false stalking and rape allegations against former classmates and an ex-boyfriend and even resorts to murder.
Flynn, who identifies as feminist, has denied the misogynistic claims and responded to her critics with this:
“[Is feminism] really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably [sic] bad—trampy, vampy, bitchy types—but there’s still a big push back against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish.”
She has a point.
As someone who has called herself a feminist ever since I learned the meaning of the word, I understand her frustration. Sometimes it seems that the mere criticism of another woman can make some want to yank your feminist credentials, or at least can bring admonishment for the very idea that a woman can be a jerk.
For instance, several years ago I worked for a woman in a small company who was hands down one of the worst bosses I’ve ever had. Not only was she unprofessional and rude, but she also had a way of bringing her personal drama to work making my life and others’ hell. (I’ve often called the day I left there one of the happiest days of my life.)
However, when I discussed this with some of my female friends, I was chided by more than a few. At least a couple said I should be more supportive of a woman who was running a business—especially, in this case, one in a traditionally male-dominated field—and asked by at least two of them, “Would you judge her this harshly if she was a man?”
My response: “Yes, I would. Would you make such allowances if she were a man?”
Their responses to that ranged from, “That’s different,” to no response at all.
I found that very telling.
The fact is, I’ve encountered people of both sexes who have been horrible bosses, horrible friends and just really awful people in general. The fact that some of them have been women does not give them a pass.
While many are willing to at least acknowledge the above idea, the idea of female evilness is often a harder one for people to accept.
For example, I often think of the case of Myra Hindley. For non-UK readers who may not be familiar with the case, Hindley was a convicted child murderer who, along with her then-boyfriend, Ian Brady, killed at least five children between 1963 to 1965. (At least four of the victims were sexually assaulted as well.)
For years, Hindley claimed that Brady, through physical and emotional abuse, forced her to participate. (For his part, Brady denied this and claims to this day she was a willing participant who enjoyed the crimes as much as he did.)
Even an audio recording, where Hindley appeared to enjoy psychologically abusing a 10-year-old victim as the girl was being abused and tortured by Brady, failed to convince some that a woman could actually be so “evil.” (Although Hindley would spend the rest of her life in prison before dying of complications from heart disease in 2002, a number of people championed her release claiming she was innocent and/or a changed woman.)
To the best of my knowledge, there have been no such similar campaigns for Brady. While I doubt all of the difference lay in the fact that Brady was a man and Hindley a woman, I do think that gender played a major role in those believing the latter’s claims, despite evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps part of the reason that so many are reluctant to believe in female evilness is that it contradicts what most people envision a woman to be. Think of the quote, “If women ran the world, there would be no more wars.”
Though I am inclined to believe there may be less depending on the sort of women in power, I do not think it would signify the end.
In any case, while Amy Elliott Dunne is a fictional character and her crimes do not even come close to the real-life crimes of Hindley, I actually found myself identifying with her in some ways, despite the fact she is a very bad character. While I would never advocate anyone, much less envision myself, to take such extreme measures against someone who “wronged” their spouse, I could see why someone—especially someone who was unhinged to begin with—could react in such as way.
Plus, it was a nice change that unlike many suspense novels that become morality tales in the end, that Amy did not end up in prison nor did she become a changed woman who repented the error of her ways.
Indeed, as I told a (male) friend who was unhappy with the ending, it was fitting the characters remain with each other: while he may not have been a murderer, Nick Dunne was in many ways as amoral and unlikeable as his wife. Still, no one is accusing Flynn of misandry for making Nick so awful.
My wish is for Flynn, and others who examine human evilness and sometimes create female characters that embody that, to stop having to defend themselves.
As a fellow feminist, I believe the only way we will ever come to achieving true gender equality is to acknowledge the darkness that sometimes lies in both men and women. Plus, on a purely entertainment level, sometimes “bad girls” can have an element of fun to them.
While the Amys of the world would never be called role models by any sane person, they are a way for those of us who have ever been wronged by someone we loved and thought we knew a small vicarious thrill—and that includes both women and men.
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Editor: Emily Bartran