In her 2012 novel, Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn constructs a diabolical and vengeful anti-heroine in the story’s protagonist, Amy Dunne. Through Amy’s diary entries and her husband Nick’s narration we see how Amy stages her own kidnapping, frames Nick, commits murder and returns home while maintaining the presence of a respectable woman in the media. Amy’s complex and intelligent character is juxtaposed with the innocent victim she is portrayed as in the media. This duplicity allows Flynn to demonstrate traditional tropes that women criminals are represented as, while pointing out the dangerous inaccuracies of transforming women in the media into one dimensional types.
Flynn introduces Amy to readers as a fun, beautiful and dynamic young woman. A good portion of “Part One: Boy Loses Girl” is dedicated to making Amy lovable and easy for readers to connect with. Her diary entries detail how she first meets Nick. Phrases such as “I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!” (Flynn 50) paint Amy as witty and down to earth. “The bubble above my head” recalls popular culture references such as Disney’s Lizzy McGuire, granting Amy an air of girlish innocence. She is a woman, just like any other, looking to fall in love.
As readers identify with Amy’s many likable traits, Flynn overtly establishes Amy as a “respectable woman”. Described in Lizzie Seal’s Women Murder and Femininity: Gender Representations of Women Who Kill, a respectable woman “…is portrayed as embodying some of the traits of appropriate femininity…Historically, respectability for women is associated with white, middle-class, heterosexual womanhood,” (Seal 63). Amy Dunne fits explicitly into this prototype. Flynn goes as far as to describe Amy as “A smart, pretty, nice girl… a girl with so many interests and enthusiasms, a cool job, a loving family. And let’s say it: money,” (Flynn 100). Tapping into traditional social constructions of femininity and what it means to be a “good” woman, Flynn produces a character that is difficult for readers, and later the media and other characters in Gone Girl, to hate.
In the 1986 study “Perceptions of the Traits of Women on Television”, it was published that the traits deemed most attractive in female characters by viewers were “Determined, strong, independent…Professional, intelligent, skilled…Traditional, caretaker, feminine,” (Atwood, Webber, Zahn 97). Flynn is certainly conscious of these traits in her initial depiction Amy. Amy is a professional personality quiz writer, who is good at her job but also recognizes its frivolity in a hilarious manner. She is clearly intelligent and thinks for herself. As the story continues, and Amy is supposedly kidnapped, Flynn adds in elements of the traditional caretaker to Amy’s character. The now missing Amy’s previous diary entries detail how she is pregnant and Nick abuses her. At this point, we as readers are suspicious of Amy’s self-depiction in her journal entries. Nick’s portion of narration is starting to seem more reliable and Amy’s writings are starting to look contrived. However, being the mastermind that Flynn constructed, Amy has counterfeited solid evidence that proves she was indeed pregnant. This information causes Nick to seriously lose credibility. Amy now checks all the boxes of respectable femininity and it seems less probable, under social norms, that she is anything but the victim in this crime.
This sentiment is more extremely documented by the media in Gone Girl. At this plot point, Nick is suspected to have murdered Amy, and her concrete documentation as a respectable woman and now expectant mother casts him into further suspicion. When reporters find out that Amy was pregnant, they have more material to paint Nick as a malicious murderer. Judy, the national talk show host who is trying to incriminate Nick, corners him saying “Yeah, right: You didn’t want her to be pregnant, you got angry and killed her and the unborn baby,” (Flynn 683). This traditional trope that men are often put into is not subtle. Nick and Amy are both victims of media misrepresentation, and this reversal of traditional crime roles emphasizes and satirizes media bias.
Amy’s pregnancy and Nick’s supposed physical abuse of her adds another dimension to the “respectable woman” representation. In addition, Amy is now a battered woman. This new angle renews public interest in Amy’s case, foreshadows events to come in the novel and regains reader’s trust in her diary entries for the moment. Flynn characterizes Amy as very self aware. Amy understands what the media wants out of women, and her diary entries, which she intends for investigators to find, are crafted to fit into this mold. In an ironic sense, Flynn is using Amy to both represent and criticize media stereotypes.
Surrounding her claim that she was pregnant, Amy’s diary entries detailed how she quit her job in New York City, moved with Nick to Missouri to care for his sick mother and became a bored yet supportive housewife. Again fitting into respectable women ideals, Amy now elicits sympathy from readers, both within and without the novel, for giving up her career for her husband. This characterization can be traced back to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, which Elizabeth Fraterrigo analyzes in “The Happy Housewife Heroine”. Fraterrigo supports Friedan’s argument that “Women were not without fault for their unhappy confinement at home; they had mistakenly chosen security rather than striving for a greater sense of self in the world outside its doors,” (Fraterrigo 33). This analysis is easily transferred onto Amy as it is almost painful for readers to see her wither from a vivacious city girl into a lonely Midwestern stay-at-home wife. Her loss of self is associated with her sacrifices for Nick, making her look more vulnerable, and him more evil. This role both feeds into Amy’s respectability while gaining her sympathy. Secured in her role as a respectable yet relatable woman, Amy continues to fool the media into believing that she is innocent.
As this façade is broken down for readers, and her criminality is revealed, Amy begins to shift from being a respectable woman into being something much more complex. As the plot thickens, Nick begins to find clues that Amy left behind for him. She is sending him on a sadistic treasure hunt, attempting to incriminate him for her staged kidnapping/murder in punishment for his infidelity. Now readers are certain that Amy’s diary entries are a lie, and the story’s media representation of Amy as a lovely, abused woman seems particularly one dimensional and frustrating. This shift from the respectable woman trope, to a more complex character is purely external. Flynn purposely uses dramatic irony to alert readers to the restrictive and often inaccurate molds through which the media portrays women. As our understanding of Amy grows, the media’s refusal to give Nick the benefit of the doubt grows more dangerous.
As we see Amy for who she truly is, her diary entries catch up to real time and she is on the run. After she is almost exposed in a rural Ozark motel, Amy seeks comfort in the home of her ex-boyfriend and stalker, Desi. While Amy pretended to be trapped at home with Nick, her situation at Desi’s is actually serious. Although Amy thinks that she can manipulate Desi until she can craft a new plan, she is wrong and soon becomes prisoner in his house. Fear and discomfort push Amy to again take on the role of the battered woman. After months of meticulously abusing herself, Amy has sex with Desi, murders him and runs back home to Nick, claiming that Desi was the person who abducted her in the first place. Upon her return Amy writes “I still have Desi’s semen inside me from the last time he raped me, so the medical examination goes fine. My rope-wreathed wrists, my damaged vagina, my bruises—the body I present them is textbook.” (1,006). Officially a murderer, Amy returns home with a plan in mind. As the novel comes to a conclusion, Flynn is particularly aware of the discrepancy between the Amy that readers see and the Amy that the novel’s media presents.
For those who know the entire story, Amy has taken on many of the traits that are seen as most negative in media’s portrayal of women: “immoral, selfish, aggressive, evil,” (Atwood, Webber, Zahn 98). Although her beauty and intelligence are still admirable her cruelty and selfishness outweigh these positive traits. The media in Gone Girl, however is not caught up on Amy’s true character. Presented as the battered woman who made an incredible return home, Amy is treated with love and kindness. This response totally contrasts cases portrayed in Aileen McColgan’s article “In Defense of Battered Women Who Kill”. Throughout this academic journal entry McColgan argues that “Even where women kill in the course of a violent attack upon them, defence lawyers and the courts are apparently blind to the possibilities of a self-defence plea,” (McColgan 515) because the act of murder so transgresses gender boundaries that the women who commit it are seen as deviant. However, Amy is treated differently because of her established role as a respectable woman.
“‘Respectable’ women who kill are not perceived as deviant or transgressive in terms of social expectations…They are not threatening or dangerous. Representation as respectable can appear to contribute to securing conviction of a lesser charge, a lighter punishment or an acquittal by constructing the woman as someone who does not deserve to be found guilty.” (Seal 63)
Amy represents the double standard that society holds when prosecuting wealthy, beautiful, white women instead of poor, unattractive, minority women.
Although Amy’s place as a respectable woman saves her within the story, it also flattens her character. Flynn does an excellent job in separating the readers from the other characters within the novel. Although we grow to hate Amy, we also grow to appreciate the complexity of her character. At some points in the novel, such as when Desi begins to be a little too protective over her, we almost root for Amy as the anti-heroine. She is awful, but in a genius way that commands a certain level of respect. However, her portrayal in the media does not have room to show these complicated parts of her personality. In order for Amy’s story to sell to the masses, she must be understandable: her role as a respectable woman must stay intact, even if it means taking her story of Desi’s abuse without much further questioning.
Through her narration style, Flynn is able to instill a heightened level of awareness in her readers. As outsiders, gaining information outside of the media’s lens, we see the dangerous implications that female-villain tropes present for the criminal justice system as well as the perception of women in society. Gone Girl clearly denotes that women criminals are judged based on their beauty, normalcy and likability. If these criteria are met, media outlets and society as a whole will be willing to create and believe in a story that places the blame on someone else. This focus on a female criminal’s aesthetic reduces women from people into caricatures. Emotions, intellect and motives are sacrificed for a good story that sells.
While Gone Girl does a poignant job of showing how problematic the use of female tropes is, the fact that these constructs exist in fiction is still very dangerous. As concluded in “Perceptions of the Traits of Women on Television”, “…people actively construct meaning from their message environments, and that they are uniquely qualified for and capable of providing useful insight into such experiences,” (Atwood, Webber, Zahn 100). The danger that Amy Dunn presents is not confined to the pages of her novel, rather it permeates our culture and the way we view women and their ability to kill.
Atwood, Rita A., Susan Brown Zahn, and Gail Webber. "Perceptions of the Traits of Women on Television." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 30.1 (1986): 95-101. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York, USA: Broadway, 2012. IBooks, 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Fraterrigo, Elizabeth. "“The Happy Housewife Heroine” and “The Sexual Sell”: Legacies of Betty Friedan's Critique of the Image of Women." University of Nebraska Press 36.2 (2015): 33-40. JSTOR. 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
Mccolgan, Aileen. "In Defence of Battered Women Who Kill." Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 13.4 (1993): 508-29. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
Seal, Lizzie. Women, Murder, and Femininity: Gender Representations of Women Who Kill. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.