Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck as Amy and Nick in Gone Girl.
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Female villains and false accusations: a feminist defence of Gone Girl

Gone Girl is not anti-feminist. True equality is admitting that women can be evil too.

This article contains spoilers for both the Gone Girl book and film. Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens

There is a moment in the new Gone Girl film when everyone in the cinema starts laughing. That moment comes just after the first big plot twist, when we see Amy Dunne – a  woman who for the first portion of the film has been missing, presumed dead, possibly at the hand of her husband Nick – driving along a highway in the gleaming sunshine, smiling. Amy has, we discover, faked her own murder in order to enact revenge upon an unfaithful Nick, and is intending to camp out in hiding until the case is closed and, she hopes, her cheating shitbag of a husband is given the lethal injection.

On paper, this does not sound like a set-up ripe for comedy, and yet Gone Girl has plenty of darkly funny moments (strangely, few reviews have mentioned this, despite the fact that the last segment of the film almost plays the absurdity of Nick and Amy’s “fucked up” relationship entirely for laughs). Part of the film’s humour lies in a grudging admiration of the sheer audacity of this scorned, psychopathic woman, who has devised the most intricate of plans for vengeance. There’s an “oh-no-you-DIDN’T” moment when, her plan having failed, Amy returns home and, staggering out of a taxi covered in blood, embraces her husband. “You fucking bitch” he whispers in her ear, and everyone laughs, again. Later, when Nick is desperately trying to resist being trapped in a marriage with a crazy person who tried to have him executed for her murder, he tells Amy: “All we did was resent each other and cause each other pain.” “That’s marriage,” Amy replies. This time, there were disturbing laughs of recognition in the cinema.

I mention Gone Girl’s humour because, I feel, somewhere amidst the panoply of earnest online feminist comment surrounding this film, it has got entirely lost. Amy is an extraordinary character in an extraordinary situation, with some pretty hefty psychological problems (a personality disorder, I would guess), and yet the noise we’re hearing from feminist commentators is that the film portrays a misogynist vision of femininity, a charge that was also previously levied against the book and its author, Gillian Flynn. When Flynn was asked about these accusations of anti-feminism, she responded by saying that:

For me, [feminism is] 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 bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish ... I don't write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she's a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness."

In other words, perhaps true equality is admitting that women can be evil arseholes too. We feminists cannot have it both ways – we cannot kick back against the portrayal of women as emotional, empathic creatures and as victims, yet fall back on that same cliché when confronted with a cold-eyed psychopathic female character that we do not like. In terms of her analysis of the psychobitch, Flynn is not wrong. The character of Amy may borrow from established literary and cinematic tropes –she is the wronged wife for whom hell hath no fury, the bunny boiler, the femme fatale; a preying mantis who fucks and then destroys the male – but she is a much more complex character than any single type suggests. Though the film is less explicit about the source of Amy’s neurotic perfectionism and her control freakery, it is still there for all to see: her role as the inspiration for the Amazing Amy children’s books created by her parents.  For as long as she can remember, Amy has been playing a part, and that part has required constant vigilance:

I’ve never been more to them than a symbol anyway, the walking ideal. Amazing Amy in the flesh. Don’t screw up, you are Amazing Amy. Our only one. There is an unfair responsibility that comes with being an only child – you grow up knowing you aren’t allowed to disappoint, you aren’t even allowed to die. There isn’t a replacement toddling around; you’re it. It makes you desperate to be flawless, and it makes you drunk with the power. In such ways are despots made.”

John Logan’s recent play Peter and Alice examined this in detail, looking at the pressure of literary fame on the children who were the real life inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. But it is Gone Girl that takes the idea to its sinister conclusion. The childhood burden of embodying a perfect fictional character has driven Amy mad. But it is not just one character that Amy is forced to play – though more subtly done in the film than in the novel, throughout the film Amy adopts a succession of female archetypes in turn.

When she meets self-confessed “one-woman misogynist” Nick, for instance, she plays another part, that of the “Cool Girl”:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

When Nick strays regardless (and let’s not forget, as many reviewers have, what an unsympathetic, sexist scumbag he actually is) Amy is forced into another role, that of the victimised, wronged woman. It is a role she hates:

I know women whose entire personas are woven from a benign mediocrity. Their lives are a list of shortcomings: the unappreciative boyfriend, the extra ten pounds, the dismissive boss, the conniving sister, the straying husband. I've always hovered above their stories, nodding in sympathy and thinking how foolish they are, these women, to let these things happen, how undisciplined. And now to be one of them! One of the women with the endless stories that make people nod sympathetically and think: Poor dumb bitch.”

So much does Amy loathe being victimised that she decides to push this role to its zenith: “Everyone loves the “Dead Girl”, she decides. By using society’s propensity to pigeonhole women as vulnerable victims against her drunken sexist of a husband, you could argue that she is taking back the power in her relationship. As a woman, she has been forced to embody a succession of tedious female stereotypes, but she twists this oppressive force in order to get her own way. While the novel is naturally a better form for exposing the inner lives and thoughts of its characters, the film conveys Amy’s costume changes in a different way – through its skewering of mass media news coverage and its fixation with attractive, white, female (and in this case, pregnant) victims.

Which is why I just can’t get on board with accusations that Gone Girl is anti-feminist. In the Guardian, Joan Smith condemned Gone Girl for perpetuating rape myths. It is true that Amy makes two false rape allegations, and gets away with it, though I would disagree with Smith that it was “easy” for her do so. Does she “undermine the credibility of victims”? I think not. Amy is an exception, not a rule, an actor playing yet another part in a long line up of pre-written roles that have been foisted upon her against her will because she is a woman, and which she has decided to turn to her own advantage. She is bored, betrayed, fucked off, and furious.

Also writing in the Guardian, David Cox speculates about “the grasp of the human heart that enables Amy to manipulate others does indeed reflect her gender”. It is a fatal misreading of her character. It is Amy’s cold lack of empathy (played perfectly by Rosamund Pike) that makes her a nightmare, and yet this is another way in which she fails to fit neatly in a box. She is not a female stereotype, but an unhinged, complex, flawed villain who has repeatedly been cast as one by others. And what could be more feminist than that?

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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