Initially, this reflection was influenced by my interest in the contrast between “angel” and monster” images that Gilbert and Gubar describe in Madwoman in the Attic. Gillian Flynn’s characters struggle with these images. Some, like Amy, challenge the divisions; while others, like Nick, try to interpret and possibly maintain them. I then became interested in the authors’ discussion of Lilith and other conceptions of “monster -women” in relation to Amy and the current image of women in general.
I should begin by expressing my, for lack of a better term, sympathy for the characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both Amy and Nick are in a lifelong identity crisis, most of which is due to the influences of their upbringing. If I were to engage with them in the shortest of conversations, I would most likely direct them to therapy: while Amy struggles to form her own identity separate from the Amazing Amy novels written by her parents, Nick desperately tries to avoid growing into an image of his misogynistic father. In both instances, they seem to be challenging society’s expectations for them, but after reading Madwoman in the Attic I wonder if they ever succeed in this.
In her first “truthful” chapter, Amy admits to “pretending to have a personality” (Flynn, 222). While actors try on different personalities for their career, and others try them on for fun, Amy initially switches personalities to fit into societal expectations.
“That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a 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, and 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. Hot and understanding, Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner, and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl” (Flynn 222).
Amy’s obsession with the Cool Girl image is in no way a recent or fictional one. Although some of the expectations she describes are far from proper or angelic, she is actually describing, in lamer terms, the expectations of women found in early conduct books. According to Gilbert and Gubar, “from the eighteenth century on, conduct books for ladies had proliferated, enjoining young girls to submissiveness, modesty, selflessness; reminding all women that they should be angelic (Rivkin, 816). I would like to focus on “submissiveness” because it seems to cover most of what Amy and feminists alike find infuriating about the image of women in society.
Amy brings up a very good point in her graphic description of the Cool Girl. While women are expected to enjoy all that men are perceived to enjoy (sports, hot dogs, dirty jokes) they are also expected to maintain a feminine image (size 2, understanding, resistance to anger). With this societal expectation, women are forced to take on more responsibility for their image than men. The next passage from Madwoman further demonstrates this matter.
“…because a woman is denied autonomy…she is not only excluded from culture… but also becomes herself an embodiment of just those extremes [variations of angel and monster]…which culture confronts with fear, love, or loathing…she mediates between the male artist and the Unknown, simultaneously teaching him purity and instructing him in degradation” (Rivkin, 814).
According to this excerpt, not only do women have more responsibility for their own image, they claim the responsibility for man’s as well. Motherhood falls under this description, as explained by Luce Irigaray’s Women on the Market, “…mothers cannot circulate in the form of commodities without threatening the very existence of the social order. Mothers are essential to its (re)production” (Rivkin, 807). Through this understanding, women (especially mothers) are programmed to respond in the way men wish them to.
Amy comes to realize this programming in the form of Cool Girl, and is puzzled on where to lay blame, “Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl…Every girl was supposed to be this girl , and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you” (Flynn, 222-223). Are women still too willing to please men? Are men unaware of this very pressure? Amy feels the pressure, even though she recognizes an imbalance, “…it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to be the girl every guy wants…but then I had to stop because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me” (Flynn, 223-224). She realizes she doesn’t want to live within the confines of a Cool Girl image, but she struggles to blame the women who are “too lazy or stupid” to find a way outside societal expectation and acceptance (Flynn 222). Through her revelation about the Cool Girl, Amy revises her responsibilities to Nick. Instead of maintaining the “stand by your man” image, she exploits him. Amy challenges the submissive Cool Girl image, and attempts to legitimize the “monster-woman.”
Now, I fully support her refusal to be submissive, but her version of “monster-woman” is so dramatized that I have mixed feelings on her understanding of feminist values. She is thankfully a character rather than a living human; therefore, challenging readers to contemplate the image of women. She resembles Scylla, monster-woman of the Odyssey because of her jealousy of Nick’s mistress, Andie. In a way, her vindictive plans reinforce what Gilbert and Gubar discover: “the monster may not only be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside within… the angel” (Rivkin, 820). Just as beautiful Scylla was transformed into a monster from her jealousy, so was Amy. There is a question of an evolving “monster-woman” from Scylla to Amy. Scylla is portrayed as a simple 2 dimensional character, a cliche, if you will. Amy, however, is vindictive and vengeful, reinforcing the male fear of powerful women.
A comparison between Amy and Lilith (according to Hebrew mythology, the first woman and monster: I believe this is no coincidence) might seem very harsh, but there are a few similarities in their characters. Both women are rash and monstrous in their plans to challenge patriarchy. Madwoman points out, “Lilith preferred punishment to patriarchal marriage, and she took her revenge against both God and Adam by injuring babies…What her history suggests is that in patriarchal culture, female speech and female ‘presumption’- that is, angry revolt against male domination- are inextricably linked and inevitably demonic” (Rivkin, 823). In a way, Amy chooses punishment over domination just as Lilith does. Amy planned her death and a getaway, while Lilith “flew away to the Red Sea to reside with demons” (Rivkin, 823). Both women devise vengeful plans (Amy frames her husband for murder, murdering another man in the process; Lilith injures babies, mostly male) creating a negative image of women.
As Gilbert and Gubar assert, “Lilith is locked into a vengeance…which can only bring her more suffering…And even the nature of her one-woman revolution emphasizes her helplessness and isolation, for her protest takes the form of a refusal and a departure, a flight of escape rather than an active rebellion, like, say, Satan’s” (Rivkin, 823). Likewise, Amy’s revolt is in defense, rather than offense. She is powerful for some time due to her plot for revenge, but she is fooled by Nick’s public interviews, “Nick just wanted me to be happy, that’s all, very pure. Maybe I mistook that for laziness” (Flynn, 353). With her monstrous plan and her return to Nick, Amy’s character is a perpetuation of false feminist values such as man-hating and woman vengeance. She follows the patriarchal expectations of women in the name of feminism, which is a daring move for Gillian Flynn as a feminist writer, but would the novel have the same effect if Amy would have simply “dumped” Nick and moved on to find her own identity? The controversy over Gone Girl would not exist if Flynn wrote her characters to follow equal feminist values.
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl: A Novel. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell,