“America’s Sweetheart”: White Female Privilege in ‘Gone Girl’

When David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was released, it was praised as a manifesto to modern feminism. Many critics hailed it as revolutionary in female storytelling. Emily Van Werff at Vox called it “the most feminist mainstream movie in years”. Critics and viewers alike have positioned the film as one that celebrates the liberation of female figures on-screen.  

The film follows the story of Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), an unhappy housewife living in a small town in Missouri with her misogynistic husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). After discovering that Nick is having an affair with one of his students, Amy decides to plan her own death. Creating an elaborate series of clues, that will inevitably point to Nick as her murderer.   

Obviously, as a proclaimed feminist film, Gone Girl is filled with many female characters who drive the narrative forward. There is, of course, Amy and her vengeful prerogatives. Equally, there’s Margo (Carrie Coon), Nick’s twin sister who seems to be the only normal person in this psychopathic cast of characters. Also, Detective Rhonda (Kim Dickens), who plays right into Amy’s games, convinced on helping the damsel in distress. Finally, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski), the big-breasted, inarticulate college student who is in a long-term affair with Nick.

Aside perhaps from Margo, all these women are presented as the worst type of female stereotypes. Rhonda is bad at her male-dominated job, attempting to put an innocent person in prison for murder. Andie is a hot, young college girl who sleeps with her creative writing lecturer. Then, Amy, she’s simply just angry and man-hating. They offer very little depth and uniqueness, making us question if this film is even “feminist” at all. 

Looking back on this film today holds quite a different reading compared to when it was released in 2014. We now live in an America dominated by conversations about white privilege and social prejudices, divided both politically and morally. It’s a country suffering from a misuse of media communication and cultural narratives. Re-examining Gone Girl’s female characters like Ellen Abbot (Missi Pyle) and Amy Dunne in a 2021 post-Trumpian society filled with faux feminist movements, brings white feminism’s place to the forefront in our current cultural landscape.

When Amy goes missing, we are introduced to various characters interested in helping to find her. One of these is a group of neighbourhood moms, who join the search party and talk to the police about what they know of their neighbour. Another being Ellen Abbot, a national broadcaster who is covering Amy’s case on her news programme. These women represent a rather large fraction of white, middle-class American women: housewives, who love gossip and being involved in the drama. This is a group often laughed at and not taken seriously in society (look at programmes like The Real Housewives which profit off making a mockery of rich, petty women). Yet, they are perhaps some of the most dangerous. 

We see, in particular, how the neighbourhood women become involved in implicating Nick. They make unsubstantiated claims about him, tricking him into taking inappropriate, flirty pictures for Facebook and fabricating lies about him that will likely get him the death sentence. These women are never reprimanded for their actions, for their blatant corruption of justice; but rather, they are praised and treated like heroes in their community, regardless of the fact that it’s all hearsay. Nick is a witch on trial, and his puritans are middle-aged women in tracksuits. 

Nancy Grace Reveals What She Really Thinks About 'Gone Girl' — to the  Actress Who Played Her | Hollywood Reporter

In the same vein, there is Ellen Abbot, a “news” broadcaster clearly based-off real-life Fox News presenters. Like the ladies in the community, Abbot stirs up anxiety and paranoia in her national viewers with nothing but slander and fear-mongering. She forms what is essentially a mob around Nick, placing not only his case in danger but also his life. Her “reporting” on Amy’s case is plagued with extreme claims ranging from hints of an incestuous relationship between Nick and Margo to discrediting the validity of Nick’s attorney after shushing him on live TV. 

We have seen the real-world repercussions of people like Abbot and the Fox News style of broadcasting; just look at the political landscape of Trump’s America. After Amy returns home, Abbot admits to Nick that she makes extreme claims during broadcasts just for the viewership. And again, there are no consequences for Abbot and her baseless lies, just as there aren’t any consequences for her real-life counterparts at Fox. Amy’s neighbours and Abbot, protected in a bubble of white privilege and economic security, have the power to redirect public and personal thought without any repercussions.   

And then there’s Amy: an intelligent woman, conscious of her societal position and uncontested privilege, willing to abuse that power for malicious purposes.  

She knows her disappearance will be hot news. She’s young, beautiful and blonde. She’s Amazing Amy, perfect in every way. She knows the police, her family and friends and the media will turn on Nick. They do, without question. She knows that Nick will become suspect number one and that everyone will be on her side, especially after the planned grand reveal of her secret pregnancy gets out. After all, as she says, “America loves pregnant women”. She plays the victim, knowing full well that she doesn’t have to do much to convince the world of it. With Abbot and her crew of bored housewives ensuring it works.

We are asked to sympathise with Amy and in a way, we can. Anyone who has been cheated on by men, repressed by the patriarchy or even lost themselves in a toxic relationship can relate especially to her now famous, “cool girl” monologue. But, just because she’s a woman, doesn’t mean she’s a good person. Like anything in life, feminism isn’t black and white, you don’t just support someone unconditionally just because they’re a woman. The film shows us that the fatal flaw of this community is exactly that: the abuse of unchecked privilege. We can’t glorify Amy as a feminist icon just because she’s a female protagonist. This is how we become complacent as a society, creating unbalanced norms that marginalise others. 

The white feminism we see in Gone Girl is more than prevalent in this real world we live in. And the cultural revelations we experienced in 2020 has made us more aware of it. We watched “Karen” become a mainstream insult, white women getting arrested for calling the police on Black men walking in the park. Black women, one of the most marginalised groups in American society, single-handedly changed the outcome of the Presidential Election. Women for Trump, QAnon supporters and the women at the riots on the Capitol seem very similar to the privileged white women we see in Fincher’s film. We may have finally accepted that the middle-class suburban housewife is dangerous. Something Gillian Flynn and David Fincher were trying to show us with Gone Girl six years earlier. 

This is the crux of Gone Girl’s story: to show us, completely unfiltered, what happens when privilege is left uncontested. Gone Girl isn’t about embracing radical women or some bizarre form of feminism. It’s about the power white women hold in society. How our acceptance of them as damsels in distress, concerned mothers or community activists has given them the opportunity to murder without consequence.         

Words by Shelby Cooke


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