While channel-surfing the other day, I came across Gone Girl on HBO. It had been on for maybe an hour already, but I kept on watching. Mainly because I wanted to see if I would still be as disturbed by it as I was when I saw it in the theater.
Verdict? Yes. It's also awkward, interesting, and even laugh out loud funny (at times). But more than any of that, it's fucking disturbing. That movie disturbed the hell out of me last year, and disturbed the hell out of me again. The only other movie I've seen as an adult that was as creepily troubling was Funny Games. (Which is actually in a league of its own. Funny Games is so disturbing that watching it feels like a form of torture. Not because it's a bad movie — it's not — but because it turns your brain into apple butter.)
The next day, while talking to Panama on Gchat, he volunteered that he'd also watched Gone Girl the night before. He'd never seen it before, and he was just as disturbed by it as I was. (His words: "That shit fucked me up.") Which should be no surprise to anyone reading. Because, even if you've never seen the movie, you've undoubtedly heard similar thoughts about it from literally every man who has seen it; their feelings expressed through some cocktail of disbelief, anxiety, and abject horror. Oh, and nausea. Don't forget the nausea.
Now, what exactly is it about Gone Girl that disturbs so many people — men, specifically? Well, before we get to my thoughts on that, let's talk a bit about Cersei Lannister.
For those unaware, Cersei Lannister is one of the main characters on Game of Thrones, and one of the best characters on TV. She's played by Lena Headey, who you might remember as Queen Gorgo in 300, and what makes her such a compelling character is the fact that she is, to put it bluntly, evil. But not a crazed/unhinged evil. But a cunning, manipulative, vindictive, and even occasionally sadistic evil willing to use any and every thing at her disposal to get what she wants. You've never in your entire life been happier than Cersei is when she gets an opportunity to crush someone she feels the need to crush.
Still, as evil as Cersei is, her actions are not without motivation. Much of what she does as an adult is a direct response to a prophecy she heard as a teen. (And, unbeknownst to her, a prophecy she's misinterpreting.) Also, her scorched earth political machinations can be traced back to the love she has for her children. This context makes her, if not quite a character the audience has a ton of sympathy for, a character the audience understands. Sure, she's evil. But she's evil for a reason.
This — this "understandable evil" — is an example of a trend that can be found throughout pop culture, politics, and even our personal lives; a reflection on what many of us (myself included) have been socialized to believe about women. Basically, women can be assholes. Women can even be evil. But, in order to assuage our feelings on what women are and aren't capable of, we search for ways to justify and/or understand it. It has to be for a reason. Because it's just not possible for a woman to be purely evil the same way a man can be. To just be a dick because…she just wants to be a dick. To just be a fucking douchebag.
Yet, in Gone Girl, Amy Dunne is evil. Pure evil. So evil, so thoroughly unlikeable, that the only redeemable qualities she has serve no purpose other than to further weaponize her evil. Nothing she does in the entire movie is something a person can consider "good"; even the "good" things she does are either done while she's doing bad things or elaborate covers to eventually do more bad things. This — well, this plus the ending — is what seems to make Gone Girl so disturbing. The idea that a woman can be just as purely and unambiguously evil as the evilest man is a difficult concept for many people — well, many men — to grasp. And even more difficult to witness.
This difficulty is also, oddly, sexist; a result of being socialized into believing that (all) women are inherently maternal. And nurturing. And warm. And if they're not that way, they're either reacting to being hurt by someone (usually a man) or protecting someone they love (usually a child). It gives women both a lack of mental/emotional range and a lack of agency, something Jezebel's Leah Finnegan wrote about last year, and also articulated by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn in a 2013 interview.
"…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."
At this point, I can imagine some of you asking "So…umm…your point is to prove that women can be evil?"
My answer? No. Well, not exactly. I just want to get a good night's sleep tonight, and I can't if I keep having nightmares about Amy Dunne.