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Layers of Textual Femininity in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Amy Elliot Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, directly critiques constructed ideals of femininity at the point of the narrative revelation where she has staged her own abduction and falsified her diary entries. Dissecting the image of the ‘Cool Girl’, Amy writes that when Nick fell in love with her, he was falling for an ‘image’:

I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it,

it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change

personalities. What persona feels good, what’s coveted, what’s au courant? I think

most people do this, they just don’t admit it, or else they settle on one persona because

they’re too lazy or stupid to pull of a switch. [i]

The depersonalisation inherent within the media’s bombardment of the self with potential other ‘selves’ results in Amy being dislocated from her own identity and dehumanised. Instead of having her own personality, she attempts to find control through garmenting herself in alternative personalities. This is driven more by society’s construction of what is ‘ au courant’, or ‘coveted’, than by any sense of her own agency. Female identities become something to be consumed, something that can be as easily trialled, worn, and discarded as an item of clothing. Gender has become, as Butler suggests, ‘a stylised repetition of acts’. [ii] Fashion is often considered as a ‘mode of gender performativity […] imagined as feminine’. [iii] Catherine Mintler argues that ‘clothing can function as a signifier that helps to facilitate the performance that Butler refers to’. [iv] The convergence of an acted gender identity, materiality, and consumption encapsulate the repressive alienation of a power-driven patriarchal society.

The patriarchal society promotes buying, selling, and ownership, yet one that denies these things to many. When attempting to frame Nick, Amy plays on the notion of patriarchal society as she attempts to entrap him within the dominant power of hegemonic masculinity over women; when Gilpin shows Nick the pornography that Amy bought with Nick’s falsified credit card, Flynn describes how ‘Most of the titles implied violence: Brutal Anal, Brutal Blowjobs, Humiliated Whores, Sadistic Slut Fucking, Gang-raped Sluts, and a series called Hurt the Bitch, volumes 1-18, each featuring photos of women writhing in pain while leering, laughing men inserted objects into them’ (Flynn 375). This creates an image of patriarchal society that both objectifies women and validates sexual violence against them. Of course, these DVDs do not actually belong to Nick, but they still convey an image of a society where patriarchal power is transmuted into a consumable and media-driven form. Amy laments her lack of control and the de-individualisation that she is subjected within a society that demands adherence to such an image. She sees through the nature of socially-constructed ideas of identity, personality, and sexuality, identifying that such things have become like clothing, ultimately leaving her disconnected from her own self.

Amy subscribes to the notion that writing will permit her agency within the limited, patriarchally enforced world. Historically, this idea has been suggested in relation to nineteenth-century women writers, the contemporary restatement of such an idea validating Elaine Showalter’s suggestion that ‘In trying to deal with this recognition of an ongoing struggle for personal and artistic autonomy, contemporary women writers have reasserted their continuity with the women of the past […] They use all the resources of the modern novel, including exploded chronology, dreams, myth and stream-of-consciousness’. [v] This is particularly true of Gone Girl’s Amy, who uses acts of writing that play with chronology and the very idea of stream of consciousness writing, in order to be recognised for her own autonomy within the extremely patriarchal society that she perceives around her.

Amy has been ‘written’ since she was born; her parents created the successful book series ‘Amazing Amy’, Nick Dunne remarking late in the novel: ‘Marybeth and Rand had raised Amy. She was literally their work product. They had created her’ (Flynn 307). Amy, her parents’ only child, after a succession of seven failed pregnancies, had already been forecasted into a role of limited autonomy. She spent her childhood as a product, constantly aiming to exist at the same standard as her parents’ semi-fictional literary daughter. Amy, writing in her fabricated Diary regarding the twentieth ‘Amazing Amy’ book’s launch party states that:

They’ve given their daughter’s namesake what they can’t give their daughter: a

husband! Yes, for book twenty, Amazing Amy is getting married! Wheeeeee. No one

cares. No one wanted Amazing Amy to grow up, least of all me. Leave her in

kneesocks and hair ribbons and let me grow up, unencumbered by my literary alter

ego, my paper-bound better half, the me I was supposed to be (Flynn 29).

Amy’s sense of self is displaced by her fictional doppelgänger; the opportunity to control her own identity is dissolved through the presence of ‘Amazing Amy’. ‘Real’ Amy becomes passive within this relationship, potentially due to her fortune and legacy being funded by these books, yet she still claims to understand that ‘my parents, two child psychologists, chose this particular public form of passive-aggressiveness towards their child was not just fucked up but also stupid and weird and kind of hilarious. So be it’ (Flynn 30). It is this, the limitation of identity through already being written, and the idea that, as Amy states, ‘[Amazing] Amy oversimplifies the male-female dynamic’ (Flynn 31) that drives Amy towards writing in an attempt to wrestle control of her own narrative back from these external forces.

The meticulous process of creating a false diary, with years of entries designed to incriminate her husband, and create an image of Amy that would be celebrated, exposes the depth at which Amy feels repressed by the capitalist, patriarchal society she feels herself to be a part of. The way she envisions the world is encapsulated in her discussion of the strip club that Nick visits:

I picture them at one of the pricier strip clubs, the posh ones that make men believe

they are still designed to rule, that women are meant to serve them, the deliberately

bad acoustics and thwumping music so no one has to talk, a stretch-titted woman

straddling my husband (who swears its all in fun), her hair trailing down her neck, her

lips wet with gloss, but I’m not supposed to be threatened, no it’s just boyish hijinks, I

am supposed to laugh about it, I am supposed to be a good sport (Flynn 77).

She describes the strip club as one designed to ‘make men believe they are still designed to rule’. It is a place that offers men the illusion of being in control, where women collude and support the patriarchy. Again, there is an intimate link between patriarchal society and financial expenditure as the idea of men being in control is associated with the ‘pricier’ strip clubs, insinuating that power may be bought and manipulated within capitalist systems.

Upon the reveal that she is not actually dead, Amy writes – in a way that addresses the reader directly – that ‘I can tell you more about how I did everything, but I’d like you to know me first. Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand’ (Flynn 248-49). Amy feels enormous pressure to be ‘perfect’ as a result of the triumvirate of the ‘seven dead dancing princesses’ that are her stillborn siblings, the ‘Amazing Amy’ books, and society’s demands on her feminine identity. She envisions the ‘image’ of femininity within this society as one that emphasises women’s role to me not much more than consumers. While watching TV as the ‘real’ Amy, hiding as Nancy in the ‘Hide-Away Cabins’, she surmises that the media is inherently patriarchal as she states: ‘Tampon commercial, detergent commercial, maxipad commercial, Windex commercial. You’d think all women do is clean and bleed’ (Flynn 275). In her eyes, feminine selfness is promoted as an ideal manipulated by masculine-enforced essentialisms. It encourages the promotion of media-led images of the housewife, and the consumption that must accompany such a role, as well as the biological necessity of menstruation, and the capitalisation on its associated hygiene products.

Amy’s ruminations on her own self-hood consistently reinforces the idea that character and personality is something performed – something that by extension is designed to be viewed and consumed. Textual and real identities become layered in a way that emphasises Amy’s dislocation from her self and her actions. She states:

I’m not sure, exactly, how to be Dead Amy. I’m trying to figure out what that means

for me, what I become for the next few months. Anyone, I suppose, except people I’ve

already been: Amazing Amy. Preppy ‘80s Girl. Ultimate-Frisbee Granola and

Blushing Ingénue and Witty Hepburnian Sophisticate. Brainy Ironic Girl and Boho

Babe (the latest version of Frisbee Granola). Cool Girl and Loved Wife and Unloved

Wife and Vengeful Scorned Wife. Diary Amy (Flynn 266).

Amy loses her identity through the multiple personas she tries on – she becomes an array of different people, all informed by others’ expectations of her, and loses her own individual self within the layers of identity. ‘Diary Amy’, which interestingly stands apart from the rest of this list in its own sentence, acts as an opportunity for the already textual Amy to gather a sense of control and agency through her own actions, as she begins to structure an independent narrative.

She envisions her life as a ‘story’, which becomes materialised in the form of her diary. Her self in turn becomes metafictional and intertextual, the many different textual Amys all vying to be the dominant perception of her. It is something that she intends will give herself a sense of identity and a more solid grasp on reality, but the immersion in textual ideas results in her becoming yet more dislodged from reality. Reflecting on her decision not to shoot herself, due to it being a ‘little too macho even for me’, she then admits ‘But I still liked the idea of a gun. It made for a nice MacGuffin. Not Amy was shot but Amy was scared’ (Flynn 314). The term MacGuffin, meaning ‘an object or device in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot’, [vi] indicates how much Amy is lost within her intertextual self. She is consistently creating MacGuffins, material physicalisations of her need for validation, in the form of her diary, the treasure hunt, the Punch and Judy Dolls, and most of the clues and writing designed to incriminate Nick. In many ways, Amy herself is a MacGuffin. Her disappearance objectifies her body in a way that makes her corporeality the motivation for the plot of the first half of the novel. While she intends that this act will give her purpose, and allow her to take control of her own life, it has the reverse effect as she ends up becoming trapped in her semi-fictionalised life.

However, the subsequent search for a new self, after she erases herself in death, never results in anything more than the textual self Amy has been striving to be rid of. Her disappearance results in the sales of the Amazing Amy series skyrocketing, prompting her to speculate that ‘three generations of readers have remembered how much they love me’ (Flynn 394). After spending so long trying to distance herself from ‘Amazing Amy’ through her own acts of writing, she surrenders herself to the performed identity she despised due to it providing renewed interest in the ‘real’ Amy. She is trapped in her many fictitious personas, restricted by her belief in the necessity of stories to be read. She acknowledges how her parents are again ‘squatting on my psyche, earning money for themselves’ after agreeing to write a new ‘Amazing Amy’ book, yet she still finds a sense of identity in the offers she receives to tell ‘ my story. My story: mine, mine mine’ (Flynn 446-47). She has finally gained authority, or authorship, over her own narrative. Yet it is still not a true self, but one that is still being performed. She simply takes on another layer, which makes the true Amy difficult to discern. She claims to be ‘officially in control of our story’ (Flynn 453), but the title of her book suggests she has not quite found the solace she yearned to achieve through her writing: ‘I’m calling the book simply: Amazing. Causing great wonder or surprise; astounding. That sums up my story, I think. (Flynn 453). She is no longer a person, no longer a noun. Instead she is an adjective, a quality. Amy has been erased from ‘Amazing Amy’. She no longer wants, and potentially is not capable of having, an identity – instead she is just a story to be read and consumed.

Author’s Bio:

Dr. Richard Leahy currently teaches as a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester, England, where he completed his PhD in May 2016 for a thesis entitled 'The Evolution of Artificial Light in Nineteenth Century Literature: Light, Dark, and the Spaces In Between.' His current research interests include literature of the fin-de-siecle, nineteenth century consumerism, gender studies, and contemporary American Literature. Follow him on twitter: @richardleahylit

[i] Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. London: Orion, 2014. 250.

[ii] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 1999. 179.

[iii] Susan B. Kaiser, Fashion and Cultural Studies. London: Berg, 2012. 125.

[iv] Catherine R. Mintler, Fashioning Identity: Consumption, Performativity, and Passing in the Modernist Novel. Doctoral Thesis: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008. 7.

[v] Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago, 2009. 302.

[vi] MacGuffin definition from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/mcguffin [accessed 21/7/16]

Works Cited:

Primary Text

Flynn, Gillian, Gone Girl. London: Orion, 2014.

Secondary Texts

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Kaiser, Susan B., Fashion and Cultural Studies. London: Berg, 2012.

Mintler, Catherine R., Fashioning Identity: Consumption, Performativity, and Passing in the Modernist Novel. Doctoral Thesis: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008.

Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago, 2009.