Amy Dunne’s “Cool Girl” Feminism, or, Why We Love to Hate Strong Women

After renting the film Gone Girl, I was anxious to read the novel by Gillian Flynn. I try not to follow this sequence when it comes to popular fiction–which is almost always poorly written. However, I was blown away by Flynn’s writing. What I found most striking was how much I enjoyed Amy Dunne as a narrator. She’s pure evil, a vindictive, embittered woman, and yet I found myself so happy for her when she surrenders the burden of being Amazing Amy, the happy wife, the successful daughter, the perfect woman. Because anger and aggression are traditionally male traits, it’s always interesting to see how women wear them. Contrary to much criticism that shapes Gone Girl as a work of misogyny, Amy Dunne is a striking feminist figure in her subversive transformation, albeit with the help of her privileged position as a beautiful white woman with enough money and free time to frame an innocent man for her murder. At its heart, this novel is about marriage and how it can transform us into monsters who hurt each other, but I’d like to focus here on how smitten I am with Amy.

Throughout the novel, the narrator changes intermittently between Amy and Nick, and I found myself admiring Amy and her girl-power attitude, despite the fact that she’s indeed a total nut job. However, I found that this role she plays seems to embody the “crazy bitch” stereotype so often used to label women in a misogynistic society. In fact, when Amy is reunited with Nick, the first thing he says is, “You fucking bitch,” and our reaction is, “Yes! That fucking bitch!” Is Amy Dunne unlikable? Certainly, but her voice resonates with women readers/viewers because it’s one of power and reason; she’s tired of feeling weak and invisible, and she’s determined to do something that forces Nick to truly see her–strangely enough, in her absence. Amy is the type of unapologetic feminist many of us yearn to be, minus the crazy stuff, of course.

Oh, that kooky blonde!
Oh, that kooky blonde!

Am I advocating faking your own death and framing your husband for your murder? Not quite. Amy is a lovely metaphor, encompassing all the faces and personas women are expected to have, in addition to the roles we play simply to appease others, to allay suspicion or guilt, or just to avoid being hassled. Amy’s many faces work to describe how many wives feel: from “Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man” (234) to “Amazing Amy. Preppy ‘80s Girl. Ultimate-Frisbee Granola and Blushing Ingenue and Witty Hepburnian Sophisticate. Brainy Ironic Girl and Boho Babe . . . Cool Girl and Loved Wife and Unloved Wife and Vengeful Scorned Wife” (236-237) to “Dead Girl” (234). Amy is all too happy to embrace these roles since she proves herself as a talented actress.

Amy is the quintessential unreliable narrator; she admits to having multiple personalities, becoming different women for her own gain, and distorting, inventing, and reinventing the truth as she sees it. While this practice is inherently dishonest, isn’t this what patriarchy accomplishes every day? If women talk too much, we’re obnoxious, and if we don’t talk enough, we’re stuck-up. If we’re assertive, we’re bitches, and if we’re submissive, we’re doormats. If we enjoy sex with men, we’re whores, and if we don’t, we must be lesbians. It’s this push/pull binary of bitch/doormat or slut/virgin that shapes the conclusion that women cannot fulfill societal expectations or become everything we’re thought to be. Rather than give in to this oppressive game, Amy creates a new one.

Amy's undeniable beauty doesn't hurt her case, either.
Amy’s undeniable beauty doesn’t hurt her case, either.

What stuck with me were the “Cool Girl” passages I highlighted as I read Gone Girl. Flynn touches on an epidemic in need of some recognition and discussion. Amy has tired of being complacent and is ready to seek agency over her life, her body, and her environment. She explains, “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” (222). How can we not love this woman? Oh yeah, she’s insane. This explication is fueled by sarcasm and derision, allowing us to feel just how angry Amy has become.

Amy goes on, “I waited patiently . . . for the pendulum to swing in the other direction, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy” (223). Other than this suggestion serving as a glaring double standard, Amy’s comical vision highlights the idea that men who occupy space defined as “feminine” are perceived as less than men.

Amy’s physical and psychological transformations are her attempt to shed the fixed feminine identity she can no longer maintain, the ideals projected onto her from both Nick and her own blissfully happy parents, whose lifelong dissatisfaction is clearly reflected in the Amazing Amy books they co-author together. As Amy explains, “‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women’” (223) Is “strong woman” always code for “bitch?” I’ve absolutely known a few difficult women who generate problems in every area of their lives, only to identify as “strong women.” Is it this cliche that has warranted a need for the “Cool Girl” brand of feminism, a vein of thought that negates the need for women’s lib or the need to define or redefine what a “strong woman” is? Why do we entertain this bipolar relationship with “strong women” in America? Is there really a thin line between identifying as a “strong woman” and simply being a heinous pain in the ass? What marks the difference here? Why can’t we dismiss Amy as just another pain in the ass?

Yeah, that's about right.
Yeah, that’s about right.

Even as an unreliable narrator, Amy is lucid and articulate, particularly within her “Cool Girl” monologue, which feels like the quintessential feminist manifesto of today, pointing up the unrealistic–indeed impossible–expectation that women fulfill dual roles in our everyday lives. Amy tells us, “I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied . . . He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request” (224). While watching the film, it was this moment that made me smile and think, Good for you, Amy Dunne. Can I be your friend? I promise I won’t piss you off. Although part two of the novel (“Boy Meets Girl”) is dedicated to Amy being not so cool, we meet a more Authentic Amy, the Amy who gains 15 pounds, shops at Walmart, and lays about in the sun.

Amy recognizes that gender roles are not only limiting but contradictory and even absurd.
Amy recognizes that gender roles are not only limiting but contradictory and even absurd.

I’ve been the Cool Girl, silently practiced painful beauty regimens to please men, pretended I was excited to attend Super Bowl parties, and smiled sheepishly when guys catcalled me when strolling down the street, pumping gas, or even sitting at a red light. The Cool Girl says, “Oh, I hate marriage too! I never want to get married,” and then cries privately over her ringless finger. The Cool Girl is the exception to the rule that women nag, take hours in the bathroom before going out, and are just a drag in general. The Women’s Rights Movement is null and void in the Cool Girl’s world because inequality is just an illusion or a lie invented by the hypersensitive feminists. However, Amy’s brief trek as the Cool Girl proves that it is this “Cool Girl” image that’s truly the illusion, crafted for self-serving purposes, such as winning over a naive man or peering out of an ivory tower that sits so high above the clouds, not even the shouts of the loudest, most radical feminists could reach it. Sure, elements of the Cool Girl exist; I’m sure lots of beautiful women love to eat cheeseburgers in their underwear, watch hockey games with a few beers, or have threesomes. Indeed, the Cool Girl is easy to get along with, but she inevitably finishes last in a world that sees right through her.

When I was a little girl, my mother's hairdresser told me, "Beauty is pain." I'd say that beauty is wellness and feeling good, no?
When I was a little girl, my mother’s hairdresser told me, “Beauty is pain.” I’d say now that beauty is wellness, no?

We can argue that what Amy has done is empowering in its own way (forget that she killed a guy–that wasn’t very cool of Cool Amy). Amy is reclaiming the power in this relationship, the same power she surrendered as she was winning Nick over and becoming his wife. I think her “death” says a lot about gender relations and how women choose to achieve, maintain, and demonstrate power, whether it’s for good or bad. As Amy anxiously awaits news coverage of her disappearance, she notes the commercials in her tiny cabin: “Tampon commercial, detergent commercial, maxipad commercial, Windex commercial. You’d think all women do is clean and bleed” (245). Remember that Cool Girls aren’t offended by television commercials!

We can all take a page from Lisa Simpson's book on women's empowerment.
We can all take a page from Lisa Simpson’s book on women’s empowerment.

The “Cool Girl” is a role I didn’t realize existed before I read Flynn’s novel, most likely because it’s performance-based and, in many ways, imaginary or fleeting, something to be dissected as feminist, misogynist, or a combination of the two. The Cool Girl exists so that women can pass as members of the boys’ club without being Othered as someone in need of special treatment; she can pass through quietly without disrupting codified patriarchal behavior, thus enabling a misogynistic culture and being embraced as an ally. Fun, huh? The Cool Girl helps to further conceal the man behind the curtain.

Amy is my favorite antiheroine of the moment, and for good reason. Although she’s legitimately insane–the image misogynists hold of any and all women–she does have redeeming qualities; she has a lucid grasp of gender relations and power dynamics, and the way in which she digests moments and recalls memories feels like downright poetry. We also can’t ignore Amy’s sick sense of humor: At the start of part two, Amy tells us, “I’m so much happier now that I’m dead” (219), acknowledging her resignation to a life of complacency and mindless, wifely duty. I think Amy decides she’d rather be dead than keep up the Cool Girl farce any longer, and who could blame her?

❤ J ❤

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. clutzclemens says:

    I really like that you posted about this movie. I am equally smitten with this book (even just read Sharp Objects). I plan on teaching this book the next time I do my Women and Violence class because it does so much interesting work. And the movie was great as well. I share your fascination with this story.

    1. lotusgurl says:

      I think it would fit right in to that syllabus. It’s great to have both characters as narrators, too–and remember that it’s a woman author who has a really intimate understanding of how men think. Thanks for reading!

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