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problematic portrayals of female villainy

[WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the film Gone Girl. Read on at your own risk. -Editor]

Rosamund Pike, who plays the titular villain in Gone Girl.

Rosamund Pike, who plays the titular villain in Gone Girl.

Female villains in film, if well executed, make for interesting, complex and credible characters. As audiences, we do not see enough of them. Recently, a film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl was released in theatres and portrayed its female villain, Amy Elliot-Dunne, as highly intelligent, manipulative and psychopathic. These qualities, often showcased as ‘masculine,’ are not commonly seen in villainous female characters and therefore should be celebrated. However, it cannot be these typically untraditional characteristics in female antagonists alone that define them as distinguished villains.

The complexity of Amy as a character and moreover, as a villain, is to be admired. At first glance, audiences have a spunky and hip, blonde bombshell who swiftly morphs into a deadly and powerful woman capable of faking her own death, framing her husband for murder and slicing a man’s throat with a box cutter. On closer inspection though, Amy’s “transition” into this somewhat unrecognisable woman is not so much a metamorphosis as it is an unravelling of her psychopathy. Amy isn’t suddenly manipulative and psychopathic: she has always been, these traits have always lurked beneath her cool exterior. It is this unravelling of Amy’s dark persona that makes her a unique villain, although not necessarily an agreeable one.

As audiences plunge deeper into Amy’s twisted psyche, they’re faced with a character—or rather a story—that lacks credibility. Throughout the film it is revealed that Amy makes numerous false accusations of rape and domestic violence. This includes claiming her husband Nick was physically and sexually violent towards her and that her ex-boyfriend Desi kidnapped and raped her. Another former partner of Amy’s comes forward with claims that he too was a victim of Amy’s false rape accusations. The film also exposes Amy has impregnated herself using Nick’s sperm, which she had secretly stored away. Nick is shocked by this revelation because he formerly believed his sperm sample had been destroyed. Amy uses her pregnancy as a means of controlling and imprisoning Nick.

Of course women can be abusers, manipulators and psychopaths and it is always refreshing to view those rare depictions on screen. However, most women do not fabricate stories of sexual assault. The problem with our female villain falsely accusing men of rape and proceeding to “sperm jack” a man, is that it perpetuates misogynistic myths already thoroughly engrained in our society and detracts from social realism. Although the chances of false rape accusations are extremely low, negative attitudes towards real victims of rape and domestic violence are shockingly high. In Australia, one in five believe women who are intoxicated at the time of their sexual assault, are ‘partly responsible’ for it. This kind of victim-blaming system combined with harmful myths surrounding false rape allegations, promotes a toxic environment for rape and domestic violence victims and women in general. Gone Girl does nothing to discredit this type of misogyny but rather attaches an underlying misogynistic agenda to its female villain.

The other problematic element to arise from Amy’s character is the way in which her rape “accusation” is received. When victims of rape report and recount details of their traumatic assault, it often results in intense questioning, accusations that the victim was “promiscuous” or somehow “asking for it”, and social isolation. Rape victims’ claims are not as easily accepted as Gone Girl would have audiences believe.

Numerous films have depicted the female villain better than Gone Girl. The film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) tells the story of Jane Hudson’s jealousy over her sister’s successful career and the torture she inflicts upon her. Kathy Bates’ character, Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990) keeps a man captive and tortures him if he does not fulfill her fandom wishes. Girl, Interrupted (1999) shows Angelina Jolie as the charismatic and manipulative Lisa Rowe, a sociopathic woman in a mental institution. Tarrantino’s Kill Bill series depicts an epic cast of villainous and violent female characters, including, Elle Driver, O-Ren Ishii, Vernita Green and Gogo Yubari (a psychopathic seventeen year old). Meryl Streep in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada is icy and unsympathetic as Miranda Priestly. And of course, Imelda Staunton is perfectly antagonising as Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge. The list goes on and on.

All of these characters make for more adequate villains than Gone Girl’s Amy for several reasons: they each adhere to villainous characteristics in various ways, they challenge audiences, are complex and unique in nature, and most importantly, none come up with misogynistic undertones.

6 thoughts on “problematic portrayals of female villainy

  1. I’m sorry, but I believe this is a case of “look for misogyny and you’ll find it”.

    The film is an observation on the “battle of the sexes” and it’s implications for society. The portrayal of Amy as the false rape accuser and the “sperm jacker” is intentional. It is true that most women do not falsify rape allegations. It is also true that most men do not sleep with their younger students. The movie serves to highlight these stereotypes at the same time as addressing the truths behind them. It equally attacks male objectification of women (through the Neil Patrick Harris character) and female manipulation. It spares neither male smugness nor pseudo-feminist sanctimony*.

    I think you’ve missed the point of the film, personally.

    *quoted from a review that I can no longer find, so I can’t cite. Apologies.

  2. I agree with Travis. The novel, even more so than the film, is a study of societal misogyny, so I think the plot points of false rape accusation is self-aware on Gillian Flynn’s part – aware of rape culture and public misconceptions. I think it’s more an implication of the small avenues of power some women have, and the way a psychopath uses it to escape, or to get revenge.

  3. Hi Travis,

    I don’t have to ‘look for misogyny’ I am a woman so it usually comes right to me.

    While I appreciate a few points you’ve made it doesn’t change the fact that aspects of Amy’s character/the film can be interpreted as misogynistic. It may be intentional but that doesn’t make it any less misogynistic. I do not feel comfortable having a man attempt to discredit that.

    I am not even going to touch on your point about ‘men do not sleep with their younger students’ and please do not compare that to women making false rape allegations.

    I didn’t miss the point of the film, I merely have my own interpretation of it (as do you). I also know that I am not alone in this interpretation as countless reviews by women (not men, sorry Travis) have ‘looked for misogyny and found it too’.

    It’s a shame I wrote an article dissecting the positive and the problematic aspects of a character/film (and there most definitely are problematic aspects) and the comments received are simply one sided.
    I hope you understand you can enjoy a film, book or character while still being able to recognise the problematic parts.

    Below I have cited sources. Enjoy.

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/06/gone-girl-rape-domestic-violence-ben-affleck

    http://time.com/3472314/gone-girl-movie-book-feminist-misogynist/

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nile-cappello/how-gone-girl-is-misogynistic_b_5572288.html

  4. Hi Laura

    I can appreciate how misogyny can come straight to women. However, that doesn’t endorse the practice of calling something misogynistic when it isn’t.

    Aspects of the film, maybe (I’d say characters). The film itself, however, is not misogynistic. This is the point I am making, that portrayal doesn’t mean endorsement.

    Why can’t I make the comparison, when it highlights the way the film deals with issues equally? I am not endorsing or belittling either stereotype, I am just using it to highlight the stereotypes. Dismissing it like you did indicates a type of censorship of valid argument through the prism of indignation. (I did not mean to offend any particular group, e.g. rape victims, and I still believe I did not do so.)

    For every article you could post, I could post another, some even written by women, highlighting how it isn’t misogynistic and/or how I believe you’ve missed the point. Some are posted below. (I do not necessarily agree with everything every one of them says, but I do enjoy their intellectual dissection of the movie and the issues they raise.)

    My comments are one-sided because I was putting forward one viewpoint that was contrary to one aspect of your review that I disagreed with. Saying it is one-sided is a bit redundant really.

    I hope to engage in many more debates about these issues, without being simply dismissed or regarded as someone who does not appreciate the issues women face today. (I am not your “misandry male” out there trolling the websites, I have a viewpoint and I am willing to debate it.

    http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/gone-girl-really

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/opinion/sunday/maureen-dowd-lady-psychopaths-welcome.html?_r=5

    http://sightonearth.com/2014/10/08/gone-girl-psycho-bitch-quest-ce-que-cest/#more-186

    http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2014/10/21/unbearable-whiteness-of-gone-girls/

  5. Travis —

    I think your comments are interesting, and definitely deserve consideration.

    One thing that you mentioned (and this is a bit of a tangent) that I find interesting is your comment “portrayal doesn’t mean endorsement.”

    This is an aspect of film (and literary) criticism that I have always found difficult to dismiss or to wholeheartedly embrace. On the one hand, yes, you are right, having a character who is sexist would not make a film sexist or mean that the screenwriter/director was advocating sexism. But at the same time, if a film has a sexist character that the narrative supports, doesn’t that have implications for how we interpret the film? Can a text really be said to be impartial if it rewards a negative behaviour – either by not narratively punishing a character or even including some criticism of the character from others? I am not sure this difficulty of mine is applicable in Gone Girl’s case (further reflection is needed) but it’s a point that I’m intrigued by. At what point does it stop being the character who is objectionable and just start being the whole damn thing that’s offensive?

    In Gone Girl’s case… well, first off, I will make a disclaimer that I have read the book but not yet had the chance to see the film, but I think that Vanessa’s review makes a compelling argument. Even if the Amy’s character was created this way “intentionally” (a point you made in your first comment – obviously, this fictional character did not happen by accident…), Vanessa’s point that the character doesn’t exist solely within the bubble of the book/film-world is worth noting. Even if the only ways that woman can exert power in a patriarchal world is through these dubious avenues, there are real-world rape and abuse survivors whose stories will be dismissed or challenged because of the negative stereotypes a female villain like Amy perpetuates. And that’s a problem, and that’s worth thinking about when creating characters.

    I’m interested in what these representations of women mean for women in the real world, as is Vanessa and, I’m sure, are you. I enjoy these discussions but I think we all need to remember that a) there are real people behind these comments, and we should remember that and be nice when talking to each other and b) discussion, disagreement and debate are all necessary ingredients to learning and growing as intelligent people, and should not be discouraged!

  6. The points written here about the movie perhaps perpetuating “mysogynistic myth” is worth contemplating on. Based on the vocal reactions of the movie viewers of Gone Girl at the time in polar opposites they either:

    a) hated/were repulsed by the (false) theme or message of marriage, due to the fact that a woman could be so vile and gravely complicate the issues of marriage. These viewers, however, must be reminded that this is the extreme, a psychopath whether or not married is capable of such extremes in any situation against humans who in their eyes are merely objects. Thus the preconception after watching the movie was that a polarity of the viewers all the more felt the need to be wary of and to further prove against marriage. It is the worried belief that “She (all Women) are bitches”. And this is a shallow but perpetuating notion one cannot discard as true by others, and is perhaps even fearful and misogynistic in a way.

    The second polarity,

    b) admired the supposed “feminism” portrayed by a “strong, independent and vengeful female”. But again I must warn that this, too, is problematic as this perpetuates the belief that a female psychopath villain is “the best/perfect” harbinger of women’s rights, which is troubling to say the least, especially if one knows and has experienced an encounter with a psychopath, male or female.

    Psychopaths view people not as such. In their eyes, people are just a means to an end, a selfish goal, an object of interest that can be used to his/her every whim in order to fulfill their parasitic interests. Hence one should notice that she does not truly have deep connections, does not have true and “human” feelings for others and her husband. What people thought was her emotional desire to be a Cool Girl in order to please a man is not a desire of a woman wanting love, but rather it is a means as a psychopath to mimic other human beings in order to hide her true self–a psychopath, one who is unable to form true bonds and human connections–and thus why Nick felt he married the wrong person, completely different from the Amy who wooed him in the start.

    The definition Amy places on how to be a Cool Girl is convoluted and also an extreme definition she has made (the word salad), as she has picked out the most noticeable characteristics of Cool Girls in humans when she observes them, as seen in how she stares at those she deems as “examples” in the movie. Psychopaths rely on others, imitate them, then act like the very thing they despise (hint: anyone but themselves) in order to lure their prey.

    There are those viewers in the middle ground who,

    c) find/found something disoncerting about the true message the author wishes to relay to the viewers/readers. The portrayal of a female psychopath as a form of “justice served” against the common, cheating spouse is an extreme message to convey and propagate (what a lot of viewers got out of the movie), which may also say something about the author, though more information and study is needed. I, too, felt a sort of disconnect between the polarization among reviewers. The psychopath’s use of false rape accusations, false murder (set-up and implied but not explicitly stated to the cops), fabricated diary/story (everything that a psychopath would say should not be believed as truth, as they freely and lavishly lie to get their way), in-vitro and non-consensual impregnation (the psychopath’s means to further victimize a person, and lock him in her grasp), and self-harm show the true character of such a person/predator.

    Though I hoped more people would finally see psychopaths for who they are, it also leaves a vague and worrying note to a lot of viewers. And this brings us to an irony of literature and portrayal: more affluence of such ideas (that the author, and many other “hype” authors nowadays) whose dark and villainous characters are not properly put into place, promotes the spread of contemporary violence, and perhaps even the spread of psychopaths to come out, with more ideas of evil they can use, as perpetuated by popular media and the belief that doing such atrocious acts are “okay” (lacking in a moral compass from the beginning), as backed up by movies such as these, and that they can, I shudder, get away with it.

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