I Didn’t Understand Gone Girl Until I Was a Woman

Gone Girl (2014) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

“What a crazy bitch.”

The man grinned. We were walking out of Gone Girl and he was having a reasonable, if rather loud, reaction. 

“This is why you should never trust women.”

His buddy laughed and my jaw clenched. I was 20 and had just discovered feminism. A lifetime of women confiding the abuses of men no longer seemed anecdotal. I learned the phrase “rape culture” and obsessed over assault statistics. Every piece of media suddenly fit into two categories: good or dangerous. 

Gone Girl was undoubtedly dangerous. This male audience member confirmed it. And I hated the movie. I wrote an angry Facebook status and called it an MRA fantasy.

But I was wrong about so many things in 2014. I was wrong about Gone Girl. And, most significantly, I was wrong about my gender. 

*

I’ve always been a woman. Or, at least, that’s what I’m supposed to say when talking to cis people. The truth is more complicated. I had no idea I was a woman until I was 23. I knew that I always wanted to be a woman, but I lacked the knowledge of transness to realize that was an option.   

This lack of awareness led to a period where I wasn’t quite my assigned gender but wasn’t my true gender either. It’s less that I was treated like a man, and more that I was unaware the treatment I received was gendered. When I still looked like just another hipster cis dude, I experienced street harassment equal to my cis women friends, much to their confusion. I’d joke that gay men really liked me, but in retrospect I don’t know the sexual orientation of the men who harassed me. I do know that I’d push away the discomfort by reminding myself that I was a man and I was safe.

My whole life I felt more comfortable around women. Listening to the way men talked when they thought no one else was around horrified me. I now wonder how bad it was when they felt truly safe, when they weren’t picking up on whatever difference they saw in me.

I was aware not only of the abuses of men but also the simple entitlement, the arrogance, the lack of awareness of privilege. Especially cis straight white men. But that’s what I thought I was, so I pushed those feelings aside. I didn’t think about them critically because doing so felt unfair. I was a good enough ally to know that, as a man, it was not my place to complain about men.

I always had a blunt awareness of the horror and annoyance of patriarchy. But the sharp, specific rage only surfaced after my transition. It was with this rage that I revisited Gone Girl, and it was with this rage that I finally understood it.

*

Ben Affleck in Gone Girl (2014) | 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl is directed by a man, David Fincher, a fact I focused on a lot when I first saw it. But part of Fincher’s talent as a calculating craftsman is finding the perfect cinematic expression of his material. The thematic substance of the film is entirely Gillian Flynn, whose work—from Sharp Objects to Widows—is, to an extent, misandrist, and to a deeper extent is about the crushing pressures of being a woman. And no work of hers embodies both more than Gone Girl.

When the film begins, Amy (Rosamund Pike) is playing the first of many characters we’ll watch her consciously adopt or have projected upon her. She’s the perfect wife, the missing wife, spinning a narrative (through sympathetic voiceover) that her husband might have been capable of murder. 

Of course, this is all fake. The voiceover comes from a fake journal written to evoke sympathy from the audience and the police. Amy’s husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), didn’t murder her. She’s not dead.

But Amy’s story is based in some truth, grounded in real memories that reveal the kind of person Nick used to be, and the kind of person Amy wanted to be for him. Her faux-journal reads: “I met a boy. A great, gorgeous, sweet, cool-ass guy.” What a thing to say about someone who writes for a men’s magazine.

Nick may be funny, but sweet doesn’t feel right. Their first interaction consists mostly of him mocking the other men at the party. Amy asks what type of guy he is, other than one with opinions. “Corn-fed, salt of the earth, Missouri guy,” he replies. What he’s really saying is that he’s normal. Handsome and uncomplicated and normal. Nick sees himself as the default person, impervious to mockery and critique. It’s how society sees him, too.

Amy likes Nick. She also likes this role. All her life she was forced to play the part of Amazing Amy, a children’s book character her parents based on her. Throughout childhood, adolescence, adulthood, Amazing Amy achieved when regular Amy failed. But here was this guy. This regular, boring, great on paper guy. Nick is an Instagram following away from being The Bachelor and Amy loves how much sense this makes for her.

But dick-ish simplicity has its limits. Nick, misguided and eager, proposes at the book party for Amazing Amy and The Big Day. It’s true Amy was upset that once again her alter ego was beating her to a milestone. But a proposal should be about your partner, not her parents, not her childhood trauma. Nick doesn’t consider this. He plops himself in front of a group of journalists, makes a crack about Amy’s vagina, and asks her to marry him. He thinks of himself as a hero. The Amy of the journal is thrilled, but it’s unlikely the actual Amy felt so moved.

Journal Amy brags about the ease of their first years of marriage. They’re in love and successful and they pride themselves on not being like other couples. “Wives who treat their men like hapless puppies: to be trained and broken,” Amy says. “Husbands who treat their wives like eccentric dictators: to be appeased and contained,” Nick replies.

Pike and Affleck | 20th Century Fox

Of course, this tired dynamic doesn’t occur naturally. More often than not, it’s the men’s entitlement, laziness, and thoughtlessness, that forces their wives to treat them this way. And, soon enough, this will prove true with Nick and Amy.

Amy loses her job. Nick loses his. They’re now completely reliant on Amy’s trust fund. Nick can’t handle this. He can’t handle his masculinity being challenged, that he’s not the provider, not even a provider. He must re-center himself. He moves them to his hometown. He quietly takes Amy’s money to open a bar. He teaches classes and he fucks a student. 

This is not the part Amy signed up for. 

*

When I was first coming out people asked what kind of woman I wanted to be. Sometimes the question was this direct; other times I was asked about clothes, or asked to pick a label—femme or butch, sporty or preppy. Like being female meant choosing a Spice Girl. 

I’d always wanted to be a woman, but I hadn’t thought it through this far. I rode the subway and analyzed fashion and body language and energy. Which of these women did I want to be? Or, rather, which of these women resembled who I really was?

I came up with the least interesting response. It was the women in jeans or shorts, a simple top. Maybe a little frazzled or just trying to get to work. They were just women. They were so easily, simply, traditionally women. And they seemed cool. They didn’t seem to be performing. They just were. 

I tried to replicate this easy, soft femme aesthetic. But I quickly learned, as a newly out trans woman, this was not an option for me. When most cis women wear jeans and a t-shirt, they look like women. When I did it, I looked like a man. So I leaned into femininity. I wore skirts and sundresses and put on a lot of makeup. I fit into the expected box of femme trans woman.

Like Amy, I tried to live up to an ideal. Like Amy, I always fell short of amazing. 

The echoes of gender dysphoria I sensed all my life sharpened when I began my transition. It felt like I, too, was living a life parallel to an alternate perfection. Instead of a children’s book character I had my fantasy of a self who’d come out earlier, who no longer had a beard, or who’d never even grown one; a self who knew how to put on makeup and didn’t bleed every time she shaved her legs. It’s not just that Amy and I failed to live up to Stepford womanhood. It’s that we didn’t even want it in the first place. It feels especially awful to fail at a desire that isn’t your own.

Then the hormones settled into my body and my options expanded. But that didn’t end the feelings of inadequacy. I was surprised by the amount of effort required to dress the way I wanted. It still felt like a performance. I was hyperaware of how my clothing and the persona I inhabited influenced the way others, especially men, treated me. I was also aware how much work it took to be a woman who seemed casually female. This is a difficult thing to admit as a trans woman, since defending our genders is an integral part of our lives. But everyone performs gender—cis or trans, gay, straight, or bi. And woman is the hardest gender to perform. 

*

Gone Girl (2014) | 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl, the book and the film, may be best known for Amy’s “cool girl” speech.

Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be. Cool Girl. Men always use that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Cool Girl is fun. Cool Girl is game. Cool Girl is hot. Cool Girl never gets angry at her man. She only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner and then presents her mouth for fucking. Go ahead! Cum on me! I don’t mind, I’m Cool Girl. The window dressing varies. The personality’s the same. Cool Girl likes what he likes and puts him first and does it all with a fucking smile.

I realize now this is who I wanted to be. The high femme cool girl. Then I moved on to the doesn’t-give-a-shit cool girl. Occasionally I attempted the edgy cool girl. With the awareness of my womanhood came a sudden impulse to please men and to gain their approval. Coworkers, bosses, friends, harassers. I resented them. I resented myself. But I couldn’t stop the impulse. I wanted their validation.

My first summer on hormones I did everything I could to be hot and cool. Men would hit on me and I’d let them. I told myself this was out of fear, but the truth is I enjoyed it. Nobody correctly gendered me as much as catcallers; their heterosexuality depended on it. I loved the thought that I was suddenly like every other woman, balancing feelings of flattery and discomfort when I was just trying to walk home. The harassment I’d received prior to coming out confused me. Now it made sense: they’re treating me this way because I’m a woman.

But if I didn’t flirt back enough, or I refused to give my number, they’d turn. They would call me a man and mock me, as if I looked any different than when they first approached. They refused to acknowledge my femaleness separate from their control. They refused to acknowledge my humanity separate from their gaze. 

My transness may curse me with a certain kind of treatment. My queerness another. But it’s my womanhood that defines me in the eyes of men. Amy is tall, beautiful, blonde, cis, straight, white, able-bodied, rich. None of this frees her from her husband. None of this frees her from patriarchy. Men will use what you have, or what you don’t have, against you. They will feed on your vulnerabilities and turn your strengths into weaknesses. Someone might tell me to expect harassment as an androgynous trans woman in the same breath they’d tell Amy to expect harassment as a statue of feminine perfection. There’s always a reason to blame the woman. It’s how men keep their power.

*

Nick isn’t the only man who tried to control Amy. Once he realizes she’s manipulating him, he goes on a tour through her toxic exes, looking for answers. His first stop is Desi (Neil Patrick Harris): rich kid, college boyfriend, former stalker. Amy says he threatened to kill himself when they broke up. But Nick has doubts. Desi slams the door in his face. He’s still loyal to Amy, as we’ll discover later in the film when, in an act of desperation, she goes to his home and begins playing the new role he demands.

The casting in Gone Girl is brilliant. With high-status celebrities Affleck and Harris in the roles of Amy’s romantic partners, Fincher distances the audience from them. Their fame makes them other, intimidating, untrustworthy. Unlike Reese Witherspoon, the film’s producer and original star, Rosamund Pike is just a person. Because she was a relative unknown at the time the film came out, we can see her humanity in a way we can’t with the other actors. For all of Amy’s sociopathy, she remains more relatable than her victims because of this trio of performances, and the baggage the audience attaches to them.

But before Amy returns to Desi, before she wears his lavish clothes, before she demures about her love of Proust, before she plots a second escape, Nick meets another one of her exes: Tommy O’Hara (Scoot McNairy). Tommy is much chattier than Desi. He explains that when he broke up with Amy, she framed him for rape, and ruined his life. 

This was the moment that made me hate the film five years ago. I thought it was irresponsible to have a woman lie about being raped on screen when so many women are fighting to be heard in the real world. My anger came from the mistaken assumption that there was something to lose, that Gone Girl could prevent women from being believed. But that assumes women have ever been believed in the first place. The lie feels so minor now, a slight aiding of a false narrative in exchange for the pleasure of watching a woman use every tool she has to enact revenge.

Tommy says Amy framed him simply because he broke up with her, but I don’t believe him. I don’t believe men. Of course, there are bad people of every gender. There are rare instances of false accusations made for revenge, or because the accuser was mentally ill, or any of the other narratives misogynists bring up in defense of “innocent until proven guilty.’” But the fact is that when a white man says a woman falsely accused him of rape, the man is almost certainly lying. And I guarantee you the angry women like myself ready to jump to conclusions are no match for the political structures in place to protect men. Innocent until proven guilty is in reference to the law. I’m not on a jury, and so I have no hesitation in saying that whatever Tommy did to Amy, he likely deserved his punishment. When Amy kills Desi, he deserves it, too. 

Amy may lie and manipulate to make herself the perfect victim. But it’s only because society has no kindness for women who aren’t just that. Ambiguity favors white men. Every time. 

*

My coming out coincided with a job filming legal depositions. I flew around the country watching men in expensive suits ask the same questions over and over again until someone slipped up. In discrimination, harassment, and assault cases I sat quiet, wearing a costume of maleness for the last time, as bigger law firms owned rooms and well-meaning underdogs failed. I knew our justice system was broken, just like I knew it was harder to be a woman than a man. But there’s a difference between knowing something and feeling it. 

It’s true that Amy is psychotic, but her actions feel rational and satisfying, not to mention downright impressive, set against the backdrop of patriarchy. Can someone really be psychotic in a psychotic world? Maybe two wrongs do in fact make a right.

I’m in awe of our world, the communities I’ve built, the fact that after two decades of dreaming I actually get to be a woman. But sometimes that isn’t enough to make up for the rest. Sometimes it’s all too hard. Sometimes I just feel despair. I don’t have time for good. I’m not looking for hope. I just want the thrill of Amy Elliott Dunne taking her power back any way she can. I want acts of amorality to match the amorality I feel around me.

Now, when I think of the laughing man in the movie theater calling Amy a crazy bitch, I just think, that’s right. She is a crazy bitch. I’m a crazy bitch, too. We’re all crazy bitches and you better watch out.