Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This piece contains the most important spoilers for Gone Girl. Read at your own risk.
I love female villains. Evil women, scheming women, vengeful women. Unfortunately, there are very few of these women in fiction. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell in love with Amy Elliott Dunne as soon as I finished reading Gone Girl. Amy is a monster, yes. But she’s a delight to watch.
There have been probably millions of words written about Gone Girl and Amy by this point. The novel and film are either a feminist fairy-tale, insidiously misogynistic, or an astute portrait of American marriage. This stream of think-pieces is both a dream and a nightmare for me: I’m happy to see all the discussion, but much of it is frustrating. In both critics’ circles and my Facebook feed, I see people trashing Amy as one of those nebulous “bad female characters.” “How do people think this is a strong female character?” they ask. “She’s just a crazy psycho bitch.”
Amy Elliott Dunne is not a good woman. Let’s get that out of the way. Throughout the course of her life, she has framed her best friend for stalking, framed her boyfriend for stalking, framed another boyfriend for rape, framed her husband for spousal abuse and murder. When the last plan gets out of hand, she gets out of it by framing boyfriend number one for rape and kidnapping before murdering him. So, yes, Amy is undoubtedly an evil woman. And to a whole host of people, this all qualifies Amy as a “crazy psycho bitch.”
The categorization of “crazy psycho bitch” is a useless one. People seem to use it when all they mean to say that a particular villain or psychopath is a woman. Hannibal Lecter would never be called a crazy psycho bitch. Walter White would never be called a crazy psycho bitch. Neither would Frank Underwood, Tom Ripley, Loki, or John Doe. It’s hard to erase the gendered implications that all three of those words hold: they are all used to dismiss women we find inconvenient. “Oh yeah, I used to date her, but she was crazy.” “Oh, it doesn’t matter what she says, she’s a bitch.”
Exploring women’s capacity for evil seems to require a tragic backstory to rationalize their actions. It happened in Maleficent, where the title woman’s villainy was motivated by a man’s betrayal and violation. It happened in Snow White and the Huntsman, where Queen Ravenna purrs, “Men use women. They ruin us,” before stabbing her new husband. I have enjoyed watching these traditionally one-note villains be reclaimed as women getting revenge, but it’s become the only way to make a woman evil while maintaining her likeability. Women can only hurt others if they have been hurt by a man.
Gone Girl is not a remedy to this problem, but it’s certainly a direct response to the lack of what author Gillian Flynn calls “potent” female villains. Amy is unquestionably devoid of any empathy and goodness, but she’s not a crazy psycho bitch: Flynn herself said, “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.” Amy is far from dismissible. The most resonant parts of Gone Girl spring straight from Amy’s mouth. That Cool Girl speech that everyone loves to reference when talking about Jennifer Lawrence or Cameron Diaz? It’s all Amy.
I do grapple with certain parts of Gone Girl. It’s hard for me to fully defend a book that hinges on multiple false accusations of rape, when the cry of “false accusation” is used to silence so many survivors. But I am grateful to have a novel and film that is fundamentally about erased women talking back. Some may think there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but to Amy there is nothing more beautiful than winning.
We need to stop throwing certain female characters under the bus for being “bad.” We can criticize them for being poorly written, or for being an attempt to make a statement On All Women, but not just for being bad people. Calling Amy a crazy psycho bitch does not make you a feminist. Advocating for “strong female characters” is worthless if your only conception of strength is a perfectly moral lady who is neither a victim nor an abuser.
Perhaps Amy herself said it best: “‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’”
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