Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gillian Flynn and the Myth of the Murderous Moms

Recently a coworker who knows I like mysteries handed me his copy of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I was ambivalent about it because, one, I had read Flynn’s Sharp Objects, and didn’t like it that well, although it had some good elements.  I particularly didn’t like the fact that all the villains were women or girls and all the men were kind of saintly, if clueless.  And two, it meant lugging a hardback book around for a week.

In the genre fiction writing class I just took, the teacher was talking about why some genre writers “cross over” into “literary” fiction, while others don’t.  Gillian Flynn’s name came up.  He said the difference between her and all the writers stuck in the “pocket mystery” section of the used bookstores is that she has a better agent.

But Gone Girl was such a huge best-seller, and the only other mystery writer in my writing group had raved about it (though she and I don’t necessarily have the same taste).  So I decided to give it a whirl.

Near the end of the first half, I told a friend, “This book really surprised me.  I kind of love it.”  It’s extremely well written.  It’s not necessarily more “literary” than a lot of other mysteries – Marcia Muller does great place evocations, Sara Paretsky builds unforgettable characters, and they both do great issue coverage as do Walter Moseley (who may also be considered “cross-over”) and Tony Hillerman.  But Flynn’s writing combined the quality most important to me – which I inelegantly call “unannoyingness,” with a biting satire that made me want to jump up and cheer.

One bit in particular has already risen to the level of feminist classic.  If you’ve read the book or a review of it, you know what I’m referring to.  But in case anyone hasn’t, here it is (again):

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. 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, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl...(How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

If you’re a feminist, you can’t not love a book that contains those paragraphs.  I tore through the alternating chapters counterposing the diary of Amy, the embittered trying-to-be-Cool Girl with the present-day tribulations of Nick, the apparently bumbling, lying, philandering wife-killer.  Now I knew that the story was sure to turn, because it could not be so simple as it seemed, and I had more or less guessed how.  But I was unprepared for how cheated I felt when I realized that the character I’d grown so fond of was as fictitious as Cool Girl is.

The book kept me turning the pages, I’ll say that for it, and it retained flashes of brilliance.  But by the end, I threw it across the room, saying, “This woman is anti-feminist.”

How could Flynn go from uber-feminist to anti-feminist in 200 pages?  The only possible answer is that she’s neither.  I looked online to see what other women were saying.

The best thing I found is “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism” from a great blog called interrogatingmedia:

Ultimately, Gone Girl is done in by its ambition. It desperately wants to do interesting, subversive things, but in trying to, falls into some really misogynist narratives and implications. …

In the end, I suppose Gone Girl is really indicative of a post-feminist mindset, wherein the problems of misogyny become somehow the fault of feminism. Perhaps this is why the novel has a weird jab at post-feminist men. Perhaps that’s how one can say brave rape victims are tired, and go on to write a novel like Gone Girl. Or how we can blame the lack of diverse female characters on girl power. It’s a strange world out there for feminism, but this particular mystery isn’t fooling me.

Unfortunately, Ms. Interrogating and I seem to be out there mostly alone in the feminist blogosphere.  Most bloggers and reviewers quote the Cool Girl passage, nod to Flynn’s formidable writing skill, and accept her skewering of feminist tropes as so much good storytelling.
“There’s a difference between writing misogyny for misogyny’s sake and pointing out that misogyny exists and is as insidious in fiction as it is in the real world, and that’s what Gone Girl gets right.”

“But even with this feminist treatise hidden within, Gone Girl has no particular affiliations. It’s not really a feminist novel, nor is it a political one. It’s just a damn good book about murder, marriage, and mystery.”
Gone Girl is ultimately a political novel. More accurately, it is a feminist novel, and it is at its most exhilarating in this particular manifestation of its existence.
Gone Girl is a feminist novel in the elementary sense that it would have been impossible for a man to have written it. No man writing today would be allowed to take the side of a falsely-accused rapist and portray his alleged victim as not only a fraud but a vicious aggressor.”

Had I not read Sharp Objects, I would have dismissed Gone Girl as basically falling into the “wanting to do something different” trap and ending up being predictable in an under-analyzed way.  On her website Flynn says the reason she writes women villains is that “I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains.”

I don’t know what Flynn’s been reading or watching, but in the mysteries I read or watch on TV, I would say a woman is the killer eight times out of ten.  Even if it’s a guy – as in Tana French’s In the Woods – a woman pulled the strings.  There are whole television series devoted to women who do bad things, from “Snapped” about women who kill to the British hit series “Bad Girls” about women in prison to the Broadway mega-hit “Chicago,” you can’t turn around without seeing evil women.

A couple years ago I was bored one night so I decided to check out “Law & Order: Los Angeles” on on-demand.  (Okay, I was really really bored.)  I started watching the first episode.  Since the teenage actress was the first suspect, I figured she likely wasn’t actually the killer, but when it turned out to be her mother, I turned it off and went on to the second.  In that one, a young woman who’s recently been released from prison is found dead and the killer turns out to be her rapist cellmate.  Tried the one about the mistress of the Congressman.  It seemed like the woman’s ex-husband had done it, but no, the Congressman’s wife had hired him.  In the one where the female pro golfer is killed, the prime suspect is the male golfer she was besting, but of course his mother turned out to be the mastermind.  I think the series went eight for eight that night.  The only thing television cop-and-lawyer shows have more of than female killers is Black women judges.

Flynn’s fascination with female killers, she says, came from her childhood love for Brothers Grimm fairy tales.  “Screw the blonde, gentle heroines, it was those wicked queens and evil stepmothers I adored.”

The fact is that those fairy tales, just like the murderous-masterminding-mother-wife motif in Law & Order, expressed the fear of women’s power in a gender-stratified patriarchal society.  It’s not that I think anyone is sitting there saying, “Let’s make all the women killers so people will agree with taking away women’s right to abortion.”  But it’s nonetheless true that in a country obsessed with stopping women from “killing their babies” it helps to have images of murdering mothers all over the media.

Gillian Flynn may be “tired of brave rape victims,” but unfortunately, men are not tired of rape.