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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The lady vanishes...

Does writing about an anti-heroine make an author anti-feminist?

I read Gone Girl a year or so ago and was pretty much hooked from the word go. I read it in one sitting, abandoning all work and play, as I feverishly turned the pages to find out what happened next in a story in which nobody was quite what they seemed, and each narrator was as unreliable as the other. I haven’t seen the movie version as of this writing but there is no ignoring the cacophony of media commentary that has been unleashed by its release.

In creating Amy Dunne, the wife who goes missing as the book opens (fair warning: they may be some spoilers coming up!) leaving her husband, Nick, as the prime suspect, has Gillian Flynn done disservice to the sisterhood? Has she reinforced the misogynistic, anti-feminist stereotypes we all dread by creating an anti-heroine, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – a bit of a nutter?

As the articles piled up, I soon began to wonder if the entire world – okay, I exaggerate, only innumerable women columnists – had run mad. How does a single character in a work of fiction (admittedly written by a woman) come to epitomize the female condition? How can one female psychopath, as imagined by Gillian Flynn, be regarded as a judgment on every woman?

Well, the short answer is: it doesn’t; and it can’t.

A character in fiction is just that: a fictional character. It does not purport to be a realistic portrayal of womanhood; it is just the vehicle to tell us a story that emanates from the writer’s imagination. This story may well paint the woman as (spoiler alert! Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you!) a lying, evil, murdering, psycho with ice in her veins. But there is no way you can extrapolate from that that all women are like this. Or even that Flynn must hate all women to come up with a character like Amy Dunne.

It’s interesting to note that nobody thinks that the feckless, cheating, lying, weak Nick Dunne is representative of all mankind – or even an indication of Flynn’s incipient misandry – but Amy Dunne is seen as a reflection on all womankind.

Why should this be so?

Popular fiction is riddled with male characters who epitomize evil with a capital E. What could possibly be more disgusting that a psychiatrist who feasts on human flesh and announces that a human liver goes well with fava beans and a nice Chianti (that’s in the movie version; the book Hannibal prefers an Amarone)? And yet nobody thinks that Thomas Harris is a man-hating (not to mention man-eating) pervert to have come up with a character like Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter.

And what about Jeff Lindsay who created the darkest of dark characters in his book Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Those who have read Lindsay know that his fictional hero is much more hardcore than the suitably-sanitized for a TV audience, Dexter Morgan, of the eponymous television series. And while there have been critics who have questioned Lindsay’s mental health on occasion (and reading the books, it is easy to see why) nobody has suggested that Dexter is anything other than an anomaly. Nobody sees him as being symptomatic of all mankind.

So, why should Amy Dunne – and her creator, Gillian Flynn – have to carry that burden? Amy Dunne is just one woman, and a fictional one at that. Why should we try and see every woman in her? Why should the creation of a female psychopath – or sociopath, or whatever the word du jour is – be seen as a judgment on all women? Why is it seen as anti-feminist to create a strong anti-heroine? And why do we feel the need to tar a creative enterprise with the tag of misogyny, confusing the creator with the creation?

At one level, I think, this is because as women our default position is to be defensive. We tend to see everything as a judgment on us. If we read an article on false accusations of rape leveled by some women, we react with almost visceral anger, shouting about how it weakens the case of genuine rape victims. And how, in any case, such false accusations are so small in number as to be negligible. That may very well be so, but try telling that to men whose lives have been destroyed in the process.

Similarly, when we read about a female character who ticks all the wrong boxes, we feel outraged on behalf of our sex. And from there it is but a short journey to slagging off the author as a misogynistic, anti-feminist harpy. But before we pin these labels on Gillian Flynn, it might be worth taking a breath and seeing her book for what it is: a work of fiction, and a cracking good read at that.

And it may make sense to remember that women don’t have a monopoly on either virtue or vice. Some of them are nice; others are nasty. Some of them are good; others are evil. Some of them are angels; others are monsters. Some of them are victims; others are perpetrators. Some are psychos; others are saints.

No one size fits all when it comes to both women and men. And it is entirely up to a writer, which type she chooses to write about. And I, for one, am happy that Gillian Flynn chose to write about Amy Dunne, her Gone Girl.

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