Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girls: Amy Dunne, Francesca Woodman, and Vivian Maier

Note: Spoilers for David Fincher's Gone Girl begin in the first paragraph and continue throughout, and it's not a movie that you want spoilered.

In an atmosphere on the left where it often feels like one is walking on eggshells to avoid giving offence, David Fincher's Gone Girl, based on the novel (and screenplay) by Gillian Flynn, is less a breath of fresh air than a bull in a hatchery. A movie that has the capacity to seriously offend both feminists (a heroine who is highly skilled at faking that she's been raped) and MRAs (the same heroine gets away with brutally murdering a man), Gone Girl is probably the most controversial movie about gender roles and relations since Paul Verhoeven's 1992 Basic Instinct, which also featured a psychopathic blonde as an uncomfortable figure of female empowerment. But whereas Sharon Stone's Catherine was an independent career woman, Rosamund Pike's Amy Dunne is a throwback, a woman who is obsessively concerned with her marriage.

Our new concern with marriage and wife roles can be traced back to Mad Men and its retro premise. It showed that while TV viewers could become deeply attached to a male throwback and his reassuring masculinity, with all of the flaws that entails, and to a flawed female character who showed all the proper “modern” characteristics of women, all of our disavowal and disapproval of those former times was directed towards “the wife,” whom we sneer at as passive, pampered, parasitic, and puerile. Then Breaking Bad proved that the show doesn't have to be set in the past in order to generate viewer contempt for “the wife”: just make her blonde (it's part of every man's American dream) and make her the stay-at-home mom to the protagonist's breadwinner. Skyler got on fanboys' nerves even more than Betty did because she stood up to her husband. “The wife” doesn't know how to be assertive, unlike the independent career woman, so if she's strong-willed she just comes off as “shrill” and “shrewish.” If she's not, but doesn't succeed in pretending to be nice, either, then she's manipulative and passive-aggressive.

Either way, she's a “bitch,” as Flynn's screenplay insistently reiterates in Gone Girl. It's not really all wives that we hate, though. It's the privileged woman who is the “princess” that parents are supposed to raise and men are supposed to desire, but whom, at the same time, we consider a waste of space. Hence the anger and resentment toward Girls, and the use of that character in Orange is the New Black, where she's still hated but the show more obviously examines her privilege.

The banality of the Hitchcock blonde that is not captured by the character of Catherine in Basic Instinct, who owes a lot to her but also to the femme fatale of film noir. Originally representing nothing more than Hitchcock's own sexual fetish, the Hitchcock blonde was a reserved, ladylike, empty-headed socialite, ideally realized by Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Vertigo got meta about the Hitchcock blonde, who's shown to be nothing more than a fiction, while Jimmy Stewart victimizes a real woman due to his obsession with the fiction. Psycho made the Hitchcock blonde (downsized to an outwardly demure secretary) the victim of a serial killer, and in doing so spawned the slasher genre.

Sometimes a victim, the Hitchcock blonde becomes a victimizer as well in Marnie (1964), in which Tippi Hedren's heroine is a psychologically damaged frigid woman who serially exploits men by robbing the places where she works as a secretary. Sean Connery's Mark becomes obsessed with her apparently due to her exploitation of him, offers her marriage or jail, and rapes her on their honeymoon. He also helps her to discover the roots of her trauma and deal with some Mommy issues. At the end of the movie she reiterates her choice of him over jail, but still does not seem overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the marriage.

In Repulsion (1966), Roman Polanski wedded blonde, frigid Marnie to Norman Bates in the person of Catherine Deneuve's heroine, who has a psychotic break when her sister goes on vacation and leaves her alone in their apartment, alternating between murdering men she deems sexually threatening and fantasizing about sexual violation. Deneuve is repelled by men and sex because of the cultural script that requires women to be innocent, which is the same reason she can only imagine sex as men forcing themselves on her against her will. Her murders of the men are treated as black comedy: one is a lecherous landlord who thinks he's found an easy victim, the other a monologuing boyfriend who's so oblivious to her reality as a person that he doesn't even realize she's completely insane. Likewise, Marnie's thefts, as we see in the case of Strutt, a portly businessman in his 50s, are clearly depicted as evening the score not only for her bosses' objectification of her but also for their greater socioeconomic power.

Unlike Marnie, who's from the lowest socioeconomic stratum and who, as a single woman in the 1960s, must struggle to get by as a secretary, Amy in Gone Girl doesn't just look and act like the WASP dream girl: she's the real thing, Harvard-educated, with a trust fund. Like Marnie, she's the archetype of the woman-as-actress, lacking any fixed identity or sense of self. Marnie changes her hair colour and name as she goes from job to job; in one shot we see that she keeps her different identity cards behind her compact mirror. But she's no mastermind manipulator of appearances like Amy.

As many critics have noted, Gone Girl is all about Amy's relationship to roles and narratives. Her parents let her know that she was supposed to be perfect by writing a better version of her in their Amazing Amy children's stories, while the world didn't know that she couldn't live up to her fictional self. In her Vertigo-like midway point voice-over monologue, we learn that she pretended to be a certain kind of woman for her husband so that he'd love her; we know that she felt he cast her in the nagging wife role after they lost their money in the recession and he lost the will to make an effort. By staging her husband's murder of her, she invents another, better Amy. Missing Amy, the victimized woman, like Amazing Amy, the perfect woman, has great popular appeal: they are both things that women are supposed to be.

Going into hiding, Amy dresses in a slovenly manner and pretends to be poor. She's not as good at that role, and her companions see through her act. The Hitchcock blonde can be a working-class woman pretending to be upper class, but it doesn't work as well the other way around. After she's robbed, she has to take refuge with her first great love, who's still writing her, and who she claims has stalked her in the past. In another Vertigo reference (thematic this time instead of structural), he continually, unsubtly prods her to get to work on herself so that she'll look like the woman he remembers – “like yourself,” he tells her. He has an idea of who she really is or ought to be, just like her parents did and her husband does. She may think she's her “real self” now: no makeup, with weight put on from the snacks she's been gorging on since leaving her husband and becoming “dead.” But that, too, is just another woman written about in a faux-empowerment magazine article, a Bridget Jones idea of “real womanhood.”

Gone Girl is so postmodern that it's hard to know when its satire is supposed to be directed at the news media, when it's supposed to be directed at movie narratives, and when it's aimed at our actual relationships. Is Gone Girl about the narrative device of the murdered woman, as Todd VanDerWerff suggests when he says that the movie “takes a character who would just be a corpse in so many other stories and turns the entire movie over to her” – the Marion Crane or Laura Palmer? Instead of presenting us with a corpse wrapped in plastic around whose absence the narrative turns, or killing the heroine part of the way through the movie, Fincher and Flynn let the corpse speak and act.

What's fascinating, however, is that at first all Amy can foresee for herself is turning herself into that corpse. She briefly imagines her corpse floating under the water, which reminded me of that greatest of all movie images of an aestheticized dead woman, after Shelley Winters, responding rapturously to her preacher husband's patriarchal misogyny, takes the submissiveness of the Christian wife to its logical extreme by pretty much acquiescing in her husband's (eroticized) murder of her.

For a moment, Amy is confused about whether she wants to be part of the “gone girl” narrative or to manipulate it for her own ends. Although she chooses the latter course, her masochistic streak does not go away, whether she's hitting herself in the eye with a hammer to look like a battered woman or penetrating herself with a champagne bottle to fake her rape. Like Marnie and Repulsion, Gone Girl juxtaposes the ideas of woman as victim and woman as victimizer. Amy is as fascinated by the idea of her victimhood as anyone else.

In one of the most extraordinary scenes, Amy learns that her ex is monitoring her every movement using the security cameras at his lake house. If this is a metaphor for filmmaking, Amy is both star and director; I also like it as a metaphor for the scrutiny under which women exist turning into megalomania. There's a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street (a movie I loved) that seems to be a direct allusion to Basic Instinct, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife tries to punish him for already cheating on her by denying him sex and parting her legs to show him what he's missing. We then learn that he's had the upper hand all along when he reveals that she's exposed herself to a hidden security camera – and the security guy watching the screen. It's a curious and uncomfortable little scene that made me ponder double standards. Was what he did to her a sexual violation? If a man were to accidentally expose himself, the audience would surely just find it funny – as DiCaprio apparently finds his prank on his wife. If a man were to accidentally expose himself to a member of the opposite sex, we'd probably think it was a violation of her faster than we thought it was a violation of him. Our views of female sexuality are often still shrouded in an unexamined Victorianism, which feminist discourse too often reinforces.

What Amy does is – of course – immediately size up how she can gain the upper hand on her creepy ex by faking her rape for the cameras. She gets power not by using her sexuality – which, as the Wolf of Wall Street scene shows, and as we saw in the recent furor over the online theft and distribution of female celebrities' nude photos, is also a source of vulnerability for women. Instead, she understands that her vulnerability is her greatest source of power, because the world just can't get enough victimized women. We construct lurid cultural narratives in which women, because they're vulnerable, are victims, and, because they're victims, are pure. To be a gone girl is to give everyone what they want. As your husband's murder victim, you will finally achieve perfection, the narcissistic goal toward which middle-class, high-achieving girls are prodded.

Gone Girl wears its influences (discussed by Flynn in interviews) on its sleeve: I caught the reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also alluded to in another strange and dark recent film about marriage, The One I Love) and saw the influence of Notes on a Scandal and the tonal nod of the ending to Rosemary's Baby (as in The One I Love). In Richard Eyre's film version of Notes on a Scandal, Cate Blanchett's WASP wife and mother is manipulated by Judi Dench's psychopath, who has contempt for her and her banal life but also desires her. In Gone Girl, it's the wife who's the psychopath and who has contempt for the women who are actually the way she's supposed to be. Fine as long as she's part of a New York City power couple, she's too sophisticated for the small-town wife role when they move to Missouri, yet her problem doesn't seem to be the Hedda Gabler one of ennui.

The fact that she goes psycho on her husband's ass when she discovers that he's having an affair with a younger woman doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Traditionally we have given our sympathy to women whose husbands throw them over because they are economically dependent on the men and devoted many years of their lives to raising children. But Amy has no children, she's only been married for five years, and she owns the bar that her husband runs. Contra VanDerWerff, there's no reason we should give any greater sympathy to her decision to get revenge on her husband than we would to a male character's decision to get revenge on his wife for cheating on him – which I'm pretty sure we would consider a misogynous impulse originating in a desire to control female sexuality.

But of course no man would choose this way to get revenge. Okay – no woman would either. But no man could get revenge this way if he did choose to. The Gothic plot of the misogynous bastard who disposes of his wife after he's found a younger woman is a narrative to which our culture subscribes, although admittedly I think it's one that we find in movies and books more often than in news stories. But even in a movie, we'd never buy a man framing his wife for murdering him. Well, unless she's Courtney Love.

My point is that it's not about getting revenge on your husband for cheating and symbolically on all men for their cheating ways. Richard Brody mentions Medea in his review, but although Medea's punishment of Jason far outweighs the crime, a savage retribution (by an actual witch) for all of the wrongs men had done to women up to that point in history, the fact is that Jason has done some serious dirt to his wife. By agreeing to help Jason out of love for him, Medea gave up her family, her homeland, and her status as a priestess. Jason agreed to take her home with him and marry her in return for her help, without which he could never have acquired the Golden Fleece. He has children with her, but then agrees to a political marriage to another woman, leaving Medea, a “barbarian,” without any status at all. The moral of this story is: don't promise to marry a priestess of Hecate to get what you want and then piss her off.

Amy is no Medea, made desperate by a man. Furthermore, if she's angry enough at her husband for cheating on her to murder him, why doesn't she go ahead and do it herself? Women attacking or killing their unfaithful husbands isn't unheard of. It's less that Amy has to fake her murder to get revenge on her husband than that she uses the excuse of her failed marriage to arrange her disappearance and fictional death. Amy, I would contend, has always wanted to be a gone girl; she has always been tempted by the desire to disappear. Disappearing is the ultimate act of exhibitionism.

A Real Gone Girl: Francesca Woodman

And no one knew this better than Francesca Woodman, the precociously talented photographer who took her own life when she was 22 years old. Woodman's work is indescribable if you haven't seen it (which fortunately you easily can, because internet): unique, haunting, theatrical, disturbing, sensual, irreducibly strange. She usually used herself as her subject, sometimes nude.

Woodman's photographs often show her disappearing into her environment – often a decaying house, sometimes the outdoors. (The haunted house as a metaphor for a woman's body, as in Kate Bush's “Get Out of My House.”) She camouflages herself, for instance by pulling wallpaper over her nude body, but the act of concealment makes her extremely conspicuous, although it's impossible to know whether that effect is intentional. It almost seems as though it must be in photos like the one where she's “hiding” behind a mantel that has seemingly become detached from a bricked-up fireplace, looking less like she's becoming part of the architecture than that she's the mantel come to life, or a genius loci. Her photographs visualize Keats's notion of the identity-less poet who wants to know what it “feels” like to be not only other people but even inanimate objects.

In my favourite of the photos I've seen online, called It Must Be Time For Lunch Now, Woodman's blurry, androgynous face (her flowing, Victorian hair, an important feature of many other photos, is in shadow) floats into view under a windowsill and a piece of cloth. There are utensils on the windowsill, and what seem to be painted utensils on the cloth, and a fork rests on the upturned palm of Woodman's hand, as though she and the cloth and the windowsill are imitating a table. But why – any of it? Windowsill imitates table, cloth imitates windowsill imitating table, Woodman imitates cloth imitating windowsill. Her face is unsettling, animation in the midst of the inanimate, as if your lunch looked back at you, or as if she waited there forever, calm and serene, for you to discover her and be startled out of your wits. She offers herself up for consumption, everything turns into and pretends to be everything else, and she is a liminal being, a creature of thresholds.

Sometimes the photo doesn't seem to record much more than the simultaneous, contradictory impulses of concealment and exhibitionism, as in one photo where she crouches in front of a wall and puts a hand over the lower part of her face, covering most of her mouth, while using the other to raise her shirt, revealing some skin and a bit of a breast. Sometimes she used long exposures to show her in the process of disappearing, her presence in the photo speaking of her absence. In a series called “Angels,” she leaps around in a white Victorian-looking costume in what looks like a warehouse, with a large, theatrical-looking pair of wings looming over the scene, or simply hangs from a doorway, from her hands, with her face concealed. In one photo she lies limply on the ground, off to the side of the frame, vulnerable to attack or perhaps already dead. A small snake (responsible for her condition, like Blake's invisible worm?) slithers over her arm, incongruous against the elaborately patterned carpet and given that Woodman is wearing a party dress.

About the only thing that's clear from her photographs is that Woodman obsessively imagined, staged, and rehearsed her death, or disappearance, or transfiguration, for years before she committed suicide. She was also, more broadly, obsessed with herself, her body, and her sexuality. Like other female photographers and filmmakers who have taken themselves as subjects (e.g. Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman), she has been accused of narcissism. I don't see why anyone should feel the need to defend Woodman against that charge, since narcissism is as likely a basis for great art as anything else. We should recall, however, that since men have made women such an important subject of Western visual art, it's hardly surprising that some women, when they enter that tradition, should take up that subject, using themselves and viewing themselves as object and Other. Male artists are often autobiographical to the point of narcissism, but they do not typically consider or present themselves as sex objects or play dress-up to explore alternative identities. Robert Mapplethorpe springs to mind as an exception, and I imagine his homosexuality had something to do with his willingness to see himself as “feminine,” and therefore objectified.

The Woodmans is C. Scott Willis's 2010 documentary about the impact this gone girl's absence continues to have on her family – her parents and brother, all artists. Her father was a high WASP, her mother of Eastern European Jewish extraction. They came together over their devotion to art and are obviously still extremely close. One gets the feeling of a close-knit family full of intense, brilliant personalities, like the Jameses, say; a family where ambition developed early and from which one might never entirely escape, psychologically, because the rest of the world is fatally less interesting. A family where one's parents were at least as interested in each other and in their work as they were in you – unless you could prove yourself brilliant too.

The father seems more emotional, more vulnerable, and more taken with his lost daughter, whose “sparkle” he describes. The mother gives off a whiff of harshness, reserve, rejection; probably just a different personality type, trying, with the best intentions, to correct for Daddy's besotted indulgence of their weird, charismatic daughter, although ultimately she is just as in awe of the girl. After Francesca killed herself, her father imploded much more obviously than her mother did. Later he switched from painting to photography, using a style whose resemblance to his late daughter's is even more marked than he seems to know. It's as if he's trying to understand Francesca and to keep her with him even as he acknowledges her far greater ability; as if she has possessed her father, the weaker artist and personality.

More than one blogger has speculated that Francesca Woodman was the victim of sexual abuse. It's sheer speculation; when it occurred to me, from hearing about her suicide and contemplating her imagery and themes, I googled it and found no corroboration, only blogging. It would conveniently account not only for her suicide and many aspects of her imagery, but also for the teenage promiscuity mentioned in the documentary. However, we have no way of knowing. Without that speculation, we have the story of a young woman who developed early, sexually and artistically; who took her sexuality as one of the main subjects of her art; a young woman whose intensity and fragility are obvious in her art; and who killed herself when she was barely out of her teens because a relationship ended and her career was not advancing as quickly as she wanted it to.

The Francesca Woodman whose oddities are not explained by something a man did to her is a total mystery in every aspect. How could someone have developed their own, wholly original, artistic language and be so single-mindedly committed to their vision at such an early age? Why was this artist's dream life dominated by the idea of her own disappearance – as well as her appearance? Why would she need recognition so fast – as if her premature artistic development was something she'd brought on through impatience?

Victim and Victimizer: Vivian Maier

Speculation about abuse also comes up in the course of the documentary about Vivian Maier, a “spinster” nanny who obsessively took photographs but seems to have never seriously tried to get attention for them, and who is now seemingly in the process of slowly becoming part of the canon of 20th century street photographers. Abuse is called upon to account for Maier's solitariness, as well as the expressions of disgust with male sexuality recalled by her former charges. We do know, from one of those former charges, that Maier herself had a terrible temper and could be physically abusive.

In a piece on the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, in the New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck argues that iconoclastic “difficult women” are treated by biographers as “problems that need solving,” writing, “The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference.” It's true that unconventional people are often treated this way, but men are hardly exempt. Writing about biographies of Joseph Cornell and Samuel Steward, I noted that the sexuality of each man was pathologized by their biographers (a woman, in Cornell's case) for opposite reasons: Steward was too sexual, while Cornell wasn't sexual enough. Reactions to Woodman and Maier can be divided along these same lines, although there is one gendered difference: when a woman is a sexual outlier, we assume she was made that way by a man, whereas when a man is a sexual outlier, we at least grant him the dignity of getting that way himself. (Well, maybe with a little help from mom.)

Joseph Cornell seems like the closest temperamental parallel to Maier among well-known 20th century artists. Cornell never married and had no relationships until late in life. He worked at low-paying jobs for most of his life and lived at home with his mother and his brother, who had cerebral palsy and whom Cornell helped care for. He was a self-taught artist who made only a small effort to be part of the art world, but by the end of his life he had developed a reputation. Like Maier, he was a hoarder, although he used his hoarded magazines and junk to create his collages, shadowboxes, and experimental films.

Cornell and Maier are the artist as intensely private ascetic with a vivid mental life that occupies them to the exclusion of relationships. The opposite of Woodman in this regard as well, Maier continued to make art prolifically throughout a long life despite having no recognition at all; what makes her as much of an enigma as Woodman is the fact that she seemingly never attempted to make herself known as an artist. Her activity wasn't even known to her family and friends, because she had no close friends and the last of her family was in Europe. She didn't hide the fact that she obsessively took photos, but she didn't show those photos to her few friends and family members, or discuss her intentions with them. In fact she was more interested in taking the photos than in even developing them and looking at them herself.

Even if simply the fantasy of being an artist was enough to keep her going all those years, what did she think about her life's work towards the end? (And what do I mean, “the fantasy of being an artist”? Are you not an artist if no one sees the art you make?) Was she too poor and senile to reflect on it? Did she hope that somehow her work would be discovered rather than discarded after she was gone? But how could she have anticipated what happened – or how the internet would make her instantly famous, without waiting for the slow process of canonization?

To me it's important to look at the lives and think about personalities of artists like Cornell, Woodman, and Maier, and colourful minor historical figures like Steward, who show us very different ways in which people can live their lives than the narrow choices we're presented with in the media, as well as in the more familiar narratives of the lives of artists who were famous in their lifetimes. It's not that any of these people were content; on the contrary, they all seem to have been demon-haunted. But is contentment the most important thing in life? Or is it more important to have the courage, or foolishness, to live the way you want to live, unhaunted by conventional notions of importance and success? 

What Lichter-Marck says of Maier is equally true of Cornell and Steward: “To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.” That also goes for assuming that Cornell and Steward chose the lives they did because they were damaged somehow – Cornell, his biographer speculates, by repressed homosexuality; the extremely unrepressed Steward by societal disapprobation of his homosexuality.

Maier and Woodman are two very different kinds of gone girl. Maier was invisible in plain sight, not considered an artist by anyone despite her constant picture-taking because of her low economic status. She spent her life as a servant, the favourite persona of Robert Walser, a writer so consumed with the idea of disappearing that he was only able to trick himself into writing by writing in microscript. Woodman's art revolved around making her proleptic absence visible and dramatizing her relationship to visibility.

How To Be a Gone Girl

Just because Gone Girl has gender on its mind doesn't mean it has anything coherent to say about it. As I already indicated, if this is a blackly comic feminist revenge-on-men movie in a fine tradition that stretches from Medea in the 5th century BCE to Hedda Gabler at the end of the 19th century, and in the film era includes Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (Medea as a screwball comedy), Repulsion, and Basic Instinct, Amy's angst lacks what T. S. Eliot called, critiquing Hamlet, an “objective correlative.” There is no real difference in power between her and her husband. If anything, the balance is in her favour. 

This gap between Amy's situation and her actions has allowed critics to read into the film what they will, depending on how they feel about such loaded things as marriage and gender. In the New Yorker piece “Marriage Is an Abduction,” Elif Batuman argues that the film is about the tragedy of still raising women to think that marriage and motherhood will be the most important events in their lives even when those women are well-educated and have career aspirations. When that happens, says Batuman, marriage – and men – are sure to disappoint. Again – is finding out that your husband has been socially constructed to be a useless slob (which you could have learned from watching The Simpsons) enough of a reason to frame him for your murder?

I also think it's a mistake to simply say that this is a movie about women's victimhood when it goes out of its way to call that notion into question. Batuman has to really fudge facts to fit Amy into the victim role, claiming of her bizarre masochistic tendencies that she “doesn't invent abuse so much as anticipate it,” and recounting the plot like so: “At one point she hits herself in the face [actually, she takes a hammer to her eye!], to look like a battered wife – and a few scenes later a couple gangs up on her, beats her, flings her onto a motel bed, and steals the money she wears under her dress, leaving her howling into a pillow.” Actually, it's made pointedly explicit that the woman has orchestrated the robbery (she tells Amy so), and it's also the woman who beats her, smashing her head into the wall, apparently in retribution for her faked abuse (she declares, “I bet you've never really been hit”).

It's true that despite mocking the Gothic narrative of the murdered wife, the movie seems to partake of the Gothic genre itself. The world is portrayed as an extremely dangerous place for women – at least for pampered middle-class women who can't avail themselves of their socioeconomic power because they're hiding out in grubby motels. After being exploited by the robbers, she's forced to turn to the only person in the world who'll always help her – her stalker ex-boyfriend. And that, of course, turns out to be another situation of peril, as he makes it clear that he intends to keep her a prisoner and badger her into sex (and working out and wearing makeup). (Are Neil Patrick Harris's Scottie Fergusonesque demands parallel to the bit of effort to be a better person that Amy demands of her husband?) The logic of the movie is not that she anticipates abuse, rather than inventing it, but that she can only get out of situations of victimization by staging a much more elaborate, camera-friendly victimization.

What is a gone girl? There's the wife of Gothic fiction, shoved into an attic so her husband can marry someone less “difficult” or murdered for her fortune. Sometimes – or okay, just in Lolita – the less difficult “woman” is her own pubescent daughter. There's the dead, blonde, victimized woman, whose death perfects her “feminine” passivity, beauty, and purity. Vertigo is the ultimate meta-examination of the “falling in love with a dead woman” plot. Laura Palmer was an updating with more of a sleazy, ripped-from-the-tabloids vibe: the universally beloved homecoming queen who was secretly a bad girl because of even-more-secret abuse.

Layered on top of these tropes is feminism's idea of the silenced woman, which we (ironically) hear a lot about: the women whose voices were removed from history, and still aren't fully represented in public life; the women who are apparently afraid to speak up in class (my professors had to actually tell me to stop talking so that someone else could have a chance, but anyway); the women whom men interrupt or talk over all the time (apparently, again); whose online harassment is not like men's online harassment, because it represents a concerted effort by men to force women offline so that they can no longer air their opinions. Mingled with those ideas is, again, the notion of abuse: of the abuse victim who is afraid to speak out, who has been peremptorily silenced by the patriarchy. Surprisingly, it's a trope that predates second-wave feminism, present in the 1942 melodrama Kings Row. Maybe the ur-example is the fate of Philomela, although to call Philomela a "silenced woman" is to forget that she finds a way to speak out even after her rapist cuts out her tongue.

Just as there are many sources of the gone girl, there are many reasons to long to be one. Internalized misogyny combined with received notions of femininity are a great recipe for masochism; add to that an ambivalent attitude toward being looked at, which is the surest source of your power and also a huge source of vulnerability. You want to be looked at and know that the surest way to get people to pay attention to you is to act the part of a victim, so you perform your masochism (and may even observe your own victimhood with the excitement of an onlooker). It all makes sense in the feminine id, which is on fascinating display in Woodman's photographs – and in Fincher and Flynn's Gone Girl

No comments:

Post a Comment