Let’s talk about villains. The best cinematic villains aren’t evil for the sake of being evil; they have complex motives and backstories to make their actions understandable, if not condonable. In Hollywood, however, the role of the complex villain is usually reserved for men. These male villains have entire fan followings of their own — think Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, or even Loki — and viewers are quick to either 1) label him a misunderstood anti-hero and a victim of circumstance, or 2) acknowledge his evil nature, but continue to analyze him as a multifaceted and interesting character. Female villains, on the other hand, tend to fall under different stereotypes: crazy, bitchy, and evil for the sake of being evil. Female villains are also often associated with mental disorders, making it much easier for viewers to quickly assign a “crazy” label. Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction (1987) is an iconic example of the “crazy” female villain, and viewers often attribute this insanity to borderline personality disorder. Even the famous Regina George (Mean Girls, 2004) lacks any semblance of complexity, instead maintaining her role as the villain by acting out the “bitch” trope. This doesn’t mean there are no complex female villains in Hollywood films. Rather, it means both filmmakers and audiences consistently oversimplify evil female characters. And that’s what brings me to Amy Dunne. While many people see Gone Girl as a perpetuation of the “crazy bitch” trope, I argue that Amy Dunne is a complex and active character that successfully challenges the oversimplification of female villains in film.
(Trailer trigger warning: implied domestic violence)
The Dominant Reading
Amy Dunne (Gone Girl, 2014) is the ultimate female villain. After discovering her husband Nick’s infidelity, she creates a plan to fake her own murder, frame Nick for the crime, and ensure he gets killed through the death penalty. At first glance, Gone Girl seems like a recipe for perpetuating the “scorned psycho bitch” trope we all know and love. In fact, that’s what a lot of people see in Amy’s character: all crazy, no depth.
“They seem like the perfect couple, but there’s just one problem: she’s batshit fucking crazy”
For example, the “Honest Trailer” for Gone Girl — with over 7 million views on YouTube — consistently calls Amy crazy: “They seem like the perfect couple, but there’s just one problem: she’s batshit fucking crazy.” “[Amy is] the most well-organized crazy person ever.”
Simplifying Amy Dunne to “crazy” not only ignores the depth of her character, but it’s also incredibly misogynistic. Yes, Amy does horrible things. She’s a villain. Yes, she also most likely suffers from a mental disorder or psychopathic tendencies. A lot of villains do. In fact, Hannibal Lecter checks all these same boxes, and yet he has his own television show, fan following, and extensive amounts of discourse analyzing him as a complex villain. With Amy, however, most viewers are content to accept the surface “psycho bitch” without analyzing her further. This double standard is incredibly problematic, and it ultimately reinforces the stereotype that female characters are inherently less complex than their male counterparts.
An Oppositional Gaze
Understanding a film involves a “process of negotiation between producer, text and spectator in which meaning is made in the act of readership” (McCabe, 63). As a spectator, I’m rejecting the dominant reading of Amy Dunne in favor of one that recognizes her depth, developed both through her backstory and her actions.
Gone Girl actually spends quite a bit of time on Amy’s backstory, even if most of it comes from her fabricated diary — which is ultimately an unreliable source. However, other characters assure viewers of the truth by later confirming the information, allowing us to use her stories to gain perspective on her character. For example, early in the movie, Amy explains how her parents capitalized on her childhood to create a children’s book series titled Amazing Amy. Her parents used the series to not only represent the real Amy’s life, but also improve upon it:
Amy: “When I was twelve, I quit cello. In the next book, Amy became a prodigy.”
Nick: “Did you play volleyball?”
Amy: “I got cut freshman year. She made varsity.”
Later, several characters bring up the existence of this series: first, when the investigator recognizes the books in Amy’s office, and second, when her parents help organize search efforts to bring “Amazing Amy” home.
This piece of information on Amy’s life is crucial to developing her character. Her parents continually making their daughter feel inadequate is a form of emotional abuse, which could reasonably lead to Amy’s later issues. In this way, Gone Girl focuses on the external circumstances that made Amy the way she is, rather than assuming she was inherently “crazy.” The film gives depth to Amy’s unethical and antagonistic actions.
In addition to using backstory to create a multifaceted character, Amy’s actions — while entirely villainous — are actually empowering in the sense that she refuses to be a passive victim.
One of the most famous scenes of Gone Girl is Amy’s “Cool Girl” monologue, in which she explains how and why she staged her own murder. She says:
“Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder…You think I’d let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way.”
She then explains the concept of the “cool girl” as a passive woman submitting to her man’s wishes:
Although Amy conformed to this “cool girl” image when it served her own desires, she refused to remain the “cool girl” if it meant becoming a passive victim. This entire monologue scene literally shows the viewer how Amy’s actions — not passive victimization — have driven the entire plot of the film. Usually, only male characters are the “active one[s] of forwarding the story, making things happen” (Mulvey, 838); in Gone Girl, Nick is cast as the passive victim while Amy resumes the role of active perpetrator. Giving that kind of power to a female character’s actions rejects the idea that women in films are only meant to be looked at, and instead reinforces female characters’ agency — even if that agency is used to commit serious crimes.
Presenting the motivations behind Amy’s actions allows viewers to start reimagining her as a deep and multifaceted character, which challenges the notion of female villains as inherently and simply evil. When we reimagine a dominant reading of a film, “we do more than resist…[we] contest, resist, revision, interrogate, and invent on multiple levels” (hooks, 128). Talking about Amy Dunne as a complex character will not only invent a reality within the film, but will also invent a reality in our lives as spectators — one where female villains are not a shallow stereotype, but rather allowed to be complexly and completely human.
Post by: Maggie Craig
Gone Girl. Dir. David Fincher. 20th Century Fox, 2014. Film.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.
McCabe, Janet. “Textual Negotiations: Female Spectatorship and Cultural Studies.” Female Film Studies: Writing Women into Cinema. Wallflower, 2004: 37-64.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.