What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?
-Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Men are simpler than you imagine my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone.
–Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Stories that deeply resonate with readers or an audience and incite complicated feelings and discussions for them often reflect an underlying fear and tension within society. Plotlines that reveal unexamined prejudices and shed light upon unresolved societal norms transcend the boundaries of fiction and entertainment, and work on an individuals’ greatest inadequacies, reminding them that no matter how much they work towards understanding and solidarity with those that are different than themselves, there still often exists a fear of the unknown and a bias for the familiar. The novels and film adaptations of Rebecca and Gone Girl explore the tensions of gender, class and violence within marriages, and how straying from the patriarchal norms can incite feelings of violence in the opposite sex with dramatic consequences. These film noir stories portray female agency as the most terrifying threat of all, and reveal that the idea that a powerful woman should be feared and distrusted resonates within society as powerfully today as it did in the late 1930’s. Considering that the United States saw this problematic portrayal of powerful women play out at high stakes in the 2016 presidential election, it is evident that this topic is vital for examination and for future action and advocacy.
Both Rebecca and Gone Girl explore the realms of the gothic, a genre that historically tends to become more prevalent and compelling in times of crisis and the shifting of power (Johansen 31). Tensions ran high throughout the United States and Europe in 1938-1940 with the build-up and beginning of World War II, and audiences were eager for a distraction from the current events taking place the years the novel Rebecca was published and the film was released. For readers of the 2012 novel, Gone Girl, and viewers of the 2014 film, the 2008 recession in the United States was still fresh in their minds, and its relation to the plot resonated with those who experienced or witnessed job loss and displacement during that time period. Couples tend to argue during periods of economic and political uncertainty, feeling defensive when finances become tight and resentful when their contributions to the relationship are questioned. In both of the novels’ and films’ portrayal of the complicated marriages of Rebecca and Maxim, Maxim and his second wife, and Amy and Nick, the authors and directors are not depicting the typical female gothic stories, but rather gothic stories of couples whose marriages are complicated by the looming threats to the patriarchal structure (Wheatley 134).
Rebecca and the Classic Femme Fatale
Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca, brought to the silver screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, is the tale of a young woman who marries an older, wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, a member of the British aristocracy with an estate and all of the privilege and obligation that entails. Once they move to his ancestral home, Manderley, the second wife, whose first name is never disclosed, picks up on a dark mystery surrounding his first wife Rebecca, and eventually learns that her enigmatic new husband is responsible for Rebecca’s death. A trial ensues, and the death is ruled a suicide so Maxim is found innocent and released from suspicion. The couple returns to Manderley, feeling like they triumphed over the shadow of Rebecca, only to find their home engulfed in flames. Devastated by the loss of his birthright and inheritance, Maxim and his young wife leave Cornwall and live a hollow life abroad.
Gone Girl and the Rise of the Cool Girl
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel brought to film by David Fincher in 2014, is the story of a couple named Nick and Amy Dunne, who fall madly in love with the person that each of them initially pretends to be: Amy the Cool Girl, and Nick the “great gorgeous dude, the funny, cool ass guy” (Flynn 10). The couple leaves New York in the wake of the 2008 recession to start over in his hometown in Missouri after losing their writing jobs and the Brooklyn brownstone given to them as a wedding gift by Amy’s parents. Equally dissatisfied in their new small town lives, Amy’s sudden disappearance under suspicious circumstances raises questions as to whether Nick may be involved in a sinister way. The audience learns that neither spouse is who they seem to be; Nick has been having an affair and Amy has been hatching a plan to frame her husband for her murder. In the end, Amy returns after having murdered an ex-boyfriend who had helped her while she was on the run, telling the police that he kidnapped her and she killed him in self-defense, so that she can return to Nick and resume their married life. She confesses everything to Nick and he plans to unravel her lies despite a lack of evidence, but changes his mind once he learns that they are expecting a child, and stays with Amy.
Misogyny and Strong Female Characters’ Threat to the Patriarchy. Each novel and film duo portray a prominent, unlikeable female character whose actions are viewed through a misogynistic lens. The qualities which initially cause their spouses to be attracted to the women as strong, independent, and opinionated are all subverted after their marriages to depict a natural progression revealing Rebecca and Amy to be unladylike, unnatural, abhorrent, violent women. Rebecca and Amy do not fit neatly into the patriarchal system or uphold its values and have to be destroyed and discredited by both their husbands and the narration of the novels and films. The women are depicted to be threatening to their male spouses, and are seen to emasculate them and undercut their authority, abilities, and station in the relationship (Wisker 30). Rebecca had to die for her sins as she refused to toe the line for Maxim and became increasingly unmanageable as she flaunted her actions that transgressed her role as his wife and the mistress of Manderley (Pons 73). Amy is allowed to get away with her crimes against Nick and against society as she goes back to playing the role of the perfect wife and preparing for her role as the perfect mother, ensuring the continuation of Nick’s family line.
Toxic Masculinity. The rise of concern for the plight of the middle class male has evolved in the scholarly realm with masculinity studies and an examination of toxic masculinity and hostile masculinity, constructs neatly created to explain how misogyny continues to prevail in our evolved, contemporary society. As LeBreton et al. relate, men that display hostile masculinity share characteristics such as narcissism, entitlement, and negative attitudes towards women, and often utilize sex to dominate their female partners (818). Men who specifically display narcissistic entitlement, the conviction that they are deserving of what they desire, and also display narcissistic exploitation, the propensity to manipulate those around them to their own benefit, are shown to be more likely to carry out violence towards women and sexual assaults (LeBreton et al. 818). Maxim is a prime aristocratic model of male narcissism and entitlement; all of the drama that occurs within the plot of Rebecca could have been avoided if his character had more humility and considered how his actions would affect others instead of acting rashly according to how situations affected himself and his personal ego. Nick is similarly obsessed with not allowing his wife Amy to get the best of him, and much of the plot of Gone Girl is a battle of wills brought on by a narcissistic, entitled husband who wants to retain the lifestyle afforded to him by his wealthier spouse, while carrying on an extramarital affair with a younger, less complicated woman.
As Wisker relates, the connection between sexuality and violence and on punishing characters that are overly attractive is a common trope of gothic and horror fiction, as a reinforcement of the dichotomous relationship between what is desired and what is feared (30). This duality is drawn directly from reality, in which disillusionment often leads to violence in men that believe that femininity equates to weakness which masculinity must exert power and authority over (Haider 558). Maxim is alternately attracted and repelled by the cold, calculating beauty of his first wife, Rebecca, and is frustrated that his ideal choice of partner turns out to be ungovernable and volatile. His frustration and disillusionment reach the breaking point in their final argument, when he is finally able to overpower her through her murder. Nick’s father, also a formerly handsome and charming man in his younger years, has a lifelong stance of misogyny that is made even more apparent in old age due to his dementia and resulting lack of filter. Nick strives to be a different caliber of man, the type of man his mother raised, but recognizes that deep down he does feel fear, hatred, and mistrust for women, especially his clever, challenging, and beautiful wife, Amy; and ultimately exerts his power over her in order to quell that fear.
Great Man or Heroic Model of Leadership. In opposition to the misogynistic man who displays an alarming level of toxic masculinity in reaction to strong female influences, there exists the great man or heroic model of male leadership. Trait theories, especially the great man theory of leadership, which emerge around the time of Rebecca, influence the male vision of themselves, their power, influence, magnetism, and ability to command respect (Gill 64). Social elite theory arose out of this model and further supports the sense of entitlement that great men feel to be their due (Gill 64).
While it may seem contradictory, disarmingly charismatic men like Maxim and Nick who seem to be amiable, often turn out to be the entitled, narcissistic men that fear and distrust women; however they are protected by their status as a great man from being recognized for their misogyny as it is all part of the male-centered structure that they uphold through their leadership. Maxim, seen by servants, friends, relatives, and aristocratic society as one of the last true great men of his time, upholds the traditional patriarchal values and therefore is protected by all who know or suspect his most problematic moral transgressions (Pons 76). Nick is charming in his heroic script as an everyman pursuing the American Dream, with the hyper-masculine cleft chin and disarming grin that make him a popular fixture at the bar he owns with his sister (Western 224). Even those that want to dislike him, such as the female Detective Boney, feel a grudging camaraderie with Nick. He knows how to make people feel comfortable, so that even while he is under suspicion in his wife’s disappearance, Nick is defended by those that find his heroic nature appealing.
British Aristocracy and the New York Elite. The upper class backgrounds of Rebecca and Amy add to their allure while they are being courted by their husbands, and increase their value as potential mates. As Maxim de Winter’s grandmother asserts regarding his new bride, Rebecca: “She’s got the three things that matter in a wife…breeding, brains, and beauty” (du Maurier 256). Rebecca’s breeding particularly matters to Maxim as a member of the British aristocracy, as his family name, line, and home are all of primary importance to his sense of self and of duty. Maxim’s surprising second marriage to a girl with a middle class background draws comments from everyone, and leaves the second Mrs. de Winter insecure in her relationship with her new husband and all of those within his social sphere, knowing that she does not measure up to his social status in the way that his first wife had (Light 10).
Amy is the inspiration for her parent’s popular children’s book series, Amazing Amy, which has sustained their family for years as her parents publish volume after volume of Amy’s adventures which are just slightly more impressive and admirable than those of their real daughter, Amy. The success of the series allows for Amy to be brought up with wealth and privilege in New York, an only child that receives a trust fund and is gifted with a brownstone for her wedding gift. Exuding upper middle class elegance from her elite background, Amy does not easily make friends once she and Nick move to Missouri, as the local women find her to be aloof and as Nick, describes in the film, complicated (Fincher 17:26).
Upholding the Law of Primogeniture. Both Amy and Rebecca falsify pregnancies to manipulate their husbands, which serves as a threat to their husbands’ role as the patriarch of their family unit. Both Maxim and Nick are unhappy in their marriages, and not pleased to learn that their intractable spouses have unexpectedly forced them into fatherhood against their wishes. Rebecca claims to be pregnant with a lover’s offspring in order to stir her husband Maxim into a jealous rage in the hope that he might murder her and spare her a slow death from cancer, knowing that the ultimate insult to his pride and threat to his lineage would be raising an illegitimate offspring as his heir apparent (Light 15). Rebecca’s murder neatly allows the aristocrat to preserve his reputation and diffuse the threat to his family line (Pons 73). Amy falsifies positive pregnancy test results and leaks them to her chatty neighbor while withholding the news from her husband in order to make herself appear more sympathetic to the public through media coverage and to make Nick look guilty and callous after his pregnant wife goes missing and is presumed to be dead. Their lack of physical intimacy and history of difficulty conceiving a baby also causes Nick to question who the father of Amy’s unborn child might be.
Deferential Treatment of Celebrities and Aristocrats by Media and Law Enforcement. Law enforcement and the media treat the de Winters and Dunnes with an amplified level of deference due to their status in society. As Steeves relates, mass culture and the media propagate the stratification of society through capitalist class distinctions along with the concept of nuclear families and women’s secondary role (108). Maxim’s status within the British aristocracy inflates the importance of the inquiry into his first wife’s death, as in a highly stratified class society everyone is focused on the activities and scandals of the upper class. Amy’s missing person case receives special treatment due to the fact that she is a minor celebrity through her parents’ book series, which draws a frenzy of media attention and makes law enforcement aware of the public’s scrutiny into their detective work. Knowing the media’s propensity for focusing on status, both Rebecca and Amy are able to manipulate their husbands through the use or threat of the media, because both Maxim and Nick desire to be portrayed as virile, trustworthy, likeable guys and are willing to concede defeat to their wives before they will allow them to make them look less masculine in public.
The Lower Class as the Threatening Other. Rebecca and Gone Girl both explore society’s anxiety towards outsiders, with the main characters casting suspicion towards the homeless population in their neighborhoods. As Johansen relates, unsettling threats, a common gothic trope, are embodied through the depiction of the lower class individuals on the outskirts of the story, and in Gone Girl these individuals are the masses of homeless, unemployed men who frequently roam past Nick and Amy’s suburban neighborhood, and find temporary shelter in the local mall (39). These men exist as a threat of what Nick could become if his economic situation following the recession did not improve, and he deflects this fear by pointing them out to the police as possible suspects in his wife’s disappearance (Johansen 39).
In Rebecca, the lower class threat is displayed through a confused old homeless man named Ben, who offers to do odd jobs at Manderley and other neighboring estates. Though deemed harmless by Maxim’s, Rebecca fears Ben due to his tendency to lurk around the estate and potentially bear witness to a transgression. She made so many threats to send Ben to a madhouse during her lifetime that the memory of her warnings sent the man into a terrified state long after her death, and when law enforcement calls him as a witness to discover if he saw anything suspicious the night of her disappearance, he cannot tell them anything intelligible for fear of her retribution. While not afraid of the man himself, Ben represents a life Maxim might have led without his inherited wealth and privilege, and provides him with unsettling insight into what could await him if he lost his social and economic security.
Violence, Horror and Classic Gothic Themes
Men’s Fear of Femme Fatales. The gothic and horror novel and film genres explore the elements of society that make audiences uncomfortable, teasing out their deepest fears and revealing what awful events would occur if they came true, bringing relief when these fears are put to rest through the plot (Wisker 20). As Wisker relates, the fears explored in these books and movies often threaten the patriarchy and traditional societal values, and then subsequently reinforce these values with the defeat of the villain in the end (32). Rebecca is thought to be defeated by Maxim and his second wife after he was found innocent of her death and they are able to continue their lives together, but the book reveals in a disturbing way that was not revealed in the movie that their expatriate life after the destruction of Manderley is a hollow and empty shell of what they had dreamed it would be, and that in fact, Rebecca may have won after all. The ending of Gone Girl is similarly unsettling, because although law enforcement and the public feel that they have seen justice done in the death of Desi Collings, Amy’s supposed kidnapper, Nick, his sister, his lawyer, Detective Boney, and the audience are all aware that the real threat, Amy Dunne, has gotten away with several crimes, including murder. Flynn strays from a typical gothic ending when she leaves the audience wondering what further horrors Amy has in store, and ends on an ambiguous note that restores patriarchal and societal values by establishing that Nick, Amy, and their child will remain together as a family unit, but does not satisfy viewers that the threat to these values, Amy herself, has been diffused (415).
Capturing the Heart of a Hero-Villain. Both Rebecca and Gone Girl explore the common gothic trope of a heroine falling in love with the hero-villain, a partner that assists the individual in avoiding danger but ultimately also poses a threat to them (Wheatley 133). As Russ relates, the heroine is both drawn to and scared of this type of hero, unsure of both her feelings for him and his feelings for her, creating great anxiety and tension on her side of the pair (668). The second Mrs. de Winter suspects that her new husband, the moody and incomprehensible Maxim, is hiding a dark secret, and her deepest fears are confirmed when he confesses that he killed his first wife Rebecca in a fit of rage. While he saves her from poverty and a life without love, Maxim may prove to be a threat to the second Mrs. de Winter if she ever becomes too strong-willed and opinionated and reminds him of his first wife. Flynn depicts the hero-villain trope in a sequence of doubles, first causing readers to believe that Amy fears for her safety and life through her false diary entries in which she portrays her husband Nick as a volatile, angry partner. Once the audience is clued into the fact that Amy fabricated her diaries, they see the opposite of this trope through Nick’s perspective, recognizing that the more he looks into Amy’s past, the more he suspects that she is capable of deeply unsettling transgressions. Nick’s darkest fears are confirmed when he learns that his wife has framed former lovers for stalking, rape, and in his own case, murder.
Gothic Estates: Manderley, the Brownstone, and the McMansion. Gothic novels typically feature an unsettling location such as a gloomy castle, estate, or monastery to set the stage for dark events to occur. Flynn and du Maurier construct the gothic settings of the McMansion in Gone Girl and the estate of Manderley in Rebecca as the eerie locales that bear witness to the unraveling of the couples’ relationships. For Maxim and his second wife, Manderley is a key symbol of their status within the aristocracy, and the greatest tragedy of their story is the ultimate destruction of the estate. Similarly, Amy and Nick think fondly of their days in their Brooklyn brownstone, a sign of modern affluence, but are both depressed by the generic suburban subdivision home they are forced to rent after the loss of their jobs and foreclosure of the brownstone.
“There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been” (du Maurier 2). Manderley is of such importance to the story, and to Maxim’s identity as an aristocrat and a de Winter, that the home is specifically mentioned by name 246 times throughout the 357-page novel. Hitchcock himself describes the story as having four central characters, Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter, Maxim, and Manderley, and Hitchcock felt that Manderley is the most central of these, and depicts the home that way in his film adaptation (Beauman 429). Manderley is the seat of patriarchal power, representing all the complex expectations and oppressions associated with the maintenance of the patriarchal structure, and it is no coincidence that the ancestral estate looms ominously over each of the main characters in Rebecca and heavily influences all of their decisions (Pons 80). The bleak start and end to the novel reveal that without Manderley, Maxim and his second wife live a meaningless expatriate life in Europe, lacking purpose and passion without his estate and inherited responsibilities to fulfill them.
In Gone Girl, the economic downturn of 2008 and loss of their jobs as writers forces Nick and Amy to leave their beloved New York brownstone, a home that holds a certain status and prestige that they associate with their prosperous life in Brooklyn and with Amy’s upper-middle-class upbringing. Nick came from a working class background, but quickly becomes accustomed to the standard of living he experiences when he marries his wife and gains access to the brownstone and trust fund her parents provide. When they reach Missouri, the couple rents a home in an eerie, primarily abandoned suburban subdivision that Nick dubs a McMansion at one point, and both of them recognize as a downgrade in their living situation (Flynn 8). Johansen relates that while a home in a subdivision would normally be seen as a sign of success and middle-class cultural capital, the rate at which they are abandoned following the recession renders that former indication of social mobility to be fleeting and inconsequential (34). Nick and Amy’s discomfort and reluctance to embrace the subdivision community mirrors their precarious standing in both class and economic status (Johansen 38).
Heroic Vulnerability and the Spectacle of Male Dependence. Rebecca and Gone Girl both explore the concept of the spectacle of male dependence wherein the hero shows his vulnerability and need for the support of his mate and his previous aloofness and indifference turn out to be love (Wheatley 137). This trope is introduced in Maxim’s boathouse confession to his second wife, admitting that his authoritative, brusque manner has been covering up a tortured and guilty conscience. When Maxim is limp in despair and defeat after confessing his dark deeds to his new wife, the nameless second Mrs. de Winter, she finally finds an inner reserve of strength and purpose and provides her fragile husband with the support that he needs, and their deep dependence on each other is cemented (Pons 74). Nick also embodies this trope when he confesses on television that he is a flawed and insecure man who feels that he does not deserve the love of his amazing wife, Amy, and how he needs her in his life to make him a better man. His male dependence truly is just a spectacle, as Nick’s confession is a manipulation he orchestrates as a calculated appeal to Amy’s ego, hoping that she will return and he will be able to prove his innocence and her madness. Amy falls for his ploy, or at least pretends to in order to achieve her goal of winning the original Nick back, feeling vindicated to see him publicly humble himself and admit her superiority. Thus the spectacle of male dependence does lead to the couple banding together, outwardly restoring their relationship in a twisted pact of self-preservation.
Fidelity Criticism. The adaptation theory of fidelity criticism maintains that the relationship between a novel and a film mimics the primary concepts of a marriage contract, with the novel representing the husband and the film representing the wife (Cobb 30). Scholars that utilize fidelity criticism focus on the concept of fidelity in the relationship between the male novel and the female film with an emphasis on a faithful recreation of the novel as a film being the primary goal. In this conception, the masculine novel is seen as the primary source and the authority on the story. The feminine film is considered to be a weaker, less potent version of the original masculine novel, a frivolous spectacle unable to ever fully reproduce or encapsulate all of the thousands of words from the page to the screen. As Cobb relates, this theory perpetrates the notion that a film is successful if it does not deviate from the original plot or intention of the novel, and if a movie adaptation does portray the story in a different manner, it is viewed by critics, the audience, and reviewers as unfaithful and less artistic than the original novel (30).
In both Rebecca and Gone Girl, the patriarchal themes that exist within fidelity criticism are replicated in the obsession with the faithfulness of the film/wife to the more established, trustworthy, authoritive book/husband. A reliance on the dichotomous nature of fidelity theory is further problematized in the case of Rebecca and Gone Girl as women wrote both of the male novels, while men directed each of the female film adaptations. Cobb warns against the danger of analyzing novel to film adaptations and the relationships between genders from such a simplified, binary perspective, critiquing that contemporary scholars that rely on the dichotomy which focuses on the female/film’s potential to ruin or betray the original male/novel renders adaptation and fidelity criticism highly problematic (35). As Leitch emphasizes, the fidelity of a film to the text that it is based on is not a useful criteria for evaluating its worth, because the original source is always going to be the superior version of itself (161). Murray also asserts that fidelity criticism is an archaic mode of adaptation criticism, but claims that it is mainly utilized by film critics and audiences rather than film scholars in contemporary society (5). Whether academic scholars, film reviewers, or the public employ fidelity criticism, it makes the most sense that artistic works such as texts and films should be examined through their connection with culture rather than focusing purely on the relationship between the book and adapted movie (Helman and Osadnik 653).
Maxim’s Culpability in the Novel versus the Film. The key difference between the novel Rebecca, written by Daphne du Maurier, and the film Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is that production code standards of the 1930’s did not allow for Lawrence Olivier’s character, Maxim de Winter, to go unpunished for fatally shooting his wife in the heat of a passionate argument in a Hollywood film (Edwards 43; Wheatley 134). Since Rebecca’s murder is resolved by the courts as a suicide and Maxim is not convicted of the crime he committed in the novel, Hitchcock was forced to frame her death as an accident in which she fell and struck her head during the argument with her husband, a plot change that depicted both characters in a more sympathetic light in the film version than they were attributed in the original novel (Edwards 43). This difference may seem small, but when the audience considers that the second Mrs. de Winter stayed loyally married to Maxim and assisted him in convincing the authorities of his innocence despite knowing the truth about his past, it is far more disturbing in the novel’s version of events to recognize that his past included murdering his first wife in a violent fit of rage, rather than accidently causing her death during a heated argument as portrayed in the film.
Amy’s Mental State in the Novel versus the Film. The true story behind Rebecca’s murder draws more parallels to Nick’s decision to stay with his wife Amy in Gone Girl, knowing that she murdered her former lover, Desi, in cold blood and that he is now complicit in her lies to the police in order to prove his loyalty to her and their marriage. The faithfulness of novel to film in Gone Girl is fairly cohesive, as the screen adaptation was written by the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, but no matter how uneasy Amy’s cold and calculating nature renders the film audience, there is a deep, dark level of malice that both Amy and Nick share towards each other in the novel that does not fully translate to the screen as much of it takes place in their minds. The question remains, is Amy truly crazy, or is she reacting to an environment in which misogyny and toxic masculinity have forced her to extreme acts of defiance? As Marso asserts, viewing Amy’s actions through Simone de Beauvior’s framework of perverse protests could reinterpret them as resistant actions born out of a repressive environment, which will be explored further in the section below (883).
Introducing Narrators Without Credibility. Flynn, Fincher, du Maurier and Hitchcock utilize unreliable narrators to discredit the characters relating the plot of the novels and films, especially the women, and to cause audiences to suspect the worst from them. To determine if a narrator is unreliable, readers rely on their personal knowledge and textual data (Booth 297; Nünning 102). Untrustworthy narrators appear to be driven by egocentricity and deep-seated character traits that cause them to be inconsistent in their transmission of the plot, so the information that this type of narrator presents will be met with incredulity by the audience (Olson 102). Unreliable narration also leaves the readers and viewers with the sense that they will never uncover the truth of the story. Both of the novels and films are rife with characters whose narcissism and entitlement shade their version of the truth, which forces the reader and viewer to discern whether or not they believe that the characters relaying the action are being honest or if the narrators are bending the truth to reflect what they prefer for others to believe about the events that occurred.
Gothic Romance or Patriarchal Cautionary Tale. Using the technique of unreliable narration in Rebecca changes the meaning of the story for readers who recognize the second Mrs. de Winter as an unreliable narrator and question her trustworthiness in her interpretation and framing of the events that occur. According to Harbord, the development of the character of Rebecca only through the descriptions of others to Maxim’s second wife forces the audience to conspire with those characters and believe their depiction of Rebecca (100). But as Pons asserts, those that view Maxim’s second wife as unreliable identify that her unwavering devotion to her husband clouds the way that she sees the situations that she witnesses, and biases her understanding of past events that are related to her by others (78). Her telling of the tale frames it closer to a traditional gothic romance where the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s relationship triumph in the end over Rebecca and her spell, whereas looking at the story with the knowledge of her unreliable narration frames the narrative as more of a dark look into the horrors that occurred in both of Maxim’s marriages due to his stalwart efforts to uphold his responsibilities and position within the patriarchy and English aristocracy and his wives’ compliance in order to maintain their status within those structures (Pons 75).
Classic Thriller or Response to Toxic Masculinity. As Johansen indicates, the resolution of Gone Girl does not leave the reader or viewer with the confidence that civil society has been restored (48). While some readers and viewers may vilify the character of Amy Dunne as a psychopath or a sociopath, dismissing her actions with a neat medical diagnosis, feminist scholars such as Marso raise the question: what is a reasonable response to the accumulative stress and disappointment of being a strong, brilliant woman in an unhappy relationship with a misogynist and continuously navigating an oppressive, patriarchal society (882)? Amy stresses that the actions she takes are fueled by her anger that her husband changed from the charming, successful man who he was when they first dated and married, to become the ambitionless, philandering shadow of a man that we meet as the action of the plot begins. Feeling cheated of the charmed life that she is certain that she is entitled to, Amy wants what she signed up for and will go to any means necessary to restore her husband and their marriage to their ideal state. While her actions may be violent and extreme, as Marso relates, those that are trapped in a patriarchal cycle of oppression and victimhood react with resistance and action, and until we see what a society free from patriarchal control looks like, it is hard to fairly judge what an adequate measure of resistance should be (892).
It is disturbing to recognize that the same collective misogynistic fears of the late 1930’s society are being echoed in the novels and films of today, and that those concerns still mainly revolve around the role of women in a society formed as a patriarchal structure, and populated by men and women who uphold patriarchal norms and punish the women who choose to live and act outside of those boundaries. While women have made great strides in the last seventy years, Gone Girl has had as much of an impact on readers and viewers today as Rebecca had upon readers and viewers several generations ago, stimulating conversations about a woman’s role in a marriage, in society, and how far a man or society can or should go to keep a woman in check. These narratives also bring into question how much women themselves will ignore and endure in order to uphold traditional patriarchal structures and reap the associated benefits (Pons 82).
The problematic situation reflected in these novel and film representations is faced by women throughout contemporary society on a daily basis. As hooks maintains, “There is no one among us who has not felt the pain of sexism and sexist oppression, the anguish that male domination can create in daily life, the profound and unrelenting misery and sorrow” (75). Living under an oppressive patriarchal structure causes suffering for both Rebecca and Amy in each of the novels and films, as their intellect, charm, and strong characters provide them with the tools to succeed within the system, but not the means to feel fulfilled or at peace with their need to function within the patriarchy. Subsequently they find ways to act outside of the boundaries of the system and are judged harshly for their actions by those close to them, while maintaining the ability to pass as a version of the feminine ideal with those in their outer social circle, causing them to lead conflicted inner and outer lives. The delicate balance between these private and public selves leaves both characters with a slightly manic edge that is familiar and chilling to the audience as they recognize it from the lives of women they know and within themselves.
Rebecca and Amy are not depicted as ideal feminist heroines, each of them has cruel streaks that are out of line, especially Amy who is recognized to be capable of great violence. As Johansen relates, Amy’s actions are exaggerated, but her danger is unsetting to the audience because she works so neatly within the status quo that it is almost admirable (42). Though she is miserable in Missouri, Nick and Amy’s description of her poise and elegance as a writer and socialite in New York enamor the audience with her former guise as the Cool Girl. Similarly with Rebecca, though the audience never has the opportunity to see her onscreen and several characters regale them with tales of her wicked depravity, enough of the stories about her recall Rebecca’s charming, glamorous side to cause the audience to long to have become acquainted with her and to have witnessed her skillful success as the mistress of Manderley and society darling. As Wisker relates, though readers do not necessarily like or want to emulate Rebecca, she inspires fascination in all of those that are exposed to her story (31). It is this spellbinding pull between the reader and viewer’s alternating fascination with and reaction of repulsion to the characters of Rebecca and Amy that renders their stories memorable and threatening, especially to male audiences, for to concede the truth of ambiguity is a challenge to the tenets of patriarchy (Marso 871).
Although the fictional characters of Rebecca and Amy are amplified examples, the representation of women within the current American political climate reveals that a fear of nasty women resonates throughout contemporary society, and that there are much greater strides to be made before women with strong minds, opinions, and beliefs will be viewed with the same level of respect and authority as their male counterparts. Until women and their experience and potential are taken seriously, entertainment and the media will continue to produce depictions of women that are terrifying and threatening in their agency and capability to those that continue to uphold patriarchal values and structures.
The films and novels that we consume as a society are indicative of the social climate, as those that achieve success and prominence are validated by the public through their consumption of these mediums. Our hearts and minds are engaged by the movies and books that we choose to recommend or critique with our loved ones, friends, and colleagues; and often one can quickly gain insight into the values and opinions of a new acquaintance through their opinions on these shared cultural experiences. Films and novels are further a product of the climate of their day by reflecting the ideas the authors are concerned with and resonating with the readers and viewers, whose collective experience is to either identify with or find dissonance in the plot of the movie or book.
The ability to deconstruct the underlying fears behind the entertainment we consume, and discuss as a society how the depictions that we witness make us feel and what we would like to change, brings us a step closer towards unpacking misogyny, toxic masculinity, and other ideologies that prevent individuals from being able to interact with strong, powerful women with respect and the absence of fear. If progressive men and women work towards transcending limiting beliefs portrayed in the media, and support the depiction of a variety of complicated female characters that reflect all of the ways in which a woman can be strong and powerful, then the creative industry will reflect the rising call for positive depictions of influential, resilient women in the novels and films that are produced in the near future. Until then, complex female characters like Rebecca and Amy will continue to terrify audiences with their threat to the patriarchy and the status quo.
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Provenance: Double-blind peer-reviewed submission.
Laura Burns is a Ph.D. in Education, Leadership Studies emphasis candidate in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University, Fullerton, and a Master of Arts in English from Boston College. Her research interests include literature, film, media, arts-based studies, women’s studies, feminist studies and leadership studies. She currently works as an Admission Specialist in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University.
Still from Rebecca from The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki.