Here’s what gave me direction this week. Arts and culture at the DuPont Underground, new books and podcasts, and inspiration from one of my favorite authors.
As I sat outside at a café in my neighborhood working on some short stories this Sunday afternoon, I felt overwhelmed by the feedback from friends and writing peers that I was trying to process, and use to improve my stories.
It’s been very refreshing to watch how lately women’s (and some men’s) literary tastes have evolved from novels like Twighlight and 50 Shades of Grey, both featuring “heroines” who seem to be in constant need of reassurance from the dominant male figures in their lives, to books that are actually bolstering feminism. Thankfully, novels such as The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl arrived to reverse recent regressive steps for literary feminism. Both novels are thoughtful criticisms of society’s treatment of women, particularly how society discounts female emotion, as well as thrillers that are entertaining and suspenseful enough to have drawn in all audiences.
The love-story-gone-awry is far-fetched and unbelievable in a literal sense, but at it’s heart, Gone Girl explores male-female dynamics and reflects the sexism of today’s culture. Through the voice of the alluring, beguiling and psychotic narrator, Amy Dunne, and the saga of her foolproof scheme to frame aloof and neglectful husband Nick for her murder, Gillian Flynn’s cynical tale captures the universal truths of what modern sexism wants from women.
In contrast to the way women are expected to respond to male transgressions in real-life, through the actions of Gone Girl’s protagonist, Amy, Flynn skillfully illustrates the extent that women have been conditioned to ignore subtle displays of rudeness and disrespect from the men in their lives. By showing the opposite, Flynn effectively illustrates how pervasive sexism still is, and what today’s sexism wants from women: “a woman who doesn’t care too much… who gracefully bows out as soon as she’s no longer wanted, who makes no demands and puts up no resistance.”
Flynn shows how devalued women’s emotions have become, and how normative it is for women to “not care,” and to concede to the preferences and wants of their partners by dramatizing the reverse of such behavior through the actions of Amy, the wife who is figuratively abused and made to feel like “something to be jettisoned if necessary… something disposable” (Flynn). Amy’s complex plan to make her husband pay for his emotional neglect and own up to his wrongdoings is a dramatic response proportionate to the extent to which society and women themselves ignore these faint indignities.
“Gone Girl affords male transgressions the figurative weight they often, regrettably, do not carry in reality. We pass over the subtle indignities, the small snubs and the little injustices, because they are so worn into the woodwork of the female experience that they have become so invisible to us… [Amy’s] overreaction is an appropriate reaction to society’s underreaction.” (Rothfeld, The New Republic)
Amy is calculating, conniving and committed to her plan of framing Nick; she has studied how to pull of the perfect fake murder, allowing no detail to escape her in her quest to ensnare Nick in her deadly trap. But Flynn shows that even a woman as intelligent, resourceful, and beautiful as Amy is trapped in the patriarchal system: her one mistake of getting robbed at a motel forces her to turn to stalker-ish, clinging ex-boyfriend Desi Collings, and become the damsel-in-distress in order to survive.
Nick’s infallible indifference toward his wife is perhaps the most insulting of his behaviors, propelling Amy to create a punishment suitable to his crime; disappearing and leaving him to explain, grovel and apologize to national audiences, and to convincingly show police and detectives that he really cares and loves her: that he is not a murderer. Flynn shows the reader again and again that, “men don’t have to care, or even respond to female caring, because they hold all the cards,” (Rothfield) as even though Amy is brilliant, funny and beautiful, she is only “something disposable” to Nick; she’s just the wife who can easily be replaced with an equally smart and pretty girl.
Amy is not without her flaws, of course, and has played her equal part in the deterioration of their marriage. She is not a trustworthy narrator either; she admits that she “wears personalities like fashion trends” and that “Diary Amy” is a persona she concocted to be perceived as “likeable” by the police and the public. However convoluted are Amy’s lies, and warped, mixed up personalities, the emotional weight of her narrative rings true for all women: she is viewed as replaceable and disposable by the man in her life and she feels powerless to make him care for, value or even acknowledge her.
The Girl on the Train’s Rachel is a much more sympathetic and likeable character than Amy, although her narration is still unreliable due to her alcoholism and frequent blackouts. In a similar sense to Amy’s retelling of stories, the reader cannot trust the factual accuracies of Rachel’s memories. But however nebulous and imprecise these blacked-out memories may be, the underlying instincts and emotions to Rachel’s memories ultimately prevail, even when no one wants to believe her.
In one powerful scene during which Rachel recalls a fight she had with ex-husband Tom, she remembers feeling “scared” and “terrified” during it, even though Tom told her that she threw a lamp at him. She’s confused that she felt these things since according to Tom she was behaving violently. Later, the scene comes back to her in vivid detail, and she sees that the emotional impact of her memory was spot on, as Tom had lied: he was actually acting violently toward her in the scene.
Through a different approach, Watkins accomplishes the same goal of illustrating the depreciation of women’s value and emotional currency in our society. In contrast to Amy Dunne’s character, and her conniving and bitterness toward her lazy, unappreciative husband, Watkin’s heroine, Rachel, is a dramatization of desperation and pitifulness (someone who is later revealed to have been abused and mistreated) who gets drunk and leaves whining messages on her now-remarried ex-husband’s phone. Through this approach, Watkins similarly shows how quick society is to discount or discard the emotional truth of women, “why we hasten to dismiss women who seem broken and confused,” as well as the extent to which “women can be manipulated to question our own perception.” (Fallon, Huffington Post).
“The Girl on the Train takes a less defiant angle [than Gone Girl]. Rachel comes off as pathetic — women won’t want to emulate her — but Hawkins’ masterful deployment of unwittingly unreliable narration to evoke the aftershocks of abuse and trauma is an equally powerful way of exploring women’s marginalization.” (Fallon)
Perhaps these novels, their underlying themes and commentary on women in today’s society can serve as reminders to us that however unfair society’s standards, we have the choice to accept them or not. Maybe not, if such hyperboles as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train are even required for us to realize how often women still allow themselves to manipulated, and the pressure and expectation imposed on us to act “cool,” agreable and like we don’t care. In either case, I look forward to the next hit novel that offers Feminism a new heroine.