Spoiler alert: Do not read this blog if you’re planning to see Gone Girl, based on the book with the same name by Gillian Flynn.
A few days ago I chose a romance featuring a jaded ex-lawyer who has seen too many of his fellow lawyers’ marriages crash and burn under the pressure of long working hours and the demands of their heartless, money-grubbing wives. He decides to start a business to provide men with real, honest, loving women – and maybe he’ll just find one for himself. I figured: cute premise, so I bit.
Now where is our hero going to look for these women?
The answer brings us into both class warfare and fantasy, since the money-grubbing women turn out to be socialites, and the real, honest, loving women are ones who represent the social status of the large majority of romance readers, which includes myself. The heroine of the story I chose is the quintessential caretaker, the woman who takes care of absolutely everybody but herself.
First, I totally get the fantasy of the wealthy guy recognizing the true worth of a middle class woman, but I think it can be done without stigmatizing socialites. For all I know, there are plenty of real, honest, loving women who are also rich.
Second, I get the appeal of the dominant alpha male who is in charge in the boardroom and the bedroom. I simply wonder where the domination loses its appeal. I suppose it’s a matter of taste. On their first date the hero asks the heroine whether she wants a cocktail before dinner, and she says very clearly No. He orders her a glass of wine anyway, and she then proceeds to drink it. Later on she wants to order another glass, but the hero won’t let her because by that time she has already had three, and he points out that she has to work the next day.
Here the fantasy to surrender control is all encompassing, right down to point where the heroine does not seem to know anything about her own mind, needs, and wants. Perhaps if a woman is a 24/7 caretaker, always attending to others’ needs, she doesn’t know her own. I note that a number of stories these days feature heroines who are blind to their own real needs, even when these characters are otherwise described as being independent and/or generally able to take care of themselves.
The point is: the man in these stories knows the woman’s mind better than she does.
We come now to Gone Girl whose plot is fueled by the exact opposite male/female psychological dynamic. The woman, Amy, knows her own mind thoroughly, knows exactly what she wants at every moment, and knows how to get it. It helps that she is Botticelli beautiful.
Amy’s husband, Nick, is so unaware of the way his wife’s mind works that he does not guess until midpoint that she has brilliantly framed him for her supposed death. The story opens and closes with Nick expressing a desire to break his beautiful wife’s head open in order to unspool her thoughts. At the beginning Nick’s expressed desire is a bit startling but still poignant, suggesting that he wishes to know her better in order to be closer to her. At the end this same expressed desire rings with violence, suggesting that he would really like her head to open and her brains to spill out.
Amy knows her own mind and is willing to do anything so that the people around her – men, in particular – conform to her version of reality. She believes she knows what Nick wants and needs. Let us note that she is a villainess of stupendous proportions.
Gone Girl’s Amy stands in stark contrast to: i) the alphas in some romances who believe they know what the woman wants and needs better than she does herself and who are nevertheless considered heroes; and ii) the heroines of some romances who do not know whether or not they want a glass of wine and who rely on those alphas to get their needs met. Without agency, however, they cannot be considered heroic. They’re rather fantasy placeholders for readers who want a decision-making holiday.
If Gone Girl is the ultimate anti-romance, then the alpha-dominant/unheroic heroine narrative is the hyper-romance.
See also: The Romance Heroine
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen