Issue #21: Battle Of Some Sexes ⚔️
Gone Girl + Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Frankly, this week has been... not great Bob. California is on fire. There's yet another Supreme Court seat up for grabs, no one has been adequately held to account for Breonna Taylor's death, and the increasingly fragile democracy of the United States is crumbling around us as we speak.
But we're not thinking about that. This week we're thinking about how men, women and everyone in between duke it out in a binary world. We've got Cate with an argument in favor of Gone Girl's villain Amy Elliot Dunne, and Zosha on Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the intoxicating power of a fraught heterosexual squabble literalized for our viewing pleasure. And as usual we've got some fun extra-credit reads to help keep your mind off...*gestures wildly*...this. Enjoy!
Cate on Gone Girl
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Directed by: David Fincher
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s a maxim repeated so often that it fell into the realm of cliché long ago. From Fatal Attraction to Acrimony, the construction of a woman so filled with hysterical anger that she exacts unjust revenge—usually on a man she believes has wronged her—has haunted pop culture for decades. But what is often forgotten as these supposedly terrifying women are mythologized for their misdeeds is that very often, their rage is justified— if outsized. It’s easy to condemn a boiled bunny or a toppled RV, but it’s much harder to side against women who have been used and discarded by men they believed loved them. For the woman scorned, righteous anger and pain must be sublimated into an impeccable performance as the perfect victim in order to be sympathetic.
It’s little wonder that the stories we tell about scorned women nearly always position them as the villains of the tale, and 2014’s Gone Girl is a perfect example. The moody thriller depicts a wife’s devious plan to frame her husband for her own murder after discovering his infidelity. The tension between Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is about far more than unfaithfulness. After their whirlwind romance is upended by the recession, the couple finds themselves resettled in Missouri to take care of Nick’s aging parents—relinquishing their flashy life in New York against Amy’s objections. Each of them feels stuck and dissatisfied in the new lives they have cobbled together out of necessity, but only Nick steps outside their marriage in an attempt to find solace. When Amy goes missing on their wedding anniversary, Nick slowly goes from person of interest to prime suspect in her murder. His various unearthed moral transgressions perfectly frame his as the benefactor of her death.
The film’s two-part structure first lays out the case for Nick’s guilt, then pulls back to reveal Amy’s master plan. Nick has made her ordinary, and for that, she will make him pay. A throughline of the story is that Amy’s parents are authors of the children’s book series “Amazing Amy”—an animated avatar who enjoys embellished adventures from Amy’s own life. Though Amy resents the character, the books’ popularity allows her a measure of financial comfort she has come to expect. But more than that, “Amazing Amy” makes Amy herself extraordinary. She is beautiful, well-educated and a woman any man would be lucky to have. When Amy chooses Nick to be that man, she does so on the implicit condition that he will continue to be someone who is worthy of all she has to offer.
By cheating on her, Nick reduces her to one of the Cool Girls Amy so despises. The Cool Girl is a false construction expected by men and perpetuated by women in order to maintain the fickle balance between the sexes. Women pretend to be the kinds of girls who men do not have to stretch themselves to appreciate because in the end, they are merely flimsy reflections of themselves. Amy’s rage is not just about Nick’s affair—it’s about the indignity of having debased herself to participate in a performance of ordinariness.
The dirty little secret of Gone Girl is that Amy never hated men as so many have alleged. Women had always been the true targets of her disdain. She looked down on them for contorting themselves to fit men’s desires, and then found that she had done the same for Nick. Worst, she had liked it. To find herself diminished in this way was the ultimate betrayal, and far worse than any affair. Nick had not lived up to his part of the bargain—Amy would become Nick’s Cool Girl and he would be the man who deserved it.
It’s little wonder that Amy’s incredible retribution was to remind Nick of all the ways in which he had failed her and then force him to take her back when his public defense pushed him to become the man she had wanted to begin with. This time, Amy molded the man she wanted. By spending months recreating herself as a perfect victim, Amy was able to harness the power of her race and gender to garner sympathy for herself that she might not have enjoyed otherwise. As a Missing White Woman, she was able to weaponize her anger at Nick against him, forcing him into a defensive posture.
Amy’s whiteness is especially central to the success of her scheme. Her elaborate ruse included not just evidence of her kidnapping and murder in a botched home invasion, but a meticulously kept diary full of both real and fabricated entries. Through Amy’s telling, her marriage to Nick devolved into a terrifying saga of abuse, loneliness and neglect. With the inclusion of her fake pregnancy, Amy molded herself into the quintessential damsel in distress, and that construction allowed her and her story to easily slip into the preferred cultural narrative for white women—beautiful, virginal, and put-upon.
It’s a performance that underscores just how savvy Amy is. Culturally, we do not understand angry women. We do not understand wronged women. We do not even understand abused women. But we do understand a woman in want of saving—so Amy contorted herself once more, but this time for her own ends. She couldn’t simply complain that Nick had abandoned their marriage or that an ex-boyfriend who offered to help her tried instead to control her. A philandering man is not a novel conception and neither is a controlling one. Instead, she used the tools available to her reframe herself not as a scorned woman but as a desperate one, anxious to find relief from men who would kill her.
The thing about Gone Girl is that it lays bear so many of the conflicts at the root of the oh-so-binary gender divide. Men do not take women’s concerns seriously, and so women are forced to amplify, embellish and fabulate our way into the realm of genuine preoccupation. There seems to be no other righteous way to generate the needed attention. So when it comes down to it, a woman definitely shouldn’t frame her husband for murder—but maybe she wouldn’t have to if he treated her like a person instead of an extension of his own puerile desires.
No? It's merely a point for consideration.
Zosha on Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Written by: Simon Kinberg
Directed by: Doug Liman
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
To watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith now is to see a myth in the making. It can be hard to remember what it was like before this movie came out—when Brad and Jen were together, when Jolie was still riding the wave of goodwill and mainstream success brought by Lara Croft, before Brangelina and the tabloids thrust martyrdom onto Jennifer Aniston. In the years since there has been so much image-making, so much drama and passion, that it is easy to forget that there was once just a casting session with a singular focus: What I remember from the B.M.M.S. era, was that this was supposed to be the new battle of the sexes. A man vs. woman action movie, with our gender tributes from District Hottest People Alive. May the odds be ever in our favor.
Again, it is almost hard to think of a time when this movie wasn’t synonymous with the real-life intrigue around it. From the jump, the movie traded heavily on the actual personas of the players involved—although, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, not so much the ones they were cultivating, but the ones the public could digest.
What’s been lost to the sands of Brangelina is how neither of these actors was ever so wholly squared with the gender roles assigned to them. Brad has been bucking the Leading Man macho status since he was the young heartthrob breaking everyone’s hearts (perhaps most importantly in this photoshoot around the Fight Club era). By the mid-aughts, Angelina had been almost pointedly counterculture. Though her looks screamed Hollywood vixen, her resumé was a mix of counterculture indies and action vehicles, in which she was always decidedly cool and composed. It was not that she was repulsed by femininity, but she certainly wasn’t trapped by it either.
Which is pretty much exactly how Mr. and Mrs. Smith brings the pair together. Its satirical send-up of suburbia plays just as much with the gendered expectations of a heterosexual marriage: She redecorates and gets dinner on the table every night; he has a shed out back where he tinkers and goes to grab a beer with the boys.
Their life is suffocating, and it manages to work fairly well within the movie as a mess of their own making. Importantly, the film quickly divorces itself from the idea that this is a straight action movie; it’s actually a rom-com helmed by movie stars, with action as a side dish. All that gunplay is merely foreplay for the rest of it. That crucial (if pedantic!) differentiation leaves room for Jolie and Pitt to be...well, Jolie and Pitt.
I do not mean to actually be themselves—again, that narrative of this film has always felt a bit to intractably overblown. Rather, it allows them to bring genuine movie star gravitas and finesses to otherwise smaller beats. Their meeting in Colombia in 2002 is a meet-cute for the ages—rushed within the bounds of a film, but delightful and believable between two hot people thinking they’re getting away with something by using each other. Jolie drips every “honey” with warmth and wrath in equal measure, while Pitt can volley between heartbroken and bewildered and bemused in a single bound (“You’re not going to kill her,” is a fantastic line delivery).
The small undercurrent I forgot in all the mythos of this film is that Jane is constantly trying to maybe leave John behind, or at least get them to separate. That the film manages to milk that at all depends—like the rest of it—100% on the chemistry between them. It’s a beat that could seem rote but instead seems genuinely concerning; as she points out, at least alone they’d know the odds.
The whole setup could seem gimmicky—alright, sure, it is gimmicky. But those human touches are what make the film work in any way. With so many actors, the whole final third would be a parade of hand-wringing about how they didn’t really know each other and they should just leave. While Mr. and Mrs. Smith does include that, it feels less like a betrayal and more like early, trepidatious days of a relationship you know is going to be really special, a game of chicken where John and Jane are always trying to make sure they’re not the only one going all in. There’s a deftness to the way they jump between angry with each other to counting off their lies and kills. They have both deceived, so neither can feel deceived. And so they backflip through rom-com to action-thriller and back, taking us along for the ride.
Ultimately, it feels like a movie you can point to and use your withered crone voice to tell Gen Z that “that’s how they did it back in the day; that’s the stuff of movie stars.” It’s a charisma that you can’t pin down to one thing. You just want to follow them through every shootout and every fight.
¡Viva la Revolución!
What a fucking week, huh? Here are two things I've got my eye on:
In cowardice, the leadership in Kentucky made a curfew after announcing the "indictment" of one of the cops who shot Breonna Taylor [and not for shooting Breonna, but because he shot into other apartments]. That means the Louisville Community Bail Fund and others like it could use some attention.
Finally, if you care about independent feminist media *blinks pointedly* consider donating to or purchasing a subscription from Bitch Media.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Cate: A fun thing about independent media is that it has the space to reflect on smaller concerns of the climate fire-pocalypse like the toxic masculinity of Smokey the Bear. It also has the space to let various Queers About The Internet™ wax poetic about a newly canonized queer film for the entire run of a podcast limited series just because. There of course will always be space for more ambitious projects to tackle ambitious storytelling like this essay on Antebellum, Lovecraft Country and the narrative problems that arise from poor "storytelling accounting." But it's sometimes more fun to contemplate the motivations of a kleptomaniac three-year-old.
Zosha: Turns out having men home during the pandemic has not lead to that much more shared housework for parents, huh! How (and why) Qanon is reaching more women (and in particular, white women) this summer. The rise, fall, and return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, and what it means for film and film history. What it means to figure out how to talk about wildfires, and why it's vital we do it soon. We need a new system of media. And marking the end of the summer [of no blockbusters] with a piece on the history of the summer blockbuster — thanks Wagner!
And with that, we're done for this week. For Issue #22, we're looking at the ache of growing up and growing out with The Paper and Chemical Hearts.
Hitting you with our best shot, and still finding ways to yell about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3