Marriage as Marxist Perversion: Manipulation and Control in David Fincher’s Gone Girl
By Pam Austin | 13.11.2017
In Western society, marriage is typically depicted as a pure and utopian union that celebrates a couple’s shared love and devotion. Officiated in front of friends and family, a wedding is thought to be the ultimate expression of love and humanity. In reality, marriage can be reduced to simple utilitarianism; obtaining government tax incentives, the economization of cohabitation, and the social impetus toward having children. In many ways, heterosexual marriage is much less concerned with romantic love than it is with a commitment to the institutions for which it was originally created: the patriarchy, capital, and the state. Following this, marriage can be reduced to a social contract in which individuals commit to adhere to the conditions and precedents of these institutions. In this sense, matrimony is a compromise between the desire for human intimacy and the desire for the utilitarian benefits of a legalized union. For those who choose this partnership, entering into a marriage represents the acceptance of the terms and conditions of these institutions, however the consequences for either partner are dramatically different. For the man, marriage represents access to agency; for the woman, it represents the disavowal of her agency through the institutions that define the union. While capitalism and patriarchy are not one in the same, they operate in concert to undermine female agency within a marriage’s allegedly ‘equal’ partnership.
David Fincher’s 2014 film, Gone Girl, investigates the flawed notion of equality in heterosexual coupledom. The film advances that, while marriage is fundamentally centered on compromise, its basic terms need be renegotiated for it to operate with some semblance of equality. Gone Girl follows the changing perceptions of Amy as she resists, submits to, and navigates patriarchal control through her marriage with Nick. The film oscillates between positioning Amy as a victim and as a conniving and malicious partner. Initially depicted as the “cool girl” who is smart, sexually adventurous, and relaxed in her marriage to Nick, Amy is transformed — in a sense, tamed — into a submissive and needy wife. Through this union, she is bound to inhabit the social and institutional codes of both patriarchy and capital. Despite the fact that Amy has her own money given to her through a trust, she nonetheless becomes financially bound to Nick and thus subject to his authority. However, through a series of manipulations, and ultimately by mobilizing her labour power against Nick, Amy inverts the power dynamic of the traditional heterosexual marriage. Then, in a strategic marital compromise, Amy performs the role of the dutiful and gracious wife thereby enabling a new female driven power within the institutional confines of coupledom.
Marriage generates and is perpetuated by the creation of specific gender identities and roles. In her essay “The Unhappy Marriage between Marxism and Feminism,” Heidi Hartmann writes that “patriarchy operates primarily in the psychological realm, where female and male children learn to be women and men,” and that marriage is an institution that confirms these instructions (Hartman 7). It is ultimately “the ideological construction of gender” within the confines of a heterosexual marriage “that keeps the male dominant” (Spivak 306). Since Western marriage is understood as the foundation and paradigm of the stable family, it becomes a space “where dominance and submission are learned” (Hartmann 22). Further, when patriarchy operates in conjunction with capitalism, it ensures both economic and ideological domination over women. Hartmann argues that the “relationship between capital and the patriarchy is in constant evolution,” and that freedom from capitalism does not translate into freedom from the patriarchy, and vice versa (3). However, as Gone Girl articulates, female agency in marriage is not essentially about distance from capital or patriarchy. Rather, a woman’s freedom is won through an understanding of how these ideologies operate in concert, and by subverting the gendered expectations within their framework to her advantage.
Gone Girl initially depicts Nick and Amy as equals in their marriage. Working as writers in New York, they both contribute proportionately to the relationship, financially and emotionally. In the early stages of their marriage, there is little evidence of a compromise of identity between them; they simply appear compatible. When both Nick and Amy lose their jobs in the Great Recession, the economic shift forces the couple to acknowledge their relationship’s unequal structure. The film here depicts a resurgence of an otherwise dormant patriarchal authority in Nick. Having failed at capitalism, he seeks to regain some control within the familiar structures of patriarchy. This control first takes form when Nick begins to “push [Amy] to be someone she doesn’t want to be: a nagging shrew, or controlling bitch” (Fincher).
Fearing that his loss of labour power could end their marriage, Nick subconsciously seeks to control and confine Amy through regulating hers. Though both are highly educated and capable of working, Nick insists that the couple relocate to Missouri, where he can take care of his ailing mother and ostensibly find better employment, and where Amy is not able to work. Because of this pressure imposed onto her by Nick, Amy must use her trust money to purchase a small business for him to manage. This action stages the conditions of the couple’s reliance upon Nick as the sole breadwinner within their household. Hartman writes that “it is symptomatic of male dominance that the female unemployed is never considered a crisis” (32) and that “the material base of the patriarchy lies most fundamentally in men’s control over women’s labour power” (14). In accordance with Hartman’s point, Gone Girl poses Nick’s employment a necessity and Amy’s as a luxury. Thus in moving to Missouri, and taking Amy’s capital in hopes of creating his own, Nick attempts to safeguard his economic and patriarchal control over Amy.
Over the course of three years, Amy and Nick’s marriage gradually degrades, culminating in his infidelity. While Amy continually attempts to address or challenge these issues, her efforts are met with verbal or physical abuse from Nick, demonstrating his need to enforce physical domination in tandem with economic control. Where Amy perceives Nick as abusive, he characterizes her as “neurotic and demanding,” illustrating a pattern that Hartmann understands as “a response to a social structure in which women are systematically dominated, exploited, and oppressed,” where “women’s discontent is not [merely] the neurotic lament of the maladjusted” (Hartmann 13). In understanding Amy’s misery as an institutional issue, the potential of returning to a state of equality through mutual respect appears impossible. Thus, Amy is forced to undertake coercive methods to reinstate her agency within the marital framework. In protest to Nick’s dominance, Amy manipulates the codes and institutional responses under patriarchy to her advantage. While she does not wield the patriarchal power herself, she instead mobilizes extant discourses of male domination over women. This tactic enables her to publicly embrace the role of submissive wife and victim, while disempowering Nick in the process.
Gone Girl demonstrates how when mobilized tactically, the work of a marriage — namely compromise and sacrifice — can also be a source of subversive pleasure and agency. If a woman understands the limitations that restrict her, she may find pleasure in using those very constraints against her tormentor. Rather than simply presenting a scenario of a woman’s gradual disempowerment through marriage, Gone Girl supposes that Amy wins some degree of agency from subverting traditional power dynamics. After staging her own murder, Amy attempts to frame Nick for homicide. As our narrator, she presents this act as vengeance against Nick for his embrace of patriarchal and capitalist oppression over her body, and for changing her into “someone that she never wanted to be” (Fincher). Through framing her oppressor for her ‘murder,’ Amy concocts a way to both end a poisonous relationship and reclaim agency within her marriage.
Fincher constructs Amy’s resistance to marriage in two stages. First, Amy rejects marriage entirely. This is done through her initial attempt to literally break free from the restrictions of the patriarchal domination; staging her death at the hands of her husband. In framing Nick, Amy ensures the public assumption of his guilt, thereby guaranteeing his judicial death sentence and her freedom from his oppression. The second stage is more nuanced. When her initial plan begins to fall apart, Amy comes to appreciate that the constraints of patriarchy and capital are present in broader society beyond the confines of marriage. In this secondary stage, Amy realizes that she enjoys a high degree of class privilege, which complicates — or makes more bearable — her oppression under both capital and patriarchy. She begins to understand this upon being attacked and robbed by her two young neighbours in the trailer park where she hides. The female assailant, Greta, sees through Amy’s costumed attempt to pass as part of the lower class, and as a result is able to take advantage of her. Through this, Amy realizes that her complete rejection of both capital and patriarchy has proved to be precarious. As a means to justify her return to relative security, Amy opts for a renegotiation of her marriage, which is now predicated on subverting her oppression, rather than submitting to it.
It is unfair to argue that Amy is not oppressed, and to discount all of her struggles to fantasy created by her sociopathy. Instead, one ought to address the terms of her oppression. Gayatri Spivak argues that, in the context of the developed world, the oppressed subject does not encompass all women, but rather the specific niche of “the females of the urban working class [for] whom the structure of exploitation is especially compounded by patriarchal social relations” (300). Amy and Nick, although facing financial difficulty, are largely members of the urban bourgeoisie, and thus not aligned with the working class. Further, Amy has multiple degrees from Harvard and, as a well-known child-star, is ensconced firmly in the upper class. In the scene where Amy hides in the trailer park, a cliché of the working class woman, Greta, whom we understand as ‘trailer trash’, acts as a catalyst for Amy’s next marital negotiation. Greta’s relationships under both patriarchy and capitalism are more oppressive, extending even to the realms of physical violence, and do not afford her the same agency that Amy enjoys. When robbing Amy, Greta’s notes how evident it is that Amy “ain’t never even been hit before” (Fincher). Her statement marks the difference between the two women, as victims of different iterations of oppression. Where, in the media and in her community, upper-middle class Amy is understood as a victim of male domination, where lower class Greta is an object of ridicule or hatred.
While Amy does fall victim to Nick’s domination, Greta’s attack refocuses her understanding of this oppression. At the same time that Amy is attacked, Nick is shown on television begging her to return home, which operates as a new form of marital compromise in which Amy has the upper hand. While her decision to return home releases Nick from police suspicion, it also grants Amy a new degree of authority within their relationship. Through Nick’s television appearance, Amy comes to see him as the ideal man that she has molded. In order to return home, she performs the ultimate role as victim under patriarchy through restaging her kidnapping and abuse at the hands of an obsessed ex-boyfriend, Desi. By self-inflicting a barrage of wounds, her brutal murder of Desi is seen as an act of self-defense and effectively absolves her of all guilt and suspicion of foul play. Amy does not need a voice or a cover story, as the media, which look to speak for the ‘oppressed,’ readily create one for her.
From her strategic economic and class position, Amy is able to use the once-disempowering weapons of femininity to manipulate and control her husband. At the end of the film, she is once more in a position of personal and capital dominance. Amy further inverts the power dynamic within her marriage by engaging her reproductive labour power through a genuine pregnancy to ensure that Nick stays bound to her by his social obligations as a parent. Hartmann argues that the role of women within capitalism is to “reproduce the labor force, provide psychological nurturance, and provide an island of intimacy in a sea of alienation” (5). In understanding Amy as sociopathic, Nick contends that she is not able to perform either of the latter tasks, and that he must instead carry those burdens for the sake of their child. While Amy will physically bear the child, Nick will become responsible for those tasks typically associated with the woman. Through inverting these traditional gender duties, Amy ensures not only her financial stability, insofar as she and Nick will not divorce, but also guarantees her control over their family. Through manipulating the tools of femininity, Amy is able to control and ultimately alter Nick’s identity.
While both Nick and Amy consider divorce on multiple occasions throughout the film, the couple eventually chooses to stay with one another. Nick does so in order to protect others from her sociopathy, and Amy, in order to assert her newfound ability to manipulate her husband. Their marriage thus emerges from the film as little more than a calculated game, where the victor changes from moment to moment and pleasure is derived through exerting control over one’s opponent. The film presents an intense irony then, where the two are posed as the utopian ‘happy couple’ when in fact their entire marriage is predicated on destroying one another.
At the film’s conclusion, Nick asserts that the primal questions of any marriage are “Who are we, and what have we done to each other?” Nick’s statement communicates that the foundations of a marriage are the structures of control and domination present within it. The film thus presents the institution of marriage as existing not for the sake of love, but as a means of codifying pre-existing structures of control in society. Marriage provides the institutionalized opportunity to control another person, the primal motivations of both patriarchy and of capitalism. Within this framework, Gone Girl presents marriage as a compromise wherein both partners leverage cooperation as a strategy for coercing the other, and for navigating the constraints of both patriarchy and capital.
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