Fighting Superman is super hard.
“The guy is tough,” says Ben Affleck, who is playing Batman in a new iteration filming now in Detroit where the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel duke it out. The actor is also having a tricky time with less heroic characters in his new hit movie, Gone Girl, a twisted and twisty conjugal cage fight that has sparked charges of misogyny, misandry and misanthropy.
Critics complain that Gillian Flynn’s clever creation, Amy Dunne, who punishes the men in her life by conjuring two false charges of rape and one of murder, is as cartoonish as muscly men in tights. They keen that the sleek blonde portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the movie is the latest in a line of stereotypical she-monsters and vagina-dentata dames, independent women who turn out to be scary sociopaths.
Gone Girl opened with the backdrop of cover-ups on NFL domestic violence and campaigns against sexual assault in the military and on campus. (California just passed legislation requiring students to give active consent before any sexual activity.)
In The Guardian, Joan Smith contended that the movie’s fake rape scenarios perpetuate the idea that victims of sexual violence “can’t be trusted.”
The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister told The Financial Times that the movie’s depiction of “our little sexual monsters” traded “on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.”
Not to mention when the boiled-down women boil bunnies.
But, as a devotee of film-noir vixens, I side with Flynn, whose philosophy is: “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”
Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.
If Gone Girl is sending the wrong message about women, then Emma Bovary should have gone to medical school instead of cheating on her husband, Anna Karenina should have been a train engineer rather than throwing herself onto the tracks and Eve Harrington should have waited her turn.
The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”
After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks pushed Socialist Realism, creating the Proletkult to ensure that art served ideology. Must we now have a Gynokult to ensure Feminist Unrealism?
“Good God, we’re in a lot of trouble if people think that Amy represents every woman,” Flynn marveled, telling me: “Once I was being mentioned alongside Ray Rice, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to an interesting place.’
“Feminism is not that fragile, I hope. What Amy does is to weaponize female stereotypes. She embodies them to get what she wants and then she detonates them. Men do bad things in films all the time and they’re called anti-heroes.”
Amy may not be admirable, Flynn notes, but “neither are the men on The Sopranos.”
“I think part of what people are pushing back on is that Amy’s not a dismissible bad person,” she said. “She doesn’t get punished.”
David Fincher, the director with the gift for saturating scenes in the darkness that interests him, is equally bemused.
“I don’t think the book or movie is saying that one out of five women in the Midwest needs to be scrutinized for borderline personality disorder,” he said. “The character is hyperbolized. It’s not 60 Minutes. It’s a mystery that becomes an absurdist thriller that ultimately becomes a satire.”
Flynn, Fincher and Affleck agree the movie is less about the she-monster than the me-monster, the narcissism involved in seducing your aspirational soul mate.
“The whole point is that these are two people pretending to be other people, better people, versions of the dream guy and dream girl,” Flynn said. “But each one couldn’t keep it up, so they destroy each other.”
Or as Fincher puts it, eventually in a relationship, you get to the point where exhaustion sets in and you say, “I don’t feel like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge yet again.”
Affleck said that, as the father of two young girls, he is acutely aware of the dangers that women face in the world.
“But picking apart the plot architecture in this literal way misses the larger point of Gillian’s book and David’s movie,” he said. “Just as Kubrick’s Lolita was about pedophilia, plotwise, but actually about obsession, this movie is not simply about a diabolical woman or a man getting railroaded. It’s an indictment of how we lie to one another until, eventually, the mask falls off. Ironically, it is a movie that’s critical of marriage from two people who have great marriages.”
So to the Church of Feminism and the Niceness Thought Police, I say: Let a thousand black orchids bloom.
© 2014 New York Times News Service