David Fincher, Gone Girl and Misogyny

Robert Jackson Bennett has a great post about the movie Gone Girl and his massive issues with the film and particularly the portrayal of female sexuality as a weapon wielded against “innocent” men. Found via Natalie of The Radish.

Now I haven’t read the book and I’m not going to watch the film. Nonetheless, I know what happens in Gone Girl due to cultural osmosis – you pick up knowledge because people in your spaces talk about a thing. And there was a lot of talk about Gone Girl, the novel, long before the movie came out. Indeed, I think the first time I came across Gone Girl was on a romance readers forum, where the posters – overwhelmingly women, given romance reader demographics – talked about this new thriller and how absolutely horrible the female protagonist was for tricking and mistreating the poor poor male protagonist. A few posters also said that they disliked both characters equally, because they were both horrible people.

Now romance readers – and this was a forum that catered to more conservative romance readers – are often unreasonably harsh on female characters, while giving male characters a pass for even the worst sort of behaviour. So given the reaction to Gone Girl at that forum, I suspected that the female protagonist might well be problematic, but the male protagonist most definitely was. Eventually, I heard more about the book and its plot and learned that yes, the female protagonist was clearly a psychopath. But the male protagonist was a clearly a jerk, too.

But what bothered me most about Gone Girl was not that the characters were unpleasant – after all, I didn’t intend to read it – but that such a book existed at all, that a woman had written it and that plenty of people, many of them women, were gobbling it up.

Now I have a couple of narrative total dealbreakers, plots and tropes I hate so much that I will not only refuse to read or watch anything containing said trope and will never write about said trope, but believe that the existence of said trope is incredibly harmful. One of these tropes is murdering children – I hate “The kid did it” plots so much I will probably stop watching the TV show (it’s really common on TV crime dramas) altogether.

Another of my personal total dealbreaker tropes is “A woman makes up allegations of domestic abuse and/or rape”. Because we live in a world where rape convictions are still incredibly rare, where domestic violence and sexual abuse are still routinely ignored, where the victims are still scrutinised. We live in a world where something like the Jörg Kachelmann case can happen (here is a more detailed German language article). And the last thing a world where the Kachelmann case and many similar less high profile cases can happen on a regular basis needs is a Gone Girl dropped into it. Because the police, courts, the media and the public already aren’t believing women who find the courage to report rape and abuse. And a high profile novel like Gone Girl in which a woman makes up rape and domestic abuse allegations will only excarbate this problem.

Now I assumed that Gone Girl would fade away within a few months like other mega bestsellers have faded before it, that people would just stop talking about it and move on to talk about something else, something hopefully less problematic. Plus, the popularity of Gone Girl gave an unexpected boost to what was termed “literary high concept thrillers” written by women, books like The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.

But then the movie came out and because Gone Girl was filmed by David Fincher, a man who has a reputation as a great director, it got a whole lot of attention in places that had ignored the novel. Even Germany’s notoriously snooty and highbrow cultural press and TV programs talked about Gone Girl the movie in fawning reports that called the movie “a psychogram of a marriage”, which made it sound like an updated version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage* and will likely leave some very confused viewers behind.

I was quite upset about the amount of attention the film adaption of Gone Girl was getting from cultural programs that never talk about Hollywood films that are actually good to the point that my Mom, who is one of those people who can’t understand why anybody would get worked up about something that is “just entertainment” in her view, asked me just why I was so bothered by the movie and that I just shouldn’t watch it.

“I’m bothered because it’s a high-profile movie adaptation of a misogynist novel made by a director known for problematic portrayals of women and yet these people are praising it, while ignoring other better movies”, I said.

Because let’s face it, David Fincher has a history of making movies which portray women in a problematic way. Let’s start with his Oscar winning The Social Network which only features women in supporting roles as “girlfriends who dump our hero and prompt him to create Facebook” and portrays Mark Zuckerberg as a misogynist jerk obsessed with women, their looks and their relationship status. Now it’s possible that Zuckerberg actually is a misogynist jerk in real life – I know very little about the man. But this article from Rebecca Davis O’Brien about misogyny in The Social Network points out that the film only treats women as prizes and props, though she blames scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin rather than director David Fincher. She might be even be right about that, since I’ve always found Sorkin’s work incredibly problematic long before I knew his name (a friend wanted to watch A Few Good Men and I went to see it with her and found that I hated the film with a passion), which largely mirrors how I feel about Fincher.

But let’s get back to David Fincher. I have seen neither The Curious Case of Benjamnin Button nor Panic Room nor Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I can’t comment on them. I have seen Zodiac, but until I just looked up Fincher’s IMDB entry, I didn’t know it was one of his films. And back when I watched Zodiac, I didn’t know it was based on a real, still unsolved case and thus was mightily confused why what was otherwise a rather neat serial killer thriller failed to capture the killer. Of course, nowadays Zodiac is most notable for featuring everybody’s favourite science bros in a pre-Avengers appearance together. Indeed, you could probably sum up the film as “Even two Avengers are not enough to apprehend a serial killer”**. Nonetheless, Zodiac is probably my favourite Fincher movie and the only one I can imagine watching again, though it’s still a testosterone heavy movie in which women only appear as victims or wives.

Fight Club is pretty similar to Gone Girl, a thriller with a lot of twists and turns based on a novel which is hugely problematic in itself. It’s also dripping with testosterone and contains a lot of lamentations about the fate of the poor put upon white men, which didn’t just make my eyes roll. As with Gone Girl and possibly The Social Network, the problem already lies with the source material. But the fact that David Fincher keeps adapting problematic source material does mean something, especially since a director of his reputation has a choice what to adapt.

The Game is a movie I immensely disliked and indeed confirmed my dislike of David Fincher as a director whose films I hate. It was his third movie and the last one I watched at the theatre, because I figured out a director who made three movies I hated didn’t deserve another chance. Coincidentally, The Game also has some parallels with Gone Girl. Again, it’s a twisting thriller where nothing is as it seems at first glance. It’s also a story where a man is hounded and accused of crimes he didn’t commit and it all turns out to be a sham. However, unlike Ben Affleck’s character in Gone Girl, Michael Douglas’ character in The Game is supposed to be not just immensely grateful to have been sent on such a great adventure, he’s even expected to foot the bill for the whole thing. Indeed, this was why I hated the movie, because I thought, “If my brother had done something like that to me, I’d kill him rather than hug him.” As for women, I’m sure there were women in The Game. I’ve just completely forgotten about them, while I can offhand recall the male stars.

I saw Se7en in one of the most fabulous places to see a movie worldwide, on the balcony of the Odeon Leicester Square. Now the Odeon Leicester Square is a fabulous movie theatre, so fabulous that I went there as often as possible as a student, even though other theatres were playing the same movies at cheaper ticket prices. But not even the wonderful Art Deco surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square could make Se7en a better movie.

Like Zodiac, Se7en is a serial killer thriller with an unsatisfying conclusion. And like Zodiac, it’s a film where women only appear as victims or wives or both at once. Yes, Zodiac is the film in which Fincher had Kevin Spacey cut off Gwynneth Paltrow’s head and put it in a box. I repeat, he cut off Gwynneth Paltrow’s head and put it in a box. And the movie didn’t just kill Gwynneth Paltrow’s character, but used her as a prop to push Brad Pitt over the edge in a classic case of fridging. Of course, Gwynneth Paltrow wasn’t the star she’d eventually become back then***, she was just that young blonde actress with the funny looking face. None of which makes what happens to her character in Se7en any more acceptable.

Coincidentally, I recently saw a report on TV in which Austrian writer Clemens Setz pointed out parallels between a scene in Se7en and IS beheading videos. Now Fincher is absolutely not responsible for IS copying his imagery, but it’s still rather disturbing.

Finally, we come to the film that lies at the root of my intense dislike for David Fincher and his oevre, namely Alien 3 a.k.a. the film that killed a franchise. Now Alien 3 didn’t actually kill the Alien franchise – no, it’s still going strong after 35 years. However, most people like Alien and Aliens, though opinions vary with regard to which is better. Meanwhile, comparatively few people like Alien 3 or the increasingly diminishing returns that followed. And some people even say, “Alien 3? There was no Alien 3? The series ended with Aliens.” If only…

Alien 3 was the first film of the franchise I saw at the theatre, I was too young for the previous installments and only saw them on TV. I was really excited about getting to see it in the theatre, too, because at the time I was a big fan of the Alien series. And I hated Alien 3. Oh, how I hated it, even though my twenty-year-old self couldn’t quite express just why I hated it so much.

Now I’m twenty years older and can express just why I hated Alien 3 so much. The reason is that Alien 3 took a franchise that had created one of the great iconic strong women of SF and planted a misogynist turd right on top of it.

For starters, Fincher killed off Newt and Hicks, both beloved characters, off screen, because they didn’t fit the movie he wanted to make. Then he crashlanded Ripley on a prison planet full of men, men with a double Y chromosome (i.e. so masculine they’re criminally insane) at that. Depressingly enough, those male prisoners are played by some very fine actors such as Charles Dance, Charles Dutton, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite, etc… There are only two female characters in Alien 3 (three, if you count Newt’s briefly glimpsed corpse), Ripley and the alien queen. To add further humiliation to Ellen Ripley, she has to shave her head, because apparently they don’t have effective anti-lice agents in the future. Never mind that shaving a woman’s head is traditionally a way of marking female criminals and women deemed sluts. There are plenty of references to Ripley’s childbearing capabilities or the lack thereof (since her biological kid is dead and Newt is dead, too), Ripley is impregnated by the alien queen and in the end kills both the queen and herself, while a baby alien bursts from her womb. In short, Alien 3 is a film about the hatred of women and their ability to bear children.

Indeed, when I told my Mom following that TV report about Gone Girl that I hated Fincher, because he kept making misogynist movies, fridged Gwynneth Paltrow and put her head in a box and was responsible for the fucking disgrace that was Alien 3, the film where he first shaved Ellen Ripley’s head and then killed her off, she said, “What does it matter? If you hate Alien 3, just don’t watch it.”****

But it does matter. It matters because David Fincher destroyed the Alien franchise and tried to humiliate and kill off one of the few female iconic SF characters. Worse, Alien 3 tarnished even the two good movies. Before Alien 3, I had watched both Alien and Aliens several times. I had the movies on video. I watched them whenever they showed up on late night TV somewhere. Some time after Alien 3, Alien was on TV again. But when I tried to watch it, I found that I didn’t like it anymore. Ditto for Aliens. I don’t think I’ve seen either of them in full in the past twenty years.

Does this make David Fincher a misogynist? I honestly don’t know, because I know nothing about the man as a person. But I know that he keeps making problematic movie after problematic movie.

*I will forever refer to Scenes from a Marriage as “Tendrils of a Toe”, because a popular comedy program on German TV had a thing about switching initial sounds of phrases and titles for comedic effect, so Scenes from a Marriage (“Szenen einer Ehe” in German) became “Tendrils of a Toe” (“Sehnen einer Zehe” in German). You don’t want to know what I call Kentucky Fried Chicken.

**Given the current flood of superhero films starring high profile actors, a lot of older movies start looking distinctly strange when viewed through the superhero lens. For example, try “Hank Pym fails to finish a novel he’s promised his publisher, so the publisher sends Tony Stark to put the pressure on Pym. Batman’s doomed girlfriend Rachel tries to seduce Pym, while Pym’s genius student Peter Parker winds up in bed with Tony Stark” – yes, this is a real movie, based on a novel by Michael Chabon who would probably get a kick out of this summary. Or how about “Hank Pym has a one night stand with Nova Prime who turns stalker and makes his life hell” – yes, this was a massive hit in the 1980s.

***What is it with David Fincher and future Marvel Cinematic Universe characters?

****I should note that my Mom really hates the entire Alien franchise, can’t tell the movies apart and is still annoyed more than twenty years later that I made her watch three of them.

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3 Responses to David Fincher, Gone Girl and Misogyny

  1. Pingback: Gone Girl, femme fatales and fear of women | Cora Buhlert

  2. I have seen neither The Curious Case of Benjamnin Button

    FWIW, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the only David Fincher movie I’ve ever seen (and likely the only one I’ll ever see, after reading this post), and I can report that it feels no need to tear down its female characters, as far as I recall.

    • Cora says:

      That’s good to know. I suspect his adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” might be okay in that regard as well (though I liked the Swedish TV versions so well I have no desire to watch any other take), since even Fincher could not destroy a book that was intended to be explicitly feminist.

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