Amy Dunne is missing and presumed dead. Her husband, Nick, is looking more and more like the prime subject with each passing day. Two American nightmares, designated by gender.
That is the crux of writer Alice Bolin’s reading of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s bestselling 2012 thriller, later adapted into a movie starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck. Bolin discusses the subversive mechanics of the modern American noir in her new book, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. The collection explores why ― in television, literature, film and even music ― our culture prefers its female characters served cold and lifeless.
Gone Girl begins there, with the phantom presence of a missing woman, pretty, perfect and tragically gone too soon. However, over the course of the book (spoilers ahead, but come on, it’s been six years) Amy reveals herself to be very much alive, as well as a rancorous deviant who’s attempting to frame her disappointing dud of a husband in a mind-bendingly conniving plot.
Amy’s core is certainly rotten, but in Bolin’s reading of the book, Nick embodies the more “damning categorization” of the two. That’s because while Amy bears “no resemblance to any one person who has ever walked the planet,” as Bolin writes, she does bear “a resemblance to women as conceived of in the nightmares of men like Nick, and there are many of those men walking the planet.”
In other words, Amy is farcical in her wickedness, while Nick looks all too familiar. He is both villain and victim, a hybrid identity typical of some self-professed decent men who see themselves as unfairly maligned and thus entitled to retribution. The book reads eerily prescient now when men’s fear of being accused is a central topic of some Me Too discussions and outbursts of violence by incels (involuntary celibates) and domestic abusers reveal how attacks against women are often retribution for rejection.
“You’re the wronged party,” said Bolin, explaining the offender’s thinking in an interview with HuffPost. “Everyone has tricked you and screwed you out of getting what you want.”
Bolin recognizes this trope in a wide range of (beloved) fictional male characters, including Philip Marlowe, the noir detective in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, who “feels harassed by his own job” and understands himself as a “pure soul being corrupted.”
Another cultural “innocent in his own mind” is Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” whom Bolin describes as an “avenging angel.” The Oscar-nominated film ends with Bickle, played by Robert de Niro, killing three men. He’s hailed as a hero because the dead were violent criminals themselves, but in real life, the violence committed by so-called “decent men” isn’t so easily digestible.
Think of Elliot Rodger, described in the media as a “polite and kind” boy. He was 22 years old when he murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, before he killed himself. “People should feel sorry for me,” he wrote in a manifesto he distributed shortly before the 2014 massacre. “My life is so pathetic, and I hate the world for forcing me to suffer it. I feel sorry for myself.”
This kind of rhetoric is plastered across the message boards of incels, Rodger’s compatriots who see sex and love as their birthright. Bolin believes that privilege is to blame for this warped mindset.
“Women, no matter how privileged they are, get a rude awakening at some point, because being harassed, dismissed and ignored is commonplace,” she said. “For men, quite often, they are kind of raised in this very insulated way. It’s too late when they get that rude awakening.”
When self-victimization spurs them on to an act of violence, the line between sufferer and culprit has already been blurred. “They are the victims in their own minds,” as Bolin put it.
Because fictional male characters are often written to balance the duality of hero and villain, they are imbued with a complexity that is relatable to readers and viewers. We empathize with flawed male heroes and anti-heroes because being misunderstood and overlooked are universal elements of the human experience.
Dead girls, however, often die before the opening scene or page and are henceforth treated as objects rather than people. We can empathize with a male character even if he is misogynist, violent or cruel. But “dead girls” are props, their pain merely a spectacle. We can’t look away and don’t feel morally compelled to, either.
“The reason the ‘dead girl’ is dead from the beginning is so we don’t identify with her,” Bolin said. “No one watches ‘Twin Peaks’ and thinks, ‘Oh, I’m a Laura Palmer.’”
While “dead girls” like Laura are objects rather than characters, “nice guys” like Nick Dunne are used to being the trusted narrators and won’t settle for anything less. Bolin believes the Nick Dunnes of the world fear being accused of a crime they didn’t commit not only because of the physical consequences they might face, but because they’re terrified of having a narrative thrust upon them that runs counter to the one they created themselves.
A recent survey by Glamour and GQ suggested that 84 percent of nonfictional men are “worried that sexual misconduct accusations could harm the reputations of men who don’t deserve it.” The fear of women like Amy runs rampant in men like Nick.
When Flynn’s characters first appeared in print in 2012, Bolin believes the novelist communicated something that, at the time, felt unsayable: “that it is scarier for a man to be accused than to be killed.” Perhaps because men are so accustomed to being protagonists, they can hardly imagine ceasing to exist altogether. Relinquishing ultimate authority over their own experience is devastating enough.
So-called “nice guys” take up plenty of space in American narratives both factual and fictional. With Dead Girls, Bolin pulls a move not unlike Flynn’s, beginning with the familiar image of the dead girl and then bringing her back to life. After devoting chapters to ideas like “The Husband Did It” and “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show,” Bolin breaks down the archetypes of other, livelier female tropes.
“I know that there are going to be people who read the book who feel like there aren’t enough dead girls in it,” she said. “I want people to stop focusing on the dead girl; I want us to be able to move on.”
Bolin transitions into an essential story: her own. She unpacks her time growing up in Moscow, Idaho, and moving to Los Angeles. Like Amy Dunne, Bolin draws power from her ability to shape her narrative, framing storytelling as a mode of survival. She discusses the cultural influences that shaped her coming of age and, in doing so, introduces other female archetypes ― the daughter as detective, the wild thing, the sadomasochistic artist, the teen witch.
The women who live.
By the end of the book, Dead Girls is hardly about dead girls at all. Instead, Bolin provides something of a survival guide, using real and imagined women as mythic models in the art of outpacing the “nice guys” in their lives. She explores the ways women find power ― through writing, sex, art, magic and love. And, of course, reading.
In the introduction, Bolin calls it a “fatal flaw” that she insists on “learning everything from books.” But it’s clear by the end that reading is the thing that helped her survive.