After seeing Gone Girl a few months ago, I remember hearing people’s commentary as they left the theatre. One person’s comment, although it was probably a joke, was particularly memorable: something along the lines of “marriage turns women batshit crazy.” It is an unsettling reality that we live in a world rampant with sexism, and this carries through to Hollywood films. Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is arguably the most recognizable female performance of 2014 in mainstream cinema – certainly not the only one, but the most widely recognizable to the general, non-movie-aficionado public.
This is highly problematic because Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne was already written through a fairly misogynistic lens to begin with; the film seems to take this and dial it up several notches. Amy is a character who repeatedly fakes her own rape in order to exact revenge on various men in her life. This is not only a disturbing representation of the female gender as a whole, but it is also unfortunately the prevalent view in the general movie-going public’s eye due to its popularity in this past year’s mainstream movie line up. This type of representation only adds fuel to the misogynistic fire.
It was a fire that was burning fairly bright to begin with. Amy Dunne may be the most recent woman obsessed with revenge, but she is far from the only woman to be depicted this way by Hollywood. Cinematic slates have frequently included the obsessed woman from Single White Female to The Crush to SwimFan to Fatal Attraction, all films about how women just can’t handle their emotions and latch on to a man who doesn’t want them — and these are just the major titles you might be familiar with. There is a buffet of B-movies or straight to DVD that peer out at you from Netflix categories like “Films About Obsession.” All movies about women who go insane because of a man, all representing women as not being able to deal with rejection. Just look at the film Obsessed. Nice, clean cut Idris Elba is a good husband and father, and a hard worker, and he has been rewarded with a big promotion, but then a slutty temp shows up and starts making advances. He’s a good guy though and says no, politely. Ali Larter just won’t take no for an answer and oh my goodness she’s going to ruin everything! Of course the film ends with a “girlfight” in which Larter’s character dies (standard operating procedure for this type of film). So to sum up, a woman sees a successful, good-looking man with a good job and loses her mind after trying to use sex to lure him from his wife and family doesn’t work. The only way she can be stopped is to kill her.
Of course there are an equal number of films in which women are the subject of unwanted advances, often in the horror genre. While there are some that are well done (even considered groundbreaking), such as Sleeping with the Enemy, but the majority of these films portray women as being helpless in the face of a man who wants them, often making it seem as though the women are being unreasonable for not taking a perfectly nice guy up on his advances. She could at least have a drink with the guy before deciding he’s not worth her time, right? For example, in the movie P2, a woman is taken hostage on Christmas Eve by a security guard who just wants to “look after” her. He has been watching her go up and down in the elevator, and after seeing her be assaulted by a drunken co-worker, he decides she just can’t look after herself and takes matters into his own hands. So he starts looking into her life. He investiages her and learns the names of her closest family and friends, he knows where she lives and her usual daily schedule. Unfortunately, he is made out to really have the best of intentions, he just doesn’t know how to express himself. P2 joins a long list of films like this, but this list is much shorter than the list of films about women who become obsessed with a man and just can’t control themselves.
Then there is a final category of films, best personified by The Boy Next Door, opening January 23, 2015 in theatres, which offers up a slightly different brand of sexism for mainstream consumption. On the surface, the film centers around a woman who is relatively independent and caring; she lacks complexity and is a somewhat cookie-cutter representation of what a “strong woman” should be, but she is not terrible. She is, however, still defined by her relationships to the various men in her life. She is either confronting her husband’s infidelity, or worrying about her son, or (of course) engaging with the titular boy next door. Granted, it is probably too much to expect any great leaps in feminism from a film like this, especially since January is a dump month, where mediocre films get a chance to thrive with little competition.
One of the major issues with this film, however, is that at its core is a notion of punishment, and as noted above, this is all too common in Hollywood. The narrative punishes a woman for her sexuality and for her “weakness,” and indulges in several double standards along the way. When Claire’s husband cheats on her, he is ultimately rewarded with her forgiveness. In contrast, after Claire sleeps with Noah (the hot next door neighbour), she experiences much more misplaced guilt and constantly expresses regret about her “vulnerability” and her moment of “weakness.” The message that this seems to send is that her husband’s infidelity is easy to overlook, while hers causes her life to literally go down in flames. This double standard suggests that even after her husband cheated on her, she should have remained faithful – since she did not, she and everyone she loves suffered endlessly.
With such a jarring lack of female characters on screen for mainstream audiences, it is disappointing to see wasted potential in films which do center around women. Audiences already have little to choose from when it comes to female-driven narratives. The problem with these types of films is obvious: obsession of any kind isn’t okay. This is stalking, plain and simple. Gone Girl and P2’s representation of women feeds into society’s inclination to blame the victim. Films like Obsessed show how little control women have over themselves. The Boy Next Door puts forth a double standard when it comes to men and women’s sexuality. While it is not the job of any one film or director to change the face of Hollywood, it is problematic to see the limited representations of women on screen, along with the sexism they continue to perpetuate. And, perhaps, the onus is on the audience to vote with their wallets and simply deny films like these an economic reason to exist.