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Does contemporary fiction primarily challenge or support patriarchal structures and misogynistic cultures?

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In response to allegations that Gone Girl is misogynistic, Gillian Flynn defended her status as a feminist by questioning what feminism is, and whether it is only about “girl power”. Discussing this, Flynn stated that there is a “very small window on what feminism is” and to her, it’s the “ability to have women who are bad characters” (Saner) which is what she explores in the characterization of Amy Dunne. Amy is an extremely well-developed character who doesn’t fall into the category of a sexually desired villain for the male gaze. Feminism no longer calls for ‘strong’ women that are essentially attractive women with masculine traits, but instead female characters to be treated like their male counter parts, in that they are complex and interesting. Through Amy Dunne, Flynn subverts the idea that woman are both innately good and nurturing, instead presenting a female character that can be just as pragmatically evil, bad and selfish as men can be in literature.

Nick Dunne however is inherently misogynistic. He wants both the public and the readers to think of him as a ‘good guy’ (Flynn) and while he desperately tries not to be like his woman hating father, he ultimately fails. Nick states “I didn’t hate and fear all women. I was a one-woman misogynist” (Flynn), yet throughout the book Nick finds reasons to hate all the woman around him and Flynn justifies this with the lack of positive female characters. For the first half of the book Amy is portrayed as a sad, cast-aside wife, pitifully (and dutifully) working to pick back up the pieces of her marriage, but after it is revealed that she faked her death, the tone of the book changes and readers are expected to be sympathetic of Nick. He feels satisfaction that his wife is actually crazy because it justifies his misogynistic thoughts. While it is understandable for Nick to hate his wife, it is revealed throughout the book that he hates all the women around him. Flynn does not challenge this but instead forces the readers to agree.

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While Flynn is praised for creating a multi-dimensional female character in Amy, she falls short in her portrayal of the other woman in the book. All of them do something that justifies Nicks hate and misogyny. In Nicks affair with Andie he states, “The idea that I could do something, and it would make a woman happy and it would be that easy. Whatever you give me, I’ll like” (Flynn), this both manages to imply that Amy is the one at fault for his cheating, and that if she had been a different sort of wife and woman, he might have been able to remain faithful to her. It shows how resentful Nick is of intelligent and demanding women, preferring women like Andie who allow him to make decisions on their behalf. Andie however, conforms to the stereotype of the needy mistress, constantly sprouting clichés such as “I just need you right now,” and “tell me you love me” (Flynn) and this characterisation forces the reader to relate to Nick as she becomes tedious to hear. Though a minor character, Shawna Kelly, after her failed attempt to seduce Nick, fabricates a flirtation which she takes to the media to further ruin Nick’s already damaged reputation. This adds to the collection of ‘bad’ women and while their actions justify this title, it also encourages and justifies both Nick and the reader, to categorise all women as manipulative and villainous.

The only female character that can be classified as likeable is Margo Dunne and she rejects her femininity, making her the “only one woman [Nick] could stand to be around right now” (Flynn). To be considered a good woman in Gone Girl, it means Go can’t be like any other woman. She is not “feminine” and more importantly she “understands”(Flynn) Nick. She stands by Nick throughout the book and doesn’t ask him to explain his behaviour or motivations. However, when she falters in her faith in him, she loses her place in his mind as different from other woman, landing her on his list of “fucking bitches” (Flynn). Perhaps unintentionally, Flynn enforces a misogynistic culture through her portrayal of woman. While it is important to have multi-dimensional female characters that can be just as evil as men, it becomes problematic when that is the only image created of women and further justifies misogyny.

Gone Girl attempts to challenge patriarchal structures and misogynistic cultures but unfortunately enforces them. Amy’s famous ‘cool girl’ speech however, is purely feminist and resonates with all women who read it. In this monologue Amy discusses the double standard women face in society and the extremes they will go to in order to be the women a man wants. It can be misread as a critique of other women, but it is fundamentally about how women should think for themselves and pursue their own interests. The monologue is self-deprecating because Amy was a ‘Cool Girl’ and she is bitter that she did it for a man who cheated on her.

Amy states “Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl” (Flynn), thus challenging society`s view on how women should behave. It highlights and criticises the idea that women must be submissive and please the men in their life, while never getting angry. The second paragraph begins with a key line, “men actually think this girl exists.” (Flynn) It targets men who think of women as extensions of themselves, as creatures who are meant to fulfil man’s desires while not having independent wants or needs. While this seems like an incredibly old attitude, Gone Girl has modernised it in a way woman of today’s society can relate to, thus ‘Cool Girl’ on the surface actually seems modern and maybe even progressive—she doesn’t appear traditionally feminine, she’s into “guy” stuff but ultimately whatever the Cool Girl likes, she likes not for herself, but in order to please a man. So, if the man in question is a vegetarian, then she “loves seitan and is great with dogs.” Or if he’s a “hipster artist,” then she’s “a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics.” (Flynn) Whatever the “window dressing” may be, the Cool Girl is “the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.” (Flynn) The feminist message in this powerful monologue becomes more complex however, when it is spoken by an unreliable narrator who is a psychopathic woman. It is something most women relate to, but knowing it is Amy’s thoughts, adds a sense of guilt in knowing that as a woman, you can relate to this person who has done terrible things. While the monologue read on its own can highlight problems in a misogynistic society and make men understand a woman’s perspective, when considered in the context of the book and Amy’s character, it can be written off as the ramblings of another mad woman.

Amy Dunne is men’s biggest fear and while neither Amy nor Nick are perfect people, Amy is ultimately the villain at the end. This justifies to men reading the book that their fears are rational. Amy is the women who presented a fake version of herself and once married, became a passive aggressive nag. She is the woman who got pregnant to trap her man. She fakes rape on multiple occasions with no remorse stating “I took a wine bottle and abused myself with it every day, so the inside of my vagina looked right. Right for a rape victim.” (Flynn) Amy’s actions validate those in society who believe most rape victims are liars, that women are the controllers, not men, and that you can’t trust or say anything to a woman because she’ll just twist everything to make you look bad. In a world where rapists are hardly ever convicted, and women don’t report it due to fears of not being believed, Gone Girl reinforces the idea that rape is a women’s weapon. In a society that barely knows how to deal with rape, it enforces the idea that rape victims are attention seeking or have a personal vendetta against their assailants.

Unlike Gone Girl where rape is a women’s tool, Rape: A love Story highlights the brutality of rape and the misogynistic attitudes of both society and the court who are supposed to serve justice. By describing the rape in brutal detail, the readers have no choice but to understand the ridiculousness of the statement “she was asking for it” (Oates). Through the use of second person perspective when narrating as Bethie, readers are forced to identify with her and understand the horror of rape. It is the aftermath however that truly challenges the patriarchal and misogynistic society we live in.

The book is split into two parts, before and after, and it is the ‘after’ that does the most damage to Teena. Not having a husband becomes a reason for her rape, “Where’s her husband? Doesn’t that women have a husband?” (Oates), and the casual misogyny and victim blaming, “tight sexy clothes showing her breasts…what’s she expect?” (Oates) shatters her. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl fakes her rape twice and both times she is believed, making the men the victims, yet statistics prove that Rape: A Love Story is a more accurate portrayal of rape and how it is dealt with. In England and Wales alone, only “15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police” and “conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator”. (Rape Crisis England & Wales)

J.M Coetzee also focuses on rape in his book Disgrace, yet his male protagonist, David Lurie, only enforces patriarchal structures and is often misogynistic in his thoughts on women. As Stratton asserts, men cannot conduct appropriate behaviour in a society where they cannot be wronged: ‘David has occupied for most of his life a position of centrality, a world of white patriarchal distinctions, rules and logic’ and thus cannot be anything but sexist (Stratton). Coetzee’s descriptions of women, through David eyes, leave little to be desired. He describes his daughter’s breasts and buttocks as “ample,” and describes Bev as a woman who “makes little effort to look attractive” (Coetzee). While this is an element of David Lurie’s character, there is little to redeem Coetzee’s presentation of women. The rape happens to the female characters, yet their voices are silenced in preference over David opinions. The sex between David and Melanie is described as “not quite rape”, yet it is “undesired to the core” and she decides to “go slack, die within herself for the duration” (Coetzee).

Just because it lacks the violence of the rape seen in Rape: A Love Story does make it any less of a rape. Melanie’s voice is never heard on the subject though and David even neglects to read her testimony. In Disgrace, women and their bodies are something for men to fight over and discuss, David and Petrus over Lucy and David and Mr Isaacs over Melanie. The women are silenced by the men and in the end, men speak for both Lucy and Melanie and Coetzee himself takes no efforts to free them from this bond.

David fails to understand his daughter’s sexuality, suggesting that Lucy and her lover Helen, ‘sleep together merely as children do” and are “sisters more than lovers” (Coetzee). This is yet another example of his misogynist nature- he cannot fathom women enjoying sex without men. David, ever the sexist describes his daughters rape as a post-colonial consequence and nothing personal, once again he sounds insensitive and erases ‘the long history of female exploitation’ (Boehmer). When contemplating his daughters rape, David states “he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?” (Coetzee). David doesn’t wonder if her can empathise with his daughter’s feelings as a victim, he asks if he can be the woman, if he can put himself in the shoes of a woman and understand her experiences, as a general contemplation. He can imagine being a violent rapist, yet he can’t imagine being violated, being the victim, being a woman, in general. This seems to sum up Coetzee’s own position within his novel, he can describe a rapist, he can understand a rape, he can present the internal monologue of a man both raping and dealing with the rape of someone he loves, but he can’t be the woman.

Thus, in conclusion, contemporary fiction like Rape: A Love Story challenges misogynistic culture and the patriarchy through it’s harrowing depiction of a brutal rape and societies response to it. It examines rape victim blaming and the lack of lawful justice for rapists and forces its readers to consider the misogynistic society they live in. Gone Girl manages to both challenge and enforce misogyny. Amy Dunne is a complicated character and was created to enforce that women can be just as bad and two dimensional as men, yet despite her less than perfect husband, she is still the character we are encouraged to hate at the end, while Nick is the victim. She is every mans worst fear and Gone Girl validates and encourages these fears. Yet there is still an undercurrent of feminism in Gone Girl (analysed within this essay), Disgrace however, enforces misogynistic culture and the patriarchy throughout the novel through it main character and silenced women.

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