‘Destroying Her Husband’s Life … Taking Back Power for Women Everywhere’




“On the occasion of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne reports that his beautiful wife, Amy, has gone missing. Under pressure from the police and a growing media frenzy, Nick’s portrait of a blissful union begins to crumble. Soon his lies, deceits and strange behavior have everyone asking the same dark question: Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?”
plot summary of Gone Girl

Feminism as revenge is a concept that many people understand instinctively. Whereas 50 years ago, the unhappy woman might have sought psychiatric therapy to help her cope with feelings of disappointment, regret and inadequacy, feminism encourages women to turn their feelings into political empowerment, to view themselves as victims of systemic male-supremacist oppression, so that whatever makes them unhappy can be denounced as social injustice.

Our common-sense understanding of feminism as revenge explains why most people reject feminism, per se. We don’t buy into the “personal is political” rationale, whereby unhappy women seek to transform their discontents into a radical cause. At the very least, common sense suggests that Women’s Studies majors — “raging lesbian feminists” who condemn Disney movies as “heteronormative” and make “Smash Patriarchy” their slogan — do not really speak for all women.

If nothing else, the new thriller Gone Girl signals that Hollywood at long last has figured out how to exploit an undeniable fact about Ben Affleck: Movie audiences don’t like him. Every cinematic attempt to make Affleck a heroic protagonist is doomed, because there is something about him people simply don’t trust. The 2013 movie Runner Runner was the first time I’ve seen Affleck cast appropriately, as a selfish, cynical offshore casino owner — the villain in a 21st-century film noir. And judging from the critical debate about Gone Girl, Affleck is set up as the fall guy in a complex feminist revenge fantasy.

Nick Dunne is a victim, but he’s not an innocent victim, nor is his missing ex-wife Amy a sympathetic character. Feminists are debating Gone Girl‘s ambiguities, Emine Sanders explains at the Guardian:

It wasn’t as if the last week’s think-pieces, roughly summed up as “Is Gone Girl a feminist masterpiece or supremely damaging to all women, everywhere?”, sprung out of nowhere. When Gillian Flynn’s novel was published in 2012, and became a bestseller, the US writer found herself accused of a “deep animosity towards women”. Her gripping, if ludicrous story — be warned that the whole plot is coming — of Amy Dunne, a wealthy and beautiful psychopath whose revenge on her cheating husband involves framing him for her “murder”, making up rape allegations against men (one of whom she murders during her demented spree) before trapping her broken husband by stealing his sperm, raised hackles. One blogger neatly summarised the objections to the character, saying she “is the crystallisation of a thousand misogynist myths and fears about female behaviour. If we strapped a bunch of men’s rights advocates to beds and downloaded their nightmares, I don’t think we’d come up with stuff half as ridiculous as this plot.” . . .
In an otherwise positive piece on the film for the feminist website Jezebel, the writer Jessica Coen admits: “Movie Amy pales in comparison to the vivid character we meet in the book. Strip away Book Amy’s complexities and you’re left with little more than ‘crazy fucking bitch’. That makes her no less captivating, but it does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel.”

You can read the whole thing and see how feminism can never accept a novel as a novel or a movie as a movie. Everything in culture and society must ultimately be refracted through the warped ideological lens of feminist theory, interpreted as political symbolism rather than enjoyed as entertainment.

The classic example of this was Susan Faludi’s 1991 book,Backlash, where just one glance at the index reveals the intensity of her weird obsessions:

Fatal Attraction, 4, 25, 125-136, 141-142, 144, 157, 159, 208-210, 351

You see how this one movie, in Faludi’s mind, deserved its own 12-page treatment (pp.125-136), as well as multiple other mentions in her book. Why? Because the murderous psychopathic stalker played by Glenn Close was, in the minds of Faludi and other feminists, a symbol of a misogynistic hostility toward “liberated” women.

Personally, I’ve always viewed Fatal Attraction as a morality tale about the dangers of adultery, but many feminists seemed to take it as a personal insult, a condemnation of their own lifestyles.

Well, a hit dog will holler, as folks say down home.

If there is a stereotype of feminists as lonely, bitter, desperate, and dangerously crazy, where did that stereotype come from? Is it really just anti-feminist propaganda? Or does this stereotype contain within it some kernel of ugly truth? Returning to Gone Girl, here is Vox critic Todd Vander Werff’s take on the controversial film:

This is perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want. Amy Dunne might be a monster, but she’s nosui generis psychopath. No, she’s Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together by a husband, parents, and a social order that demanded she be certain things, rather than who she really was.
And in destroying her husband’s life, she’s symbolically taking back power for women everywhere.

Vander Werff got scalded on Twitter for this claim, but I think he’s got a point. What he means is that Amy Dunne’s monstrous character is, as feminists would say, “socially constructed.” Or to put it in simpler terms:The patriarchy made her do it.

Amy Dunne tried to follow the script society provided her, and when that script did not bring her happiness  – when Nick cheated on her — she decided she was entitled to revenge. Basically, she’s like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. Amy Dunne has been betrayed, and the abrogation of an implied contract (“Follow the script and your life will be happy”) turns her into a vigilante. Feminists are offended by Gone Girl only because they insist on viewing it through an ideological prism, perceiving the psycho killer as reflecting a negative interpretation of themselves.Here is Slate’s David Haglund’s take on the movie:

Time will tell what it is about David Fincher’s Gone Girl that people remember, but when it comes to the Gillian Flynn novel that the movie is based on, we already know: It’s the “Cool Girl” speech. That riff by the book’s titular missing woman, Amy Dunne, has been cited and debated and referenced over and over in the two years since the best-seller was published. It is, almost indisputably, the cultural legacy of the book.
The passage in question goes on for a couple of pages, but the part most frequently quoted begins like this:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. 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.

“Men,” the next paragraph says, “actually think this girl exists.” And that line is key: The essential targets of Amy’s critique are men who think of women as extensions of themselves, as creatures who are meant to fulfill their own desires and not to have independent wants or needs that might occasionally come into conflict with them.

You can read the rest of that. The point here is that Gone Girl‘s actual message is about how women drive themselves crazy by attempting to live their lives according to formulas and scripts. And I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether it’s the “Cool Girl” script (threesomes and anal sex? really?) or whatever “empowered” script the movie’s feminist critics would prefer Amy Dunne to follow. Ultimately, you have to live your own life, and finding happiness in life requires that our expectations be rooted in a realistic understanding of ourselves, and of human nature. Everyone must learn to live with disappointments. Everyone must understand that they are flawed human beings, and that the other people in their lives are all flawed and human, as well. We cannot  be something we are not, and we cannot solve our problems by wishing them away.

The famed sociologist Steven Goldberg wrote an entire book about this,When Wish Replaces Thought: Why So Much of What You Believe Is False. Wishful thinking is neither a good political philosophy nor a useful life strategy, and yet time after time we see people get tripped up over the “is/ought” distinction, stumbling into failure and becoming enraged because reality (life as it is) does not conform to their egalitarian ideals of “fairness” (life as it ought to be).

Good movies help us understand life. Good movies tell us the truth about our problems as human beings. One of my favorite movie scenes is fromthe 1984 film Repo Man. That apocalyptic Reagan-era cult classic is too weird to explain here, but basically, Otto leaves behind his life as a worthless punk slacker by taking a job repossessing cars. Toward the end of the movie, Otto is in a convenience store when one of his punk buddies, Duke, bursts through the door and tries to rob the place.

The store clerk pulls a pistol and fatally shoots Duke. As Duke is bleeding out, Otto goes to comfort him, and hears Duke speak his last words: “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.”

That, my friends, is a worthless punk way of thinking: “I blame society.”

If your response to failure is to look around for someone else to blame, you’re a punk. “Society” didn’t make Duke a criminal. He made his own choices. We all make our own choices in life.

Some people have advantages we don’t have. Sometimes the circumstances of our lives are unfortunate and arguably unfair. Sometimes other people hurt us and harm us, and there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. However, the one thing we can always control is our own actions. We can choose between doing what is right and doing what is wrong. We can be wise or we can be foolish. We can do good or we can do evil. We can speak the truth or we can tell lies.

If we don’t believe that “society” makes a punk rob a convenience store, do we believe “patriarchy” causes all women’s problems? Isn’t feminism ultimately just a way of exempting women from responsibility by providing them with a scapegoat they can always blame?

If many feminists don’t like Gone Girl, it’s probably because Gone Girltells an important truth. Feminists hate the truth.




“Olympus Has Fallen” and racial nativism




March 22, 2013

Today is the release date of Olympus Has Fallen, an action movie that unfortunately reflects the Hollywood (and American) stereotype of white nativism: the assumption that American automatically means white.

“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” – Toni Morrison


Pros (sort of):

  • Not everyone in the movie is white.  Actors of color include Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman (third billing) as the Speaker of the House
  • Women play important roles in the White House.  Angela Bassett plays the director of the Secret Service and Melissa Leo plays the “Secretary of Defense who cracks when tortured.” (Maybe not so flattering, since reviewers describe her as “hysterical.”)
  • The director is Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), one of the few big directors of color in Hollywood.
  • The name of the Vice President in the film is “Charlie Rodriguez.”

Cons (critiques?):

  • The First Lady gets fridged so she can be character development for not one but two male characters.
  • Asian American actor Rick Yune plays the film’s “sociopathic monster,” Kang, a “North Korean posing as a South Korean ministerial aide.”  Phil Yu writes: “the plot hangs on the fact that the inscrutable villains disguise themselves as Good Asian Allies — but surprise! Of course, evil all along.”
  • Both Rick Yune and Gerard Butler have terrible accents in this.  Yune is trying to make his American accent sound foreign while Butler is trying his best to sound American and is just kind of growl-mumbling.
  • There are no substantive or patriotic Asian American characters in the film, just the sneaky villains who posed like nice Asians but turned out to be evil.

This is the second “yellow peril” film released within a year to feature white, non-American actors as Big ol’ American Heroes (TM) while casting [Asian] American actors cast as the evil, foreign invaders.


For example, Red Dawn(2012)  features white Australian Chris Hemmsworth as the leader of the American resistance movement.   He faces off against Will Yun Lee, an Asian American actor who plays a villainous North Korean invader.

There’s some sick irony when Hemmsworth declares to the resistance fighters he is leading–including Isabel Lucas, another white Australian actor–that Will Yun Lee’s character and the other Asian American-played North Koreans just don’t appreciate America the way they do:  ”To them, [America] is just a place, but to us, this is our home,” barks Hemmsworth the Australian, describing the bad guys played by the American actors.

In the film Olympus has Fallen, white Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays the heroic ex-Secret Service agent who must save the day from Asian American actor Rick Yune’s duplicitous foreign terrorist.

By following this casting trope, Olympus has Fallen replicates the white nativist “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that “white” is default “American” while “Asian” (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign.

Hollywood is unconstrained in whether or not the American hero needs to be played by an American (a refreshing attitude) with the unspoken caveat that these American heroes must be white.   This is why white British actor Andrew Garfield can be cast as Spider-man from Queens, New York while black American actor Donald Glovercould not even score an audition.   This is why, when Warner Bros. decided to “Americanize” Akira, they made a long list of prospective lead actors– some from the US but many from the UK–all of them were considered appropriate for the Americanization and all of them were white. “Americanizing” the franchise did not mean casting American (including African American, Native American, Japanese American etc.) actors.

Rick Yune was born in Washington D.C.  How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital?  Yet, he is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it.  The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor– because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more “American patriot” than an Asian American actor.





“47 Ronin” and the Hollywood Outcast




Next Christmas, Keanu Reeves stars in 47 Ronina fantasy film based on the historical event known as ChushinguraIn the early 1700s, a group of forty-seven Japanese samurai avenged the murder of their master. 47 Ronin is a major tentpole film and does provide an opportunity for actors of Japanese descent to be featured in a film that will be distributed in America (even if most of the actors are not Asian American and many Asian American actors are still locked out of their home industry.)

The compromise for hiring so many Japanese actors seems to be the addition of Reeves’s character, who is not from the original mythos–his character was created exclusively from the film. Reeves plays “Kai,” a half-Japanese, half-British “half breed” and “outcast” who joins the group of Samurai.  His character was created solely for the film, even though the likelihood of such a character existing during the era of sakoku is pretty slim. (Did he replace one of the 47? Or is he 48? Were none of the original 47 worth depicting in the lead role?)

Reeves’s brand new character is considered so integral to the production, that the studio seized control of the production from director Carl Rinsch, reshooting scenes to place more emphasis on Reeves’s character–rather than, say, the titular forty-seven ronin.

“Universal opted to reshoot a major fight scene near the end of the film, as well as a few other scenes to sharpen the focus on Reeves’ character Kai.

“[Originally,] Kai was not even present in the final battle scene, whereas the new scene pits Kai against a supernatural creature.

“In addition, the studio added a love scene, close-ups and individual lines to boost Reeves’ presence.” [source]

Keanu Reeves is 1/8 Chinese and 1/8 Hawaiian. Although Keanu Reeves has built his career primarily portraying white characters, it is important that he has managed to stay in Hollywood while using his real name (rather than the “K.C. Reeves” moniker he has used previously) when so many actors are pressured to change them. It is significant that Keanu Reeves has starred in a number of “cultural zeitgeist” films

What boggles my mind about Hollywood, and about 47 Ronin, though, is not the fictional inclusion of a hapa (hafu?) character, but more the context in which this is framed. I guess I am thinking of another production from a few years ago that wanted to whitewash a Chinese American character. When I spoke with the producer, I noted that the character had a Chinese last name and his entire character arc was about accepting he was Asian and handling feeling different. “How will you explain his last name?” I asked. “How will you keep the story arc of Tommy feeling like an outcast and learning to accept his identity?”

The producer said, “Well, perhaps he can be a white person adopted by a Chinese family. He could be bullied all his life for being white and having a weird Chinese name and feel left out and not truly a part of things.”

What struck me was how horrendously, cluelessly backwards this all was. Here was a production that was deliberately excluding Asian American actors due to their race, their “weird Chinese names” seen as not marketable, etc. While there are countless narratives of transracial adoptees facing discrimination, those children are usually children of color bullied in white communities, not the other way around. Yet, in order to cover for it, one of this production’s ideas was to tell a story of a white man being excluded by Asians. An industry that routinely, systemically casts out Asian Americans in favor of casting white actors wanted to tell a story about mean Asians excluding a white guy.

This was also a part of the character development for the whitewashed Kyo Kusanagi character in the King of Fighters (2010) film adaptation. The character was Japanese in the video games but played by a white actor in the movie. His father was depicted by an Asian actor to suggest he was hapa. The sneering villain, Iori, played by an Asian actor, pejoratively called the hero a “half breed.”


Kyo Kusanagi (Sean Faris) talks to the ghost of his dead father (Hiro Kanagawa) in King of Fighters (2010) 

The implication was that Kyo experienced oppression from the bad guy because he was not fully Asian–that he was victimized and targeted for his white side. Yet, newcomer Sean Faris’s white identity was precisely why he was the main lead while all the more-experienced Asian actors played villains or side characters. If it was important enough to change Kyo to explore his experiences as someone of mixed race, why not cast a mixed race actor? While the experiences of people who are hapa are very real, raw, and painful, here it was used to villainize and whitewash.

Hollywood doesn’t just whitewash Asian characters. It makes Asian characters white and then depicts how the white characters face discrimination from Asians. It’s bitter irony. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. What they do to Asian American actors in real life they depict happening to white(washed) characters on screen. In the story, being part white is depicted as a liability. The people of color in the film are exclusionary. Yet, these films inadvertently demonstrate that in Hollywood, it’s the opposite–characters of color are whitewashed. People of color in the film industry are excluded, even when the main characters were originally people of color.

I suppose the situation with the “Kai” character is somewhat different, because he is written as the son of a Japanese woman and a white British sailor, portrayed by Keanu Reeves and therefore mixed race. It is absolutely true that children who are hapa experience prejudice from both sides. In Hollywood, specifically, though, the portion studios consider to be “the problem”–that part triggers the discrimination– is the part that is non-white. Actors like Daniel Henney and Maggie Q experienced difficulty breaking into Hollywood not because they were part white, but because they were part Asian. In fact, Asian countries’ film industries embraced them more than than the North American film industries they originally hailed from did.

The story of 47 Ronin is of “Kai” being rejected for being part white, yet the film felt that adding a bit of “whiteness” was so important that it could not go forward without it. So important, that reshoots were mandated to emphasize his importance. The fact that the character and actor are part white is precisely why he was welcomed into the American-targeted script. They had 47 Japanese characters from the original tale to pick from for the main character–forty seven!–and still felt they had to create a brand new lead. If the film genuinely wanted to focus on the pain experienced by Japanese people of mixed descent, why not cast award-winning actor Tadanobu Asano–an actual Japanese person of mixed descent–in the role of the heroic Kai rather than as the villain? Presumably, exploring hapa or hafu identity was not why Keanu was crammed into the story. Kai’s “outcast” status is presented as an injustice, but the character is an outcast in more ways than one. He’s the Hollywood self-insertive fantasy. Of course he’s the outcast–he comes not from 18th century Japanese fanciful history, but from 21st century Hollywood studio meddling.


Promotional image from 47 Ronin

Perhaps this is more of the contradictory and fickle nature of Hollywood. We repeatedly see films where white male leads are depicted as the odd-one-out, the outsider, the tourist who needs must prove himself and take hisrightful place as the focus of attention with the chief’s daughter by his side. (Reeves’s fictional character in 47 Ronin, of course, raises the hackles of the other samurai by starting a romance with their master’s daughter. The studio even mandated extra love scenes.) At the same time, these same films are structured in a way that positions the very characters of color who are excluding the hapa lead (because he is white) in a subordinate position–whether they are subjugating the “outcast” or not in the movie, they’re the true outcasts in Hollywood.

Perhaps 47 Ronin is different and a step up from previous iterations of this trope because it depicts a hapa character instead of simply a white male lead. To critique this feels counter-intuitive because the experiences of people who are of mixed race are often marginalized by Hollywood, and this is a rare depiction. On the other hand, does 47 Ronin earnestly intend to explore what it means to be hapa and to face prejudice from the community of color you belong to? Or is the addition of “hapa oppression from Asians” being used to justify why Hollywood felt the need to insert “whiteness” or “white identity problems” into an Asian historical fiction at all? I sincerely hope it is the former–because that is worth exploring, and we don’t see very many hapa heroes–but based on what we’ve seen in Hollywood before, I strongly suspect the latter.

And when 47 Ronin–which is rapidly congealing into a swirling miasma of major delays,unnecessary 3-Dthe Hollywood makeover of a classic storystudio meddling, and a increasingly swollen budget– ultimately fails…will the majority-Asian cast take the blame?