I watched David Fincher’s much-anticipated big screen adaptation of Gone Girl from the front row. Maybe it was the less than ideal viewing conditions, but watching the movie made me realize something I had missed about the book: the centrality of whiteness to Gone Girl’s story.
Gone Girl is a missing persons narrative. Here’s how the genre works: a character mysteriously disappears and those who are invested in this disappearance, whether personally or professionally, must locate the victim before it is “too late.” (Too late for what? The stakes — death, rape, worse? — vary from story to story.)
But really missing persons narratives aren’t so much about the missing person themselves. They’re about us, the viewers. They’re about which missing persons we care enough to find.
And here’s what Gone Girl, the movie, shows us: America cares most about finding white people. Women, especially.
I had barely considered the role whiteness plays in the missing persons narrative when I first read Gillian Flynn’s novel two years ago. Race comes up in the novel a couple of times but mostly Gone Girl is a story about white people who we are not necessarily cued to think of as being white. Their whiteness is not highlighted as something which has any bearing on the narrative events. Whiteness in the novel Gone Girl, as in so much of American mass culture, is a neutral character trait, the default setting on a character, the box that remains unchecked.
But it doesn’t take much to realize how much race does matter to any missing person’s narrative. To generate the greatest audience engagement the character at the center of the missing persons narrative — that absent present — must be a weak and vulnerably innocent. And those are traits, in our culture, that are not only gendered, but raced too. Thus white women and children of all colors and genders (but preferably white and female children) are generally the ones who go missing in these narratives. Liam Neeson roams through Europe to find his white daughter in Taken (2008) and in this season of American Horror Story: Freak Show (2014), Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), the killer clown, kidnaps a white woman and a white boy and keeps them in a cage, a horrifying spectacle to be sure. The great missing persons narratives, from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) to The Vanishing (1988) to The Big Lebowski (1998), all hinge on locating missing white women.
The very conceit of Flynn’s novel—that a scorned wife might successfully frame her errant husband for her kidnapping and murder—is founded on this truism: when a white woman disappears, people take note.
Once a white woman goes missing suspects will be swiftly interrogated and homes will be searched for evidence. Search teams and phone banks will be mobilized quickly. Flattering photographs are unearthed and blown up so that worried family members can stand in front of them and beg for the return of their lost white women. Casseroles will be baked and donuts will be passed around to volunteers. Press conferences packed with reporters and photographers will gather to ask the same question over and over: where have the white women gone?
Amazing Amy’s plan to steal herself away works because she knows that her blond hair and her children’s book persona mean that her absence counts more than her presence. Her loss is a threat to America itself. After all, if we can’t keep track of our white women, then what do we amount to? Nick Dunne, that sad sack dudebro with his sagging khakis and rumpled T-shirt, couldn’t keep his white woman safe and for that he earns the public’s scorn.
Amy’s awareness of the story that dictates her life is part of her power—and, perhaps her appeal. She knows if she tells the right story, she’ll have a built-in audience. She knows that Ellen Abbott, Gone Girl’s own version of Nancy Grace, will tear into her story like a juicy steak. Amy-in-the-Book tells us “…I love how protective and maternal [Ellen Abbott] gets about all the missing women on her show, and how rabid-dog vicious she is once she seizes on a suspect, usually the husband. She is America’s voice of female righteousness.” What Amy doesn’t mention, though, is that Ellen Abbott Live depends not on the accumulation of missing female bodies, but specifically on missing white female bodies.
And that’s what watching the movie Gone Girl illustrated to me: how whiteness can simultaneously be neutral and also suck up all the air in the room, and all the concern. If the gone girl herself is an absent presence, whiteness, I guess, is the present absence.
And this is a fact the movie drives home by casting Tyler Perry, an African American actor and director who makes films and television shows specifically for African American audiences, into the role of Tanner Bolt, who is racially unmarked in the novel. By doing so — and by letting Perry steal every scene he’s in — Fincher is able to further highlight the whiteness on display in this film. It’s important, too, that Tanner Bolt is an outsider to the Carthage community, flown in from New York on a $100,000 retainer. This allows Bolt to stand outside of the (white) crowd, to smile and wink at the audience like a one-man Greek chorus. His shit-eating grin tells us “Can you believe what these crazy white folks are doing to each other?” Bolt’s savvy includes recognizing, as he surely must, that only a pretty white woman like Amazing Amy could generate this kind of media frenzy.
On September 18th — 15 days before the premiere of Gone Girl — the bodies of two teenage women, one 18 and one 19, were found on the side of a Tampa road. They were bound, naked, and tied together. This horrific crime, Ian Blair writes, “hasn’t made much more than a blip on the mainstream media’s radar.” Why? Because these young women, Angelia and Tjhisha, are not white. They’re not gone girls.
On September 26th –7 days before the premiere of Gone Girl — 43 students disappeared in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Several weeks later Mexican authorities discovered a mass grave containing 28 mutilated and burned corpses. But those 28 bodies, initially thought to be some of the missing Guerrero students, turned out to be an entirely different group of missing persons. Though the news has finally started reporting on these 71 missing persons, they are not gone girls because they are not white either.
Gone Girl, both the novel and the film, have an important story to tell about how women are represented, constructed and critiqued in the media, in public policy, and in the home. In the novel Amy relentlessly mocks the notion of the “Cool Girl,” a term designating a women who is 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.”And in the film we see Amy (Rosamund Pike) immediately eschew diets and make up the moment she realizes she’s no longer the object of the male gaze (as if it were ever possible to escape?).
But at its core, Gone Girl‘s a film that shows we can’t talk about gender without talking about whiteness and about who “gets” to be the gone girl. Alfred Hitchcock famously said “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” It is this projected sense of fragility that’s at Gone Girl‘s core: a centuries old pact white people have seemingly made with one another, to see white women as the perpetual victims of a world from which they are too weak to save themselves.
—Amanda Ann Klein: Turtles all the way down.