Every era gets the Psycho Bitch it deserves. In the late ‘80s, she was Alex Forrest, the homicidal single career woman of Fatal Attraction. When Glenn Close’s 36-year-old book editor has a one-night fling with Michael Douglas’ happily-married attorney Dan Gallagher, Dan expects the cool, independent Alex to remain discreet. Instead, her biological clock goes berserk. She cuts her wrists, incessantly calls his home, announces she’s pregnant, throws acid on his car, boils his kid’s perfect bunny, abducts his perfect child, and attempts to stab his perfect housewife. At the film’s end, the perfect wife shoots the psycho bitch in the heart. By killing Alex (and her gestating fetus), the film restores the sanctity of the perfect family. Or as Susan Faludi wrote of the message in her 1991 book Backlash: “The best single woman is a dead one.”
Fatal Attraction, Faludi writes, was the most iconic example of that decade’s dominant Hollywood trend, where “the good women are all subservient and bland housewives,” the female villains are unmarried women, and “women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished.” Fatal Attraction was billed, by an executive at 20th Century Fox, as the “psychotic manifestation” of late-’80s news coverage that responded to the creeping AIDS crisis and the success of the feminist movement by painting childless women as the enemy to both the family and themselves. The message of the film is that “American women were unhappy because they were too free,” Faludi writes, because “their liberation had denied them marriage and motherhood.”
The trope became so entrenched in the American psyche that it soon curdled into a punch line. In 1992, Wayne’s World’s obsessive ex-girlfriend Stacy, dubbed “psycho hose beast,” reveals in a nightmare alternate ending to the film that she is “pregnant! That’s why I’ve been so moody.” But plenty of people still took the psycho hose beast seriously: See 2002’s Swimfan and 2009’s Obsessed. Now, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel of the same name, has finally inverted the trope: Here, instead of the psycho bitch ruining the perfect wife’s life, the perfect wife is the psycho bitch.
The inciting incident is familiar (spoilers to follow): Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) cheats on his beautiful housewife Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) with a student in his Missouri creative writing class. But this time, it’s the wife who attempts to destroy him for disrupting their perfect couple. While Fatal Attraction’s Alex embodied the cultural menace of the independent career woman, Gone Girl’s Amy becomes the “psychotic manifestation” of more contemporary antifeminist concerns: Amy cries rape to punish an ex-boyfriend, invents a history of domestic violence to bring down her husband, and fakes her own pregnancy and death to pass herself off as beautiful, white, pregnant, and dead—the American media’s most unimpeachable flavor of female victimhood. As Wesley Morris details in Grantland, Amy’s particular form of Psycho Bitchiness arrives at a moment when the voices of sexual assault survivors are rising on college campuses, and public outrage at male domestic abusers is enough to rattle the NFL. Amy, though, embodies the backlash to this feminist moment: Maybe these women aren’t really so innocent; maybe the men are the real victims; maybe it is controlling wives, not independent mistresses, who pose the real threat to American men.
Gone Girl’s plot points may be ripped from a Men’s Rights Activist handbook, but its subtext is more complicated. After spending years trying to be the Cool Girl—the gorgeous, easygoing girl who smiles through her husband’s flaws, one not unlike Dan Gallagher’s loving housewife—Amy lets the façade crumble when Nick finds a younger, “bouncier” Cool Girl to usurp her. So she escapes the Forgiving Wife role by becoming the Dead Pregnant Wife, which allows her to maintain her ideal feminine image while robbing her cheating husband of his own escape hatch, the one constructed from male privilege that allows him to keep upgrading the women in his life without ever having to improve himself. Vox’s Todd VanDerWeff argues that by “destroying her husband’s life, [Amy is] symbolically taking back power for women everywhere”; Grantland’s Morris disagrees, writing, “I just don’t see Camille Paglia asking to get an Amen for that.” In its most charitable reading, Gone Girl represents neither a feminist triumph nor a vindication of the MRAs. The ultimate lesson is that enforcing gendered structures leaves everyone miserable. In the end, Amy finally ensnares both Nick and herself in a marriage that looks perfect from the outside, but is poisonous within. Neither have to die, because living the lie is its own punishment.
But the film version makes it difficult to read Gone Girl charitably. Faludi notes how Fatal Attraction, which was adapted from screenwriter James Deardon’s short film Diversion, was initially conceived as a movie that would hold men accountable for their affairs, and complicate the cultural image of the vilified Other Women. Fox producer Shelly Lansing, who helped turn Deardon’s short into a feature, said at the time that she “wanted the audience to feel great empathy for the woman.” But as Deardon’s story got wrung through the Hollywood machine, Faludi writes, “the husband became progressively more lovable, the single woman more venomous,” and in the end, “the attraction is fatal only for the single woman.” The film adaptation of Gone Girl, also written by Flynn, has similarly flattened the complications of Flynn’s original gender commentary in order to make for a slicker thriller. In the novel, we learn that Nick Dunne has a long history of acting as a misogynist prick, but in the film, he comes off more as a bumbling doofus. We get flashes of Nick’s resentment toward women in the film, but they’re too easily written off as rational responses to his bizarre circumstances, none of the book’s sly nod that misogyny—his culture’s, and his own—is the genesis of his problems.
“I don’t write psycho bitches,” Flynn said in an interview last year. The psycho bitch is “just crazy ’cause her lady parts have gone crazy,” she said; she is “a dismissible person because of her psycho bitchiness. And to me the whole point is to write scary women who aren’t dismissible, who are frightening and calculating but you know the reason why.” In the movie, it’s much, much harder to know the reason why. And soon, Flynn’s richly conceived female sociopath just might cement into a cultural archetype of its own. In the upcoming Home Sweet Hell, Katherine Heigl plays a housewife who gets back at her husband by murdering his pregnant mistress: a complete, uncomplicated perfect wife psycho bitch.