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‘Too Strong’ of a Female Role: Feminist or Anti-Feminist?

(Editor Note: This blog article contains spoilers from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl)

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl evoke two kinds of reactions in their readers: “you go, girl!” or “crazy b****”. Within the frame of their respective marriages, The Wife of Bath and Amy seek to control their husbands. While these strong female roles can be seen as either liberating or misogynist, this categorization is not so black and white. Both texts perhaps agree that women are strong and smart enough to have power, but also present this power as potentially problematic. Does this type of narrative illustrate women positively or negatively? The Wife of Bath’s Tale was written sometime in the 14th century and Gone Girl was published in 2012. With nearly 700 years between these texts, not much has changed: the women are depicted in these texts as power hungry and men-hating. The Wife of Bath steals money from her husbands and Amy kills a man. I admit it’s easy to pick one side of the debate for these two texts, so I will now examine each text and determine the way they appear feminist or anti-feminist.

In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the narrator is confident, intelligent, and powerful. She explains the way she is deceitful towards her husbands (she has had five), using them to get what she wants: power. The Wife of Bath sees herself as a woman who is capable of gaining sovereignty, but only through marriage. In the 14th century, women were not yet able to vote or have jobs, and any actions women made during that time that went against these expectations caused a developing sense of anxiety towards women. In Chaucer’s tale, a knight rapes a woman and is subsequently exiled. His one hope of returning is to answer the question of what women want most in a marriage. An old lady offers to tell him the answer in exchange for his hand in marriage, and the knight reluctantly agrees. It is revealed then that what women want most is power over their husbands: basically, a 14th century man’s worst nightmare. The Wife of Bath’s Tale can thereby be seen as a literary manifestation of this anxiety over the ways in which women supposedly seek to conquer men. People feared that if women became too powerful, they would do exactly what The Wife of Bath did to her husbands, even on a political level. While this is just one way to view The Wife of Bath’s Tale, I cannot exactly say that perpetuating the idea that women are only going to use their power for ill will is feminist.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale can thereby be seen as a literary manifestation of this anxiety over the ways in which women supposedly seek to conquer men.

In Gone Girl, Flynn mockingly plays with the stereotype that women use their power for wrongs. Flynn shines a light on how prominent particular connotations about woman are, such as women being on the extremes in terms of love and hate. Flynn illustrates both of these extremes in her characters and ultimately creates a story of immense complexity. In Gone Girl, Amy initially depicts herself as a loving, devoted, and caring wife who just wants a child and to be happy. She constructs this stereotypical persona for herself through the journal entries we read, knowing that we will trust her and feel bad for her because she is a woman. Amy’s husband Nick on the other hand, is depicted as flakey, apathetic, and sometimes even violent. Based on the popular conception of men as more likely to be violent, Amy completely fools the reader and later reveals that she made up her whole character in order to frame Nick as her killer. This is all to punish him for cheating on her. Whoa. Flynn just totally took advantage of our internalized notions of the gender binaries and made us pay for it.

Arguably, Gone Girl is similar to The Wife of Bath’s Tale in the sense that Amy is deceitful and out to screw over her husband. However, some things set Gone Girl apart. Amy’s character is complex. When Amy reveals the truth of her plan to the readers, she goes on to talk about “cool girls”. She says cool girls are the type of women who act a certain way towards men to appear chill and likeable. These type of girls love beer and football, they don’t care when their boyfriend blows them off to ‘hang out with the guys’, and they remain a perfect size 2 (Flynn 222). Ridiculous, but so true, right? The cool girl speech is so insightful and empowering because Amy deconstructs modern day gender roles and the way women can be controlled by men. Similar to The Wife of Bath, Amy doesn’t want to be controlled by her husband anymore. She doesn’t want to be a cool girl. In the end Amy does prove herself to be insane, faking a pregnancy, murdering a man, and finally forcing Nick to take her back. Nonetheless, the complexity of Amy’s character and how she ultimately rebels against her expected role as a ‘cool girl’ do make Gone Girl more feminist than not. Amy may be crazy, but she does have a point. The readers of this book shouldn’t get any ideas about killing men, but the character of Amy asks for everyone to think about the ways in which society rewards certain personalities more than others, while also forcing Gone Girl’s readers to admit that women are more complex than simply loving or violent.

The character of Amy asks for everyone to think about the ways in which society rewards certain personalities more than others.

These texts both show that there is a fear towards women becoming too powerful; the Wife of Bath’s Tale legitimizes this fear whereas Gone Girl mocks it. Luckily, a closer look does in fact show that there has been some progress in female depiction over the past 700 years. Phew. From these texts I gain the idea that women are strong and capable and that this can be intimidating. All in all, it’s a pretty empowering message; a conclusion that can be drawn here is to not mess with women.

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