Blockbuster-Scaled Silencing of Survivors: Gone Girl and the Urgency of Trigger Warnings in Films

**Strong trigger warnings for discussions of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, dismissal of survivor stories, and Men’s Rights “Activism.”**

“Why. Why. Why don’t films have trigger warnings? Do we actually give this few fucks about survivors? Is our culture truly this out of touch with women’s experiences? Why.” The South Point parking lot was silent—more silence, silence. More silencing of survivors. I mourned the emptiness and wished the whole lot to be filled with the voices of survivors, the unanswered cries of victims of abuse. We hear them not. We see them not. We think not of them when promoting our blockbuster films.

A trigger warning. If nothing else. The very least we owe our survivors.

I love a good mystery film. I love the suspense, the intrigue, the big reveal at the end. That’s why I was pumped to see Gone Girl—a film that so many had raved about as this season’s must-see. But there was no hint of mystery in the true plot purpose of Gone Girl: to discredit the stories, experiences, and stability of women and restore trust and dignity to a “wounded” male population.

The film starts with the disappearance of Amy Dunne on her fifth wedding anniversary to her husband, Nick. The audience—as well as the detectives and citizens following the news coverage—immediately suspects Nick for her kidnapping and death, as he is depicted as an apathetic husband with violent tendencies, who knows and cares nothing for his wife’s life. As the search for Amy unfolds, the audience is read snippets from her journal, accompanied by flashbacks of Amy’s and Nick’s lives together—an aspect of the film that intentionally works to build empathy and trust between the audience and Amy. We are in her head, in her mind, living her thoughts and experiences as if they were our own.

Thus we share in Amy’s violation and pain when her journal reveals Nick to be an angry, violent, and callous husband. He withdraws, gets bored with Amy, uses her for sex, and stops loving her. These scenes powerfully communicate the widespread undervaluing and abuse of the female population, and I sat in the theater with an aching heart for every woman who has experienced such neglect. And so when Amy discloses to her journal the violence she has experienced from Nick, voiced-over a slow-motion shot of him pushing her forcefully to the ground against a staircase post, I saw in Amy’s story the all-too familiar experiences of partnership abuse, fear, and betrayal that plague so many women each day. We see Amy’s journal entries as her cry for help—the cry of a woman who goes to bed every night with fear that her husband is going to kill her, because she has become another useless woman.

But this journal, these cries, are all a lie. The violence, the neglect, the fear—all of it. A plan. A plot. A ploy. In an instant, the bond of trust and empathy between the audience and Amy is broken, and we see her for what she really is: a crazy, manipulative, not-to-be-trusted, overly-dramatic, vengeful bitch. Nick has done no violent harm—their marriage disintegrated in the cliché boredom and infidelity that viewers are fed narrative after narrative. So this story finds its angle not in the mystery of a kidnapping, but in the birth of a she-monster, born from the widely touted and feared “feminist chip on the shoulder.” Now that monster will have her revenge—with all the blood, death, and manipulation it takes—and she’ll make sure that everyone who’s watching the media coverage of her abduction will hate Nick and doubt his defense. She’s got quite the psycho/bitch resume, hardly a first-time player in the game of victim-feigning. Monster Amy successfully duped legal authorities once before into convicting an ex-partner of sexual assault by staging her own rape, and before the credits roll she’ll do it again to the lovable Neil Patrick Harris (this time with the twist of murder, too) when her plan to sentence Nick to the death penalty fails. Suddenly the audience lives in a world where women are believed as victims and men are distrusted as perpetrators, but we’ll be damned if we make that mistake again, because the tables have turned: Nick is the victim of Amy’s violence and lies, and we’re sitting in the theater asking ourselves, “How could we have doubted good old rational Nick? And how could we have possibly believed that attention-seeking, unstable, dramatic bitch?”

I don’t want to hear about the artistic quality of Gone Girl. Sure, even I could tell it was a “well-made” film, but any analysis of the film, in my opinion, is missing the point if it doesn’t ask this question: what does the film ultimately say about men, women, and violence? Does it celebrate women for joining the male-dominated violence game, does it degrade men for being fearful of their wives? Does it offer us a new, progressive vision of gender roles? Hardly. The sole, blaring message I heard from Gone Girl is that rape and domestic violence are elaborate myths born out of spite from dramatic, attention-seeking, unstable women, and therefore support for female victims should be given sparsely and with great skepticism.

We can debate causation—whether or not media exposure causes real-life behaviors—all day, but one thing’s for sure: media act as informal educators, for better or for worse. In a media-saturated society like ours, we often look to film, television, and social media to learn about the “other.” If you’ve never encountered a victim of sexual violence outside of negative media exposure, such hostile representatives are likely to permeate your real-life view of victims of sexual violence, and consequentially affect the way that you respond to victims.

Art is never just “art.” Art is always politically charged, and every story, every film is born out of a cultural context. The story of Gone Girl is not merely the experimental work of an author exploring various dimensions of a female character—it is a cultural commodity, targeted to audiences for the purpose of making money, now raking in more than $100 million in film sales. Something about this story and something about the audience is clicking, and I’m hesitant to call it “art.”

My own theater experience shines some light on this. When I watched Gone Girl in theaters, I was surrounded by a responsive audience that seemed less concerned with the artistic quality of the film than with celebrating the debunking of Amy’s lies and the renewing of Nick’s manliness. At one point in the film, Nick goes on national television to clear his name and promote his image as a loving, concerned husband. Amy watches in horror as her plan to create a national enemy out of Nick falls apart. Nick knows she’s safe somewhere, watching every bit of media coverage, and lets her know through subtle messages that he’s figured her out. Where I sat in the theater, this moment of the film was met with literal clapping and laughter—an audible response of joy and victory from an audience who, some would try to argue, was only there to be “entertained.” But this audience, with its perceptible shrills of men’s laughter and enthusiastic clapping, was not merely entertained—every laughing and clapping person in that theater was charged with the energy of mocking female victims of men’s violence and celebrating the triumph of men as the voice of reason. And the more the audience clapped and laughed, the more the audience clapped and laughed.

But let me make one thing clear: men’s violence against women is real. Women’s fear of men’s violence is valid. And any attempts to offer wide, cultural messages denying these real abuses and discrediting these valid fears are straight out of the misogynist Men’s Rights “Activism” playbook, period. Yes, there are individual instances where the woman is the abusive spouse, but these cases are hardly proportional to the blockbuster narrative that Gone Girl is offering. And, in fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, when men are the victims of violence, it is most commonly of violence perpetrated by other men. So there is a gender component at play—it is real, very real, and to celebrate a narrative that practices “gender blindness” in the name of “progress” is simply misguided.

There’s a term we use in media studies called interpellation: “the constitutive process where individuals acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing themselves as subjects.” It’s the same process at work when you’re walking down the street and someone yells “hey you!” and your first instinct is to respond as if you are the “you.” It’s when we see people on screen—people like us—and learn about ourselves from identifying them. The author of Gone Girl has scoffed at the idea that Amy could be interpreted as representative of “woman” outside of herself, but that doesn’t mean audiences are immune from interpellation. Thursday night was a date night for me and my partner. It had been a while since we’d been able to spend time together intimately, but when we returned home from the theater, I felt empty and despairing. The narrative was so powerful, its images of Amy’s violent sexuality and rape-staging so jarring, that I suddenly didn’t trust my own sexuality. I learned from the film that “woman” meant sexually violent, conniving, manipulative, and false, and I felt those traits ideologically pushed upon my own body. I didn’t want any of that to be part of mine and my partner’s experiences, and so instead we laid in bed trying to process what we just saw and trying—unsuccessfully—to shake it off for the night. Neither me nor my partner are survivors of sexual violence, but if Gone Girl’s disturbing plot line and images were enough to shake us into this interpellation of the femme-fatale narrative, how much more traumatic must the experience of watching the film be for those who are victims?

Cultural messages like Gone Girl, with its binary tale of female cruelty and untrustworthiness versus male rationality and reliability, work to discredit all women’s experiences and thoughts in favor of normalizing the “victimization” of men. The very fact that trigger warnings are not deemed necessary by the mainstream film industry is evidence enough of the devaluing, the ignoring, the outright contempt for survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse. As we go to the theaters this season, let us all keep ourselves and one another safe from these harmful messages, and work together against twisted narratives that not only dismiss centuries of gendered power and oppression, but also seek to silence even the faintest cries that survivors have managed.

About the Author:

Anna Ormond is a senior double major in Communications and Sociology with a minor in Women's & Gender Studies.

Anna Ormond is a senior double major in Communications and Sociology with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies.