Feminism, Gillian Flynn, And The Importance Of The Antiheroine

Gillian Flynn wholly embraces the antiheroine in her triad of gritty, addicting thrillers. In doing so, she reminds us that feminism needs its dark side.

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My introduction to Gillian Flynn’s terrifyingly brilliant characters was HBO’s 2018 adaptation of Sharp Objects. I was a little late to the party, I know, but I was absolutely hooked on her thriller-crafting excellence. I’ve read (and reread) her novels in the years since, watched the adaptations, the whole nine yards.  

Every time I revisited these stories, I found myself considering how Flynn’s female villains are a proponent of feminism because I profoundly felt that they were. It’s not that they were overtly inspiring. It went deeper than that. They tapped into a darkness that we don’t usually associate with modern feminism, which has too often been tempered down to girl boss decor.  

This dark side of femininity that Flynn leans into is, despite some pop culture criticism, a modern feminist necessity. Her female characters are complex, cunning, and plain scary. That’s precisely why we need them. Flynn’s work shows us that women’s representation in literature and film has long focused on presenting “good” or likable leads when we should be writing women that rival the unending list of infamous male villains.

In other words, it’s time to embrace the dark side rather than try and palliate women’s realities to wrap them up in a nice pink bow.  

Flynn on Feminism

Gillian Flynn Gone Girl book cover.
Image via Amazon

Gone Girl truly made the modern femme fatale trope a cultural phenomenon. Her “cool girl” monologue has become an anthem. I would unironically deem it one of my favorite passages of any novel I’ve read.

However, Flynn ended up receiving a bit of flack for her protagonist, including claims of misogyny. Why? Because she was writing women in a nefarious way. Flynn would point out that that was, essentially, the whole point. In her 2013 feature in The Guardian, she responds to the critics:

Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters…the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing.

There’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad, and selfish.

Clearly, the point of the protagonist, Amy Dunne, was not to play by the rules but to shatter them. She’s the prime example of the unhinged female villain, and the truth is that she resonated with women. Myself included. It was refreshing to see a female lead unabashedly indulge her revenge after years of playing at the ever placable, doting, “cool girl.”

Her diabolical master plan to fake her death and frame her husband is so glorious to watch unfold because there is still this societal aversion to angry women. “Amazing Amy” puts the power of female rage on screen. All of which circles back to Flynn’s broader vision of feminism. Her thrillers show audiences that women do not need to be “good” to be worth reading about.

“I Was Not A Nice Little Girl…” 

Antiheroine Amma Crellin in Sharp Objects
Image via HBO

In a 2015 piece for Powell’s Books, Gillian candidly reflects on her impulse to write such dark novels in the first place. The short personal essay titled “I Was Not a Nice Little Girl” comments:

Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.

It’s not a particularly flattering potrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side?

Flynn’s aim to indulge in this dark side is quite brutal in her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s a masterful thriller, but it is weighty indeed. The themes of trauma and abuse make for a haunting meditation on the perpetuation of violence among women and girls. It doesn’t have as much levity as Gone Girl, which, admittedly, feels like a fun read.

However, even the grim and uncomfortable journey of Sharp Objects holds a valuable lesson about telling raw and honest stories. Unlike the world of chick-lit and Rom-Coms, there is an “ugly side” to the female experience that deserves its place in literature and pop culture.

Flynn’s feminism induces us to realize the breadth of what we think a woman can be. Under the traditional, peaceable feminist outlook, we assert that women can be scientists, astronauts, and the president of the United States. That’s all well and true. But, women can also be dark and ruthless. They can be villains, too.

Male characters tend to have much more freedom on the page to act selfishly and violently before they lose reader sympathy. Flynn’s female characters point out that double standard of how we habitually dismiss women from our own stereotypical lenses.

Image via HBO

Why We Need The Antiheroine

Flynn is not alone in her efforts to give the antiheroine an unabashed spotlight. Modern authors like Ottessa Moshfegh, Mona Awad, and Rachel Yoder are other prominent literary voices indulging in the dark, bizarre, and twisted for their female leads.

Their standout voices have reminded me that feminism is much more than girl-power Instagram graphics; it is the full expression of the female mind and experience. If we consider one of the principal objects of feminism to deconstruct the social conventions and limitations of the female identity, then the antiheroine is absolutely vital to its cause.

That’s not to say we don’t need instructive novels and empowering female role models. Flynn simply reminds us that we need the dark as well as the light so as to best embody the beauty and the mess, the joy and the struggle of reality.

On that, I rest my case in defense of the antiheroine for a more comprehensive and realistic invocation of modern feminism.

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