Women in film just got interesting. In a big way.
Women are underrepresented in Hollywood. There, I said it. A vast majority of decent lead roles in major movies are written for men, and a wildly disproportionate number of notable directors are male. It’s therefore not surprising how often we hear about a one-sided portrayal of women in mainstream cinema—women are frequently characterised by a torrent of gender stereotypes that are often either out of touch or, in extreme cases, just plain misogynistic.
As clichéd as the above complaint may be, it is pertinent—it’s relatively uncommon to find an original (or, at the very least, interesting) portrayal of women in film outside the underappreciated world of independent cinema. And, at a first glance, the filmography of David Fincher doesn’t seem to be much different—does anyone recall the thought-provoking themes about femininity explored in Se7en or Fight Club? Both of those films (probably Fincher’s two best known features) are unquestionably all about the men running the show. So where do the women come into Mr Fincher’s world?
While Alien 3 and Panic Room both gave us a look at what Fincher was capable of doing with strong female characters, it wasn’t until the release of his three most recent films (including Gone Girl) that I came to see the man’s genius in portraying the role of women in society through film. Through a loose trilogy consisting of The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, Fincher has given us what I would argue is the greatest exploration of gender roles—especially those of women—ever committed to the silver screen.
These three movies have each provided a very different lens through which to see the feminine gender role—in fact, I’d almost go so far as to call it a progression. In The Social Network, we have what we might call the here equivalent of The Ghost of Christmas Past. To the protagonists of this movie, women are the objects of their motivation—Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in the film is his Rosebud, and Sean Parker explicitly states that he was driven to found Napster through sexual jealousy. While it would be wrong to describe the women in this world as powerless, it’s somewhat difficult to see the film as a glowing example of female empowerment. Obviously, as far as this movie goes, the portrayal of women as objects is laced heavily with irony, but it doesn’t stop the image of women characterised as simple names on a screen being eerily relevant.
Take The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo next, which serves as our Ghost of Christmas Present in this analogy; although I’d argue the film doesn’t quite do the source material justice, the point still stands—this movie gives us women fighting back. The film’s titular character finds herself in a world darkened by disturbingly frequent acts of sexual violence against women, and we’re given the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrators bludgeoned with the blunt end of just revenge. It’s a film about female power lashing out against hatred and bigotry. Describing it simply as a revenge flick would be a little unfair though—it carries far more weight than to be seen only as a simple exercise in retaliation. It’s about the liberation of the oppressed—we can celebrate now! Huzzah!
But then comes Gone Girl, our Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This movie is a portrayal of female empowerment gone sinister. As Fincher has already told us in Fight Club, masculinity is in crisis, and Gone Girl shows us this crisis with a polar shift of gender roles, lending us a frightening portrait of the nature of relationships in the wake of the rapidly evolving places that men and women hold in society. Is Gone Girl a cautionary tale? I personally don’t think so—I simply see it as an exploration of ideas—but the implications of the world that Mr Fincher accesses in Gone Girl are far from cheery.
When we consider these films as a loose trilogy, Fincher truly has given us a fascinating portrait of the role of women in film. In this sweeping narrative arc, there are no heroes and no villains—we are simply given a portrayal of how the two genders interact. From the cold and reserved attitudes of men towards women in The Social Network, to the vibrant bust of female power striking out in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to the sinister quasi-Iago figure of Amy playing her husband like a marionette in Gone Girl, Mr Fincher has proven himself to be a master of telling tales of gender identity in cinema.
What separates him from his peers is that he features female characters in his films, not female caricatures. It’s something that few Hollywood directors do, and even fewer realise it. Whether or not this makes Fincher a feminist director is open to interpretation—I hope that he inspires many more to broaden their horizons.