Gone Girl, and the Two Lines of Thinking in Every Activist Community - Preliminary Thoughts
Emily S. Cutler
In my work with a number of different paternalized and marginalized communities, I have noticed that there are at least two types of activists in almost every group: those who try to fit into mainstream, "normal" society, and those who embrace the outsider/rebel role.
Those who try to fit in often distance themselves as far as possible from any negative stereotypes about their particular identity. Fat activists often work to combat the stereotype that being fat results from an unhealthy diet by discussing efforts to make healthy food choices and exercise. Many feminists support efforts to give women the opportunity to enter traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering and medicine. For a long time, a key LGBTQ cause was the right to same-sex marriage.
"Fat people don't eat just eat junk food." "Women can excel in math and science." "LGBT people can get married, own homes, and start nuclear families." These are the core messages of these efforts.
Growing up Jewish in Birmingham, Alabama, I was faced with a great deal of prejudice. Many people harbor stereotypes about Jewish people being cheap or stingy. So, for a while, I made sure to tip extra in restaurants or cabs, especially when I was wearing my Star of David necklace.
"Jews aren't cheap or stingy." "I'm going to combat stereotypes by wearing my Star of David and showing what a good person I am. How I am just like everyone else."
The second line of thinking is to embrace the outsider/rebel role. This line of thinking is represented in fat activists who say, "Yes, I eat tons of junk food. I love cake, cookies, doughnuts, soda, etc. And what's wrong with that? I'm not harming anyone else." It's represented in feminists who fight for traditionally female-dominated fields to gain value and recognition, and it's represented in LGBTQ activists who oppose the institution of marriage.
"The acceptance and inclusion of fat people shouldn't depend on what kinds of food they eat!" "Women (and men) who excel in the humanities should be valued too." "Why should getting married, owning a home, and starting a nuclear family be the societal definition of success?" These are the core messages of this second line of thinking.
Of course, I see this play out in the psychiatric survivor and Mad Pride community as well.
On the one hand, there are the people who work tirelessly to distance "madness" and "mental illness" from every stereotype in the book. They work to ensure that people categorized as mentally ill can still be seen as hardworking, productive members of society who have good jobs, start families, and are well-liked in their social circles. Most important to this line of activism is the message that "mental illness" or "madness" is not at all associated with violence.
"I may have been diagnosed with mental illness, but I'm not weird or crazy." "I may have been involuntarily hospitalized, but I'm not violent or dangerous to anyone else." "I'm really not that different from you." These are statements often heard from these activists.
And then there are activists who embrace the role of the "Mad person" as the outsider/rebel. These activists deconstruct the notion that being a hardworking, productive member of society should be the end goal. They may also acknowledge that yes, sometimes "mental illness" and "madness" can be associated with violence, but that sometimes violence is called for.
Now I want to talk about the film Gone Girl.
Gone Girl is about a woman named Amy who frames her husband for murder after he cheats on her with a younger, hotter woman. In many ways, Amy is the classic and stereotypical portrayal of the Madwoman: she is manipulative, jealous, possessive, violent, and does everything she can to ensure her husband will never leave her.
I started off as the first kind of psychiatric survivor/Mad Pride activist. I was a vehement supporter of the message that "mental illness" has no correlation to violence. And so, when I first saw the movie Gone Girl, I absolutely hated it. I hated that it contributed to the stereotype of women, and specifically Mad women, being possessive, jealous, manipulative, and most of all, violent. "If I tell anyone I've been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, they're going to think I'm just like Amy," I thought.
However, slowly but surely, I started to get radicalized. As I started to learn more about systemic factors impacting distress, I began to think more and more about how not only suicide and self-harm but also violence result from a place of powerlessness. I started to think about the ways people might feel trapped in situations and dynamics, and how sometimes they might see violence as the only way to regain control or escape.
I recently saw Gone Girl for the second time, and I fell in love with it. Yes, Amy is a Mad woman. Amy is batshit insane. She is manipulative, jealous, and violent. And I felt that, to some extent, her madness was called for.
In Gone Girl's famous "Cool Girl" monologue, Amy lists all of the ways she was forced to conform to patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity in order to be loved and valued by her husband. She discusses the expectations she has been forced to fulfill in order to be valued: being thin, pleasing her husband sexually, feigning interest in her husband's hobbies, and maintaining a cool sense of detachment toward her relationship - a sense of ease and lack of anger toward her husband at all times. "Cool girls never get angry at their men, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner," she says.
The "Cool Girl" monologue describes all of the insidious, subtle, overlooked forms of violence that the patriarchy has subjected people to for decades. "Nick Dunne [Amy's husband] took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed. That's murder," Amy says.
The second time I watched Gone Girl, I couldn't help but see Amy as a hero for staging a violent, crazy, manipulative rebellion to the patriarchy.
I've begun to incorporate that into my Mad activism. Perhaps "mental illness" sometimes is violence. Perhaps Mad women sometimes are crazy, hysterical, and manipulative. Perhaps these are somewhat justified responses to a violent, oppressive society.
Some Preliminary Conclusions
The reality is that the above is pretty oversimplified. There are many activists who incorporate both forms of activism, or some in-between version, into their work. For example, I know many Mad Pride activists who promote the message that those labeled "mentally ill" are crazy, weird, and different from absolutely everyone else, and that should be accepted because they are not harming anyone else, while on the other hand, violence toward others is never acceptable. And I know plenty of feminists who advocate for both increased STEM opportunities for women and higher value to be placed on the humanities.
But I think these two types of activism can still stand as a loose framework for conceptualizing some (not all) viewpoints within marginalized activist communities.
I believe that both forms of activism are highly needed. We need to combat stereotypes and we also need to question whether those stereotypes represent such negative traits.
As for me personally, I often think of myself as sitting on the fence between the two types of activism. There is a big part of me that wants, for lack of a better way to phrase it, "a normal life." I want to be a home owner, I want to get married, I want to have a nuclear family, and I want to have a career. Are those desires influenced by societal expectations and conditioning? Probably. I still want them. And so, in my own personal activism, it has been important for me to say, "Just because I have a mental health diagnosis and have been involuntarily committed does not mean I can't have any of these things."
But there is also a part of me that is the rebellious Madwoman. This is the part of me that wrote an expose on my ex-fiancé's cult after he broke up with me. This is the part of me that once mailed a box of poop to a close friend's ex. This is the part of me that takes radical, pro-violence (okay, it's a lot more complicated than pro-violence, but let's be real, that is how it will be perceived) stances on the Internet and refuses to use a pseudonym.
I like the fence. I like being able to hold on to both parts of myself. And I like that both lines of thinking exist within activist communities.
I know this topic has been explored in a few ways in popular culture and research. The film Dear White People outlines three general ways that black people survive in a white dominated society: 1) Oofta - those who conform to white stereotypes about how black people act; 2) Nosejob - those who seek to act less stereotypically "black" and become more white; and 3) One Hundred - those who genuinely and authentically honor black culture with pride. You can find a longer description of this framework here.
Additionally, Chuck Palahniuk once wrote a forward to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest describing two ways of responding to oppressive systems and institutions: the rebel and the follower. Randle McMurphy, of course, is the rebel, and Billy Bibbit is the follower. Palahniuk advocates for a third option - escaping and creating something new - represented by Chief Bromden.
I'd like to explore this topic more in popular culture, literature, and research. If any of you have suggestions for reading materials or frameworks to look into, please feel free to send them my way! I know this is quite a complex topic that will take a great deal of study to fully understand.