“That’s marriage.”

2876078_bigThe film Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014) represents a bad marriage as a contest of wills where spouses attempt to control one another, to use one another as an accessory to present a public image. (Marriage is literally a move in the game of Life in the film’s opening minutes.) Actually, the film represents all relationships has competitive, whether husband/wife, mother/daughter, police/suspect, media/celebrity, or public/individual.

The film’s main couple, Amy and Nick, initially try to resist this sort of competition in their marriage. They don’t want to be one of “those couples” and insist on a “no bullshit” policy. And it works for a while. They bring out the best in each other. They ground each other’s identity.

Whereas Amy’s mother is always trying to control her through a fictionalized series of novels about “Amazing Amy”, Nick rescues her from this and gives her an unique identity apart from her mother. Actually it is not just Nick; it is explicitly Amy’s marriage to Nick that grounds her identity. Nick proposes marriage to Amy at an Amazing Amy publicity event, redirecting attention away from the mother’s fictionalized Amy to the person Amy is with him.

But director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn worry that this is only possible for the elite in New York City. When the recession hits and the happy couple are forced to move to a small town in Missouri, Amy is thrust into the suburban housewife role and things come unraveled.   She feels as if she has been abducted – her identity is “gone”. Nick withdraws from the marriage, because he doesn’t need Amy to grant him his identity anymore now that he has his mother and sister. And Amy withdraws from the marriage, because Nick no longer gives her an identity. The last straw is when he replaces her attention with one of his 20-year-old students.

Amy initially plans to kill Nick and herself – they are both already dead anyway in her eyes, since they got their identity from a marriage that has dissolved. But when she sees him on a TV talk show talking about her disappearance, she realizes she there is hope for the marriage after all. She discovers that he can still play the public-image game. By the end of the film she has trapped him into playing the game on her terms for the foreseeable future.

Nick had promised to rescue Amy from the duality of having to live up to the false public image of Amazing Amy. In the end, Amy resolves the duality by becoming the false image. Thus Gone Girl is the story of a woman who becomes society’s image of her. It is not a “happy ending” for Amy, even though she “gets away with” her crimes. The film is a feminist horror movie. Amy has indeed been abducted. She has lost her soul to the film’s true villain: the monstrous institution of marriage. What allows Amy to embrace the false image of the perfect suburban housewife is her recognition that marriage is always about hypocrisy.

So Flynn sets up Gone Girl as a reductio ad absurdum of the conception of marriage as “being-for-another”.   Wikipedia’s description of this idea from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness sounds like it could be a summary of the plot of Gone Girl:

Sartre states that many relationships are created by people’s attraction not to another person, but rather how that person makes them feel about themselves by how they look at them. This is a state of emotional alienation whereby a person avoids experiencing their subjectivity by identifying themselves with “the look” of the other. The consequence is conflict. In order to maintain the person’s own being, the person must control the other…. The purpose of either participant is not to exist, but to maintain the other participant’s looking at them. This system is often mistakenly called “love”, but it is, in fact, nothing more than emotional alienation and denial of freedom through conflict with the other.

If Flynn is right and marriage really is all about having your true self dominated by the will of another, then we should never get married! Or at least, we should only get married after we have developed a strong sense of our own self-identity independently of others. Paradoxically, the only woman who should get married is feminism’s “strong woman” who doesn’t need a husband.

But what if Flynn isn’t feminist enough? What if her version of a “strong woman” is actually a woman making the same mistakes men usually make? What if both men and women need to reject the masculine sense of a self-sufficient individual identity and embrace instead a feminine sense of being-for-another. What if Flynn’s feminism isn’t embodied enough? What if it is too caught up in the masculine vision of the human being as disembodied rational thinker?

Gone Girl is in fact a reductio ad absurdum of Cartesian philosophy (“I think therefore I am“). The film begins and ends with the idea that human beings are subjective minds trapped inside a body. Nick’s thought, “What are you thinking?” bookends the film. A person’s “true self” is represented as something private, inner, inaccessible to others. This is exactly how Descartes taught us to think.

And the film taces out the consequences of this Cartesian philosophy. If we believe there is a true self underneath our external behavior, we will believe that authenticity is the key to happiness.   We will try to “find” ourselves, so we can “be true to” ourselves. Hypocrisy and being controlled by the opinions of others will be the mark of the self’s destruction.

Thus the film vigorously rejects the idea that marriage is about making yourself better by seeing yourself through your spouse’s eyes (Sartre’s being-for-another). It argues that if you really believed this, you will end up like Amy does at the end of the film, essentially a character in a reality TV show.

But the film rests on a Cartesian foundation. If we replace Descartes’s image of the self as radically individual and private with an image of the self as more embodied and social, then we can see how being-for-another need not lead to the consequences Gone Girl predicts. It is only if you assume the ideal of authenticity that you make life together impossible and hell becomes “other people” as Sartre said in No Exit.

The Biblical view of marriage provides an alternative. In marriage, “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Note that this is a marriage of flesh. It is not Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or U2’s “two hearts beating as one”. And it is not just about sex, either.  The idea of “flesh” here refers to our embodied identity as social beings. We get our initial identity from our mother and father, but in marriage the husband and wife leave those social roles and create a new identity together. They become a new embodiment of family, a new flesh.

Marriage is about flesh, because it happens in a publicly accessible social space of bodies in action.  That’s what’s real.  Social roles are not necessarily false images that hide our true selves, and aspiration to be better members of society is not necessarily hypocrisy.  Social relationships (including marriage) are not necessarily competitive, and each individual’s true self — and hence their true good — is found in the common good of the community.

From this point of view, your “true self” is not something you are born with; it is something you will become. You are born inauthentic, unreal, and must grow into a real human being and learn to become the author of your own actions. And you learn this, not by separating yourself from others and becoming self-sufficient, but by becoming part of a community, a family.

When Amy tells Nick, “The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone [I] might like”, the film presents this as a horror of inauthenticity. But if we reject the idea of authenticity, then Amy’s statement actually sounds attractive. Our spouses can bring out the best in us. “That’s marriage”, indeed.

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