From Gone Girl to The Power, depictions of angry women have been a popular subject for many authors; but do these narratives embolden the modern woman or feed into toxic stereotypes?
Beginning with the monstrous Medusa, continuing to Jane Eyre and, now, Gone Girl’s Amy; female rage has been a powerful tool for authors as they delve into discussions of gender, privilege and stereotypes. Following the success of Amazon’s recent televised interpretation of The Power by Naomi Alderman, these books have been catapulted back into the limelight; but what makes them so controversial?
In 2012, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl arrived in bookshops and the world went wild. The narrative followed Amy who devised a malicious and ruthless plan that aimed to take revenge on everyone who had wronged her, in particular her husband, Nick. What makes Amy’s character so sinister is her silent, calculated moves which differ a lot from the stereotype of a ‘hysterical’ woman.
Katie Withers, 21, has read Flynn’s novel numerous times: “Amy’s actions all stem from anger but none of her revenge acts are committed in an emotional fury. She’s taken anger and kind of channelled it and people are calling her a psychopath and stuff but she’s let it simmer for so long, and had this anger for so long, that it’s turned into something else; it’s not anger anymore it’s calculated results.
“I think it kind of changes the stereotypes a bit because, as I said, she’s not really doing any of it in an emotional rage and that was kind of the stereotype, like hysteria, like ‘women are too emotional they can’t control it’. She clearly has held it for so long and she’s come up with a plan to deal with it.”
Amy’s ruthlessness paid off and the novel ends with her back with Nick and, supposedly, living ‘happily ever after’. This subverted the theme around women’s anger needing to be tamed and punished; Amy’s efforts paid off. But does it justify and even encourage this extreme behaviour?
Katie continued: “That anger, like a lot of the book for a lot of people, was almost cathartic because a lot of the issues and things that make her angry are very common experiences.
“She was looked down on by lots of people: her husband doesn’t treat her that great and she’s stuck in the cycle of being bored and everything being mundane. The fact that she can have this huge, massive, elaborate revenge but at the end of the book she still wins and gets to keep the husband and do what she wants, I think that’s what makes it resonate with a lot of people, that it’s kind of like she’s doing it for them; because they can’t and shouldn’t.”
Susan Watkins, a Professor of Women’s Writing at Leeds Beckett University, believes that the narrative is neither empowering nor toxic, but that its impact is more ambivalent.
Professor Watkins said: “So if people are asking that question about a book like Gone Girl then implicitly they’re asking: what are the limits in terms of how we perceive appropriate femininity? How exactly do we challenge those ideas? How far is it possible to go?
“So I think that rather than saying: ‘Yes, these are all amazing and empowering representations,’ or alternatively: ‘No, these are all women who go too far, etc etc’, the answer probably lies somewhere in between and it’s different for every reader. That’s what makes them interesting books.
“There always is this ambivalence. If anger is expressed too much in women does it become something we can no longer identify with? And even should we?”
The Power by Naomi Alderman was published in 2016, four years after Flynn’s thriller. It reimagines a world where women have developed the power to shoot electricity from their hands; an ability which leads them to take over society and transform it into a violent matriarchy. Similarly, the story ends rather positively for the women as they successfully become dominant figures and continue to hold authority. However, some readers have argued that this book is, at its core, misogynistic.
Maya Upmacis, 20, agrees with this idea: “I hate The Power. I have never felt more infuriated when reading this book. On the surface, it appears to be a feminist narrative that imagines a world where women have the ability to fight back against a sexist society.
“But what Naomi Alderman does is suggest that if women ever came into power the world would go to shit. She presents women as these feral, violent creatures that have no ability to control their emotions and just go on crazy killing sprees for basically no reason.
“It just feels like she is saying that even if women had the physical ability to fight back against the patriarchy, we are too emotionally and mentally weak to keep it humane and under control.”
Professor Watkins argues that the reason why some consider The Power to present women negatively is due to innate societal expectations of femininity.
She said: “What happens with these protagonists is if they veer too far away from what’s expected of women in terms of decorum, propriety, whatever; then people start to have problems identifying with them and sympathising with them.”
Alderman’s novel focuses on the concept of gender and gender roles. She technically flips society on its head, however many have pointed out its blatant lack of inclusivity.
Maya continued: “For a book that is believed to provide a narrative on gender, it is painfully binary. Not once is there any reference to the trans community or those who identify as non-binary.
“She [Alderman] wrote The Power in 2016, not 1916. The fact that she fails to explore different identities in a book about gender is ridiculous. She ignores a massive community of people and then fuels misogynistic ideas. It is almost the opposite of empowering.”
These novels are important; they give a space for women’s anger to be analysed and observed. However, they both approach the topic in very different ways. Gone Girl ignores the stereotype of the ‘hysterical’ woman and, instead, presents anger as a calculated and malicious tool that women can use to their advantage; their anger is controlled and deliberate. The Power presents women’s anger as a ticking time bomb that, when given the chance, translates into an almost animal-like violence and power-hungry daze.
Ultimately, neither is empowering as they take rage to the extreme, but they are cathartic. They give women a way to satisfy their anger through fictional characters that utilise their emotions to their benefit – they are not tamed or punished, but rewarded.
What these books really do is start a conversation, a debate. They encourage us to confront society and ask: Why can’t women be angry?
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Susan Watkins is Professor of Women’s Writing in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University. She is an expert in contemporary women’s writing and feminist theory, with particular research interests in dystopia, apocalyptic fiction, ageing and the future.