A Girl and a Gun

10.09.14 9:55 AM ET

David Fincher’s Backseat Feminism

David Fincher has a reputation for being a man’s man. Yet from Madonna videos to Gone Girl, his feminism comes from casually showing men—through men—the value of a powerful woman.

With the release of Gone Girl this weekend, much has been made over the film’s feminism. Feminist, misogynist, misandrist—Gone Girl has been read, reviewed, drawn, quartered, wined, and dined from every possible angle, and it has produced every possible conclusion. The novel by Gillian Flynn produced its own feminist fervor, but under the watchful eye of director David Fincher, what was already a storm has turned into a tempest.

At least with audiences, Fincher has a reputation for being a man’s man. His protagonists are almost always male, and he works most often as a director of thrillers. This has not stopped him from winning a captive audience of both men and women—when it comes to the movies, most people show up for the popcorn, not the politics. But while it is tempting to say that the quality of David Fincher’s films speaks for itself, that would dismiss the complex and unusual relationship to women that Fincher has built throughout his filmography.

Fincher’s interest in classical film form does not end with camera angles and editing techniques—along the way he’s absorbed some lessons in gender parity from Hollywood’s great masculine filmmakers, from Howard Hawks to Martin Scorsese. As fellow master Jean-Luc Godard might say, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.”

By now we’re prepared for Fincher to bring the gun, but it’s maybe taken for granted just how often he makes room for a girl to come along with it.

Fincher’s career in filmmaking of course began not at the movies at all, but on television screens. His rise coincided with the rise of the music video, the MTV era, and for a time Fincher was the most sought after director on the video scene. Most famously he worked with Madonna, but Fincher’s resume was broad and diverse, producing classics ranging from Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” to Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.”

But the Madonna videos—particularly “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”—are uniquely spectacular. By 1989, it was a surprise to no one that Fincher could craft a clever homage or replicate high fashion lighting techniques, but Fincher has never been one to write his own scripts. If Fincher gave her impossible glamor, Madonna’s persona as a feminist provocateur offered Fincher the kind of organizing principle that could take his work to the next level.

At the time, Madonna was staging her first real comeback and she chose videos as her battleground. Her lead single “Like a Prayer” was a massive hit, the cross-burning video condemned by the Pope himself. Her tremendous success offered Fincher a then gargantuan budget of $5 million for the follow-up single, “Express Yourself”—a pop feminist anthem that Fincher wasted no time blowing up to extravagant heights.

That marriage of Fincher’s images with Madonna’s ideology made for instant iconography. And Hollywood took note.

Fincher was offered the director’s chair for Aliens3, the continuation of Ridley Scott’s Alien series, featuring Sigourney Weaver as one of the most iconic women in cinema, but particularly genre cinema: Ellen Ripley. It was a fraught production, and having been brought onto the project as a replacement, it was a production that offered Fincher little creative control. In the end he was left with a disappointing product that bore little of his creative fingerprint.

The pair of films that would follow—Se7en and The Game—avoided many of the pitfalls that befell Aliens3. They are tight exercises in genre filmmaking, both formally rigorous and emotionally involving. However, if Fincher’s career had up until that moment been strongly associated with powerful iconic women, this period in his career was a moment of redefinition. Fincher cut off Gwyneth Paltrow’s head and became king of the box office, seemingly the newest honorary member of the Hollywood boy’s club.

However, the films that followed Fincher’s establishment within the industry are more complex than what the narrative around him suggests. The fetishization of masculinity on the surface of Fight Club is in fact only surface, and much of the film’s humor comes from its subversion of its characters' grotesque ideals—a fact the film’s legions of frat boy fans never fail to misapprehend. It helps of course that just to the left of Tyler Durden, Fincher has placed Helena Bonham Carter, whose sly and dry performance turned out to be as much a career-defining moment as Brad Pitt’s, though obviously on a different scale.

Having delved as far into the depths of poisonous manhood as he could go with Fight Club, Fincher returned to women protagonists with Panic Room, another thriller, another elaborate formal exercise—this time restricted space. But what’s interesting about Panic Room—besides the oddly prescient casting of Kristen Stewart as Jodie Foster’s daughter—is just how uninteresting the change in gender is within Fincher’s world. As Foster fights for her life, there is little difference in the way she behaves, in the way she thinks, or in what she values that separates her from any of Fincher’s other everyman protagonists. She’s a successful businesswoman. She’s resourceful, level-headed. He even dresses Foster like one of his male heroes—her tank top utilitarian, without gender.

As post-feminism starts to fall out of favor, and as activists and laymen begin to recognize just how much work is ahead of us if we ever hope to reach meaningful equality of the sexes—David Fincher films show us an alternate universe where men and women’s equality is self-evident. Characters like Panic Room’s Meg Altman, The Social Network’s Erica Albright, or House Of Cards’ Claire Underwood present an unfussy, unselfconscious vision of competent women, and most importantly, they exist within men’s media.

David Fincher’s feminism comes not from assuming women’s viewpoints, but in casually showing men—through men—the value of a powerful woman.

At times this quality has the power to save a potentially questionable script, as Fincher’s back-and-forth edits during the opening scene of The Social Network do for Erica Albright, who otherwise might have been doomed to be a dizzy victim of Sorkin Syndrome. But at times, this quality does not always play to Fincher’s benefit. His 2011 remake of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fell flat in part because Lisbeth Salander faces calls for a filmmaker willing to enter her experience in empathy, rather than sit on the outside of her in sympathy.

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Maybe that’s why Gone Girl [minor spoilers ahead] feels like such a breakthrough. It’s a battle of the sexes, everyman vs. superwoman. Tall, dark, and handsome Ben Affleck against icy blonde Rosamund Pike. For the first time since those Madonna videos, it feels like David Fincher is diving into the eyes of someone unabashedly female, and it looks like he’s having a hell of a good time doing it.

It’s not often that you write about a filmmaker and immediately wonder what they’re response would be, but it’s easy to imagine what David Fincher would think of this article, and me for writing it. Move on. What’s the point of all the jabbering? To anyone with half a brain, equality needs no explanation.

He’d be wrong of course, but it is an awfully nice thought.