‘Gone Girl’, ‘A Simple Favor’, and ‘Big Little Lies’: White Womanhood and Criminality as Entertainment

When rich, attractive white women commit crimes on-screen, they revel in dark sensuality and emerge unscathed.

**This article contains plot spoilers for Gone Girl, A Simple Favor, and Big Little Lies**

A wildly popular formula for film and television is the woman who has it all, but finds herself at the center of a scandal. Gone Girl (2014), A Simple Favor (2018), and Big Little Lies (2017) all fit the bill. Each story’s leading lady has a few things in common: she’s conventionally attractive, upper middle class, and white. Crime dramas have always been able to draw a crowd, but mixing in an attractive white woman as the criminal brings in an even bigger audience. The allure of this storyline lies in the intrigue created by cracks in the seemingly perfect structure of white womanhood.  

Gone Girl (2014)

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl started a major trend in mainstream books, film, and television: the female-led thriller with a game-changing plot twist. Gone Girl’s success can be traced to the character of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). After learning of her husband Nick’s (Ben Affleck) affair, Amy concocts a plan to fake her own death and frame her husband as the murderer. Her subsequent disappearance garners massive media attention because she’s a pretty white woman who’s also a bit famous, as she’s the subject of a series of children’s books written by her parents. Thanks to the clues she planted, Nick is quickly suspected as a murderer; all the while, Amy is relaxing at a campground with newly-dyed hair and an air of triumph. She is whip-smart, cruel, and unapologetic in her actions. She plays out the sympathetic revenge fantasy of women who feel trapped in their marriages, but at closer inspection, her past reveals a pattern of false accusations against her significant others. At her core, Amy carries a coldness that borders on evil — happy to destroy the men in her life at whatever cost, she knows that as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, charming, and beautiful white woman, she’ll be able to get away with it. 

A Simple Favor (2018)

Despite its glossy look and comedic tone, A Simple Favor houses harsh realities. In another movie about a missing white woman, this film takes a turn when not one, but two, white women use violent crimes as leverage. Single mother Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is infatuated with Emily (Blake Lively) and her life. Emily has a tastefully decorated home, a hot husband (Henry Golding), and a successful career in the fashion world. The two women meet through their sons, who are in the same grade, and strike up a friendship. Shortly after, Emily goes missing. Much like in Gone Girl, the police force puts full dedication into finding Emily, who just like Amy Dunne, is blonde, attractive, and white. As the search concludes, Emily and Stephanie find themselves head-to-head, each of them armed with the knowledge of a devastating secret about the other — but Emily’s secret could get her arrested. Stephanie turns to rogue methods to film Emily’s confession, effectively getting her apprehended for murder. Though Emily is found out for her crimes, the media attention she receives is only granted when the missing woman is young and white. She has committed violent crimes and evaded consequences in the past, showing the manipulative woman that lies under her facade. Stephanie, on the other hand, seems capable of some of the same things, and like the viewers of the film, is drawn to Emily. There’s just “something” about her, but at second glance, that “something” is Emily’s success in white womanhood: she “has it all” and is still sexy, smart, and nonchalant about how great she seems. A Simple Favor examines the high societal standards for young mothers, but fails to address that its characters’ whiteness is what allows them to commit crimes without fear of consequence or concerned empathy for the people they hurt in the process.

Big Little Lies: Season One (2017)

HBO’s Big Little Lies is a decadent series about five women in Monterey, California, who find themselves entangled in the death of Perry (Alexander Skårsgard), one of their husbands. Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie (Zöe Kravitz), and Renata (Laura Dern) are all witnesses to the crime. They’re not exactly friends, but since they all played a part, they know they have to keep quiet to protect their lives. Even though Perry was an abusive man, their actions resulted in his death, so they could be arrested if they’re found out. Four of the five women of Big Little Lies are white, rich, and living in a lovely beach-side town, where it seems like nothing bad could ever happen. Kravitz’s character, Bonnie, the only Black woman in the main cast, is repeatedly sidelined by the show’s first season, leaving her character without much depth. Bonnie’s Blackness is an unspoken part of why the other women don’t like her — they call her “different,” “quirky,” and “spiritual” in attempts to criticize her without being outright in their racism. Celeste, Madeline, Jane, and Renata are so tied up in their own problems that they don’t even realize their privilege. Their problems — abuse, depression, and loveless marriages — are very real issues, but this does not negate that they are still wealthy, pretty white women who avoid being held accountable for their treatment of Bonnie and their lack of self-awareness regarding the advantages of their whiteness.  

The white women in Gone Girl, A Simple Favor, and Big Little Lies are not posited as criminals, but their criminal acts are their main flaw. Due to their whiteness and class privilege, they’re not punished for their actions. Instead, these women are granted an understanding and nuance seldom offered to women of color. Yet, white women are not hurt by this trope — it doesn’t follow them around and cause others to assume they’re probably going to murder their husband. White women are protected by their privilege, on-screen and off, providing them freedom from harmful stereotypes and allowing viewers to revel in the entertainment of it all. 

 

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