It seems relatively fair to posit that Taylor Swift has made some of her career based on the image that she’s America’s Sweetheart, the Girl Next Door, and any number of very gendered archetypes which put her into a box of Innocence and Purity. In David Fincher’s Gone Girl (written by Gillian Flynn and based upon her best-selling novel), Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) similarly has that kind of porcelain face, and, even more so, has had to live up to the same standards that society has set for her. Hiding behind those masks, though, is something else. All you have to do is watch the video for “Blank Space” and Gone Girl.
Spoilers for Gone Girl Ahoy
Without a doubt, part of the fun of Joseph Kahn’s video for Taylor Swift’s new single “Blank Space” is keying into audience perception and expectation, specifically Swift’s audience. She’s done it to some degree in the past, like with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which subverted the “goodie two shoes” image that many outsiders had/have of Swift into something of a gentle self-mockery, but never as viciously as with “Blank Space”. Off her newest album 1989, “Blank Space” is, ostensibly, a warning to her newest potential significant other. In an order to clear the air, she is sure to inform this person that she’s actually crazy. Swift serenades that she’s “got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you [she’s] insane”.
Because why bother duping the pulchritudinous Sean O’Pry. Oh, because there’s this implicit standard she has to live up to. She’s dressed elegantly from scene to scene, from jazz era boudoir delicate in black to a black laced gown to a blue dress, sporting sanguine stained lips. She looks perfect. She, as a figure of fantasy, says, “I could show you incredible things”. She invites him, arm extended, singing, “Love’s a game, wanna play?”
Amy Dunne is equally elegant, for even at the party where she meets her future husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), there’s an effortlessness to her performance. She plans to show him new things, and expects just as much from him. For these are the roles that are set to them (“Find out what you want, be that girl for a month”). They’re both cool girls.
Nick and Sean are playing roles, too, but they don’t seem to be nearly as aware of it. They’re both perfect within the context of what Amy and Taylor want and need. “I can read you like a magazine,” Taylor says, adding a dose of irony to the comparison since Nick writes for a magazine in the film. The point being, though, that Nick and Sean are both very impressive: handsome (Oh my god, look at that face, you look like my next mistake), seemingly reliable and emotionally stable.
They both look Perfect. And their relationships are just as indicative of that. Nick and Amy have the perfect marriage (look at those cute bed sheets), Taylor and Sean have a perfect relationship (look at their carved names in the tree). It’s perfect.
And then, when their partners transgress the roles set to them, via infidelity, then these women are just as justified in transgressing their roles: they’re something else and unwilling to put up with an implicit hypocrisy within the culture. “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” Taylor opines. Maybe that’s true. “‘Oh my God, who is she?’” a thought that runs through both Sean and Nick’s heads. But Taylor takes pleasure in subverting her image. She looks into the camera with a sly grin. She says, “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” In essence, as Amy says, the Cool Girl doesn’t actually exist.
Taylor’s version of revenge is like a more restrained version of Amy’s. Part of the fascination with Amy’s methodology is that it is so extreme: she fakes her own death, frames her husband, kills another man. Taylor is perhaps more “normal”, battering everything that connected the two beyond repair, from his car to his clothes. But she does wield a knife and stab a heart shaped cake, which proceeds to gush blood, and take an axe and plunge it into a portrait of her lover, as if destroying role he abandoned. Taylor destroys her ex’s stuff; Amy destroys her ex’s life.
Both of their performances of revenge are essentially satire, with Taylor’s keying into more specifically what Gone Girl itself is satirizing. There’s a maniacally comical aspect to Swift, so sweet and seemingly kind, going ballistic, primarily because she seems to be having as much fun with it as we are. There’s the image of her as this young woman who “goes on too many dates” (as she says in “Shake It Off”), and then the rumors that fly about what she’s like as a partner, especially after the relationship. Here, Swift is addressing those directly, sending up those ideas of her and, in a bizarre way, making them empowering. She’s in control of the image and the archetype (“I can make all the tables turn”). She changes the power dynamics. She doesn’t dismantle it to the point Amy does though. Amy take “crazy ex” to 11. As aforementioned, what she does is interesting because it’s such an extreme reaction. Her psychopathy is itself a satire of the “crazy ex” archetype, pushing the stereotype as far as it can go, and then pushing it some more. Again, though, there’s something weirdly interesting and, arguably, empowering about this woman taking back control in this situations. It’s as if she’s the director.
But, it’s not as if these characters didn’t make clear what their intentions were. Amy, just after an argument with her husband, stands by the door and says that she’s not going to become the nagging wife who resents her husband. Taylor croons, “Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
Is it technically a façade that the two use? Yes and no. ON a surface level, certainly, both characters are wearing a kind of perfection that doesn’t technically exist. But, there’s the implicit knowledge that part of a relationship is performance. Both Taylor and Amy seem to understand that performance is just a basic ingredient in a relationship; their significant others do not.
But the message of the song seems to be the same kind of message that Amy peddles. At the end of the film, when Nick wants a divorce, he says, “Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain.” Amy retorts, “That’s marriage.” The full chorus of “Blank Space” goes like this:
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
‘Cause we’re young and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl.”
The same ideas are there, in terms of the gendered roles, the commitment, and the transgression. There’s a lot to unpack here, but one could say that the Cool Girl is having a moment. Or, to be more precise, the Cool Girl Unwilling to Let Patriarchal Hypocrisy Stand is having a moment. It’s a matter of subverting and inverting their prescribed roles to make a point. What does love mean to these people? It’s a game for all of them, but only Taylor and Amy seem to want to acknowledge that it is exactly that. The last frame of Gone Girl and “Blank Space” are the same: Amy and Taylor look into the camera, at us, and smirk knowingly. The Cool Girl is ready to strike back.