The Great Gatsby's Daisy Problem

Tom and Gatsby flanking Carrie Mulligan as Daisy

Watching Baz Luhrmann’s new film The Great Gatsby feels like chugging an entire bottle of cheap champagne: A giddy, fantastic, sugar rush quickly becomes a morose headache.

The film starts as a lascivious cartoon of the Jazz Age, remixing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s high school literature classic with slick sensibilities and a Jay Z soundtrack that makes for a helluva good time.  But spectacle soon fades to schlock. The film pops its cork and becomes self-serious, trying to pour its bubbly aesthetic into an epic tale of love and money and instead just going flat.

By the end, I wasn’t touched by the story of lost love, I was trying to keep my eyes open and hoping my head from wouldn’t explode the next time Leonardo di Caprio tacked “old sport” onto the end of a line.  

One of the problems here is the main female character Daisy. The source material doesn’t do her any favors, with Fitzgerald both loving the glamorous image of flappers and fearing the upsetting social change they stood for.  Daisy is the linchpin of the film. Both her new-money, old-lover Jay Gatsby and her old-money, new-husband Tom Buchanan bring on tragedy by seeking to possess her, not because of who she is but who they see themselves to be reflected in her eyes. Unfortunately, both the original book and the new film are told from the male perspective, so the audience never sees more than a shallow projection of who Daisy might be. While the film is meant to be a critique of Tom and Gatsby’s desperate lust for controlling Daisy, it falls into the same trap of seeing her only as an object of desire.

Actress Carey Mulligan plays Daisy very well and succeeds at getting a little personality in edgewise. Daisy doesn’t come off as the hysterical, consumerist flapper I remember from the book, but a dull, rich, beautiful woman who has been taught to hold her tongue. We first see her in the film from the perspective of her cousin, narrator Nick Carraway, who comes upon her in a grand room swirling with white silks, lounging and giggling on a sofa. He describes her as a woman who makes a man feel like the best person in the world when she looks at him—and that’s the primary role she’s assigned for the remainder of the script. Mulligan sneaks in some sass, though.  When Tom soon spouts off a pseudo-scientific racist remark, Daisy responds, “Tom’s very profound lately. He reads deep books with long words in them.”

Later, staring out at the day with Nick, Daisy utters the famous line, “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Daisy seems to run deeper than the men around her give her credit for—she’s playing the fool, but the film never gives the audience the chance to see she isn’t one.  Instead, she occupies an accessory position in a film that resembles Gatsby’s own “huge, incoherent house.”

The other problem with the film is that it seems to entirely miss the book’s criticism of consumerism. Though the early scene of a drunken sex party in sweltering New York is so outrageous that it becomes grotesque (screeching women! Feathers everywhere! A guy with a trumpet who won’t shut up!) the film is prominently sponsored by Brooks Brothers,  Tiffany’s, and Prada. Narrator Nick Carraway winds up in rehab for alcoholism, an irony that seems lost on film sponsor Moet & Chandon. But besides that end of Nick, the film does nothing to beat against the current. There’s no lesson that all this 1920s extravagance is problematic. The message is to party like a rock star and dress like a robber baron—just don’t waste all your money chasing a woman who waffles.

The audience, too, is better off spending its ticket money on a quality drink.  


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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Sounds like Fitzgerald would

Sounds like Fitzgerald would have loved it!

Just FYI - the actor's name

<p>Just FYI - the actor's name is <strong>Carey</strong> Mulligan, not Carrie</p>


I think the extravagance of the movie... the indulgences made regarding the sponsors, the 3D, and the music, are meant to further enhance this criticism of consumerism and indulgence. And I'm glad that the director didn't feel the need to spell out this message. For one, how would he do that, beyond relaying the events in the story? And secondly, I like it when directors (or authors) trust us to get it.

It's humorous that the sponsors maintained their roles in this extravaganza. It kind of marks them as fools.

But then what are audience members, if not sponsers? We were invited to the party. We were a part of the spectacle. What does that make us?

"hoping my head from wouldn't

"hoping my head from wouldn't explode" should say "hoping my head wouldn't explode from "

"Mulligan sneaks in some

"Mulligan sneaks in some sass, though. When Tom soon spouts off a pseudo-scientific racist remark, Daisy responds, 'Tom’s very profound lately. He reads deep books with long words in them.'

This line is actually in the book, which I think helps give book Daisy more personality than she gets credit for. There are a lot of small lines like this in the novel that I think get missed sometimes. I reread the book after seeing the movie (which I thoroughly enjoyed and didn't see as being far off from the original story, even in my rereading), and I found myself liking Daisy more this time around, I think from a combination of seeing her acted out and reading her character more closely.

I think as a critique of the movie alone there are a lot of good points here, but the review loses some of its strength in my eyes when comparing movie to novel. Even the comment of di Caprio tacking on "old sport" in lines sits oddly with me simply because it's such a common phrase through the whole novel. It's something typically remembered by readers as a sort of trademark of his; it helps make the character.

I personally don't think that

I personally don't think that the book (or the movie, for that matter) is meant to leave us "thinking about lost love". It's very plainly a critique on the consumerism and materialism of the day, and the fact that the movie leaves us feeling almost hungover from the glitz and glam means it's nailed Fitzgerald's goal. The "lost love" (and a ton of the plot, actually) are pretty much background for me, and this is one of my favorite books of all time. This movie is superb. If you're one of the people who didn't like it, perhaps you should read the book again...

Lots of spoilers in this

Lots of spoilers in this post, read at your own discretion.

I want to disagree. I think you make some very good points about the problems with film daisy/novel daisy. Fitzgerald was leaning toward a screwed up misogynistic representation of women in his novels, but I would argue that the novel's Daisy is more complex than we give her credit. I think Baz Lurhmann presented the Daisy the readers wanted to see (and that the plot requires) but he also managed to highlight a very interesting character.

Daisy in the novel was very much a flat object, moulded by the ideal image of the two men 'fighting over her'. She was this same character in the film too. Except that Lurhmann made a point of highlighting Gatsby's character, divided into intriguing, likeable, imaginative, romantic gatsby, but then also into the psychopath Gatsby. All the characters are the same in that way, there's a side of them you can't stand, but then there's a side you can empathize with.

I want to see powerful female characters in movies and novels. But while Daisy isn't much of a role model, she's absolutely all the things feminists don't want to be. And by being that, she represents a caricature of a time and era, precisely the time and era women's liberation really began in the states. And she's the perfect example of WHY we needed it. I argue that her character really was powerful to watch on the screen, because she made the audience ask, why was she so shallow? Why so pathetic?

I admire that Lurhmann expressed her character the way he did. The bullshit way Tom/Gatsby treated her, and the conditions of her life left her with very few freedoms. The one thing she wanted was to leave/run away with Gatsby (with her daughter? Without?), she felt powerless to divorce, but brave enough to have a relationship with her own lover (because it was socially acceptable for her husband to have affairs, but forbidden for her to do the same), but ultimately Gatsby wouldn't stop pressuring her into what he assumed she wanted, and forcing her into his psycho vision. What little voice she had to begin with was completely drowned out by those two emotionally manipulative assholes, it suppressed her ability to find her own voice. In the end she killed her husbands mistress (in the film it was accidental, in the book the intention is vague). In the end of the movie, she ends up in the most powerful role she had at her disposal at the time, a mother/wife. There's a possibility she ended up there compliantly and submissively, accepting her husband's 'protection' as the easiest way out. But there's also the possibility that she matured from the 'beautiful fool' of a girl she was at the beginning of the film, to a mature adult who refuses to be ignorant and seeks to protect her daughter. The fantastic thing about this book is the more people try to interpret it, the more complex the intentions of the characters become. Lurhmann's 'Daisy', on the surface, is the most superficial Daisy ever represented, but her actual self is so concealed, there's never been a more powerful, humanistic version of Daisy yet. The book bored me to bits, but the movie really made me think, and I won't be forgetting it any time soon.

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