At last, a book that attempts to unpack the specific obsession that spawned this blog! It’s no small feat, and author Alice Bolin has explored the trope so thoroughly that I’m simultaneously jealous she beat me to it and delightedly grateful that she did. Like me, she said her analysis first began with the genesis of the genre: Twin Peaks!
According to Bolin, the Dead Girl gets the short end of the stick in every story about her. All Dead Girl Shows begin with the discovery of the murdered body of a young woman, and then the lead characters set out to uncover who killed her.
As such, the Dead Girl is not a ‘character’ in the show, but rather, the memory of her is. There can be no redemption for the Dead Girl, but it is available to the person who is solving her murder.Bolin
The Dead Girl is a descendent of the noir femme fatale archetype, and Bolin notes that American noir was born of a reaction to the disenfranchisement and emasculation many (men) felt from the Great Depression. Noir served as both a reflection and an “indictment of American masculinity,” and in the depths of this grief and fear of failure, the American Boy invented his new dream girl.
Like her counterpart the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Dead Girl is never allowed to be a full character or complete person, and that’s her appeal. She is a symbol, a plot device to catalyze another (male) character’s development. Her life is tragic but not precious, because America in any era retains the chaotic ethos of the Wild West. Anyone can be killed at any time, and people will act like everything is fine.
The characterization of the Dead Girl makes an inescapable statement: only pure, well-behaved “good girls” have value. Whether a show’s interpretation the trope reinforces those patriarchal ideas or rejects them might differentiate a good show from a shit one.
As a woman, I feel something familiar in the way the Dead Girl’s story is always hijacked from her. We’re always looking for reflections of ourselves in characters and stories that were never truly intended for us. Bolin understands:
Like other writers before me, I have tried to make something about women from stories that were always and only about men.
Bolin traces the Dead Girl’s evolution in popular fiction and true crime entertainment, from Nordic noir novels to the rise of the ID Channel and the phenomenon of Serial. She haunts every dark tale, from The Virgin Suicides to Sharp Objects (although the latter arguably brought something more to the tired trope).
It’s clear we love the Dead Girl, enough to rehash and reproduce her story, to kill her again and again, but not enough to see a pattern.Bolin
What does our Dead Girl obsession tell us about ourselves? Why do we rely on her to illustrate such supposedly universal stories about human suffering and evil? Bolin posits that our cultural obsession with murder stories and criminal justice comes from our urge to craft a narrative story about our own reality, which is “basically unexplainable.”
I wonder if maybe it’s because no one wants to be told the truth – that we’re all capable of committing horrible harm on one another, and only a thin sense of propriety holds us back from our lizard brain impulses. Maybe distilling that truth into stories, even the same cliche stories over and over, is the only way people are receptive to that truth. Or, perhaps, it can also serve as a self-conscious rejection of the norm for those who know what it’s like to fear violence in their everyday lives.
Part of this essay collection examines the subject of the Dead Girl, but the latter part gives Bolin room to reflect on the fears and ills she shares in common with the authors she turned to throughout earlier phases of her personal journey. Like every book I’m reading this year, I noticed a few similarities to IBGITD, especially in Bolin’s essays about her time in Los Angeles, which reminded me vaguely of McNamara’s expository descriptions of southern California suburban sprawl.
As a fellow millennial writer, I found her memoir pieces warmly relatable. When she professed our shared secret belief that pop starlets sing about our personal situations in “sad, secret ways,” I felt called out. She even points out subconscious constructs I hadn’t identified in my other favorites, like Lana Del Rey. “If the American spirit is a bored, sexually mature American teenager,” Bolin writes, “then [Lana] Del Rey does everything she can to embody them.” Ouch, I didn’t realize how much my Dead Girl fetish correlated with my music tastes, too.
Dead Girls is an exploration of women in literature, as characters and concepts, as writers and analysts and critics, femme fatales and witches, as victims and heroines and plot ploys. It’s about sisterhood and art history, about how women cope with and defy the patriarchal narratives and power structures and cultural values that shape them every day. It’s also fertile grounds for building your next reading list.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to bust up the cliche, enjoy this list of creepy thriller books that break the trope.