Hope Reese | Longreads | July 2018 | 12 minutes (3,114 words)

“It’s clear we love the Dead Girl, enough to rehash and reproduce her story, to kill her again and again,” writes Alice Bolin. “But not enough to see a pattern. She is always singular, an anomaly, the juicy new mystery.”

In her debut collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Bolin takes aim at what she calls the “Dead Girl Show” — a genre of entertainment that centers around solving the mystery of a dead, or missing, girl. Approaching the subject with deep intellectual curiosity, Bolin dissects texts and manuscripts — from Joan Didion’s nonfiction to Veronica Mars — that reveal how dead “girls” or women have become a trope of entertainment, serving as a vehicle for sleuthing or as a venue to sort out “male problems.” The result is a compelling case that these plotlines are not merely problematic and inaccurate, but are damaging to society.

The “Dead Girl” genre, Bolin tells me, is not just about gender — it’s equally about race. “There is a lot of privilege wrapped up in the dead girl body, and in the ways that the body is sanctified. That’s a better reason than any to let some of these stories go: the overvaluing of a white woman’s body,” she said. “It’s not good for anyone.”

I spoke to Bolin on the phone while she was at home in Memphis, Tennessee. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have named a genre of TV, starting with Twin Peaks, the “Dead Girl Show.” What do you see as the primary characteristics of that category?

It’s pretty simple. Usually it’s a crime show that starts with finding the murdered body of a dead girl, and the first season is about solving her murder. And there’s all kind of permutations from there, like in Top of the Lake, the girl is missing, not dead. Or there are shows where the question of the missing girl has gone on for seasons and seasons and seasons, like in Pretty Little Liars. But in general, it’s basically about that kind of mysterious, propulsive power of a dead girl’s body.

You’re critical of the “Dead Girl” shows — which I’ll get to later — but do you think they’re always problematic? What do you think about the setup as a narrative device?

It’s kind of hard to say. I mean, I feel like we shouldn’t necessarily put moral constraints on narratives, but we should put ethical constraints on narratives. Basically, people are going to tell whatever story they tell. And something good or wholesome for humanity does not necessarily make a good story. But at the same time, I do think we need to take into consideration what stories have been told before, what stories have been told to death, and the kinds of messages that we’re sending by reusing these same tropes over and over. It becomes harder and harder to subvert something that’s been used so many times.

Emma Eisenberg wrote a piece in the Paris Review about how to write a dead girl story, and she [says] the best dead girl stories show the ways that a dead girl’s body as a symbol is bad for both men and women — or puts us all in this kind of impossible, tortured place. But I think a lot of the time it’s done in a very unthinking way. I think people could probably do well to try to think of a new story.

I think we need to take into consideration what stories have been told before, what stories have been told to death, and the kinds of messages that we’re sending by reusing these same tropes over and over.

Why are we so drawn to stories centered around dead girls? Is there a counterpart with stories we tell about dead boys?

The one that everyone points to is Riverdale, which I haven’t watched, about a young, beautiful boy who is killed. There are definitely murder stories about men that you could compare. This trope of cozy mysteries goes back to the 19th Century, with the “body in the library” — usually a man whose body is found, has no identifying marks, and nobody in the house knows who it is, and they have to figure out the mystery. Not only of who killed him, but who he is.

There’s a clear parallel to a dead girl story — but the man’s body isn’t fetishized. It’s usually fully clothed. There isn’t this haunting quality to the man’s body; it’s just sort of a question mark. So I think that it’s pretty clear that the female body is weighted with all of this meaning and with this mythos that the male body is not.

You’ve helped me think more critically about some of the shows I love that use this setup. But what about a “Dead Girl Show” with a protagonist like Veronica Mars, who’s kind of a badass, and she’s the one who’s doing the investigating?

Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows of all time. And it does have kind of a feminist banter. I think that she is a really wonderful and very complex and admirable character. But at the same time, it really still feeds into this idea of women as sort of inherently damaged or haunted — both in the characters of Lilly and of Veronica. Where Veronica goes through this sexual assault and she changes, she becomes a different person. She goes through this transformation, and it’s kind of literally a loss of innocence.

It still plays into a lot of the same tropes that exist in other Dead Girl Shows, but in some ways it’s better because you’re actually seeing, through a girl’s eyes, what the fetishization of a teenage girl does to a living girl.

You write about pushing your dad a bit to question why he likes certain shows (like Veronica Mars). What do you think the attraction is to these stories? Is it a problem that we find them entertaining?

It’s really hard to say. Something doesn’t have to have a perfect message to be well-made, or funny, or engrossing, or well-written. And that’s okay. You can still enjoy those things for what they are. If you like stuff that’s stylish and beautiful, you can still like something that’s stylish and beautiful even if you’re like, oh, it’s a little sexist.

But I also think that engaging on both of those levels is really important. And that’s what I’m trying to encourage with my book — thinking about not only the things that we don’t like, but the things that we do like. And paying attention to the kinds of messages they’re sending, the kinds of myths that they’re perpetuating, because that’s the way, when we reproduce those stories, that we can start to inch them more towards a more ethical framework.

Did you see Sharp Objects? Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, a reporter who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the death of a girl and another missing girl — which falls squarely into your “Dead Girl Show” genre. But she’s, again, a unique and complex character. What’s your take?

I think Gillian Flynn’s work is very interesting. I think that she’s quite a fascinating writer. Sharp Objects is her first book — and it’s her worst book, in my opinion. I think that it’s pulpy and it’s outrageous and it’s sort of like Stephen King and V.C. Andrews. It sort of lays it all out there — there’s no subtext, it’s all text. But I think that the ways that she thinks about self-harm in addition to violence against women in that book, and the ways that women hurt one another is very complex and quite interesting. But it is thinking about the ways that this misogynist society causes women to hurt themselves, and to hurt other women, as well as having these risks of violence against women.

I was struck by a line from the father of a girl who was murdered. He told Preaker that he would rather his daughter was murdered than raped. You write about how dead girls are sexualized. How does this fit in?

It’s very telling — that feeling that a girl’s body belongs to everyone, and that it’s possible that it could be sullied and ruined. This kind of collective ownership of woman’s body.

You write that dead girls are both a “wellspring and target” of sexual wickedness.

Right. But you’re not sure whether the girl is kind of driving the man to act badly, or the man is taking out this bad behavior on the girl. Either way, her body is dangerous — we know it leads men astray.

I feel like, often, the truth — like in the stories of the Juarez murders or the Highway of Tears in Canada — is that those are a lot of different murderers. The truth is that… the murderer is almost a collective of violent misogynists.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is a strong character who “wriggled away from Larsson’s grasp.” So why do you take issue with this series — which Steig Larsson has said is feminist?

I think that Stieg Larsson definitely intended for it to be feminist. But I think that he did not succeed in that intention. So much of the story we see through other people’s eyes, not necessarily through Salander’s perspective. So often we’re hearing what other people think about her. Either it’s something that’s kind of negative and terrible, like people judging her body or thinking she’s really young, or thinking she’s anorexic, or that she’s some sort of delinquent. Or it’s something where she’s kind of simplified — like deified by the protagonist Bloomquist. Where he says like, “She has a really strong sense of morality. She’s simple and upright,” or whatever. It’s just so far from correct in both cases. She’s a really complicated character who doesn’t always act correctly and who often acts out of hurt. That is what makes her so sympathetic. I think she is quite a cool character, but I think that it’s kind of in spite of what Larsson is trying to say about her.

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Do you think that a lot of writers or directors create these stories unconsciously?

Yes, I do. I also think, in some ways, people are reproducing stories unconsciously. I don’t think we’re really taught to think about the implications of stories that we tell, or what they tacitly say. For instance: there’s this story of this horrible serial killer in Germany, who was in prison and tricked these advocates for prison reform into thinking he was reformed and rehabilitated. Then he got out and killed a bunch of more people. So it’s a horrible story, and it’s also obviously an anomaly. This guy is nuts, and he is some sort of criminal mastermind.

But there are so few criminal masterminds in this world. And if we retell that story, which they did on My Favorite Murder, then what we’re tacitly saying is: people shouldn’t be let out of prison, rehabilitation is impossible, and everyone who is going through those programs is actually lying. You’re kind of casting doubt on that whole process, even if you’re just telling this story that even from its surface just seems like a juicy, crazy story.

I also think that sometimes people think they’re subverting a story when they’re maybe really not. Or they think maybe adding in the element of the girl detective or adding in the element of the boy victim makes it all different, which sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. So yeah — I think that there’s a lot of difficulty in trying to actually subvert a problematic story.

There’s this myth of the serial killer, the mass murderer, that you write about — the way this person is often portrayed as some kind of mastermind. Why is this a problematic story?

This is something that I feel so strongly about. I feel like even people who consider themselves sort of progressive still propagate this idea that serial killers are in fact preternaturally charming or are really smart, have high IQs — when not much evidence bears that out. I would say that would be quite rare among people who we see as serial killers. More often serial killers are using privilege to mask their crimes and to stay undetected, usually because often they’re men in the middle class who are white, who have families, who live in suburbia. But you don’t have to be that smart to stay under the radar when you are not one of the people police consider to be criminals.

That’s something that we need to question so much more — in both fact and fiction. We have so many stories that exaggerate that myth where serial killers are superhuman. And then, when we talk about Ted Bundy or whoever, we give him those qualities of a Hannibal Lector or something, when it’s just not true.

I’m interested in this myth as it relates to fact and fiction. Clearly, we want journalists who accurately report on the true qualities of a murderer, without trying to glamorize the character. But should we hold those in the entertainment industry to the same standard? What if the myth makes for a more juicy, interesting story?

I feel like, often, the truth — like in the stories of the Juarez murders or the Highway of Tears in Canada — is that those are a lot of different murderers. The truth is that it has a lot more to do with the victims than it does with the perpetrators. It has to do with these women being incredibly vulnerable to violence. So then the murderer is almost a collective of violent misogynists.

Stories like that would actually be more interesting than having stories about these superhuman serial killers. In some ways, those serial killer stories are almost metaphors for the evil of the universe but I feel like we need to know more about how much we allow evil than we do about how insidious and clever evil is.

When we frame these murder stories as mysteries, we have to excise that part of the story that makes who did it obvious. If you watch Dateline or whatever, they say, “Oh, we always have to eliminate the people closest to the victim.” And they don’t exactly say: men are always murdering their wives.

I imagine that many people who watch crime shows or read the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo believe that they are witnessing a sort of good versus evil setup — that there’s justice. But you argue that the effect is often to glamorize murder. How does that happen?

When we make the good-guys-versus-bad-guys setup, when we frame it as two equal forces, then we’re exaggerating and enabling evil people and evil acts. Part of the reason we do that is because we are fascinated by evil and by people who take allowances where we would never dare to. We’re giving so much attention to, say, Charlie Manson that it glamorizes him or makes him fascinating to some people.

But there are ways that are less obvious. If police and people in positions of authority [stop] glamorizing murders and criminals, or at least stop exaggerating their powers so we focus more on victims and systems that create victims, we would understand the way that crime worked so much better — rather than focusing on certain highly skilled criminals.

On the subject of how crime works — there’s a strong and disturbing link between mass murder and domestic violence, and many mass murderers have a background of abuse, which we often ignore. How does this relate to what we see in pop culture?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that those are dots that never connected for me, even as a big fan of true crime, for a really long time. Domestic violence is behind so many of the murders in America, and especially murders of women, and that it’s often a long history of domestic violence that authorities are well aware of. So when we frame these murder stories as mysteries, like oh who did it?, we have to excise that part of the story that makes who did it obvious. If you watch Dateline or whatever, they say, “Oh, we always have to eliminate the people closest to the victim.” And they don’t exactly say: men are always murdering their wives or men are beating up their wives. They say it almost like it’s a math problem, instead of “okay, this is a widespread emergency-level trend.”

This brings up another interesting point you make in the book — that women’s deaths are often a “puzzle” or “problem” to be solved.

Violence is not a mystery. Or if it is, the solution is so much bigger than just finding out who did it. Whenever there’s a mass shooting, people want to know why. We want to have a motive, and then when we get the motive, it’s always incredibly dissatisfying — because there’s nothing that could justify shooting a bunch of people, and that’s also true of killing anyone.

So framing things as a mystery really misses the point. If we want to find out why these things happen, we have to go so far beyond motive, beyond these individual actions.

You argue that “misogyny was something that was done to [Nick Dunne] by a woman” in Gone Girl. That was an interesting idea to me.

I think that with misogynists in our culture, the fear is always being the bad guy, or being shown to not be perfect and innocent. I think that that’s where a lot of that anger comes from.

Basically, we are to blame for the bad things that happen to women in our culture. And we’re to blame for the bad things that happen to black people, and to other people of color, and to other marginalized people in our culture. That is something that a lot of people of privilege have an incredibly difficult time dealing with. That’s where a lot of that anger comes from — feeling like we’re being blamed, and feeling like “it’s not my fault.” Like we’re being blamed for something we didn’t do. I think that that is what I see with Nick in Gone Girl, where it’s like he feels like he can’t take responsibility for any of the anger he has toward women or for any of the bad things that he’s done. He feels like it’s all a product of his upbringing and none of it is his fault, that he’s a victim.

Are women, from a storytelling perspective, more likable or easier to deal with when they’re dead?

For sure. Part of the question of the dead girl’s story is about bringing women back in line — or thinking about the ways that a messy and interesting life can kind of be reduced to this beautiful body. I think Laura Palmer and Lily Cainer are both good examples of that, where you kind of learn slowly about the more complicated ways they existed outside of this good-girlness.

Any female character has to deal with the unlikable character problem. With men, we have so much more history of the anti-hero — of a likable asshole. With women there’s just so little leeway. The dead girl is the perfect expression of that. Of how little leeway women characters can get to behave badly.

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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, Vox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky