Our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women

Dead GirlsDead Girls
by Alice Bolin

When I read the description of this essay collection, I got pretty excited. The blurb describes it as an analysis of America’s cultural obsession with dead girls, which promised to be very fertile ground. Really my main criticism of this book is that it doesn’t just stick to this topic.

Alice Bolin starts out strong, with a piece on “dead girl” TV shows, from Twin Peaks to Pretty Little Liars and many others in between (it was inspired by her watching True Detective). I have watched a lot of these dramas and I agree with Bolin that the mere fact of their popularity, not to mention some of the specific tropes they all repeat, is a worrying facet of our culture. In these shows the victim is rarely given much of a character, and the leads are usually men who project their own ideas onto the dead girl. It’s an excellent essay.

“Dead girls help us to work out our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women in our culture. The paradox of the perfect victim, effacing the deaths of leagues of non-white or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrant or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims, encapsulates the combination of worshipful covetousness and violent rage that drives the Dead Girl Show. The white girl becomes the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr, particularly to that most unholy idol of narrative.”

It is worth noting that this essay does contain spoilers, not necessarily of the shows’ final outcomes, but certainly of many major plot twists, as she picks out recurring themes. I like that Bolin praises Veronica Mars for breaking at least some of these tropes, as it’s one of my favourite shows. I also like that Bolin acknowledges her own enjoyment of these dramas, even while noticing their flaws that feed the misogyny and gender stereotyping that bring out the worst in our society.

Next she tackles this same obsession when it comes to real-live (or not so alive) dead girls, from the journalism of Joan Didion to rolling TV news coverage, including a murder in her own childhood home town. I found this essay lacking in any real argument, or indeed structure, but it served as an introduction to what is really Bolin’s theme for the book: her own life.

“I would write my anger and my self-hatred in my diary and then I would go back in later and destroy or deface the pages, sometimes writing mocking marginalia like I was my own bully. I was afraid to make my darkness real by writing it; reading my own dark thoughts was both embarrassing and rife with talismanic power. Revising my diary was a ritual to carve those feelings from myself.”

According to the introduction, this book is split roughly in half: essays about dead girls, and ones about moving to LA. But by my assessment they were all, with the possible exception of the first dead girls essay, about Bolin herself. They do follow a rough trajectory, from her early years as an adult, to the realisation that her heroes have flaws. It’s a nice enough arc, albeit not the one promised and also one that leads to some naivety in earlier essays that surprised me.

For instance, in Bolin’s first “moving to LA” essay she repeatedly asserts that she was surprised to find that LA was not after all the place she had expected from the work of Didion; that is, that Didion and other writers paint a picture of a homogeneous, wealthy, white male city that is far from the reality. I found it remarkable that anyone could believe that idea of LA, particularly not someone who is well read and a wide consumer of films and TV.

There are some fascinating looks at the history of LA, from its gigantic cemeteries to its shadowy newspaper publisher, Harrison Gray Otis. I have never previously had any desire to visit LA, but Bolin picks out some lesser-known tourist attractions that really appeal to me.

“The very technology of film carries a kind of resurrection, capturing the past with a scary depth and intimacy, 14-year-old Judy Garland still as adorable and vulnerable today as she was in 1939. if we look at it this way, Los Angeles takes on a necrophiliac quality: it is home to several of the largest cemeteries in the world and to the industry that both manufactures American celebrity and sweeps up its traces.”

In one of the last essays in the book she finally addresses the narrow perspective of Didion, but this is only after every other essay has hero-worshipped her to a tiresome degree (and I say this as a fan of Didion’s writing skill, though not always her perspective). I know these essays deliberately represent the time at which they were written, but many of them would have been improved by the insights of the older, wiser Bolin.

When Bolin deals primarily with popular culture, or the history of LA, she is really good. I think she could have followed through on the promise of the title and blurb and expanded her initial “dead girls” thesis to a whole book and it would have been excellent, but sadly that isn’t what this is. I really do hope she comes back to the idea and moves away from the autobiographical essays, which just aren’t as interesting.

Published June 2018 by HarperCollins.

Source: The publisher kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review.