Why America Is So Obsessed with Dead Girls

In her new collection of essays, "Dead Girls," author Alice Bolin examines entertainment about dead women to help us understand how misogyny shapes media—and how media feeds misogyny.

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Jun 1 2018, 5:21pm

Laura Palmer of "Twin Peaks" (L), Harriet Vanger of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

During a year when male resentment toward women is violently coming to a head—a school shooting brought on by jilted teenage desire, a man driving through a crowd of pedestrians because women won’t have sex with him—a book like Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession feels particularly relevant. In the entertaining and highly anticipated collection of essays , which comes out June 26, Bolin examines the phenomenon of what she calls “Dead Girl Shows” and other similar media that revolve around a woman’s murder in an attempt to understand why America is so obsessed with the subgenre—and, in turn, learn something new about America’s deep-rooted misogyny.

Considering how long feminists have been demanding that women be seen and treated as whole people, it’s remarkable how prevalent and popular Dead Girl Shows are—but perhaps, accounting for backlash, not necessarily surprising. Bolin touches on TV shows Pretty Little Liars, True Detective, How to Get Away with Murder, Making a Murderer, Dateline NBC, Cold Case Files, and others . In the podcast realm, there’s Dirty John, Serial, and so many more. There are thousands of books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts I could list here. Audiences (both men and women alike) devour them. But what does that say about us?

Bolin attempts to answer that by identifying tropes in some of the most popular pieces of media in the subgenre, teasing out what it is about these dead girls that may be keeping our eyes and psyches glued. "Twin Peaks’s plot is sparked by the murdered body of seventeen-year-old Laura Palmer, washed up on the bank of the river,” Bolin writes of the David Lynch cult classic. “Palmer’s corpse is Twin Peaks’s truly memorable image: river-wet hair slicked around her perfect porcelain face, blue with death but still tranquil, lovely.” Palmer is little more than a set piece, Bolin points out. She is a canvas on which to paint the character of the male detective investigating her death—a “neutral arena on which to work out male problems.”

Similarly, Bolin notes, Harriet Vanger—the disappeared woman in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—is explicitly regarded as a “puzzle” for Mikael Blomkvist, the book’s journalist investigator. “The implication of this choice of vocabulary, if I am being uncharitable, could not be more clear: that women are problems to be solved, and the problem of absence, a disappearance or murder, is generally easier to deal with than the problem of the woman’s presence,” Bolin muses. The investigator becomes obsessed with the Dead Girl, and often, that obsession is tinged with a sexual charge that mirrors the killer’s desire for murder, she notes.

Each has its own nuances, but the tropes that Bolin examines largely point to one implicit desire on the part of both writers and viewers: for women to embody ultimate submission. And the most interesting parts of the book are the (too infrequent) moments in which Bolin explicitly ties those tropes to social phenomena and statistics in real life—in which we can clearly see how these stories both reflect and perpetuate a dangerous relationship to women. Early in the book, for instance, Bolin cites several statistics that show why plots in which the husband is the culprit are considered predictable: Three women die at the hands of a their partners every single day, domestic violence murders accounted for the deaths of some 11,700 women between 2001 and 2012; and in 56 percent of mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, a spouse, former spouse, or other family member were among the victims.

Through these connections, we begin to understand the dark reality of what is at stake in the question of: Why we are so obsessed with murdered women in fiction? “Crime stories are ubiquitous in our culture not only for their transgressive lure but for their power to reinforce social order,” Bolin writes. She goes on to reference Joan Didion’s 1990 essay “Sentimental Journeys,” in which Didion details the Central Park jogger case, which centered around the brutal rape of a Wall Street investment banker and the arrest, trial, coerced confession, and conviction of the four Black and one Latino suspects in the crime. “In the Central Park jogger case, black men and white women were cast not only as opposites but as natural enemies,” Bolin points out. Just like the murdered women in entertainment about violent crime, the female victim in the case became a canvas on which to project the racist fears and social anxieties of others.

Laura Palmer's corpse in Twin Peaks. Courtesy Netflix.

Presumably because of the intended scope of the book, however, there are few more instances in which Bolin ventures beyond examining media and into the broader conversation about American misogyny and constructed social hierarchies. Finishing the collection, I was left wondering how these depictions relate to things like pick-up artist communities, rape on university campuses, and violence against sex workers. And in particular, I was left reflecting on the actions of Canadian Alek Minassian, who drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing ten people. Before going on this rampage, Minassian allegedly made a cryptic Facebook post linking his attack to the “Incel” (involuntary celibate) community—an online group overrun with men angry that they can’t get women to have sex with them.

Of course, I don’t believe Dead Girl Shows are the cause of Minassian’s rage, or that of men like him. But I do believe that the prevalence of their tropes and Minassian’s murderous rampage are both symptoms of societal gender roles that, for centuries, have told us that women are meant to serve men. And so, in my simplified theorization: At a time when, in real life, men are increasingly losing their dominance over women, Dead Girl Shows offer an acceptable opportunity to see women in the most extreme state of submission—merely a beautiful corpse.

To try to understand if there’s actual validity to this theory, I reached out to Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, which advises the TV industry on consumer sensibilities. “Today, the popularity of crime programming can be attributed in part to the shifting view of women in society,” she said. “Viewers with more traditional tastes like to see men and women in traditional gender roles. They’re used to seeing women portrayed as victims…The success of the Dirty John podcast is a great example of this.”

Dr. Kimberly Davies, professor of sociology and chair of the department of social sciences at Augusta University, offered me another explanation: Crime shows that center on the murder of a woman play on the fears of women. “Men are far more likely to be victims of violent crime,” says Davies. “But women fear it more.” (In 2015, 78 percent of murder victims were men, and 20.9 percent were women.) But to her, that doesn't contradict Bolin’s suggestion that Dead Girl media works to enforce a social hierarchy.

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“I watch a lot of English crime shows. When there’s a woman out in the middle of nowhere, in the woods, we know something’s going to happen,” Davies said. “That’s a way of keeping women in their place…[it] shows victims in a light that suggests they contribute to their victimization.” In Dead Girl Shows, just like in rape cases, she said, “You know what the woman was doing, what she was wearing, where she was…” In other words, Dead Girl Shows make the dead girl’s victimization seem inevitable and deserved.

In terms of why Dead Girl Shows are so popular right now, though, Ong had a theory I hadn’t considered—which takes a slightly more optimistic view of things by focusing less on the murder and more on the plot’s resolution. “We’re living in a time of extreme disorientation in this country, so content with themes of danger, chaos, questionable ethics and injustice feel relevant to consumers right now,” she said. “Culture is thirsty for investigation and resolution today. Trying to solve crimes offers viewers hope, purpose, and progress—or at least makes them feel that way.”