Alice Bolin‘s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession takes a broad perspective on popular culture’s dead girl and woman trope. Despite mainstreaming feminism and marketing female-centric empowerment, Bolin suggests that women, either dead or alive, are still the impetus for men’s personal and professional success. Bolin’s analysis ranges far from only focusing on dead girls and women in popular culture and she includes analysis of gender oppression from multiple perspectives.
This is Dead Girls’ strength and fault: Bolin’s analysis is smart and discerning but is littered with too many references and tangential anecdotes. Throughout, Bolin adds a memoir component that only causes the novel to more slowly meander. Whereas her thesis, that it’s mostly men who profit and gain success from female oppression, is adroitly and humorously argued, her supporting arguments are lost to the din.
Bolin’s argument is valid and once you recognize her point, you see examples everywhere. Indeed, after completing this text I went to the bookstore and noticed the ubiquity of novels that feature either a dead girl, a woman in some type of horrifying peril, or a combination of the two with the former culminating. Many also featured male main characters using the investigations to illuminate their own crisis of masculinity.
This is where Bolin begins with decisive analysis of the TV shows True Detective and Twin Peaks. Both shows feature dead women as the props for male detectives and murderers to demarcate their own identities. So often the viewers are forced to witness “the victim’s body [as] a neutral area on which to work out male problems” (19). Likewise, the psychoanalytical connection between the detectives and the dead girls is often trite and rudimentary. As Bolin points out, with her sharp wit, “how sad that these murders had to happen to them” (18). ‘Them’ being the men who must now deal with these maverick women. Typically, the female characters’ are underdeveloped and their murders are punishments for some negotiation of a puritanical social norm. Accordingly, the dead girl narrative is recuperated by men and the viewers’ lenses are refocused on consuming androcentrism.
Despite the text’s title and the opening two chapters, Dead Girls isn’t about the cultural depiction of perished women. Bolin devotes only about 50 pages to the dead girl theme and uses the rest of the text to examine the depiction of physically or emotionally vulnerable women. For example, she ponders the culpability of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s problematic The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Bolin is too permissive of Larson’s misogyny and stops short of fully critiquing him. She takes greater issue with the character Mikael Blomkvist rather than the man who created him, Larson himself. Throughout Dead Girls, Bolin’s analysis doesn’t go deep enough. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a prime example as discussion of Salander’s rape or how the internet rebranded the film’s rape scene as a nude sex scene with Rooney Mara is completely avoided.
Another example is Bolin’s analysis of Britney Spears’ stardom and subsequent public breakdown. The author first contextualizes Spears’ single “Baby Hit Me One More Time” as an acknowledgement of loneliness and Spears’ own isolation. Bolin writes “‘my loneliness / is killing me… She sings this over and over: so why had I never heard it?” Bolin fails to answer her own question. What Bolin does successfully critique, though, are the super producers and handlers who created Spears’ image and hawked her brand. Yet Bolin neglects to consider the men who attempted and failed to hijack Spears’ star power. Remember K-Fed or Jason Allen Alexander — not the actor of Seinfeld fame but the groom in Spears’ Las Vegas drive-through wedding? Or even Justin Timberlake, as his single “Cry Me a River” specifically uses Spears and her success for his own gain. As with Dead Girls’ other cultural examples, Spears exemplifies a public figure who is greedily consumed for capitalist gain while the star herself is beholden to men.
Bolin’s analysis of Spears and Salander demonstrate the need for the author to more fully critique and analyze her subjects. It’s not necessary to consider Spears’ whole catalog or the entirety of the Swedish crime noir genre, for example. But certainly acknowledge the essential components of the narratives as this would only strengthen Bolin’s argument. Throughout Dead Girls, Bolin is too eager to jam pack the chapters with popular cultural references rather than fully deconstructing the subjects. This results in a clunky narrative that fogs Bolin’s other points. It feels like Joan Didion, mentioned nearly 50 times throughout the book, is more of a connective factor than dead girls.
But I return to the fact that Bolin’s central argument is not exaggerated. We live in a culture that fuels violence against women and doesn’t stop to critique or problematize the images of women enduring trauma or hardships. Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession astutely develops the idea of the dead girl as a problematic plot device. As a result, viewers infrequently question the cultural and social forces that prevent a critical reception of her death. Dead Girls is not an essential mediation on the dead girls’ trope. Alternatively, it is an examination on the popular cultural systems that bolster oppression and violence against women.