DEAD GIRLS: Alice Bolin on the Saintly White Women Who Are Literally Killing Us

 

Alice Bolin, the nonfiction editor of Electric Literature’s popular web magazine Okey-Panky, is set to release her first book, Dead Girls, a sharp collection of essays due in June from William Morrow. In it, she explores society’s infatuation with a beautiful, innocent corpse, as well as the ways in which this cultural trope has affected her personally. Bolin dissects phenomena from Twin Peaks to Serial to Pretty Little Liars, meditating on how a constant barrage of macabre images might affect our collective psyche. The Booklist Reader caught up with Bolin recently to talk Dead Girls, Joan Didion, and how to survive such a dark obsession.

 

COURTNEY EATHORNE: What do you mean when you talk about dead girls?

ALICE BOLIN: What I think of as a dead girl or a dead girl story is a mystery or noir that opens up with the discovery of the body of a dead young woman, usually a white woman, and the rest of the story is about solving her murder. . . The thing about the dead girl is that we, as an audience, almost never identify with or understand her. If we did, those stories would be too painful to explore.

 

Lilly Cane

Who’s your favorite dead girl?

Lilly Kane from Veronica Mars, my favorite Dead Girl Show and one of my favorite shows of all time. Amanda Seyfried does a good job of making her this really charismatic character, but even still, she’s pretty one-dimensional. The trouble with dead girls is that they’re so often intentionally opaque.

 

The book is just as much memoir as is it social commentary. Did you set out to write one or the other?

I started out thinking I was writing a book of criticism. For a long time, as a nonfiction writer, I really shied away from writing very much personal stuff, But as I started working on the book, it started to become clear that what made these pieces interesting was my connection to the stuff that I was writing about, not necessarily my ideas about that stuff. Sticking to straight criticism made it feel less urgent. Explaining my stake in each issue helped bring these pieces to life.

 

An entire third of the book is about how you moved to Los Angeles without having ever visited. How did the dead girl trope influence your relocation to the land where so many dead girls get their start? This land of Didion and Carver?

Joan Didion definitely influenced my decision to head to LA—if it was a decision at all. I really immersed myself in her work in the years leading up to the move. I think I was trying to chase some of her spirit and her style by moving to Southern California.

 

You write a great deal about Didion’s vision of California as white male-centric. With your book, do you seek to criticize Didion’s canon or add to the conversation she started?

A little bit of both. Joan Didion is absolutely one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and still one of my personal favorites. Many parts of the book are in homage to her and the power of her work. But I also think it’s important to interrogate our heroes and think about how they achieved their places in society. In addition, I wanted to critique some of her conservatism and that contrarian spirit, which I think is something that she really readily acknowledges about herself. She holds herself apart from society and is deeply skeptical—it’s her strength as a writer, but it’s also her weakness, a blind spot. If you’re skeptical of everything then you’re not making any moral distinctions.

 

“Living dead girl” Britney Spears shaving her head, 2007

Many of your essays analyze the Los Angeles tradition of excess and our obsession with reality television, which broaches that subject. Are the stars of shows like The Hills, Pretty Wild, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians metaphorical dead girls?

A person whom I discuss quite often in the book is Britney Spears, whom I think of as a living dead girl in more of a metaphorical way. Similar to the dead girl story, there was an obsession with and a covetousness of her body that strained her and caused her to become very ill. She really encapsulates that loss of freedom and anonymity. In terms of reality TV stars, they sort of go along with that in some ways; it’s part of what they agreed to. In the book, the reality television discussion is more about the way that I have always tried to learn about the world through popular culture and how incorrect that can be.

 

How do dead girls relate to our societal epidemic of toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is everything in dead girl stories. Even benign masculinity. . . like that of [Twin Peaks detective] Dale Cooper—a hero or an authority figure—leaves no room for femininity. It takes up all the air in the room. Our infatuation with these hero myths, with men healing themselves, edges out women’s stories of all kinds. Dead girl stories highlight our comfort with grotesque violence against women, but they’re also about silence [and] silencing women.

 

How do you avoid getting bogged down by our culture’s pervasive love of dead girls?

To be honest, I try to avoid it as much as I can. Before I wrote this book, I was definitely more into true crime than I am now. . . I would watch Dateline and these other murder shows. . . but now, having written this book, it’s something that I don’t do as much because I’ve sort of talked myself out of it. I’ve thought about it too much. It’s so depressing. I don’t think that our obsession with true crime is healthy or good, especially for women. Immersing yourself in all of the horrible things that could happen to you. . . it’s masochistic. I hope we as a society will start to let go and focus on other kinds of stories—but it’s easier said than done. It’s hard for me, too.

 

Any final thoughts you’d like to leave with readers?

I want to emphasize that the book is not only about violence against women in this pop culture trope, but also interrogating the valued position of white women in our society as paradoxically embodied by this girl who’s saintly but also dead [and has been] been horribly killed. I want to encourage white women to give up some of that privileged status because it isn’t helping us at all. It’s quite literally killing us. The racial aspects of the dead girl story are just as important as those pertaining to gender.

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About the Author:

Courtney Eathorne is a former Booklist intern, current reviewer, and a hungry, hungry bookeater. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Playwriting and can be seen leading food-and-beer bicycle tours around the city of Chicago with Bobby’s Bike Hike. Follow her reading and eating on instagram at @ceathorne.

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