Dead Girls Explores A Dark American Cultural Obsession

Dead Girls Explores A Dark American Cultural Obsession
In "Dead Girls," Alice Bolin examines America's fixation on the deaths of young women -- and how this concerning cultural obsession shaped her young life.

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession Alice Bolin HarperCollins Publishers June 26, 2018 I admit, when I first saw Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls on display at my local library, I was both repulsed and attracted. As much as I like a good thriller or any female-centric story, I’m tired of trendy book titles

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession

Alice Bolin
HarperCollins Publishers
June 26, 2018

I admit, when I first saw Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls on display at my local library, I was both repulsed and attracted. As much as I like a good thriller or any female-centric story, I’m tired of trendy book titles that included the word “girls” and the nauseating, never-ending news about real young women who are killed or go missing. As I turned away from Bolin’s book, however, the subtitle “Essays on Surviving an American Obsession” gave me pause.

Cover for Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

I’m glad that it did, because it hinted at the truth that Bolin hits upon time and again in Dead Girls: that American culture fetishizes young women and their deaths just as much their predators do. At the same time, we’re drawn in and identify with those same tropes because we’re hungry for stories about the female experience. Bolin is the same—she herself acknowledges being obsessed with dead girls and admits that the title is a marketing ploy—but she is also able to analyze the source of her obsession and shift through the bad to find the empowering good.

Bolin is at her most compelling when she examines her own story to find her own truths. She evokes clear parallels between her own codependent female friendships and other fictional sisterly bonds, such as Sula and Nel in Toni Morrison’s Sula and the sisters in the movie Ginger Snaps. She also sees her own Los Angeles ennui in characters such as Cléo in Cléo from 5 to 7 and Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. Having also lived in Los Angeles while depressed and untethered, I especially connected with Bolin’s fascination with the city, its glamour and its darkness and desperation, as well as her muted anxiety about what she was going to do with her life. I also enjoyed the essay on her first forays into young witchhood. I have a feeling that the link Bolin drew between her childhood anxiety and her fascination with magic and power is something that may prompt an essay of my own.

What I wanted from Bolin, however, was for her to move beyond media analysis and examine how she overall modeled her own life on the dead girl trope. Too often I found myself wishing that Bolin was more self-reflective about how she made certain life decisions and developed her female relationships, especially with her mother (a strange oversight in a book about the coming-of-age of young women). Instead, she spent a significant amount of time examining cultural figures, like Laura Palmer and Britney Spears. That’s not to say that Bolin doesn’t have important or interesting analyses of the media she consumed as a young girl. But, at times, Dead Girls feels more like a collection of academic essays rather than personal ones about survival, as the book’s subheading suggests. And, while compelling, much of what Bolin has to say isn’t new.

Bolin does attempt to expand her analysis by examining the class aspects of the dead girl trope, but here her blind spots and writing weaknesses are truly revealed. Many of the characters that Bolin identifies or is fascinated with—Cléo, Maria, Lana Del Rey—come from wealth and privilege, but only Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor of Bling Ring fame are recognized as benefiting from that privilege. Likewise, Bolin never addresses how she was able to go to college, then move to Los Angeles, and survive on terrible jobs in a notoriously expensive city.

Bolin’s attempts to discuss race also fall short, existing as more “woke” afterthoughts than true analysis. Her comparison between living as a black man in America and living as a white woman in America particularly comes off as disingenuous, and her few paragraphs discussing Korean-American Mary H.K. Choi’s memoir, Oh, Never Mind, felt as if she was trying to earn inclusion points. She also does not discuss Latinx narratives at all despite living in Los Angeles. I believe I would have respected Bolin more if she had recognized her blind spots and moved on instead of half-heartedly attempting to analyze them.

For all shortcomings, Dead Girls still spoke to me. Maybe it’s because the narrative of being a white female victim in America is a familiar narrative to me, or maybe it’s because the anxiety and uncertainty of living as a young American woman impact all races and social strata. I enjoyed reading Dead Girls, but it ultimately it wasn’t a deep enough dive into the author’s personal story to satisfy me, and it wasn’t inclusive enough to educate me.

Stephanie Tran
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