Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
Is it okay to hate a book, if only because you didn’t write it first? Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession slaps with the brand of critical analysis and self-deprecating memoir I’ve been writing and not writing for the past year. That’s not to say that humanity only has room for one book about pop culture’s penchant for commodifying women’s bodies, hot and cold. It’s just that Bolin’s collection is so sorely true, so sharp and current, why shouldn’t I just give up?
In the book’s opening quartet of essays, the author lays out her theory of a ‘Dead Girl Show’, in which women’s corpses are but puzzles to be solved. ‘[T]he problem of absence, a disappearance or a murder,’ she says, ‘is generally easier to deal with than the problem of a woman’s presence.’
Bolin cites my problematic faves like Twin Peaks, True Detective, Veronica Mars and Serial. In each case, a dead girl disappears from her own story—‘that’s why we love her’—so consumers can get about playing armchair detective. Bolin knows I want to throw on a trench coat and fedora, à la film noir’s most dated private dicks, but make it fashion. While I’m gawking at Forensic Files, she’s peeking through the venetians, taking notes.
She goes on to interrogate other conceptual girls too: Cool Girls and tomboys, pop starlets and Lolitas, teen witches, she-wolves, and the myriad California girls who populate her former home of Los Angeles.
Before Bolin left her native mid-west, she pictured LA through the lens of Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler. When I was coming of age in rural South Australia—around the time it was known as ‘the murder capital of the world’—my California dreams were sprung from The Beach Boys’ back catalogue and American Graffiti.
I went to LA in 2013, arriving to a sky hung with June Gloom and pollution. News ’copters dotted La Brean airspace, while police dredged the tar pits as part of a homicide investigation. Compounded by the psychological side-effects of being back on the pill, I had no fun, fun, fun. Forever let down, perpetually scared, I resented every second—save for an afternoon at Disneyland, a space my younger self never believed I’d get to see in real life. It was the only place in America I wasn’t constantly harassed by random men.
Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid? ask Beach Boys Brian Wilson (who I love) and Mike Love (who I hate) in their 1965 single ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’. Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?
I read Bolin’s 2012 piece about the septuagenarian boys’ golden anniversary and hate that my response to a book about girls, written by a woman, is changing key to centre men. As Bolin notes in Dead Girls, ‘American boys have trampled most of our popular stories.’ Trampled is how I felt while contending with the strangers who demanded my time, attention and more across my month in America. I can only imagine how much gut-wrenchingly worse it’s got in the five years since, particularly for people who don’t move through the world with my myriad privileges.
Class is a recurrent theme throughout Dead Girls, as Bolin traces the ways in which wealth determines our public and private lives. She spends pages recalling her first low-rent apartments in LA. The most spiteful part of me wonders whether she’s trying to solidify some working-class street cred.
Truth be told, I was surprised to read of her seemingly typical, even bougie parents, whose courtship she awkwardly insists ‘echoes the Dead Girl story, but with a happy ending.’ After reading the chapter dedicated to her father’s love of Nordic Noir, I think, Good for her, and not about where in the world my dad might be, why my mum thinks a gluten-free diet can ‘cure’ BPD, or whether my Year 11 English teacher is still in prison.
Bolin finished university at seventeen. At the same age, I left Port Augusta for Adelaide. In this slightly bigger city with the same small-town attitude, I discovered that being asked ‘What school did you go to?’ is a stupendously common way of getting sized up. Cornered by the question, I used to bristle with shame, taking pains to hit every syllable, really nailing the ‘h’s of high school, holidays, home.
Laughably, my accent had me frequently mistaken for a Brit in Memphis (where Bolin now teaches creative nonfiction, incidentally). It’s a small, class-obsessed world, after all, in which the Prince Alfred alumni who used to call me a ‘bogan’ have all grown mullets and purport to go for Port Power. Now I’m old enough to know that competitive victimisation is just a race to the bottom.
In the week that I dissect Dead Girls:
- A guy interrupts me while I’m reading in public. ‘You looking to kill time before your movie starts?’ he asks.
- Later, I have to leave a screening because the film’s depiction of sexual violence is so grotesque, intense and repetitive, I start to re-experience one of my assaults.
- And six Australian women are murdered by men they know, in separate incidents across the country.
The ink barely dries on tabloid headlines heralding the deaths of Nicole Cartwright, Gayle Potter, Kristie Powell, Dannyll Goodsell and Jacqueline Francis* when two more women—Erana Nahu and an unnamed twenty-two-year-old—are added to the list. Erana is murdered on the UN’s International Day of the Girl Child.
Researchers at Counting Dead Women Australia keep a tally on their Facebook page, Destroy the Joint. I read their digital memorial of sorts. Forty-two weeks into 2018, we’ve racked up five-five murdered women so far. I hate that this already exceeds the total number of Australian women murdered in 2017, and that it’ll likely be outdated by the time this yarn goes live.
‘Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness,’ says Bolin. She calls this ‘shit-eating innocence,’ which I hate and love. In the week that I read about our senators debating whether or not it’s okay to be white, I know this shit-eating innocence ensures our national scourge of gendered violence is a terror faced primarily by non-men. That threat is felt even more acutely by Indigenous women, people living with disabilities, LGBTQIA-identifying people, pregnant women, and those who are unemployed or experiencing financial hardship.
But another dead girl means another Dead Girl Show. All the more fodder for podcasters and prestige drama, for print media monoliths clawing at ‘exclusives’ to shift a few more units before the next great extinction. I hate a lot of things about being alive at the present time, but Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls is not one of them. Dead girls are why I can’t give up.
For support, contact the National Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT or at 1800respect.org.au.
Aimee is a writer and critic from Kaurna land. She’s the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue, and she’s writing a creative nonfiction book about women and true crime.
*At the time of writing, one woman’s name hasn’t been disclosed.