July 01, 2018

Alice Bolin

A macabre American obsession
In her debut collection of essays, Dead Girls, Alice Bolin explores America’s undeniable fascination with murdered, maligned and silenced women. Here, we ask her about serial killers, Britney Spears and LA freeways.
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In her debut collection of essays, Dead Girls, Alice Bolin explores America’s undeniable fascination with murdered, maligned and silenced women. Here, we ask her about serial killers, Britney Spears and LA freeways. 

What do you think is the driving force behind America’s obsession with dead girls?
There are probably too many forces to get into. The noir Dead Girls are like contemporary America’s version of Catholic virgin martyrs, whose bodies were also the site of both veneration and violence, and whose deaths often sprang from male hunger and rage. These are ambiguous icons. Dead Girls are the most potent evidence we have of our culture’s misogyny—but their prevalence also seems like a way to police women’s behavior, a warning that theirs could be our fate. The popular obsession with dead women is symptomatic of America’s deeper feelings and biases toward women. What do you think some of these deeper feelings are? I think it probably says more about our feelings about men—the way their primacy in our society bulldozes everyone else’s desire, success and freedom. Violence against women is startlingly common. Women are so often collateral damage in men’s refusal to deal with failure or frustration. Many noir stories take this everyday misogyny and make it about—who else?—men. Fascinatingly twisted and broken murderers take helpless victims while stoic detectives face the evil of humanity by avenging the Dead Girl. Women’s daily desires and fears are often completely absent in these stories.

The Dead Girl is everywhere, from “Twin Peaks” to popular fiction and “Dateline.” Can you give a general character sketch of the titular Dead Girl?
I would say in general a Dead Girl is a pretty, white teenager who is either mysteriously missing or horribly murdered, though those demographic markers vary. Most importantly, the Dead Girl captures the popular imagination—the Dead Girl obsession is absolutely related to what Gwen Ifill famously called “missing white woman syndrome” when discussing the ways that media coverage of white female victims took precedence over every other victim of violent crime. These dead women have more in common with glamorous poster girls than “characters”—we don’t know the Black Dahlia or Natalee Holloway or a victim on “Law and Order: SVU” in anything other than smiling snapshots or gruesome crime scene images.

Why do you think there is a tendency to mythologize serial killers, to make them seems almost supernatural and hyper-intelligent, when in reality, they are, as Jess Walter writes, “the kind of broken, weak-minded loser who preys on women on the fringe of society”?
The myth that serial killers are superhumanly charming, manipulative, intelligent and cruel keeps us from finding more systemic reasons for why many men have gotten away with brutalizing and killing women over and over again for years—law enforcement’s attitudes towards both marginalized women and middle class white men, for instance. It also makes one feel less guilty about our very basic fascination with hideous violence.

Can you explain the evolution of your understanding of the Britney Spears song “. . . Baby One More Time”?
“. . . Baby One More Time” came out when I was in fifth grade, and I swear I had this weird, immediate sense that it had changed the paradigm of pop music. The song’s lyrics are opaque, but its sonics are unforgettable; the images in the music video are so vivid, and yet they do very little to illuminate the song’s meaning. I was 25 when this repeating lyric in the song struck me: “My loneliness is killing me.” What a strange and yet appropriate thing for a teeny-bopper to sing! Loneliness is one of my abiding interests in this life, since we all go through it, but we go through it alone. It made me think deeper about Britney and her genius.

What about your relationship with the writing of Joan Didion?
Didion is one of my heroes, as she has been for a generation of women writers. I essentially moved to Los Angeles because of her. I wanted to absorb some of the brainy, sun-soaked alienation she traded in. I have evolved from simple hero worship with Didion, though, especially in writing this book, where I have had to confront some of the problems I see in her approach. I always loved her as a writer of place, but her California mythmaking is attractive because it calcifies a complex, changing place to an idea. Her stubborn romanticism about California is interesting because in general she is so skeptical, which is probably her strength as a writer; in her analyses, she takes very little for granted. But when you are skeptical of everything, it is difficult to make moral judgments. The concerns of the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless are all equally hollow and ridiculous.

Do you see parallels between media’s coverage of attractive murdered women and the coverage of female celebrity icons?
Yes! That is one reason why I chose to think about those living icons—Britney Spears, Joan Didion, Patty Hearst—in the same book as the dead ones. To me this is about that damaging, amoral concept of glamour, where women are valued for being sexy, stylish and mysterious, and a woman can be equally glamorous walking a red carpet or, as Patty Hearst did, spraying Crenshaw Boulevard with bullets. There is a very cruel glamour to being a Dead Girl, which is why the #deadgirl hashtag on Instagram is filled with selfies from living, if spooky, women. Being valued for your loveliness and silence, for the mystery you represent, is not limited to Dead Girls, and is a tendency I think living women should be wary of playing to.

The only thing I think about when I think about Los Angeles (a place I’ve never been) is freeways. Didion writes that the experience of driving in LA is a “kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.” What’s your relationship to LA’s famed roadways?
I grew up in Idaho, where, as my dad so often said, “There are no roads.” It is one of two states without a north-south interstate highway, and much of the state is wilderness. I had never experienced driving on freeways like the ones in Los Angeles before I moved there—like, ever—and had to learn the rules of driving on them by Googling it. But because I grew up in such an isolated place, driving for hours and hours to get somewhere feels very natural to me. Driving across LA on a congested freeway felt like an extension of, say, driving the lonely stretches of I-90 in eastern Montana. Nevertheless I walked and rode the bus far more than anyone else I knew in LA, for financial reasons and because if I moved my car there was always a chance I wouldn’t be able to find another parking place. Those alternative modes of transportation were just another dimension to the impossibility of getting anywhere in LA and more public opportunities to listen to music on my iPod and cry.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Dead Girls.

Photo credit Justin Davis

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Dead Girls

Dead Girls

By Alice Bolin
ISBN 9780062657145

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