Split Screens Festival 2018: “Dead Girls – A TV Obsession”

Twin Peaks is famously a story that begins with the discovery of a dead girl: Laura Palmer. But it was by far not the first story to employ such a device, and has hardly been the last. If anything, one might argue that the trope of the dead girl has significantly increased in prominence in the past few decades of television, from True Detective, to The Killing to any given episode of Law and Order, CSI, and so on and so on. There has further been a proliferation of true crime stories, which equally often center around women as victims, usually of men. Matt Zoller Seitz sat down with Alice Bolin (author of the forthcoming book Dead Girls), Megan Abbott (author of various books, such as You Will Know Me, and The Fever; and also a writer for The Deuce), and true crime writer Sarah Weinman (whose The Real Lolita is also forthcoming) to discuss both the history and implications of this trope.

The session began with a discussion of the difference between hard-boiled fiction and film noir, with Abott suggesting that in the former order tends to be restored, while the latter is more nihilistic. The hard-boiled detective is still someone we trust, or believe in. Weinman chimed in to suggest that hard-boiled fiction features a tough protagonist, while noir features one who is screwed. This of course got me thinking about where our beloved Dale Cooper fits into the mix, because — as Seitz noted a bit later in the discussion — he is indeed much more chipper than the average protagonist in a dead girl story. Yet, there are indications of his troubled past and imperfections. This is something interesting to think about.

The panel proceeded to discuss the history of the dead girl trope in novels and in film. This was very interesting, but I also clearly have not read enough books. So, here is a reading list: Elisabeth Holding, Patricia HighsmithMaj Sjöwall & Per Fredrik Wahlöö, Lauraby Vera Caspery. Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, and I am sure I missed at least one more thing that should have made that list. In terms of film, there was further discussion of Laura, and also of Vertigo.

More recent films and novels were discussed as well; most prominently Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But these came up more in terms of asking whether they are or are not subversions of the dead girl trope, so perhaps a few further words are called for on that trope in its traditional version before proceeding into the consideration of such questions.

The dead girl is the impetus for a story that is usually, or traditionally, actually a man’s story. He is the one trying to solve the murder, whereas she is not generally presented as a subject, but only as an object. As Bolin put it, she becomes more of a symbol than a person, characterized not by her own agency so much as through the projections of others onto her. She presents a “blank” surface for such projection precisely because she is dead; now defined through the perspective of others and not her own. Of course, everyone on the panel seemed to recognize that things are rarely quite so straightforward in the works that are truly laudable. And, since the discussion tended towards more nuanced works, one might be forgiven for potentially losing sight of this central critique at times.

Is there any need, however, to beat the horse when it comes to calling into question the trope of the dead girl? One would hope that at least anyone who attended this panel entered the room with this criticism already in mind. In which case, the most nuanced instances are indeed the ones more worthy of devoting time to.

Bolin noted the way in which the mechanism of projection when it comes to dead girls tends to create doubles and/or proliferating versions of the same person. Vertigo is again a point of reference here, as is Twin Peaks. To what extent does the latter subvert the tropes in question? Fire Walk With Me gave us Laura as a subject rather than and object, but both Bolin and Seitz wondered where she was when it came to the arc involving Windom Earle.

There were references to Twin Peaks sprinkled throughout the discussion, but perhaps the most interesting portions pertained to Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The former, the panelists tended to agree, represents an interesting subversion of the dead girl trope, insofar as Amy plays with the same as she carries out her plan. It’s because she knows that she will be characterized as victim, that her husband will be the prime suspect, and so on, that she is able to do what she does. Bolin further claimed that the film/novel involves a class critique and asks the question of what it means to be a girl, as opposed to a woman. Is being a girl to be in a privileged position, as Bolin suggests? Or is the way in which Amy is viewed as a girl by others something that she bucks against as she enacts her plan and takes agency as woman, as the other panelists seemed to suggest? Or, is it perhaps the case that these claims are not mutually exclusive?

Stieg Larsson’s books, on the other hand, were largely called into question, however entertaining they might be. Bolin acknowledged that he truly seemed to believe he was engaged in a kind of feminist crusade, but noted the original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is almost comically blunt: Men Who Hate Women. Did he perhaps write what amounts to a trilogy of mansplaining? Is there something problematic about the way in which Salander is motivated by vengeance? Should we be comfortable with the idea that avenging a wrong provides justification? Is it problematic that women who engage in acts of violence are often presented as though it is only the fact that they are damaged, or broken, that could have led them to this?

What gender norms are perpetuated through dead girl stories? The woman is the victim; the perpetrator was a man. Does this lead us to think that men have a natural disposition towards violence (against women)? Is this human nature, and thus something we could not expect to be able to change? Or do these very representations in television and film reinforce that very notion in problematic ways? To what extent are we enculturated by these products, and to what extent do they merely reflect reality?

What if the detective is herself a woman, as in The Killing or Veronica Mars? Does this provide an escape from the problematic aspects of the dead girl trope? Bolin suggested that the answer is “No”, insofar as the female detective has a way of being herself rendered as a victim, which can bring with it the thought that only the woman herself can understand the psychic labyrinth of her own pain.

Of course, none of this is to condemn such narratives, or even narratives that depend on a dead girl more generally. These vary widely, and should, in principle, each be taken on their own terms. This was not a panel focused on bashing the implementation of such a plot device with broad strokes, but was rather one devoted to exploring it and its various permutations in nuanced detail. In fact, despite the fact that Bolin worried at one point that these narratives may be designed to invoke terror in women and other marginalized groups, in the background of the discussion it was clear that everyone involved enjoys these stories, or is at least fascinated by them.

Liking something does not, or should not, place it beyond criticism. Seitz noted that a secondary, or tertiary, thread in Bolin’s forthcoming book pertains to her relationship with her father, who apparently resists any question as to why he likes what he likes. Although I do not know the man, and have not as yet had the opportunity to read Bolin’s book, it is easy to relate to such a situation. It is all too common to think no further than “I like it” or “I don’t” but also all too facile. Asking “Why?” may force one to think, but it also opens up the joys of thinking; the joys of interpretation, debate, and critique in the broadest and most positive sense. With no offense intended to Bolin’s dad, or any of the friends I have with similar dispositions (who almost certainly won’t be reading this for that very reason): you’re missing out.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend this compelling panel on Dead Girls, as well as the others I made it to this weekend. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my attempt at “journalism” — and go buy all of those books I mentioned earlier!


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