On ‘Dead Girls,’ Scammers, And The American Obsession With Britney Spears

Talking with Alice Bolin about ‘Dead Girls’

The trauma and abuse—both fictional and real—visited on the female body is something that has captivated audiences for about as long as stories are told. In Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Alice Bolin explores the ways in which our collective obsession with dead and damaged girls, from Britney Spears to Laura Palmer, is a manifestation of the ways in which we don't know what to do with all the girls who are still alive, whose very presence makes so many people uncomfortable, whose trauma threatens our tenuous social order. But while this is a lucid and incisive analysis of popular culture and true crime, Bolin doesn't stop there. She also examines the ways in which her own experience, from growing up in a desolate area of Idaho to moving to Los Angeles to exploring her relationships with her family, inform the ways in which she inhabits the world. It's the kind of book that feels revelatory, that makes you want to mark up every page you read, that serves as an explanation and indictment of the corrupt patriarchal and white supremacist society we all inhabit; it's fun.

Recently, I spoke with Bolin about the way in which moving to L.A. informed her work, why Spears was so important to this book, and what it will take for our culture to stop its obsession with the dead girl. Read our Q&A, below.

Los Angeles is the kind of place that people have really strong ideas about without ever having been there; it feels solid and dreamlike all at once, like the idea of it is stable, but its reality is precarious. These qualities, though, make for very fertile writing territory. How did your move to L.A. serve as writing inspiration?

I say it in the book more than once, it was the only interesting thing I'd ever done. [laughs] I found myself very inspiring for leaving Montana and going to L.A. by myself. It was clearly something that I had dared myself to do, like: Can you do this? Can you go there alone? I really didn't know almost anyone; my cousin was there, but we weren't very close. I had a few other friends. But I didn't form some tight, little crew, I was very much by myself. I feel like it was incredibly difficult. I do think I was in this extended incubation in my years post-grad school where I was kind of just sticking around in Montana. I knew, and my mentors there knew, that I wasn't going to really make anything of myself if I didn't do something. So that's kind of what I chose to do. The hardest thing was being so alone, but also, I just didn't know anything. I didn't know how my car worked. I didn't know how to do anything, how to find anything. But I figured it out. I also think a lot of the learning for me was sort of figuring out how much L.A. was a part of the West that I already knew. How really contiguous Montana and California are in certain ways, because of that precarity you're talking about and that connection to the natural world, and these ideas about resources and sort of this ironic competing interest in both communing with the land and exploiting it. I think those are common to everywhere in the West. 

There's this veneer on L.A., this artifice, but there's also a really deep connection to the natural world, to earthquakes and fires, smog and aridity. 

Or the microclimates, the thing that people talk about a lot. 

It's also a place where people go to be reborn. Like the old Hollywood trope of a young girl getting off a bus or driving into town, and just becoming this brand-new person. It's another kind of death, another kind of dead girl, because she's been so fundamentally changed. You write about many girls like this, Britney Spears, for example. How did you decide who to include when writing about these types of young women?

It was not systematic in any way, what I chose to include in this collection. Everything was very intuitive for me. A lot of these were pieces that I was just working on and thinking about over the course of several years, and I came to see that they shared some seems of preoccupation, especially dealing with L.A. I think Britney Spears, especially, looms over the collection. She's in several of the essays, and she's one I think of as a living dead girl, or someone for whom our obsession with female bodies, with sort of this Madonna-whore complex, and with fallen women really wreaked havoc and constrained her freedom—but it's also given her the success that she has now. She's a person who I see as exemplifying this metaphorical dead girl. So, then people like Alexis Neiers [from The Bling Ring] or Lana Del Rey, I see sort of in a Britney tradition or as little Britneys. 

Speaking of Alexis Neiers, the scammer or grifter is an interesting spin-off of the dead girl, because, in some ways, they're the opposite of a dead girl, because a dead girl is perfect, like, she achieves innocence through her death, no matter what she did while she was alive. It's a horrible perversion of what our society projects onto women. But the grifter survives, and so is a reminder of all the ways in which women don't "behave."

It's really just the dead girl who survived, you know, a dead girl that's not dead. Very often the dead girls in these stories, like Laura Palmer, were not angels; they have something a little bit scandalous about them. And often they are sexual, or maybe there's something with drugs or whatever. Being dead is what has redeemed them. So, the femme fatale is kind of just the dead girl had she not died. I don't think these scammers are exactly the same as this femme fatale; I think the scammers are writing their own narrative in a way that we find very subversive. I mean, Amy in Gone Girl is a classic scammer. I think that it is dangerous to glorify greedy sociopaths like Anna Delvey, but I also see the subversive ways that we admire them. They've seen through the culture and through our values, that all of it is just fake, it's all artificial. There isn't a lot of stock put in the things that we value. I think that is admirable in some ways. 

As you were growing up and into your adulthood, what classic "dead girl" stories captivated you?

It's a weird thing because I've always been into true crime to a certain extent, or watching Forensic Files when I'm at my parents’ house, and reading detective fiction. Veronica Mars is definitely where it started for me, 100 percent, and it's still one of my favorite shows of all time. But, I didn't watch Twin Peaks until I was older, and I've always had a little bit of a skepticism. I've never been a wholehearted fan of other than maybe Veronica Mars. Everything else I see as somewhat campy or funny or clichéd, which has kind of allowed me to have this critical engagement with them. Even Twin Peaks, I find ridiculous. I watch Dateline because I think it's amusing, there's this really dark comedy to it that they're kind of aware of. That's what's kind of led me on this journey, I'm not really taking the stance of the fan, really I'm a little more of a skeptic, and I enjoy these things, maybe, but I'm also laughing at them a little bit or cringing at them, in turn. 

At what point in writing did you realize that you wanted to include your own narrative in the book?

It's something that actually came a little bit later in some ways. I feel like I have always been a critic, and that's the stance that I felt very comfortable with—sort of analyzing, or giving my opinion. As I started to really think about the book, I had to sit down and write it and put some of these pieces together and revise a lot. I had a lot of realizations that nobody would care about this unless I reveal my stake in it.

Were there certain things, especially with the more memoiristic parts, that were more difficult to write or that you hesitated to include?

There were a lot of things! That's the thing that I feel like has never been easy for me. I think it's hard for a lot of people. I teach nonfiction, and I think the thing that people have trouble with is thinking their life matters, anyone cares. Really believing that somebody else wants to hear about you. I feel like that was my hesitation too—it always has been—which is why I feel like if I write something personal, it has a critical component, too. I'll tell about myself, but I'll make sure nobody is bored by also talking about something else. Writing about relationships was really hard to navigate in an ethical way; writing about my dad's illness, there are a lot of things where going back to those memories was painful or difficult. My biggest problem is always that I don't think anyone cares... it's a little too easy. Like, I want to make it harder.

I thought it was a really valuable perspective, because you grew up in this really isolated place, and it's an experience that, by its very nature, few Americans have.

It really is what formed me into the pop culture addict that I am. We didn't really have good TV channels, but I could watch Dawson's Creek like once every three weeks when it would play on some random channel because we didn't have the WB. When I would watch Dawson's Creek or The O.C. or something, I believed in that vision of America more than the one that I saw when I went to high school. I was like, 'This is not real.' It is what made me obsessed with magazines and TV, especially MTV, because I was getting a glimpse of what was normal and real. My friends and my parents and the people I saw every day, that felt fake and weird.

Do you think there will ever be a point where our culture stops being so obsessed with the dead girl?

I think the only way that will happen is if we demand that our culture become less violent and corrupt. I think that being into those stories is a way to sidestep that anxiety. No one really wants to watch a documentary series about the Las Vegas shooting or something. Those things that feel very immediate, and feel very serious and like a real threat—and also that we clearly did nothing to prevent. We want to read about something that we couldn't have prevented, that has at its heart this mysterious evil. You don't want to think about everyday evil, because everyday evil is something that is our fault. So, I think that those stories that we really relish in are kind of a distraction from the stories that we don't want to think about. I hope that we become less obsessed with murder stories because I think it will mean that our society is becoming more ethical and compassionate. I think it's okay to like whatever you like, and I like a lot of murder stories. And the book is in some way coming to terms with that interest in my own life. But, I also think that we should be critical, and we should think about our engagement with things that are really quite disturbing and reflect the worst values of American culture.

Dead Girls is available for purchase now.

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