In Alice Bolin’s book Dead Girls, she describes going to a karaoke bar by herself, soon after moving to Los Angeles. When it’s her turn to sing, she announces to everyone in the bar that she is “new in town and had no friends.” It reads like something that would happen right before the meet-cute in a romantic comedy or right before the murder in one of the dead girl stories Bolin analyses. In fact, she doesn’t fall in love or get attacked that night, but every moment in a woman’s life is a moment that could be extrapolated into her murder, but it’s also a moment she might fall in love—or both! After all, as every Dateline viewer knows, it’s always the husband that did it. At that karaoke bar, she’s welcomed into a group friendly “sweet, hip townies.”
Even while she’s doing something supremely self-willed and defining, moving from a small town in Idaho to Los Angeles, Bolin describes herself reacting to all the random and extreme stimulations of being 25, nearly jobless and new in town by becoming a hypochondriac, extrapolating some terrible illness from every fact about her body, and watching endless murder shows on television.
She also describes a diagnosis her father has for Asperger’s syndrome—the question of whether or not it applies simply doesn’t interest him at all, but Bolin fille finds the question important and combs through medical sites finding descriptions of the autism spectrum that occasionally almost perfectly describe her father. It doesn’t matter to him, he already has his life set up with a home and a family and an obsession with crime fiction.
Alice still needs to know where she’s going, so she looks to Joan Didion’s descriptions of California and Britney Spears’s descriptions of loneliness. Everything almost fits the experience she’s having, but the only answer that’s possible to find in these works is the same shrug her father gives. Everyone’s experience is almost like yours but maddeningly not quite. Finally, of course, she writes her own book about the way things really were for her. Until then, Bolin asks her literary Magic Eight balls over and over “how is this going to turn out?” and the answer is always “you will die”—whether eventually, or soon and spectacularly.
It’s significant that dead girl stories, both fiction and non-fiction, command so much of her attention. She’s hardly alone in that. Whether it’s the podcast My Favorite Murder or Law & Order SVU, Megan Abbott or Laura Lippman, crime stories seem to be ascending specifically among women. Not long ago, romantic comedies held that position—they were called “chick flicks” and “chick lit” after all, but they don’t show up in any of Bolin’s extrapolations. Her cultural crystal ball never says “you will fall in love”—especially interesting given that this is a concern Bolin expresses also.
Her two indicators of legitimacy are having a job and having a boyfriend. Death is, presumably, the failure case. She has several jobs in the course of this book and she writes about her first boyfriend from the first date to the last one, a week after they broke up. Even so, in all her cultural touchstones, though, she never seems to connect to a romantic comedy, and the absence is telling. There’s something about a dead girl that’s more appealing, or more fitting, or more true, than a romantic comedy heroine.
When the pill became widely available in the early 1960s, the question of how women’s lives changed as a result was explored in a fairly narrow set of texts: primarily chick lit and romantic comedies. I’m sure there are exceptions, but the late 20th century chick lit/rom-com diaspora explored this question so deeply that any book or movie with the subject of the specific ways a young woman’s life is different than her mother’s across the no-pill/pill divide, that would be considered chick lit or a romantic comedy just because of how strong the association is. The Venn diagram is a smaller circle inside a larger one—not all chick lit is about women and the pill, but nearly all stories about women and the pill are considered chick lit.
This is the post-pill chick-lit situation: a young woman’s life is not like her mother’s specifically because she can have a job and she can move to the city and have fun with her own money. On the other hand, even with access to this realm of dignity that was, until recently, only for men, she has a new indignity of having to persuade one of her shitty boyfriends to marry her before she runs out of eggs. She’s stuck in this neo-Victorian position of having to advocate for the hearth and home—for family, commitment, cooperation, children—when the promise of the Pill was that she could have other priorities. Heterosexual women were freed up—to enforce men’s maturity and consider themselves lucky if one deigned to put a ring on it. The irony and indignity of this situation—this is the territory of chick lit and the rom-com.
Bolin’s work is building off decades of movies and books about women being powerful in one sense, but also frustrated or humiliated by the need to find a man to marry before she runs out of fertile years—or, even if she doesn’t want children, fertile-looking years. These stories are about the lives of straight, cis women. It’s not an experience that has an analog in the post-pill literature by the men these women are dating. There is plenty of all kinds of literature about how men’s lives changed post-pill—it’s just not humiliating.
There is a doubleness in the most successful of the post-pill romantic comedies and chick lit books. They can either show that it’s infuriating and absurd that a woman could earn the money and worldly status that ought to lead to respect, and still have to consider herself interchangeable with, or somewhat lower value than a woman 10 years younger. It could also show that women are inherently commitment-crazed and pathetic until they become wives and mothers. Both of those interpretations are present in every happy ending of the most popular movies and books in this genre.
This duality is not stable, though. Over the decades, a genre tips in one direction or the other. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry and Sally are in bed, post-coital, with Sally’s eyes happily closed and Harry’s open and tense—that’s embarrassing. No one wants to be the Sally in that situation. Then there’s Mark Darcy telling Bridget Jones that he likes her as she is, that’s a little more embarrassing. It’s humiliating for her to be so pleased with that approval when the book is about her efforts to achieve a physical standard that no men have to attain, as well as throwing marvelous dinner parties, and improving a successful career at once. All that work to be worthy of being told she’s not an irremediable fuck-up by some guy who doesn’t bother even attempting to do half of those things? It’s not just Bridget who is humiliated in that book. Her best friend Jude’s happy ending involves marrying a man who has been called “Vile Richard” up until that point because of how little he values her. That’s from 1996, or 2001 for the movie.
Since then we’ve had He’s Just Not That Into You and Think Like A Man and the condescending voiceover in Love, Actually. Why do the men hold all the cards in these movies, even in their titles? Why is the new boss the same as the old boss? The enraged irony of post-pill chick lit has broken down into tales of humiliation that end with a diamond ring, so it’s all okay. Sex and the City finally ended with Carrie as some guy’s third wife, after dating on and off for six years while he equivocates—and she’s the lucky one in that couple. Her second-to-last boyfriend treated her much worse.
For contrast, the novel that just won the Pulitzer for fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is such a persuasive romantic comedy, it makes an implicit case that gay love is the only real romantic love. If all the players in the game are all men—or all women—they can each have a turn being the ingenue and later, the sophisticate. Their individual personalities and attractions are what matters, rather than how well they embody their partners’ gender stereotypes. It’s not all romantic comedy that feels like such a degrading slog these days, it’s just a lot of straight romantic comedy. If you’re 25, heterosexual, and flinging yourself into the world, this picture looks pretty bleak. All the ways you’re finding yourself and building your life just make you less valuable to potential partners. You can’t be respected, even if you can be loved.
I don’t want to over-simplify the appeal of anything as viscerally compelling as violence, but the doubleness that contemporary romantic comedies have lost is still present in dead girl stories. Even though the dead girl is passive, she’s valuable and important, at least in the eyes of the detective who can’t let go of the case. Once she’s gone, it’s safe to say that a woman was irreplaceable for exactly the efforts that are mystifyingly low-value while she’s alive. She was a good wife, she was a good mother, she was beautiful, she was good at her job. Her friends miss her. Once she’s gone, the work she put into her life was worthwhile. Is this the appeal, for some percentage of the female audience, of dead girl stories? They are plots that revolve around the details of a woman’s life, after all. Even if it’s a detective frantically paging through her day planner looking for clues, it’s someone paying attention to that last karaoke bash, or that last Tinder date.
Bolin identifies many angles that make the dead girl a troubling narrative trope—for one thing, she’s dead. She’s the passive prime mover of other people’s plotlines. Even while she feeds women’s desire to read about women, she’s much more often used to feed men’s desire to read about violence against women. Despite the detective’s often quasi-romantic adoration, that’s a love that can’t be consummated, so for plot purposes, she’s virginal whatever her life was like. All questions related to commitment and fertility are moot. She’s nearly always white, and absolutely always pretty. Using the image and memory of dead white girls to terrorize people of color, especially black people, is a horrific American tradition that continues to this day.
So why is the lonely and searching Alice watching so much murder television after work while she’s living in one sketchy Los Angeles sublet after another? In a way, watching murder shows about violence against women just feels like facing reality when gendered violence is so prevalent in real life. Even when no one jumps out from between two cars, women walk across parking lots gripping our keys, just in case.
Bolin uses her final essay to semi-apologize for being a white girl who thinks the details of her life—her epiphanies and struggles—deserve the reader’s attention. Shaming women for narcissism when they write personal essays, post pictures of themselves, or monopolize a conversation with a man by talking for more than 30 percent of the time; that’s also an American tradition.
The eroticized competence of men in nearly every form of entertainment has an inverted mirror image in characters like Marge Simpson, who is competent but made to look foolish for it, always left holding the bag while Homer enjoys his whims. What would it look like if women could write about being openly proud of their efforts to be good friends, to be helpful, to welcome a stranger at karaoke? For now, the dead girl genre answers that question.