In the industry of internet writing, certain truths become doctrine: Anger is effective, outrage more so, and dead girls and women—particularly those abused and victimized and murdered—rule the attention game. They are the internet’s profane saints and they have always fueled the media, selling newspapers and magazines and generating reliable clicks.
The feminist media is no exception, it relies in a particular way on the traffic generated by the dead girl—the clicks and associated revenue that come with the grisly details of her death, and the outrage and anger of readers. The taxonomy of dead women is different, too; the value of a woman’s body is differently determined on, say, Jezebel, than in tabloids or glossy celebrity-focused magazines.
Tabloids value mothers and children, in particular: JonBenét Ramsey and Jessica Chambers and Laci Peterson; attractive girls and women ready-made for readers to mourn. These girls represent the fictional decay of the American family and the internal dangers that somehow lurk within it; their deaths threaten to decay the family itself.
The feminist hierarchy of the dead women is slightly different. Motivated by ideology disinterested in the preservation of the American suburban family, it’s subsequently less interested in tabloid-ready looks or shocking revelations about husbands or mothers.
Our own dead women, instead, reflect our own values. Death transforms them into sacrifices to a social order we know to be true, one that we hope we can counteract by naming it; we make political sense of their deaths in order to make them seem less senseless. Through news stories of the immortalized dead, we pay witness to particular kinds of violence, to our own suspicions about gender-based crime, to an inherent knowledge that the world is unsafe for women. Anyone who has spent time in or around women’s media recognizes the hierarchy of dead women: women who have been killed by a man wounded by her inattention, women murdered by abusive husbands and boyfriends, women who were executed simply for uttering the word “no.” They are our unholy saints, our martyrs.
I’ve written many of those stories: a post about Caroline Nosal, a Wisconsin woman murdered by a co-worker after she turned down his advances; an unnamed woman who was murdered by a co-worker after she complained about sexual harassment. There are others, too: a three-year-old girl brutalized in retaliation after her mother turned down a man; a teenage girl stabbed to death for rejecting a prom invitation; a mother of three murdered because she refused to give a man her phone number. These stories are valid, they pay witness to the thousands of dead women sacrificed to an invisible, merciless social order.
Over the last decade or so, the feminist internet has built a catalog of dead girls and women; in blog posts, a kind of small hagiography. Collected, they remind us of the tenets of our political religion: that “no” is a dangerous word; that the simple act of rejection—of expressing a preference—can have violent and deadly consequences. These stories are our liturgy, shared with familiar ritualistic language, a sarcastic “just tell him no,” observations about “toxic masculinity,” or a Margaret Atwood quote. It’s a language so familiar that here at Jezebel, that in our own comments section readers will simply type “MA,” a quick reference to the Atwood quote, that they all understand.
That these observations are most loudly made on the feminist internet (itself a thriving zone for women’s otherwise altered speech) seem implicitly to be some sort of argument that things are better than they seem. Even there, women are charged with sexism, their claims of knowledge dismissed (“not all men”) but these dead women are incontrovertible proof, tangible evidence, of violence and its body count.
The dead women of the feminist internet are a silent rejoinder to critics who claim that women’s fears about simple speech are irrational—critics who claim that the public sphere and our national history value the freedom of speech, the freedom to express any opinion, no matter how unpopular. Women understand that they are not yet within the boundaries that delineate acceptable action and speech in the name of safety; if these boundaries exist at all, they are false. The dead pay witness to that falsity; they insist, in their absence, that the violence that results from gendered power hierarchies is not simply a delusion of women.
The dead woman has been the site of witness and outrage since the creation of mankind. The Old Testament tells the story of the Levite’s Concubine, an unnamed woman (her name isn’t important, anyway) who is given to a group of Benjamite men to assuage their apparent need for sexual violence.
The passage, in Judges 19, is particularly brutal even for the Old Testament:
[...] the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.
The concubine was, of course, dead, but she proved more valuable in death than she ever was in life. Her husband mounted her body on the donkey to return her home, not for burial or for mourning, but to cut her body “limb by limb,” to send across Israel. As the pieces of her body were distributed and received, the Israelites became outraged and attacked the Benjamites, burning their farms and murdering the tribe’s virgins. The Benjamites sought peace with the other tribes of Israel and, in reward, they were allowed to rape and take the women of the Shiloh tribe as their wives.
With enough women raped and murdered, the story draws to its conclusion, its moral lesson is found in Judges 21:25, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
The story of the Levite’s Concubine is terrifyingly compact. In a few hundred words, it recounts the value of dead women: A woman is dead, more women are murdered and women are raped, all to maintain the cultural order and peace of men.
The anonymous scribe of Judges, like the artists who depicted the scene centuries later, all focused on one simple poignant detail: Hands on the threshold. The hands that lay but do not touch or feel because they are lifeless. The detail renders a sculptural image of two inanimate objects one on top of the other; image and support.
No woman ever speaks.
In May 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among the dead were two women; two sorority sisters. In his 141-page manifesto, My Twisted World, Rodger believed himself to be innocent. He was a victim of pretty, blonde girls and their “flawed sexuality”—the flaw evident in their refusal to acknowledge his evident potency. Rodger believed himself to be an unwilling saint of sorts, “condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women.”
“They are attracted to the wrong type of male,” Rodger wrote.
After he completed his account of rejection and bitter prerogatives, Rodger bought a few guns and knives, hopped in his BMW and drove downtown. After stabbing three roommates, Rodger uploaded a YouTube video and emailed his manifesto. Then he armed himself with two pistols, a Glock 34 and two Sig Sauer P226s, weapons that in his manifesto he treated as objects that reflected his lethal masculinity, and drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house. The two women he murdered there were not Alpha Phis; they were simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got back into his car, killed another male student and injured more.
Rodger’s spree, driven as it was by savage misogyny (in the lingo of internet feminism, “toxic masculinity”), spurred the social media hashtag #yesallwomen.
That hashtag, which Rebecca Solnit described as “a watershed moment in which the conversation changed... opening some minds and updating some ideas,” was a testament to the mundanity of gender-based violence. Under the hashtag, women documented personal experiences with discrimination and violence, written in the familiar language of the liturgy. Yes All Women, as Solnit suggested, simultaneously preached to the choir and paid witness to lost souls, convincing them of the right way; the right ideas. In a search of an articulate narrative of pain—a language that, at its best, is fragmented—Rodger’s manifesto and the two dead girls he left in his wake became an impetus, a prompt for an ancient expression that becomes clearer and clearer and yet never clear enough.
At its most reductive, Yes All Women was written on the bodies of two women, victimized by everything feminists understand to be wrong with power and with masculinity. Still, though Solnit is right and the hashtag was a commanding force, it fundamentally rendered two dead women invisible. Their names were Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss.
Without this violence against Cooper and Weiss, there would have been no movement, no watershed. This is the fundamental paradox of the feminist internet’s dead girls: we require their production in order to take action. There is nothing to witness if nobody is dead. There is no contemplation without saints.
In August 2015, Alison Parker, a reporter at a CBS affiliate in semi-rural Virginia, was gunned down on live television. Three stills from the video— shot from the perspective of Parker’s murderer—appeared the next day on the cover of the New York Daily News accompanied by bold, white text that simply read “Executed.”
The video was shocking, but the NYDN’s cover, arranged like an altarpiece triptych, had the meditative quality of a religious painting. The three-part image invited introspection and refused closure. The terror—both Parker’s and viewers—is repeated on an infinite loop, in which Parker and the viewer contemplate the danger we collectively struggle to name.
In the first panel, Parker stands unaware of the gun looming in the foreground, wearing the standard uniform of a television reporter as she cheerily interviews a subject. In the second, the bullet has been fired, evidenced by the flash from the muzzle, but Parker has yet to turn towards the shot (a chilling conflation between the usages of the word “shot,” with gun or camera). In this moment, her death is imminent to the viewer; it will happen, we know it will happen. Roland Barthes described that particular tension, that inherent knowledge of death that every photograph carries, as an emotional “catastrophe.” In the final panel, Parker turns toward the gun, her mouth open in fear. There: the catastrophe.
The cover inevitably produced controversy (as did the easy availability of the video of Parker’s murder). The responses ranged from earnest cries to banish both the video and photograph to defenses of the NYDN’s decision to expose readers to the catastrophe. At the New Republic, Jeet Heer argued that watching Parker’s death was to become “voyeurs in [her] murder”; at Gawker, Sam Biddle argued that looking at the images would force us to confront the realities of an ungovernable gun culture. Look or look away; compassion or confrontation, those were the options. Maybe they were both wrong. “Moral indignation, like compassion,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “cannot dictate a course of action.”
Parker herself, as with all the dead women, was at the center of this, and thus almost beside the point. Death had made her both meaningful and silent. Voyeurism and exploitation were argued over; moral certainty, as always, was what we sought. Looking away from the images was a kind of moral high ground, some kind of utopic belief that refusing to be a “voyeur” was absolution. On the other hand, looking at them was framed as a heroic confrontation of reality. Neither seemed quite true enough. The debate itself seemed exploitative, as there were no morals to be parsed and no arguments to be had without the dead girl.
Parker was not the only person murdered that day. Her co-worker, Adam Ward, was also murdered. No one argued over whether or not the Daily Mail’s photograph of his lifeless body was exploitative. But he was not young and pretty and female; he was not right for the debate.
Since images of dead women are controversial, dead children are often used in their place. Dead children are visually linked to dead women; that’s why the slippage between “dead woman” and “dead girl” is so easy. Children, like “all women” in feminist parlance, are culturally innocent, victimized by systems beyond their control. Children, too, are silent and the adult-made corruption responsible for their deaths (guns, the refugee crisis, extremism and casual violence) is a grim contrast to their purity. Children, like the right kind of women, are sympathetic. The dead child is the dead girl magnified.
We are “allowed” to reproduce images of dead children. Their bodies are the stuff of “iconic” photographs, of calls to action. Think of the photograph of Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose tiny shoes and upward facing hands became the site of the debate over the refugee crisis, if only for a moment.
Or the photograph of Baylee Almon, the one-year-old girl pulled from the bombed-out rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. Over 20 years ago, an amateur photographer named Charles H. Porter IV snapped a photograph of Almon’s burned and bloodied body cradled by a firefighter. Almon was already dead, yet she appeared on the cover of nearly every major newspaper; Porter eventually won a Pulitzer. The image is hard to resist, resembling, as it does, an inverted, time-warped pietà.
The photograph needs to have religious undertones because Almon’s death—her limp legs and dirty white socks—can not be meaningless. The dead child and the dead girl both need to be marked as sacrifices to the world’s cruelty. Pious reflection eludes charges of exploitation.
Writing about dead girls is a form of exploitation. There is no way to resolve the uneasy relationship between the violence done to these women and their postmortem examination. There is no easy way to resolve the close ties between veneration and violence; they are too closely bound to one another.
A dead girl, particularly of the feminist internet, is always viral; a post about her death will always be shared on social media, it will always get clicks. It’s impossible to resist and impossible to ignore.
Yet it’s not as simple as labeling this kind of exploitation as something inherently “bad” or immoral and subsequently turning away from it. At websites like this one, paying witness to the lives of women is part and parcel of what we do. Mundane violence is simply—and sadly—part of that.
Wedged into this practice is an element of spectacle: the outrage and the awkward relationship between violence and monetization. There is little room in that cycle for mourning, of lives lost or a tangible body count. On the internet at least, the individual dead girl is necessarily abstract, a representation of ideology rather than an individual. The gap between this long digital trail of dead girls, and the actual woman (the “good friend” or “loving daughter”) is necessarily catastrophic. It transforms the individual into a body; into an object readymade for veneration. That is how the dead girl produces the news cycle.
The feminist naming of routine physical and sexual violence is something that we deeply believe in; it shapes our worldview and quite literally maps boundaries on women’s lives—where we can go, when we can go and with whom. It deserves reflection and contemplation. That is the cruel irony of the feminist internet. Besides, who else would catalog the never-ending number of murdered and abused women? Who else would claim those dead girls?