Cover image for Dead girls : essays on surviving American obsession / Alice Bolin.
Dead girls : essays on surviving American obsession / Alice Bolin.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2018]
Physical Description:
276 pages ; 21 cm
Introduction: girls, girls, girls -- Part 1: the dead girl show. Toward a theory of a dead girl show ; Black hole ; The husband did it ; The daughter as detective -- Part 2: lost in Los Angeles. There there ; Los Angeles diary ; Lonely heart ; This place makes everyone a gambler ; The dream -- Part 3: Weird sisters. A teen witch's guide to staying alive ; And so it is ; My hypochondria ; Just us girls -- Part 4: a sentimental education. Accomplices.
"A collection of sharp, poignant essays that expertly blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women"-- Provided by publisher.

In this collection of sharp, poignant essays, Bolin blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women. Stories, novels, movies and television programs are obsessed with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised. Bolin shows how women's bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men's stories. She analyzes stories of witches and werewolves, and ends by interrogating the persistent injustices real women suffer because of the portrayal of women in media. -- adopted from back cover


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
305.40973 BOL Book Adult General Collection

On Order




An Edgar Award nominee for best critical / biographical

Best of 2018 according to Kirkus, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Portland Mercury, Bustle, Thrillist, and Electric Lit

A New York Times Editor's Choice, a best of summer 2018 according to Bitch Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, The Millions, Esquire, Refinery29, Nylon, PopSugar, The Chicago Tribune, Book Riot, and CrimeReads

In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men's stories. Smart and accessible, thoughtful and heartfelt, Bolin investigates the implications of our cultural fixations, and her own role as a consumer and creator.

Bolin chronicles her life in Los Angeles, dissects the Noir, revisits her own coming of age, and analyzes stories of witches and werewolves, both appreciating and challenging the narratives we construct and absorb every day. Dead Girls begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction, and ends by interrogating the more complex dilemma of living women - both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, perceptive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.

Author Notes

Alice Bolin's nonfiction has appeared in many publications, including Elle, the Awl, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Vice's Broadly, the Paris Review Daily, and The New Yorker's Page-Tuner blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Bolin's debut collection is a mixed bag of essays loosely based on female character tropes in pop culture and literature, from the "dead girls" of contemporary noir television shows to the teen witches and werewolves of film and literature. Discussing pop stars, Bolin defends Lana Del Rey's burlesque show tour and astutely deconstructs Britney Spears's oeuvre, contending that Spears's early bubble gum facade masks "a prodigious loneliness." Bolin riffs and flits through topics with tangents that don't always connect to the main theme; in one essay she begins by exploring the femme fatales in the otherwise progressive detective novels of the Scandinavian duo Maj Sjöwell and Peter Wahlöö, touches briefly on Pippi Longstocking, and then ponders her father's recent Asperger's diagnosis. In the collection's lengthy final essay, Bolin reevaluates her obsession with the writer Joan Didion, who admittedly inspired Bolin's move to L.A. in 2014. In this piece, she recounts her own misadventures in a new city, which leads to the realization that Didion's ethos of "glamorous desperation" may be just blind privilege. This last piece is a great personal essay-it's smart, confessional, and fully developed-and the other works in this collection pale in comparison. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

Two women essayists on coming of age in a culture with a violent fixation on female bodies. DEAD GIRLS Essays on Surviving an American Obsession By Alice Bolin 273 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. Paper, $15.99. AGAINST MEMOIR Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms By Michelle Tea 319 pp. Feminist Press. Paper, $18.95. "THE KEY element of any Dead Girl story is the investigator's haunted, semi-sexual obsession with the Dead Girl, or rather, the absence she has left," Alice Bolin writes in her deliciously dry, moody essay collection, "Dead Girls." Bolin's own obsession is nowhere near as lurid but just as fascinating. Once she spots the necrophiliac thread running through our culture - from "Twin Peaks" to "True Detective," and including every procedural ever made - she can't stop seeing it, can't stop thinking about what it would be like, as a girl who's alive and kicking, to occupy so much central, privileged space. The ubiquity of the popular narrative she comes to call the "Dead Girl Show" makes her think that the dead girl might be something she "could hitch my wagon to." This might seem an oddly static choice if it didn't prove so generative. "Dead Girls" is one of the latest entries in a welcome genre: coming-of-age stories about struggling to be seen in a culture that refuses to see you, at least not as a living, breathing person. The story that typically gets told instead - the Dead Girl Show - Bolin perceives as a modern-day fairy tale, with shadowy woods and an idyllic, small-town setting colored by "worshipful covetousness and violent rage" directed at "the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr." The dead girl is usually not a girl but a young woman, and her death is usually not natural but intentional and violent. Her exemplar is Laura Palmer, of "Twin Peaks," an idea of a girl unconnected to reality. As Bolin observes, "Everyone loves the Dead Girl," but, of course, "that's why we love her: because she's dead, and her death is the catalyst for the fun of sleuthing." She's a blank slate onto which a male protagonist can project his fantasies, mostly about himself. Week after week, on episode after episode of "Dateline" and "Forensic Files," a male protagonist grapples with the meaning of the Dead Girl's death, and his identity becomes organized around hers - with none of her personality or perspective left to get in the way. The question of authority hovers over these essays - white, patriarchal authority. In the Dead Girl Show, the husband and the father loom large and dangerous. It's a given that the culprit in the killing is a male relative. At the same time, Bolin notes, the narrative (and the law) tend to favor him, making it easier for him to get away with it. Of course, the Dead Girl's status as "the perfect victim" has a way of "effacing the deaths of leagues of nonwhite or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrant or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims," and it does notescape Bolin's notice that the Dead Girl could be her, "the very face of white female complicity." Bolin began to write her book shortly after publishing a well-received essay about the series "True Detective" - a show about a troubled detective and a photogenically arranged female murder victim - and soon after moving from smalltown Idaho to Los Angeles, where she knew almost nobody and had few prospects. Her real-life move, which at first seems disconnected from the themes of the book, turns out to be integral to them. A naive young woman escapes her hometown - in the Northwest, a region renowned for its serial killers, she notes - for a big, indifferent city, where she soon loses her illusions (along with her wallet). This girl, who is not dead (though she might be a little bit dead inside), comes to the city in search of her missing self and finds only more anomie. It's a seductive story line that Bolin calls the "Hello to All That," after Joan Didion. Her favorite narratives in this genre also include Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" and Eileen Myles's "Chelsea Girls," both of which feature narrators who arrive in a city from nowhere and try "to assert themselves as artists, despite all appearances." It's easy to romanticize this plotline, Bolin writes, but "the sentimental education is hardly an innocuous trope, particularly when white American women, from the heroines of Henry James to the narrator of 'The Flamethrowers,' stand in for the innocence of their young country" - one in which the symbol of the Dead (white) Girl is often used to justify violence against others, to uphold a racist status quo. Michelle Tea's collection "Against Memoir" is more eclectic and wide-ranging, but it riffs on many of the same themes in swift, immediate prose. She, too, reconstructs her artistic and feminist coming of age through her cultural influences, revisiting scenes from a more turbulent youth. If Bolin's book is a lyrical meditation, Tea's is a good-natured slap. The book opens with a piece on Valerie Solanas, the infamous Andy Warhol shooter and author of the outlandish SCUM Manifesto, which Tea understood when she first encountered it "to be totally for real and totally not," in telling a truth "so absurd it's painful": that we live in a world where "men got to do anything to women and women got to walk around scared and traumatized and angry." A palpable pain animates many of these essays, as well as a raucous joy and bright curiosity. Having discovered that the stepfather she thought of as her dad had drilled holes in the walls of their house to spy on her and her sister, Tea writes, "He would have to deal with the shame of being caught, but he kept the house, the daughters had to flee. He kept the wife the daughters would never again be able to trust as a mother. He came into the family like an invasive parasite, killed it, and inhabited its dead body." It's a memorable image, and an emblematic one: Tea's essays tend to center on transformation, on one thing turning into another, even as they are stories of escape and resilience. Like Bolin, Tea also runs away from a nowhere town ("scabby old Chelsea, Massachusetts") to the city (first Tticson, then San Francisco), where she, too, discovers Myles's "Chelsea Girls." "For me, at 23, girls were the mystery, and drinking (being drunk) and writing was the mystery. Eileen Myles was deep in it, solving it, reporting from the inside." What strikes her about Myles's book is the experience of being buried alive in a culture - under the rubble of others' stories: "to have so much to say yet forced to claw out a place to say it with your own ragged, dirty fingernails." Her wild youth is now long enough ago that the period is shrouded for her in myth. An essay about the HAGS, young punk lesbians, many of them junkies, who lived and died (in scary numbers, from contaminated heroin) in San Francisco's Mission District back when the city was punk and queer and cheap and dangerous, and made space for "wild ruffians" and "gorgeous monsters," is especially haunting. But she's equally memorable on what it's like to be a young woman in the city, confronted daily with indecent exposure, or as they were called in the 1970s, "flashers"; on pigeons as despised urban fauna; and on longing and heartbreak. In both "Dead Girls" and "Against Memoir," the lure of autobiographical writing is also a longing to capture our experience of time, to trap us in a moment that is always passing. "You will never be in this precise state ever again," Tea writes. "Its marks lie all over the version of your story you are telling today." carina chocano is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the author of "You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages," which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Girls, Girls, Girlsp. 1
Part 1 The Dead Girl Show
Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Showp. 13
Black Holep. 25
The Husband Did Itp. 47
The Daughter as Detectivep. 57
Part 2 Lost in Los Angeles
There Therep. 89
Los Angeles Diaryp. 99
Lonely Heartp. 109
The Place Makes Everyone a Gamblerp. 117
The Dreamp. 137
Part 3 Weird Sisters
A Teen Witch's Guide to Staying Alivep. 159
And So It Isp. 177
My Hypochondriap. 187
Just Us Girlsp. 199
Part 4 A Sentimental Education
Accomplicesp. 215
Acknowledgmentsp. 275