review · two stars

Review: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Title: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Author: Alice Bolin
Rating: ★★
Summary: In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead or alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories — investigating the implications of our cultural fixations and her own role as a consumer and creator. Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, incisive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.


To me, the subtitle of Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession advertises itself as a cohesive essay collection emphasizing both dead girls and the men and women who obsess over them. But this kind of reflection only happens in the prologue and first section. Otherwise, the book focuses mainly on Bolin’s first few years in Los Angeles – the public transportation she takes to her job, the various (and often nightmarish) roommates she meets while subletting, her first real relationship with a man she later dumps – while peppering in numerous reflections on Joan Didion and her father’s own obsession with Swedish procedurals.

Which I suppose is all fine and good – except, this is not what I wanted out of an essay collected entitled Dead Girls.

I wanted a book-length exploration of the Dead Girl Trope, not Bolin’s singular cultural awakening to her own obsession. The summary even states that the book “begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction and ends by interrogating…the persistent injustices [living women] suffer.” But only a couple of essays “explore the trope of dead women in fiction” while none even touch on the Dead Girl Trope in real life. (Because here’s a handful of women off the top of my head that weren’t mentioned once: Kitty Genovese, Natalie Holloway, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson.) Then the whole middle is a forgettable ride through LA before Bolin and her summary cross paths again, and she “ends” on the “persistent injustices” advertised. (I mean… a book explicitly about dead girls needs more dead girls, right?)

And it’s not that Bolin doesn’t touch on Dead Girls elsewhere; she’s actually written some really great pieces about the trope, listed on her website, as well as a piece for Vulture regarding the ethical dilemma true crime fans (should) face as they consume their obsession. She even mentions this absence in the final essay of Dead Girls, writing, “That day was when I slowly began to realize that my book was maybe not about the noir but about those forces of which the noir was a symptom.”

Cool?

I enjoyed Bolin’s writing, but her essay collection ultimately failed in its intended purpose. If only the rest of the book had lived up to this one particular quote from the prologue: “Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never the instigators; they are only righting what has been done to them.” That is what I’d hoped for; instead, I read about a twenty-something moving to LA and “finding herself.”

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