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Alice Bolin and Kristen Martin on the Problem With Dead Girl Stories

In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, writers Alice Bolin and Kristen Martin talk with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan about the appeal and popularity of stories that revolve around dead girls and women. Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, discusses why we seek out stories that depict violence against women and how we can be more deliberate and reflective in our consumption of true crime. Kristen Martin, author of “Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories”, joins in on the discussion about this ubiquitous and problematic trope.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Readings for the episode:

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin · “Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories” by Kristen Martin ·“Picturing America” by Greil Marcus · Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn · Helsinki press conference transcript on Vox · Over Tumbled Graves by Jess Walter · In Cold Blood by Truman Capote · Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng · What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah · The Lovely Bones and Lucky by Alice Sebold · My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta · Dead Girls by Emily Geminder · A Time To Kill by John Grisham · Stranger Things by The Duffer Brothers / Netflix · Twin Peaks by David Lynch / Netflix · Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott · The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy · The Huntsman by Whitney Terrell

VIDEO FROM LIT HUB: Ethan Hawke reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at 92Y Ethan Hawke reads Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at 92Y 00:00 / 08:18

From the Episode, Part 1

On the “Bolin Test” and raising the imaginative bar for crime narratives

Kristen Martin: Since I’ve read your book, I’ve been thinking about my own consumption of a lot of these types of stories and the narratives that they’ve enforced upon me. Just like I really relate to what Sugi was saying—her example. And I’ve been thinking, as I’ve been approaching new true crime and other things, about a spin on the “Bechdel Test,” which would be the “Bolin Test,” where true crime or crime fiction somehow avoids the dead girl trope that you outline in these essays or doesn’t just produce the worst parts of these narratives. And it seems like there are a couple of things you talk about in the book that do pass the Bolin Test, like in Gone Girl, just from the part that you’ve just read, Amy Dunn manipulates the concept of the dead girl to control her own narrative, and you also mention other shows and books like Pretty Little Liars and Jess Walters’ Over Tumbled Graves. So what have you encountered recently that manages to get over the Bolin Test, and how would you describe what the Bolin Test would be?

Alice Bolin: It’s such a funny thing because I had a friend who said the same thing, “Oh, there should be a Bolin Test like the Bechdel Test for dead girl stories,” and she was saying, “Oh, I’m worried that I wrote a dead girl story.” And I think the thing about the Bechdel test is that I don’t think Alison Bechdel encourages everyone to have exactly two female characters and have them have one conversation. I think her point is that it’s a very low bar, it’s a very low threshold, and still so many movies and books don’t cross it. And the point is how insanely hostile to women’s stories our popular media is.

And so I think for me, my desire is not for people to just say, “Okay, so we have managed to squeak by, by maybe having a male victim instead, or by maybe making the detective a woman.” It’s not that I don’t think those stories are interesting, but I think that we can have more imagination about the kind of stories that we tell. I think we’re so obsessed with being self-referential or being referential in general, and that’s one reason that we reproduce these stories. Because a story like Twin Peaks is so iconic that people think, “Oh I want to play with that idea or I want to do my version of it,” and I feel like we need to think outside of that frame, especially within movies and TV, to be thinking about how we can tell completely new stories. While also myself wrestling with love of true crime and pulp storytelling and love of the ways that those stories are recreated. So of course I have mixed feelings in general.

It’s funny because Megan Abbott—she just had her book come out yesterday, her new book Give Me Your Hand—and she gave an interview where she was saying, “We need dead girl stories, I want to play with stories that think about female anger, and about violence,” and that thinking about that dead girl character is how we’ll get to the bottom of that obsession. And I don’t think she’s wrong, and I think that she’s a very skilled and wonderful writer and very provocative. And so I think there’s multiple ways in to shaping our attitudes toward women in popular culture. I think the main thing is allowing women to tell their own stories, having more diversity of voices, and telling ourselves not just to reproduce the same types of stories over and over again but to think about new kinds of narratives.

On moving beyond the Dead Girl

Whitney Terrell: My understanding from when I was reading your book is that one of the issues isn’t just the fact of someone—a female character—being killed in the course of a book but that that character is never allowed to be a character. In other words, to have an arc. They begin as dead, right? And they’re dead purely to motivate usually the male detective to go off on a quest. . . Is that the part of the trope?

AB: It’s one part of it. I mean the fact is that when you watch a dead girl show, in general you’re not saying, “Oh, I so relate to that corpse.” In general, I think the viewer relates to the figure of the detective, who’s solving the crime. If we were to relate to the victim, those stories would be too painful and too grotesque. It kind of needs to be this set piece, this empty corpse. I always think actually about In Cold Blood, about the ways that he sets up the mundaneness of the Clutters’ lives, and each individual character, their humanity is set up in that first section of the book, so when they’re horrifically and senselessly murdered, you really feel a sense of shock. I always think of that as this example of a way where we really feel empathy for victims in a way that’s almost—well, that’s very interesting, because he calls it a nonfiction novel but probably no novelist would ever do that. That’s one way in which that narrative to me is quite unique.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was thinking, when I was thinking about books that I’ve loved for a long time, I was thinking about A Time to Kill, which I think I probably read after The Firm came out and how I read the beginning of that book and expected the little girl who is sexually assaulted at the beginning of that book, I expected her to die. And one of the very interesting things about that book is that she doesn’t, and that it isn’t really about whether the crime was committed, but it becomes about what happens to her family and about the law. Or I was thinking about Barb in Stranger Things, Sophie Mol in The God of Small Things, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng—there are writers who resurrect characters after telling us that they’ll die—without having too many spoiler alerts for Celeste’s book, though I suspect many, many people have read it already obviously. Or Lesley Arimah’s short story collection where she does a lot of interesting things with women characters who have awful things happen to them but then does give them that space to be characters. I feel like some of the ways I’ve seen people play with this—when the girl survives when we don’t expect it, or also, I felt like with Stranger Things, I expected that mystery to resolve in some way that redeemed people, and instead it just stuck.

KM: In the essay that I wrote about your book, Alice, I was thinking a lot about The Lovely Bones. And how in that book—Alice Sebold’s novel—how the girl dies in the first couple pages, but she narrates the whole book, we’re with her in her weird heaven where she’s still seeing what happens to her family and everyone in her town after she dies.

AB: I actually talked to my friend Elissa Washuta, the nonfiction writer, about this. I feel like there’s a space in books and in literature maybe to have that empathetic connection with characters that so far we haven’t seen as much in movies or TV, I think. I think the Barb example is an interesting one of a character who’s so beloved not really getting her chance at redemption. And you do kind of feel that. It’s not purely exploitative. . .

VVG: Well, I think people were really excited about—I mean, I think Susie Salmon is such a great example from The Lovely Bones. I mean, I remember that point of view choice kind of creating huge waves when that books came out, and of course Alice Sebold’s memoir touching on similar material. And with Stranger Things and with Barb, people were so attached to Barb because she didn’t fit the trope—she struck people as a very butch character, the portrayal of her friendship with Nancy Wheeler, that demonstration of female friendship as a thing that was lost with death rather than just straight intimacy. Friendship and perhaps female desire or queer desire as something that was collapsing with this crime. And then also the criminal being something larger than any individual. That was such an interesting way to play that.

AB: That is interesting. I never actually thought of Barb in that way. And I also think—I think it’s interesting that you bring up Alice Sebold’s memoir because I feel like memoir is a place of interesting ways where survivors get to tell their own stories. Often the survivor’s kind of confronting their audience with material that’s maybe difficult to read about or hard to hear. And in some ways we’re relieved by the dead girl because we don’t have to hear about what she’s gone through, or we don’t see that in first person because those crimes are so horrific. And actually having to read from the person’s mouth a survivor narrative often takes that taste for a crime narrative out of your mouth. It kills any titillation that you might get from a crime narrative, to actually hear it directly from the survivor.

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