Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
by Rachel Dean
Two weeks ago, on a summer day too hot to truly enjoy, I headed to a friend’s house to hang out. We took cover in his air-conditioned room and watched movies all afternoon, his laptop propped strategically on the sloped perch of my knees. We watched two movies—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh, and Wind River, directed by Taylor Sheridan. The former received plenty of attention at the Oscars; the latter was a thriller, set on an American Indian reservation, featuring a less star-studded cast. Had I done even the slightest research on either of the films, I might have opted for another way of spending my afternoon.
In Dead Girls, a book written by Alice Bolin and published in late June of this year, the violence done to women’s bodies—whether in entertainment or in reality—becomes a cultural question, one that begs an answer beyond that of: it’s for the art. Bolin’s book prompts a dialogue about what makes the enduring trope of the damsel-in-distress so alluring, particularly when that damsel so often experiences sexual violence and bodily desecration at the hands of men.
All my life, I’ve had a hard time watching violence on television. When my more daring friends watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at a sleepover in fifth grade, I spent half the movie facing the wall. I can read a rough scene in a book—I don’t prefer it, but I can do it. I made it through two of the Game of Thrones books, and I enjoyed them—a triumph I still proudly claim, despite barely remembering the plots of either book. I can listen to gross, misogynistic lyrics, and accept the music industry for the sexualized conglomerate that it is. And for the record, I like a lot of the trashy pop songs. They’re fun. But I cannot, no matter how hard I try, stomach the violence in films or television shows. I don’t like seeing it, hearing it, or even being in the same room during a gory on-screen murder. When my family was watching Walking Dead or Breaking Bad, I’d sometimes walk into the narrow hallway adjacent to our downstairs bathroom, far away from the TV, and cover my ears with my hands. The violence in those shows is outlandish and macabre, and my family often groaned when I stood up and wandered off. It’s just TV, it’s fake! my brother would shout from the couch. I felt childish.
After reading Dead Girls, I realized that maybe my fear ran deeper than a weak stomach. Maybe it had more to do with the messages I’ve internalized since childhood—that women’s bodies are disposable, particularly when they are the love interest of a man, and even more-so when they are young and vulnerable.
Bolin bravely tackles pillars of our entertainment industry—the crime and noir genres, those that produce seemingly endless emotionally-tortured male characters and double the number of fragile, sexy females. Bolin wants to know what our culture’s obsession is with dead girls—particularly dead white girls—and maybe it’s a question we all already know the answer to. We can see it in real-world statistics—the increasingly degrading porn industry, unaddressed rape reports on college-campuses and around the country, the staggering rates of domestic violence. Why do women’s bodies become free-for-all terrain, and why, in the entertainment industry and beyond, does no one challenge the limited roles for women?
And further, where it matters more—the insidious aggressions of everyday-life. How simply being a woman invites unsolicited attention, all of it uncomfortable, some of it dangerous. Bolin writes,
“Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never instigators, they are only righting what has been done to them. This shit-eating innocence is crucial to the fantasy of American masculinity, a bizarre collection of expectations and tropes, “so paralytically infantile”, as James Baldwin writes in “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”, ‘that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood’” (10).
Despite that people don’t consider the violence done to women as, ironically, a problem of equal importance to men as well, it is. Dismantling the norms that arm men with the confidence to harm women—both physically and emotionally—also disintegrates the cultural aggressions that leave men emotionally stunted, unable to express themselves outside of the strict boundaries of an inherited masculinity.
Bolin doesn’t excuse herself from her own questioning, which makes Dead Girls more interesting in its assumptions and claims. How do we, as women, survive, challenge, or perpetuate these norms? How do we dismantle the scaffolding that supports and lobbies for the useless male bravado that gets women, children, and other men killed? I don’t know the answer, although I like to believe that books like Dead Girls help us get closer.
While watching Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, I was struck with the kind of bone-deep sadness that I often feel during and after watching modern movies. In the film, Mildred Hayes’ daughter, Angela, is brutalized and raped, her body burned and left on the side of the road while she walks to a friend’s house after having a particularly hostile fight with her mother. Before Angela walks out of the house, after yelling at her mother for denying her the car-keys, she shouts, “I hope I get raped, to which Mildred replies, “I hope you do too.” Not only is the scene terrible, it’s also somehow disgustingly trite. Angela knows, as a young woman, what threatens her in the world. Her fate befalls her anyway, as it has to, as it must, because the movie requires it.
In Wind River, the plot is more complex, but the rape scene of Natalie’s character comes at the movie’s end in a grueling flashback. Even Jane Banner, the FBI agent that comes to Wyoming to investigate Natalie’s murder, is relegated to “damsel in distress” status after a shoot-out threatens her life. During these scenes of the film, I moved the laptop to my friend’s lap. Without asking, he hit the mute button, and then told me when the scene was over so I could rejoin him. He has a sense of my repulsion for on-screen violence, and he’s a good person to watch a movie with because he doesn’t object or call me wimpy. At the end of a film, a text over the screen notes that “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women. No one knows how many are missing.”
I’m not making a case for censorship of entertainment. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Wind River are incredible films that consider questions of male violence, if only peripherally, and if only from one angle. That angle may be trope-ish. It may be un-stomachable. It may make me want to cry, as I did, or feel considerably more alone in the world and in my own body. I don’t know that I should have to submit myself to the kind of on-screen violence that’s so prevalent these days. My friend and I chose two movies to watch that afternoon, and both featured raped and murdered women. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how influential entertainment can be—how much we learn from what we see, and how easy it is to internalize the stereotype that women need rescuing, and that if they don’t get rescued, they might as well be dead.
Dead Girls is a doorway into critical thinking. It provided me a sharper understanding of the way I mindlessly consume media, as well as the misogyny I ignore in many forms of entertainment. I also realized, once I finished the book, that I don’t have to watch what I don’t want to watch; I am not perpetuating the narrative of “overly-sensitive woman” just because I don’t want to see a woman get raped in a movie. I live in my body. I am the only one who can attest to its experiences.
Bolin writes with the kind of sensitivity that makes us better people. She wants us to realize where our privileges intersect with our attention, or lack of it. She wants us to notice the rich spectrum of female possibility—the fact that women do exist, boldly and loudly, beyond the stereotypes assigned to them, and have done so since the beginning of time.
— Rachel Dean is a Siblíní Book Correspondent.