The Dead Girl Show

The Dead Girl Show’s notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women. The first is that girls are wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from the power of their own sexualities. True Detective demonstrates a self-conscious, conflicted fixation on strippers and sex workers. Hart helps “free” a teenage prostitute from a brothel and, seven years later, cheats on his wife with her. “How does she even know about that stuff?” Hart asks in 1995 when he and his wife discover sexual drawings his elementary-school-age daughter made. “Girls always know first,” his wife replies. This terrible feminine knowledge has been a trope at least since Eve in the Garden. Marcus compares Twin Peaks’s victim Laura Palmer to the teenage “witches” in Puritan New England who were targeted to purge and purify their communities. In the Dead Girl Show, the girl body is both a wellspring of and a target for sexual wickedness. The other message the Dead Girl Show has for women is simpler: trust no dad. Father figures and male authorities hold a sinister interest in controlling girl bodies, and therefore in harming them.

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Dead Girl Shows often experiment with the incest taboo, like the girls on Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars, and Top of the Lake who share kisses with characters they later learn could be their half brothers. This goes back to Freud’s favorite myth, Oedipus, in which a prince is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, and the psychological metaphors of Gothic literature, and the imposing persistence of patriarchal authority.

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Clearly Dead Girls help us work out our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women in our culture. The paradox of the perfect victim, effacing the deaths of leagues of nonwhite or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrant or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims, encapsulates the combination of worshipful covetousness and violent rage that drives the Dead Girl Show. The white girl becomes the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr, particularly to that most unholy idol of narrative.

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If these stories—of Over Tumbled Graves, Robert Yates, Ruby Ridge, and all the other northwestern sociopaths—have one thing in common, every step of the way, it’s men. Men are the problem.

Alice Bolin, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, 2018.