This post is the second in a three part series about the true crime genre
- Part One – background and review of True Crime Addict.
- Part Two – review of Dead Girls.
- Part Three – contrast the two books and discuss the positives and negatives of the genre.
I picked up Dead Girls by Alice Bolin up a few months ago. I typically read a few books and listen to an audiobook at the same time. A few minutes into the audiobook, True Crime Addict, I knew it was time to read this collection of essays.
The subtitle of this book is: essays on surviving an American obsession
Very interesting (and promising) given how popular the true crime genre has become. Case in point: True Detective on HBO.
I think True Detective mania mostly owes itself to the complicated power of the Dead Girl Show. The Dead Girl Show’s notable theme 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 [one detective] helps “free” a teenage prostitute from a brothel and, seven years later, cheats on his wife with her. – Alice Bolin, Dead Girls
The book started out strong. The premise of murdered and missing women and the portrayal of the cases in books, podcasts, TV, and movies was one that I had been struck by in the past but couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me.
As Bolin so succinctly put it, the murders and abductions were happening to the (mostly) male characters. These characters had their own issues that they attempted to work out in presenting or solving the case. The focus was on anything but the victim and the accounts were largely told from the male perspective of either the male investigator or perpetrator. Anyone but the victim.
Yes, in real life the investigation has to focus on finding the perpetrator but how we present the case for information/entertainment purposes frequently misses the mark in favor of attention grabbing.
Bolin also tackles how living women are also used and wrote brilliantly about Britney Spears. Remember her first big hit? You know, the one in the Catholic school girl uniform.
Baby One More Time: the one where we were all so distracted by the visual sexual overtones of a 16-year-old. Enough so to miss the hook:
My loneliness. Is killing me.
My loneliness. Is killing me.
You would have had to have been living under a rock to miss 2007 Britney Spears and it makes we wonder if she was the public personification of what happens to women that are used for entertainment and dare I say, art as some have claimed.
She also addresses white women throughout the book but especially poignantly in her essay Accomplices.
I was able to exist in his world as long as it felt like a game I was playing, one that reinforced the narrative of myself as able to fit in anywhere but belonging nowhere, privileged with a special separateness. It turns out that this is the mental game many white women play in social (and societal) situation that they benefit from but are ambivalent about perpetuating. My trouble came when I realized that I was playing for keeps- or not playing at all but living my real, only life. – Alice Bolin, Dead Girls
Ouch. How many times have I found myself, in a male dominated industry, willing to go along with the guys for the sake of my own benefit? Plenty.
And we certainly saw this in the Kavanaugh hearings.
This book was also, in my opinion, part memoir. Bolin chronicles her childhood, college years, and eventual move to Los Angeles. There are also a lot of mentions of her favorite author, Joan Didion, and this is where the essays became slightly repetitive and Didion a distraction for me.
But that is also a general downside of reading a collection of essays; each one stands alone but when read together, can either drive home a point or become overbearing.
I don’t want to focus on this issue too much because it detracts from the overall message of the book and that is an important message. But sadly, some readers may be lost in the redundancy. I moved past it and still want to read some of Joan Didion’s work.
Lastly, as I was reading it dawned on me that even the title of this book had a sensational quality to it. That’s certainly what grabbed my attention, especially using “girls” versus “women”.
At least Bolin had the self-awareness to admit her choice in the wording of the title. That is a far cry from True Crime Addict. I can’t help but find this a brilliant way the author chose to prove her premise of the entire book.
From a pure book review perspective, I’ll rate the book 4/5. And more specifically I will rate these essays a 5/5:
- Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show
- The Husband Did It
- Lonely Heart
Bolin is a talented writer, well versed in the subject, and the essays are smartly written.
Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone interested in a feminist commentary on the presentation of missing and murdered women for the sake of entertainment as well as so much more. And one last suggestion, approach this book with an open mind and more than likely you won’t be disappointed.
… but I thought I was writing “about the noir.” 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, not about dead white girls but the more troubling mystery of living ones. – Alice Bolin, Dead Girls
I’ll discuss this and more in Part Three. Until then, go read Dead Girls, it will not disappoint!