Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

35180951In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.


I have mixed feelings about Dead Girls – it starts amazing but sadly I had trouble getting all the way to the end.

I do want to be clear – the first part, about the titular women American culture obsesses over, is incredible.  Bolin talks about “Dead Girl Shows” that use the memory of women-who-were to tell stories about the men who killed them or seek to revenge their deaths.  Instead of looking at the impulse some men have to prey on young women the narrative of these shows concentrates on the killer’s psychology and methods, making the practice seem inevitable and beyond the man’s control.  I highlighted many, many passages from this section and will be revisiting the essays so I can chew over them more.

That’s only part one of four, though.  The second section takes a step away and examines women who are living but have been used to sell a story in a related way.  I like Lonely Heart, about the contradictions and tragedy in Britney Spears’ fame, but otherwise my interest started to wane.

If the book were a tire that’s where the slow leak started, with a more steady whooosh becoming apparent over the last two parts.  Bolin gets deep into her experience of being lonely after moving to the West coast and I couldn’t get on board.  It’s an amalgamation of things I have a hard time caring about or connecting with (LA, Joan Didion, accounts of roommates and boyfriends) with books that we are assumed to know but oftentimes I did not.  If you love so-called “Hello to All That/Goodbye to All That” essays, worship Didion, and don’t mind a jumble of thought, you’ll do better here than I.

It’s hard for me to rate Dead Girls because it went from a compulsively readable, fascinating ride to a flat tire I had trouble rolling over the finish line.  I thought it would be a great fit for my Serial Killer Summer but sadly only the first quarter or so fit the bill.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

6 thoughts on “Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

  1. I think I shared your thoughts on this one. I loved the actual analysis in the Dead Girls pieces but I lost interest at too much about pop culture, TV, literature I don’t want to read and Joan Didion (and I really like Didion.) Great review! Glad to see that you found those same parts to be compelling too!

    1. I’m with you about Didion. I haven’t read her so I was kind of lost in parts. As far as references go music didn’t bother me as much as the literature, for some reason – maybe because I’ve heard the songs but I haven’t read most of the books covered? Ah well, at least that first part is great!

      1. Oh I can’t even imagine how this would be to read if you weren’t familiar with Didion…it was only tolerable to me because I was. The other literature stuff went completely over my head. I wish the whole book had stuck more to the dead girl-theme, those pieces really hit their mark, I thought. Loved reading your thoughts on this one!

  2. I found all of this about equally interesting – some of the memoir bits lost me, but others were some of my favorite stories. However, I shared your disappointment that more of this wasn’t on the titular topic. It felt very disjointed to me. And I think I might have liked the beginning less than you did. While I thought the author made some good points about ‘dead girl’ shows, I thought the anecdotal nature of support wouldn’t work if someone didn’t already come from a pretty liberal perspective.

    1. That’s a really good point about perspective going in, I didn’t even think of that. I’m glad it wasn’t as uneven for you as it was for me!

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