How to Write a Feminist “Dead Girl” Story


Arts & Culture

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1952.


This past Sunday, the governor of Virginia quietly signed into law Senate Bill 565, which adds misdemeanor assault and battery as well as criminal trespass to the list of offenses for which, if convicted, the perpetrator must give a sample of their blood or saliva to be retained in a statewide DNA database until the end of time. In common parlance, this bill is known for Hannah Graham, the white University of Virginia sophomore whose body was recovered in a creek bed outside Charlottesville. The preceding nonstop thirty-six-day search was the most expensive Virginia search effort to date.

Hannah Graham’s parents were the chief advocates for SB 565. Her mother pleaded to the Justice Committee, “Please don’t let what happened to my beautiful daughter, Hannah, happen to another young woman in Virginia.” While SB 565 may indeed have prevented Graham’s death (her killer turned out to have a long history of violence against women and a prior conviction for criminal trespass), critics worry about its potential to sow more injustice. In a statement, the Virginia ACLU wrote, “It actually is a creeping assault on Virginians’ privacy and due-process rights that could lead to more bias in the state’s criminal-justice system—and even false convictions.”

The murders of particular white women are criminal events that become emotional and political events. Their deaths are often disastrous, not only for their families and loved ones, but for the falsely blamed and accused, who are disproportionately poor men and men of color, and for those who suffer from the laws passed in their names.

But it may be essential for us to articulate why the Dead Girl as symbol stirs such enormous and contradictory feelings in the American public imagination. She now drives many of our most prominent works of narrative entertainment. From Serial to True Detective, Twin Peaks to Stranger Things, Veronica Mars to Pretty Little Liars, Making a Murderer to The Jinx to The Night Of, we seem to be living in a moment when crime stories, particularly crime stories that feature a dead or missing girl, speak more directly to our anxieties than ever before.

The novelist and television writer Megan Abbott recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that this trend may be connected with an increasing awareness of how deeply sexism and misogyny permeate our world. These shows operate by encouraging viewers (often women and femmes) to identify with the victim. Thus they function, she writes, “as the place women can go to read about the dark, messy stuff of their lives that they’re not supposed to talk about—domestic abuse, serial predation, sexual assault, troubled family lives, conflicted feelings about motherhood, the weight of trauma, partner violence, and the myriad ways the justice system fails, and silence, women.”

As someone who is both an intersectional feminist and a writer working on a book that explores the murders of two women, I am perhaps both the ideal reader for such stories and deeply suspicious of their motives. I see the ways they have opened up conversations about violence against women and sexual assault, yet I worry what it means that I joyfully consume the same episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit several times, long past the point of extracting any feminist lesson. The question I’ve been asking myself for some time now is: Is it possible to write a story about a dead girl that is not a Dead Girl story? Is there anything in this genre that can make us more informed, more free, more equal? Or do these narratives simply enable prurient access to women’s bodies and glorify misogyny?

Alice Bolin’s new essay collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession probes this ambivalence. Through the book, Bolin argues both that consuming Dead Girl shows was the way she became aware of rape culture and sexism as an epidemic and also that this same culture is complicit in perpetuating some of the darkest forms of misogyny. With each essay, Bolin names the tropes that define this troubled and troubling Dead Girl genre: a haunting dead or missing girl, who exerts a strange, sometimes sexual hold on the main investigator or detective of the story, and often on the town or city as a whole.

“The Dead Girl Show’s notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women,” writes Bolin. “The first is that girls are wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from the power of their own sexualities … 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.”

Bolin appeared recently on a panel on this subject at New York’s IFC Center as part of the Split Screens Festival, along with Megan Abbott and Sarah Weinman. As the writers conversed, a spectrum of opinion appeared. Bolin situated herself on the side of Dead Girl shows being irredeemably flawed and problematic, and Abbott more on the side of Dead Girl shows as necessary responses to our pervasive culture of violence against women. As long as women continue to be attacked and murdered at alarming numbers, particularly by their intimate partners, Abbott suggested, these stories are important to tell.

On this point, Bolin also writes powerfully that though the genre may appear, on its face, to be about women, it is in fact usually about the numb and senseless actions of men. The Dead Girl is rarely a real human being with a real life and real complexity. She is an empty cipher upon which men can work out their complicated feelings about masculinity.

Vanessa Veselka also lodged a similar indictment of Dead Girl culture in 2012, writing in her luminous piece for GQ that “it seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims.” Bolin’s points out that these stories are often more voyeuristic than illuminating—we watch the many ways in which men hate women play out over and over on screen. But I also sense an impulse to redeem and reform the genre in Bolin’s work that gives me hope. She calls Veronica Mars a feminist Dead Girl show because the Dead Girl refuses to stay dead, and the detective (Mars) is searching for answers about her own story and her own rape just as much as she is trying to solve a murder. Bolin and Weinman and Abbott all want to take a genre that has privileged the stories of men and make it more feminist. “I slowly began to realize,” writes Bolin, “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.”

In my view, Dead Girls can be both victims and perpetrators. So much wrong is done to them, and so much wrong is done in their name—just think about the Central Park jogger case. “Dead Girls help us to work out our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women in our culture,” Bolin writes. Certain women and femme bodies become the subject of multimillion dollar industries (young, white, thin, attractive) and some barely make the news (women of color, trans women, sex workers, disabled women, fat women). Yet this intellectual knowledge seems to have little effect on the day-to-day choices of editors and mainstream publications. When I sought to sell my piece on the murder of black trans woman Sage Smith, I was turned down by over thirty publications before Splinter (formerly Fusion) ultimately took it. I’m currently at work on a piece about the murder of the trans woman Ally Steinfeld, which is quickly racking up a similar number of rejections on the grounds that it is “worthy” but “just not right for us.”

My forthcoming book, The Third Rainbow Girl, traces the contours of the murders of two young women hitchhiking in 1980s West Virginia. Their deaths resulted in the incarceration of six poor, rural men for over ten years. The inevitable result of a good Dead Girl story is a cognitive dissonance: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time. I empathize with the women who died; I empathize with the men who suffered because two women happened to die where they lived, in a place America prefers to forget exists. The book became real to me when I realized a story could encompass both. After all, a full and powerful feminism must address both the pain misogyny inflicts on women and the pain it inflicts on men.

Critiques and defenses of Dead Girl stories invariably lead to questions of truth, storytelling, and representation. Much of Bolin’s work, as well as that of Veselka, Abbott, and Weinman, seems troubled by the very mechanism of telling tales, as if the Dead Girl genre exposed the limits of storytelling itself. Bolin quotes Janet Malcolm often, particularly to highlight Malcolm’s conviction that stories, particularly those about crime, inevitably shape “the shapeless housecoat of the truth” into something more tailored—and false. Bolin points out that Los Angeles, the site of so much of Hollywood’s storytelling, is itself an empty and incoherent story the center of which “does not hold.” A good Dead Girl story can be used to probe the contradictions of our conceptions of gender—I’m thinking here of the way Joan Didion writes about what it was to be a young woman in the 1970s in The White Album, Robert Kolker’s excavation of the role of sex workers in our society in Lost Girls, and The Staircase’s showcasing of the ways in which any sexuality that deviates from heterosexuality is in itself considered a characteristic of a murderer.

The purpose of art is to document, reflect, and illuminate life. Misogyny and violence against women are a part of life; so are racism, classism, and the shame men often carry about being capable of violence against women. The difference between the Dead Girl story that I want to read and one I don’t is in the point of view, the characterizations, the hints as to the writer’s priorities that are made manifest in their every tiny choice. As I wrote my own book, I tried to bring to life the two women who were murdered. One had given up a baby for adoption against her will, the other came from a family of four sisters and wanted to be a park ranger. They liked the Grateful Dead and Joni Mitchell and that terrible Power Tool song “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” One had two cats named Lightning and Thunder and the other hitchhiked everywhere because her dog Jake got sick and the vet bill had bankrupted her. They were nineteen and twenty-six years old, just searching, just looking around outside their front doors to see what was out there. They were killed before they got a chance to make many more important mistakes.

The Dead Girl story doesn’t have to exploit. There is room to create art about the ways women and femmes suffer under toxic masculinity, about the ways they lived—and about the ways they died.


Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Republic, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl is forthcoming in 2020. She lives in Philadelphia, where she codirects the Blue Stoop Literary Center.