Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. It is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, is on the list of Kirkus’ Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, and is an Edgar Award nominee. Alice has published poems, stories, and essays in numerous publications, and is the former Poet-in-Residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She is currently a Creative Nonfiction professor at the University of Memphis.
Delany Burk and Kalista Puhnaty sat down to interview Alice about her recently published essay collection, Dead Girls, a large portion of which was written during her two years as the Poet-In-Residence here at Idyllwild Arts Academy.
Q: You write in many of your essays about the sexism that is present in the media. Do you think it is improving with the “Me Too” movement and the issues that are being brought up surrounding that?
A: I do think that it is improving, and that there have been a lot of changes when it comes to representation, and more diverse stories, but we have a really long way to go. I also still think stories that are supposedly combating sexism often play into it in certain ways. Even with the Sharp Objects thing, where a lot of it is just an excuse to just watch violence against women, and also watch women be ravaged by their past trauma. I don’t necessarily know if staying in that mode is doing us any favors, and I would like to see just more diversity in stories, not only in terms of representation but in terms of the kinds of stories we tell, and more experimentation with plot and structure. It is happening in some ways, like–I don’t even want to use this example–with anthology series like Black Mirror, changing the ways that people consume TV, which is really cool, and we aren’t as stuck in this season arc thing. But I think that we still have a long way to go, that’s my basic answer.
Q: Do you think that the fascination with dead girl shows, and stories like that, have anything to do with the “damsel in distress” theme from many older stories?
A: Yeah! It has everything to do with that. That sort of overlap between fairy tales and dead girl stories, and the ways that they always feel fairy tale-esque, harkening back to those attitudes about women, about women needing to be saved or helped by men. We still feel really comfortable with that narrative, of “Oh, let’s get a dad to come help,” but that’s what’s interesting about dead girl shows. The dads are the heroes and the villains, and that tells us something about our culture that we didn’t know before, which is ultimately sort of the good thing about them. But yes, it definitely harkens back to that damsel in distress image for sure.
Q: Why do you think that serialized crime shows are so popular, when a majority of people don’t know about real cases of women disappearing and dying, especially with the killings of women of color and trans women often going unspoken about?
A: I think our conception of what a mystery is has everything to do with the identity of the victim, and probably the perpetrator. When I lived in Los Angeles, two guys were shot right near my house and their killers were never caught. What they said in the newspaper was, “Oh, it was probably gang related,” and that they were two Latino guys, and that’s all we ever heard about it. That’s a mystery, we don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t treated like a mystery. Gang violence answers the question. “Okay, mystery solved!” When a white girl gets killed you feel like, “Oh! Who could have possibly done it?” because we don’t think that white women deserve violence in the way that we think that other kinds of people deserve violence. Or maybe because that’s just not our image of a victim of a violent crime. So that’s part of it, the allure of “the perfect victim.” Also, I have read literary theory stuff about serialized fiction even in the Victorian era, you know, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but also journalism. Once the daily newspaper would come, people would follow these cases that were salacious, and serialization is kind of this method of getting people addicted to narratives, where once you have that cliffhanger, people start to fill in their own ideas of who did it, and what the answer is. It is perfect for these kinds of stories. I think that it has to do with structure too, there’s something about it that has been around for 200 years.
Q: Is there ever a time where having a dead girl in a story can be justified? And If so, how do we write stories about dead girls in a way that doesn’t fall in the same pitfalls that other dead girl stories do?
A: I don’t really feel like I’m the arbiter of what kind of stories people get to write. I even met the writer Megan Abbott who has written a bunch of literary… you might say literary thrillers, and they all center around female characters, and female rage you might say, and she explicitly said about my book, even though she liked the book, and she gave me a blurb, she said about my book that she doesn’t necessarily agree, and she thinks that we need to keep telling dead girls’ stories, and keep exploring that idea, because that’s where we’re going to find some answers about why this violence is so prevalent. Which I think is valid. I respect that opinion. So basically my answer is I don’t know… but I think there are ways that dead girls shows, and dead girls stories can kind of reveal our feelings towards women, and our feelings about crime and about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, in ways that other stories can’t because they’re so outlandish and over the top and even fairy tale-esque, and magical. They kind of illustrate our really messed up interest in these stories by being so over the top. I think Twin Peaks is the perfect example of that.
Q: What other criticisms have you received for Dead Girls, and how would you address them?
A: I think that the biggest criticism that people have of it is that it is not all about dead girls. There need to be more dead girls in it, that it’s too personal, and there’s not enough analysis of that phenomenon in it, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. Which… whatever. But I think for me that was not the book that I was interested in writing, was a critical analysis purely of this dead girl phenomenon, not that it would be difficult to write. But I also felt like, “Well there are endless dead girls, I could write about that forever. Where do I find an end to that story? How do I find my way out of it instead of just staying in it? That book could be 1000 pages long. How do I find a resolution?” And the only way that I could do that was sort of veering off course, and examining other stories, maybe examining alternatives to that story and thinking about my own stories and the ways that I have sort of been complicit in the kind of oppression I was critiquing. That was how I found my way out of it. I’ve talked to women who are really cool who are like “Oh I’m so excited for your book, I’m a PhD student and I’m writing about violence against women in literature for my dissertation” or something and I’m like, “That’s great…” and you know I think that can exist alongside my book, and be kind of an alternative. I’m not the only person who is writing about this stuff but that’s kind of my take about it.
Q: You seem to have a fascination with mystery; have you considered writing a mystery novel or story? If so, how would you approach it?
A: Yeah! I want to write one about Idyllwild. But the thing is, I do like mystery and mysteries, but what I like more is that kind of mood, a really noir-ish or thriller-ey tone. And I love that in books that really have no mystery or the mystery is kind of missing, like books by Shirley Jackson, or Patricia Highsmith. I think those books, or even books like Toni Morrison, or “Ghost Story” books where you feel like there’s a mystery and you are reading it like there is one but ultimately the mystery is never going to be solved. That’s the kind of book I’d like to write. And maybe about Idyllwild. I think it would be the perfect setting. It’s so creepy.
I moved to Idyllwild from Koreatown in LA, which is the most densely populated part of LA, and I never felt worried about walking around at night because there were always people everywhere… but here? No. I’ve written about it a little bit, I think it’s so perfect for that creepy mood. That’s what I’m more interested in, because I do want to question our addiction to mysteries.
Q: Has teaching influenced your opinion on women in media?
A: I mean, teaching has influenced sort of everything that I think, but… Basically I think one thing that teaching helps me do is be more open-minded towards kind of practical ways that representation is important or sticking by what I believe in in certain ways, where maybe even if I like a book, or an essay, I’m maybe not going to assign it if I think that it could be offensive or marginalizing towards my students. And it is more important for me to represent more diverse and interesting voices because that is what my students need, and also what they would appreciate. So I feel like in some ways it has put me more in a mind of how I can be more responsible for my own choices, and the media that I’m personally consuming and recommending or assigning. Because I have this weird kind of power where I can make a group of people read books that I tell them to, and so I want them to read books that do have good representation of women, that don’t have damaging ideas about women, unless that’s something that we want to talk about.
Q: You’ve dug quite deep into many aspects of the media that are considered shallow. Are there any rabbit holes you’ve gone down that didn’t make the cut?
A: Lots of them. Yes, tons. Especially stuff about music and country music. There’s none of that in the book but I have written lots about country music, because I think that country radio is really fascinating and especially actually how it relates to women and female artists and the kind of values that it perpetuates to its audience. Also stuff about reality TV, there’s a little bit in there but I have, much more to say about MTV. I think I am probably going to be writing about stuff about media in my next collection, especially women and social media influencers, stuff like that is something I am really really interested in and love to write about.
Q: What is your opinion on the media’s obsession with bad mothers?
A: Hmmm. I feel like the media probably has pretty equal obsessions with bad mothers and bad dads, but they’re portrayed in different ways. I think we villainize women more for being bad mothers, like it’s almost perverse to be a bad mother. But to be a bad dad is sort of expected. It’s like, “Oh, sure.” It’s sort of a cliche, where a bad mom is like gasp, “So shocking!” and that’s something that in fairy tales, usually the mother is dead. But there might be an evil stepmother, or there’s this witch figure off in the wings and there clearly is literally or figuratively a stand in for a bad mother or an absent mother. I think it has a lot to do with our anger towards women, and towards our own parents. That’s something I talk about I think in the dead girl show essay, that the Philosopher Julia Kristeva, her theory of the abject had to do with this anger, maternal anger, anger towards our moms, she was a psychoanalytic theorist, so its like this Freud thing, but I think that it’s kind of gross, right? That’s really my only take on it, I really like stories about moms, and about moms who are in the picture, and who are good moms. I think that’s actually much more interesting than bad moms… Bad moms can be interesting too. That’s what my student at Idyllwild said to the class once: “To get writing ideas, I google ‘I hate my kids.’” I was like, “How many stories can you write about people who hate their kids?” but still, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.