Alice Bolin examines iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories.
Informed by the literature of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion and others, as well as films, television shows and other pop culture ephemera, Bolin branches out, exploring toxic masculinity, myths of femininity and the American West, where ... Bolin does not hesitate to inspect her own stigmas and beliefs—she’s watched her fair share of Dateline. Her dryly humorous, deeply researched collection is a thoughtful critique of American culture and its disparate and disturbing fixations and fears.
During a year when male resentment toward women is violently coming to a head—a school shooting brought on by jilted teenage desire, a man driving through a crowd of pedestrians because women won’t have sex with him—a book like Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession feels particularly relevant ... the most interesting parts of the book are the (too infrequent) moments in which Bolin explicitly ties those tropes to social phenomena and statistics in real life—in which we can clearly see how these stories both reflect and perpetuate a dangerous relationship to women ... Presumably because of the intended scope of the book, however, there are few more instances in which Bolin ventures beyond examining media and into the broader conversation about American misogyny and constructed social hierarchies. Finishing the collection, I was left wondering how these depictions relate to things like pick-up artist communities, rape on university campuses, and violence against sex workers.
In Dead Girls, her sharp-eyed book of essays about literature, pop culture, and the fantasies they weave for and about young women, Alice Bolin is never more precise than when putting her finger on her self-doubt ... This instinct to forestall criticism by pointing out the flaws in her argument is consistent with the way Bolin describes herself elsewhere, as a smart kid hamstrung on the road to maturity by her own cleverness. This defensive undercutting can make her essays frustrating, but it’s a pose that’s appropriate to the larger problem they grapple with: how to grow up in a culture that refuses to do so? ... She has a keen eye for the uncanny contradictions of California ... To write cultural criticism with authority used to mean erasing any trace of the first person, adopting a stance of quasi-scientific neutrality (read: white and masculine) toward works of art. Bolin, by contrast, insists on the centrality and importance of her own responses to culture ... In her willingness to show herself as a work in progress, thinking through a problem rather than presenting its solution, she leaves breathing room for indecision and revision, ensuring that her writing is always pulsing with life.