Because the hubs of literature are often tragically left to the devices of those in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, we, the limited few among the reading public, are primarily saddled with what my ex would probably deem low art (because everything that isn’t Stendhal is low art, right?). It’s not necessarily always a bad thing–except, in retrospect, the work of Chuck Klosterman is pretty banal. Case in point is Alice Bolin, who has a new book out (her first–another trend in the L.A./Brooklyn literary occult that favors only licking the assholes of debut novelists after they’ve had enough articles in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, et. al.). It’s called Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. That obsession being, of course, the ease that comes with fixating on “tragic women” whose delicate emotional sensibilities made them either unfit to last in this world or led them to a very public mental breakdown (Britney Spears forever being the most shining beacon of this–as immortalized in various memes, t-shirts and other assorted memorabilia serving to glamorize/poke fun at her trauma that came to a head in early 2008). Why, one might ask? Because it’s far less conducive to become consumed with the horrifying attraction of a woman seemingly destined for a fatal outcome. What would be more conducive is focusing on those females who are still alive and healthy, and therefore still serving as a natural threat to the fragile patriarchal world order. But since humanity at large prefers non-productive acts, this is the collective obsession we’ve all come to know or have. And Dead Girls definitely helps to feed it. In truth, a more disarming novel speaking to this phenomenon is Kate Zambreno’s 2012 book, Heroines, which dissects the “mental illness” of women who made the mistake of falling in love with male writers, or, as it is otherwise described, “A manifesto for ‘toxic girls’ that reclaims the wives and mistresses of modernism for literature and feminism.” So yes, it is an enduring obsession in America to try to unravel the story behind the so-called madness of a fallen woman, or “dead girl.” Rendered dead by the society that has plucked her apart in the headlines.
In Bolin’s estimation, what tends to be at the source of these women doomed to fail (whether through literal death or death of the soul and/or heart, and an according transformation) is Los Angeles. Even in the face of the endless tales of terror that come out of it, it seems there will never come a time when girls by the proverbial busload don’t still try to move there to “make it,” to be reborn from the small town nobody status they were relegated to at the outset of their lives. To prove to anyone that ever knew them–parents, friends, enemies–that they are not what they seem, capable of so much more than just “wife” or “mother.” Nay, they were made to be a star, which requires so much more effort than the aforementioned conventional female roles.
With this in mind, it only makes sense that Britney Spears should be name checked and referenced numerous times throughout the book. For no story better embodies the woman’s death of self–her sacrificial offering of her body and mind to an eviscerating public–than this.
As Bolin stated of Spears’ talisman-like presence throughout the narrative, “Britney Spears, especially, looms over the collection. She’s in several of the essays, and she’s one I think of as a living dead girl, or someone for whom our obsession with female bodies, with sort of this Madonna-whore complex, and with fallen women really wreaked havoc and constrained her freedom—but it’s also given her the success that she has now. She’s a person who I see as exemplifying this metaphorical dead girl. So, then people like Alexis Neiers or Lana Del Rey, I see sort of in a Britney tradition or as little Britneys.”
The other “dead girl” archetype mentioned, Alexis Neiers, of The Bling Ring “mastermind” notoriety, refers to the scammer or grifter in American culture, typically only taken note of when she’s female. That a woman could be so out of line as to capitalize on the loose moral fabric of our culture by needling her own fake thread into the more expensive line of clothing is always a surefire source of outrage to those who fall for the con. Most recently, we have Anna Delvey, presently more concerned with who will play her in the film version of her life. Another girl who managed to convince New York’s elite into buying into her false story of being a socialite simply because of her self-assurance and “beauty” (though, truth be told, she is a garden variety basique face–ah, another American obsession: tearing other women down), Delvey’s “bad girl” behavior makes her rife for vilification, for being relinquished into the category of “living dead girl” in our society.
Through it all, Britney remains the most contemporary origin story for feminine douleur. Unlike her idol, Madonna, Britney did not construct herself, create her own product at the beginning, which is why Bolin argues that Spears’ bubblegum pop phase concealed a “prodigious loneliness.” The sort that reached its crescendo when she was suppressed from making the type of music she wanted to, of being prevented from expressing herself through the only medium she knew would not fail her. This is what, in part, killed her. Made her a zombie puppet for public pleasure. In her wake, Britney has left the more “I own my tragedy” version of herself, Lana Del Rey, a pop star Bolin also deconstructs.
And while some more tightly sphincter’d types are continuing to have a coronary over the “lowbrow slop” that gets published, there can be no ignoring the importance of wielding pop culture intelligently in the modern era. For it is likely to be the only saving grace of what’s left of literature, being that it is extremely difficult to attract attention on any kind of mass scale without some sort of common denominator to intrigue people (e.g. Britney Spears, Laura Palmer, Marilyn Monroe). Plus, we all know you love to scrutinize a good trainwreck, as opposed to giving her credit where credit is due.