Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
From 2007 to 2012 I was living my teenage years in front of a computer, googling and praying for my favourite celebrities of the time: Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Mischa Barton. Deep down I always thought that in some classy room in Chateau Marmont, those girls could hear me.
Watching those child-stars become grown women in front of a worldwide audience seemed so cool at the time, but as I got older it became almost tragic. Why would fans who used to think of these women as “The American Dream” start calling them “sluts” and “coke heads,” making bets to see who would die first? Why would society celebrate someone else's pain?
Alice Bolin's "Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession" questions our fascination with watching the difficulties that young girls go through. Anyone obsessed with pop culture should give it a read. The book allows us to question how we consume our favourite TV shows, publicized crimes, celebrities news, and popular media.
João Rodolfo for Pink Things: What was your initial inspiration for the book?
Alice Bolin: I have a lot of different answers for this question! I’ve been writing about some of the topics discussed in the book for years, such as pop music or reality TV. In some ways, the book really began when I moved to Los Angeles because I started writing about both my personal experiences there, as well as the actual pop culture in LA at the time. I was also writing a lot about detective novels and murder stories, so my writing sort of took a morbid turn.
JR: What is the meaning of pop culture in Dead Girls?
AB: I have always been a pop culture obsessive, and I love to write about it in provocative ways. I wanted the literature and pop culture each to have an equal role in the book. For example, I write about Joan Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays, as well as Britney Spears' breakdown in the same essay. I try to consider all of the narratives that had influenced me, not only highbrow or respectable ones.
JR: What’s the difference between pop culture now, and pop culture in 2007? Specifically concerning celebrities with mental health issues.
AB: Well, I think the biggest difference is the rise of social media and its influence over celebrity lives. During the mid 2000s, tabloid media was dominant due to the fact that paparazzi photos of celebrities were abundant, and relatively cheap. This allowed for so many lines of consent to be crossed (examples of this being up-skirt shots, or that famous photo of Lindsay Lohan passed out in a limo). Nowadays celebrities participate in their own self-documentation, by uploading their lives to Instagram or Twitter. I personally don’t think that this a bad thing, as it allows celebrities to at least can benefit monetarily in a consensual way from having their lives constantly under surveillance. However it is still disturbing how little privacy they are permitted.
JR: Britney, Lindsay, and Amy Winehouse became victims of voting to see the day they were going to die. Why do you think we're so obsessed with pop culture female tragedies?
AB: You're right — there’s also so little sympathy for them until they die. People made fun of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston for struggling with addiction, as if those addictions weren't deadly, and to be taken seriously. I'm not really sure why this is. I think maybe our disdain for tragic pop heroines helps us work out some collective anger towards women. We also have a lot of uncertainty about allowing women to be powerful in the public eye; some people are rooting for them to fail.
JR: How do you perceive the difference between the way the media treats male celebrities with mental health issues and drug addiction, in comparison female ones?
AB: Women who struggle with mental health and addiction are easily fetishized — all of a sudden they are fallen women, representative of the many doomed female celebrities who came before them. They’re not seen as people who need help, or who are deserving of sympathy. It seems like troubled men get so many more opportunities for redemption, like Justin Bieber, who everyone treats as just a silly kid. I wish women got that same opportunity. Men with those issues are also often portrayed as troubled geniuses — from Kurt Cobain to Kanye — whereas women's bad behaviour is rarely blamed on their talent.
JR: How do you read celebrity breakdowns, and the way the media exploits them?
AB: Have there been many celebrity breakdowns lately? It seems to me like the celebrity breakdown is so outdated in Trump's America (I can only really speak from the American standpoint) when there is a political scandal every day and celebrities seem so much less important. We also, I hope, have a better understanding of mental health and addiction issues. I thought it was so beautiful that Mariah Carey opened up about her bipolar disorder, 17 years after her "breakdown" that tabloids and TV shows had ridiculed at the time. I think we have a harder time enjoying that kind of downward spiral now, because the corrupt forces at work underneath are so much more obvious.
JR: Do you think reality shows such as, The Real Housewives can have a positive influence over people's lives? Especially when it comes to dealing with their personal issues?
AB: I wonder! I am sure "guilty pleasure" television has a redemptive quality for some. I know that Yolanda Hadid being open about her struggles with Lyme Disease has meant a lot for some people. For the most part, I think the shows work like soap operas, and that's how most people treat them. Which is fine!
JR: How do you hope your book will influence others?
AB: I hope the book makes people question stories they previously bought into, whether about coming of age narratives, violence against women, Britney Spears, or Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted via email and has been condensed and edited.
"Pink became my favorite colour in the last few years. I imagine a cloud with Lindsay Lohan upon it, with Sofia Coppola and Sarah Michelle Geller from the 90's, having tea and brushing each other’s hair while listening to Carly Rae Jepsen. This is what pink represents to me: ethereal fun and innocence in the middle of chaos." -JR
João Rodolfo is a 24-year-old writer and marketing student. You can him on Instagram here.