The Girl

Dead

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 University of Calgary nelsonf@ucalgary.ca

ABSTRACT

The dead girl genre of Young Adult (YA) literature is characterized by dying or recently deceased female narrators and/or central characters who embark on exciting new adventures once dying or dead, often find that they are now listened to and taken seriously, and generally find true love and satisfying sexual experiences. My concern is with these books as artifacts of a culture that allows little to no sexual agency or subjectivity for (living) teenaged girls and young women. In addition, we increasingly hear of cases of young women being harassed and bullied for their sexual activity, sometimes to the point of suicide. Based on a content analysis of these books, I consider the questions of how it is that dead has come to be promoted as a viable sexual subject position for young women, and how these books might actually nurture a culture of bullying and suicide.

Story is for a human as water is for a fish—all-encompassing and not quite palpable.

(Gottschall 2012: xiv)

In the weeks following the Netflix release, in 2017, of its series, Thirteen Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same title, the media was full of reports of the popularity of the show with teens and its distinct unpopularity with parents, educators, and youth counsellors. While some teens argued that the show is an entertaining, educational, realistic glimpse into the harshness of high school life, some adults countered that the series romanticizes and glorifies suicide, presenting it as an effective revenge mechanism and possibly triggering vulnerable teens to consider suicide themselves. The fact that both camps were so passionate speaks to the central power of story. As Gottschall argues, humans are the only species so thoroughly constituted in, through, and by story. Our waking lives are spent consuming and constructing stories and “even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Gottschall 2012: xiv).

But do they matter, these stories we tell? Certainly, consumers of stories might feel affirmed, challenged, comforted, or alienated. It is difficult, however, and research has failed, largely, to find direct links between the consumption of any one popular culture item and radical changes in behavior. In other words, it is probably unlikely that watching one television series, even one so widely consumed and discussed, would lead a teenager, not otherwise inclined, to suicide. The concern, of course, is with those teens who are already vulnerable and perhaps considering suicide. My additional concern is not simply with this one story but with how this story is a constitutive element of a larger cultural discourse. This story is a piece of a bigger story and those larger stories, those cultural narratives, are the water we swim in. Bronwyn Davies famously argues that “stories are one of the primary means that adults use to make available to children the kind of rational ordering of the social world that they themselves believe in” (2003: 29). Children arrive into, and grow up in a world where the stories are pre-told, although also always evolving. Language, Davies argues, “makes social and personal being possible but it also limits the available forms of being to those that make sense within the terms provided by the language” (2003:1). According to Davies, the stories told by adults to children and youth play a foundational role in establishing the world as a particular kind of place and gender as particular ways of being in that world.

Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) is a book written by an adult, published by adults, adapted and produced for television by adults, and commercially promoted by adults. While in the broadest sense, the book is about teen suicide as is the TV series, it is more accurately about a teen girl’s suicide. Certainly, teens of any (or no) gender might be able to identify with elements of the story, and parents of any child might find something to worry about in it, but this book needs to be considered in the context of an entire genre of YA fiction that is telling a particular story about girls’ lives and deaths. I would argue that the Netflix adaptation of this one book represents a massive jump in the mainstreaming of this narrative about teen girls.

Two areas of research interest come together for me in this article. The first is an increasing concern with the sorts of gender-based bullying faced by girls and young women. In particular, I am attentive to the phenomenon of young women being sexually victimized in some way, often online and/or on video, and then being bullied about their sexuality and/or victimization to the point where they attempt to commit suicide or actually do so. The World Health Organization (2014) has reported that suicide has become the leading cause of death, globally, for girls aged 10 to 19. Massimiliano Orri et al. found that “despite a large number of research and prevention programs, the attempted suicide rate among youth is increasing” (2014:1). We cannot know how many of these suicides are linked to bullying and sexual victimization but what is striking is that suicide has taken over as the leading cause of death among girls and young women at the same time as a genre of YA literature glorifying and romanticizing dying and death has been burgeoning. It is this genre of YA literature that is my second area of research interest.

YA literature is a rapidly expanding field, with entire bookstore aisles dedicated to it. My concern with YA books is as cultural artifacts. I am interested in the types of messages and narratives that are currently considered appropriate and timely for a certain age group (and, I would argue, gender) of people. These books constitute a vital component of the cultural/historical milieu within which girls and young women experience and make sense of their lives and sexualities.

I will focus here on a portion of the sub-genre of YA literature that I call the dead girl genre. I am concerned with books in which the death of the central teenage female character figures prominently. Often, she appears as the posthumous narrator or, if the book is told in the third person, the posthumous protagonist. For the purpose of this analysis, I will further distinguish two subtypes of this genre—the definitely dying and the indisputably dead.1 I do not include the many books in which the central female character is undead—a vampire or a zombie, for example, because these, I would argue, belong to a different genre. This distinction gets fuzzy when the central character in a dead girl book is referred to as a ghost, or when she has the ability to inhabit the body of a living person. Nonetheless, her status as dead, rather than in some way undead, is never disputed within the book itself.

There is not a parallel genre of dead boy books. Although a small number of recent books have featured teen boys who grapple with mental illness and suicidal ideation, we do not see analogous examples of dead boys posthumously telling their stories. One of my central areas of questioning thus has to do with the narrative and imaginative purposes served by dead girls that could not be served by live ones. What are the messages circulating in our culture, in this case via YA novels, about girls’ lives and deaths, and about what they should be doing with those lives, and during those deaths?

Because the stories are my data, I will begin by describing a sample of books in each of the two sub-genres and then I will go on to examine some of the themes and trends evident across these books.

Definitely Dying

In these books, the central character’s death is inevitable and imminent. In John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (2012), 16-year-old Hazel is dying of metastasized thyroid cancer. In a support group for teens with cancer, she meets Gus, who has bone cancer. They become good friends, Gus using his sick kids’ wish to take Hazel to Amsterdam to track down her favorite author. In Amsterdam they find the author, although not with the results Hazel had hoped for. Hazel’s interest in the author stems from her concern about her own mother and what will happen to her after Hazel has died. In the course of the book, Hazel is reassured that her mother will be alright, that her mother will in fact continue to exist after Hazel has died. This conflation of her own death with the death of one or more family members is not uncommon across this genre, as I will discuss shortly.

In Amsterdam, Hazel and Gus also become lovers. There is a sense that the usual rules governing teenage sex and its consequences do not apply to them. Fate will perhaps make an exception for two teens dealt such tragic hands. This relationship is presented as the pinnacle of Hazel’s life and it is thus heartrending when Gus dies. The sadness of Hazel’s own death is perhaps mitigated by the possibility that she might be reunited with Gus.

In Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007), 16-year-old Tessa is dying of leukemia. She writes a list of things that she wants to do before she dies, the first of which is to feel the weight of a boy on top of her; she wants to experience sex. On learning of this, Zoey, her best friend, dresses Tessa up and takes her to a club where they pick up two young men and return to their apartment for sex. Tessa’s experience of sex is unremarkable and she moves on to other items on her list, including saying yes to everything for a day, trying drugs, and breaking the law. She assumes she will not have time to fall in love but it is on her list anyway. Sure enough, she meets Adam, the new teenage boy next door, and they fall in love. They become lovers and this is the sex that is meaningful and beautiful. When she tells her father that she wants Adam to move in and stay with her every night, her father consents. Again, there is a sense that the usual rules do not apply. In fact, this is made explicit throughout the book, starting with Zoey’s telling her, the first night they head out to have sex with strangers, that “there are no consequences for someone like you!” (10).

This would appear to be true. Although Tessa uses a condom the first time she has sex with the stranger, no form of contraception is ever mentioned again in relation to Adam. She is also let off a shoplifting charge and forgiven for stealing her father’s car and driving without a license. For Zoey, however, who is not imminently dying, there are serious consequences. She (who was the provider of the condoms on that first fateful night) begins a relationship with the young man she picked up in the bar but, when she discovers she is pregnant, she is abandoned by both him and her family. She decides to keep the baby and accept state assistance in finding a home and supporting herself and the baby.

Each of these books is a romance, and the imminent demise of the protagonist adds both urgency and poignancy to the love story while freeing each protagonist from the usual real-life sequelae of falling in love at sixteen. They experience no censure of their juvenile sexuality; they deal with no STIs or unplanned pregnancy; they do not ever have to discover that first love generally does not last forever. They need never grow old or bored; they will never be divorced, middle-aged, single parents. These couples are, in short, Romeo and Juliet. The impending death of one or both is the tragic constraint on their love that also, conversely, frees them to experience passionate love and explore their sexuality.

Indisputably Dead

In these books, the protagonist is dead, even if she does not at first realize it. In most instances, she speaks for herself although hers might not be the only first-person voice narrating the book. I would suggest that Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) was the originator of this entire genre. Although not the first story ever told by a posthumous narrator, and although not originally marketed as a YA book, it was the first of a growing number of books wherein a dead girl tells her story, specifically contemplating the circumstances of her life and death. The Lovely Bones, in which 14-year-old Susie has been sexually assaulted and brutally murdered, is, at least in part, about her desire to help her family solve the mystery of her death. Along the way, it is an observation of a family torn apart, and brought back together, by grief, and it is a portrayal of the pain of watching the living go on with their lives. It also captures the longing for what might have been missed; in Susie’s case this is consensual sex with a boy she actually desires. Susie figures out how to achieve this by inhabiting the body of a girl who has been trying to channel her. There are some key themes here that appear across the genre.

Solving a Mystery

In Suzy Cox’s The Dead Girls Detective Agency (2012), recently murdered Charlotte discovers that she must solve her own murder before being able to move onto whatever is next. The titular detective agency is composed of other dead teenage girls and one mysterious, brooding, and alluring teenage boy. Charlotte observes her own funeral, a common event in these books. She also learns how to manifest to the living and transport herself to places. She comes to realize that her boyfriend in life was not as great as she thought and that death might hold more promising romantic possibilities. This is also quite a common theme.

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) is not a mystery that Hannah, the dead girl, must solve, but is built around the question of why she killed herself. The other first-person narrator of this story is Clay, who has received a set of cassette tapes made by Hannah before her death. Over the course of a night Clay listens to the tapes in which Hannah explains the factors, including sexual victimization and bullying, that lead her to kill herself. She has asked that the tapes be passed along to each of the thirteen people she feels were in some way important to, or implicated in, her story. What sets this book apart is that Hannah is not dead when she is telling her story although she is dead when we (and Clay) are hearing it. Unlike other dead girls in these books, she cannot comment on the state of being dead itself; she is able only to comment on what is so unbearable about her life and why death might seem appealing. Her words seem to have an impact on the thirteen recipients of the tapes precisely because she has killed herself. The testimonials on the book cover, and inside the book, suggest that the readers have responded so strongly for the same reason; the story of victimization and bullying is more interesting, more compelling, perhaps even more valid, if the teller has killed herself.

In Jess Rothenberg’s The Catastrophic History of You and Me (2012), 16-year-old Brie dies of heartbreak when her boyfriend, her first serious relationship, tells her that he does not love her. With the assistance of Patrick, an extremely attractive, mysterious, and sometimes brooding dead teenage boy, she works through the five stages of grief while trying to solve the mystery of what happened to bring about her ex-boyfriend’s change of heart. She attends her own memorial service, learns how to manifest to the living, and how to zoom to various locations at will. Brie is at first convinced that her boyfriend had fallen in love with her best friend, so she haunts him and causes him to have an accident that destroys the collegiate athletic future that he had been working toward. She comes to realize, however, that he had only confided in her best friend, and that what he had confided was that he was gay. She watches as he writes his suicide note, because he knows his family will never accept this information, and he has lost his opportunity to get away from them. In her anguish about what she has done to him, she figures out a way to relive one day of her life and goes back to the day she died, when he tells her that he does not love her, this time giving him the chance to explain that he is gay and giving herself the chance to encourage him to be true to himself. Brie returns to death and to Patrick who, it turns out, is actually her true love. He was her teen love in a past life and has been waiting for her in death while she has lived another life in the meantime.

Death as a Do-over

This idea of going back and doing it over is the central premise of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2011). In this book, Samantha dies in a horrible car accident but then awakes the next morning to relive her last day on earth. This happens six times, presumably until she can figure out what she needs to do to get it (her death) right. She learns that the car accident was caused by a young woman, the victim of bullying by Samantha herself and her friends, throwing herself in front of the car. In the course of a week, Samantha comes to comprehend that she cannot simply talk the girl out of killing herself. She never, however, tries to get her friends to stop bullying the girl. In the end, she pushes the girl out of the way and she dies instead. There is, however, also time in the week to realize that her boyfriend is a jerk and to fall in love with the sweet, geeky guy with whom she was friends in childhood. He is alive, however, and she is dead so, presumably, they will not be spending eternity together. This is not presented as a tragedy because she explains that their momentous kiss, the kiss of true love, was

when I realized that time doesn’t matter. That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever. Even after they’re over, they still go on, even after you’re dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.

(470)

In Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere (2005), 15-year-old Liz wakes on a boat without knowing that she died when a taxi knocked her off her bike. In the course of a seven-day journey, she makes some friends and figures out she is dead. The boat arrives at Elsewhere, where the dead live their lives in reverse. When they reach the age of seven days, they are put back in the water via which they will return to the living and be born again. She is greeted by the grandmother who died, at the age of 50, shortly before Liz was born. That grandmother is now 35. Liz learns how to observe the living, watching her own funeral, and spending many hours watching friends and family go about their lives. She also figures out how to contact the living, even though it is prohibited, and makes contact with her younger brother. She is required to get a job and she chooses to work with the dogs who have come to Elsewhere because, as it turns out, she can speak canine. She also meets and falls in love with Owen, a teenage boy, who must first get over the wife he left when he died several years before. The course of Liz and Owen’s love is challenged when the wife dies and turns up in Elsewhere, but she is in her mid-30s while Owen is now in his mid-teens. She wishes the young lovers luck and pursues her own death away from them. Liz and Owen remain a couple, and then childhood friends, until, at the end of the book, the infant Liz is reborn in the land of the living.

Death is a Lot of Work

Like Liz in Elsewhere, 12-year-old Riley Bloom, in Alyson Noel’s Radiance (2010) discovers that in the Here and Now that is death, she will have to have a job. The job she is assigned involves trying to convince reluctant dead souls to cross over to Here, rather than haunting the living. This is the first book in a series in which Riley, her dog, and her teacher and friend, the teenaged Bodhi, grapple with troublesome spirits. In addition to her dog, Riley’s parents crossed over with her when the entire family was killed in a car accident. Her older sister went in a different, undead, direction that is explored in a separate series of books. Riley is the youngest of the dead girls in these books and the “Riley Bloom” series is specifically targeted at junior high students. Perhaps this is why Riley’s parents are with her and she has not had to deal with the anguish of being separated from them or from her dog.

Death is not so Different, Not so Bad

In the “Riley Bloom” books, as well as several of the others, death, as a place or as a state of being, is portrayed as either not so very different from life or as not unappealing. Riley tells us that “the weirdest part about dying is that nothing really changed.” She goes on to proclaim that “the moment I died I actually felt more alive than ever. I could jump higher—run faster—I could even walk through walls if I wanted” (Noel 2010: 3).

Similarly, in Elsewhere, Liz is disappointed to find that Elsewhere is just like the land of the living. We are told that

Liz sees a place that looks like almost any other place on Earth. She thinks it is cruel how ordinary it is, how much it resembles real life. There are buildings, houses, stores, roads, cars, bridges, people, trees, flowers, grass, lakes, rivers, beaches, air, stars, and skies. How entirely unremarkable, she thinks. Elsewhere could have been a walk to the next town, or an hour’s ride in the car or an overnight plane trip.

(Zevin 2005: 49)

Although some of the girls experience fear or anxiety upon realizing they are dead, in none of the books is death portrayed as a fearsome or horrific state in which to be. Adventures can happen here. Mysteries can be solved. Boys can be met and true love can blossom. The conflicts and tensions of one’s life can be reappraised and reconciled. One can achieve distance, understanding, and peace in death. Oliver’s Samantha assures readers:

I am not scared, if that’s what you’re wondering. The moment of death is full of sound and warmth and light, so much light it fills me, absorbs me: a tunnel of light shooting away, arcing up and up and up, and if singing were a feeling it would be this, this light, this lifting, like laughing … The rest you have to find out for yourself.

(2011: 470)

That, I would argue, could actually be interpreted as an invitation.

Girls’ Relational Worlds

In all these books, regardless of any other obstacles to be overcome, or mysteries to be solved, three sets of relationships retain primacy in the stories and in the girls’ lives and deaths. The first of these is with family.

Family

Although in the books in which the girls are dying there is room for familial conflict and ambivalence, in the books in which the girls are dead, it would appear that any familial conflict that might have existed disappears at the moment of death. Irritating siblings are forgiven and parents are remembered as loving, kind, fun people. Rothenberg’s Brie, for example, offers an assessment of her life that does not significantly deviate from the types of sentimental tenderness with which families and loved ones are described in many other books of this genre.

I had the perfect family: Mom, Dad, Jack, and Hamloaf (he’s our basset hound). I had the perfect best friends: Sadie Russo, Emma Brewer, and Tess Hoffman. And I had the perfect boyfriend: track star, senior class vice president, Hottie McHotterson, Jacob Fischer. Before I died, I had everything and more. I was happy.

(Rothenberg 2012: 4, italics in original)

It is perhaps not surprising then that many of the girls go through an initial grieving process. They grieve the loss of their lives and their life-based futures but, mostly, they grieve the loss of their families or they grieve the loss of themselves from their families. Many of the books feature the dead girl attending, or in some other way observing, her own funeral or memorial service. Although the protagonist is the one who is dead, she often experiences the event as if it were the others who are dead. Zevin (2005) captures this when she describes Liz’s experience watching her own funeral: “In a way, it feels more like she is still alive and the only guest at the collective funeral for everyone she has ever known” (32). This might be an appealing notion to someone who is being relentlessly bullied.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 1937 poem, “Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies,” captures the cultural conviction that the intact simplicity of childhood ends when one experiences a significant death, such as that of one’s parents. The characters experiencing their own funerals as the death of everyone else they love can be taken as a fairly straightforward metaphor for the familial separation processes that are a necessary part of most teen lives, even if the actual death of the teenager is an extreme form of separation. Nonetheless, their deaths generally provide these girls with the opportunity to reflect on their families and come to appreciate them in what might be considered more mature ways. In this sense, coming-to-death stories might be seen as a variant of coming-of-age stories.

Friends/Peers

The friendship worlds of these girls are absolutely central to their lives and thus might be massively missed in death. As important as friends in life are, so too might be those peers who are not friends, who might be enemies, bullies, or the victims of the protagonist’s own bullying. Asher’s (2007) Hannah, speaks solely to the peers who made her life so miserable that they apparently drove her to suicide. Oliver’s (2011) Samantha relives the day of her death until she figures out how to prevent the suicide of the girl she and her friends bullied. She manages to do this without disrupting her relationship with her circle of best friends and without bringing up the topic of bullying with them.

While these dead girls often look upon their old friends with affection, finding forgiveness and understanding in death, if those relationships were not already perfect, they also look upon some of their other peers with bemusement. Several comment wryly on the attendance of peers they barely know at their funerals and memorial services. These memorial services, the scenes of such familial grief, are often also the places where they have their peers’ attention to an unprecedented degree. Rothenberg’s Brie describes her memorial.

For a second, it was kind of easy to forget this was a memorial service. It didn’t feel like anyone had died. It wasn’t morbid or depressing or creepy. It was actually kind of fun, hearing how much everyone liked me. I remember feeling silly that I’d been worried about it; for thinking it was going to be too hard to watch. But the mood was light. Like some sort of celebration or party. And this time, I was the star.

(2012: 11, italics in original)

It is implied in many of these books that there is nothing quite like death for getting the attention, even admiration, of one’s peers.

The importance of friends is never questioned so it is not surprising that many of the dead girls make new friends in death. Certainly, some appear to be alone in their experience of dying or of death, but most are able to either reconfigure their relationships with live friends, even though they are dead, or they make new friends in death (or both). This is very different from parents and siblings who cannot be replaced in death. Friends are important, even essential, but they can be replaced.

Romantic and/or Sexual Relationships

In most of these books, romance figures prominently. Any romance that actually occurs is heterosexual. There is almost no hint, in the vast majority of these books, that non-heterosexual identities or relationships are even a possibility.

As mentioned above, in books in which a girl’s death is imminent, romance becomes the central concern, and what are thought of as ordinary rules often cease to apply. Dying girls can find true love before they die with boys who will love them tenderly to the point of death. They can have wonderful and fulfilling (and apparently unprotected) sex, with the blessing of their parents, and with no negative consequences.

In books in which the protagonist is dead, romance remains a central concern. It is quite common that, in death, these girls become disillusioned with the boyfriends they had in life. This is not problematic, however, because in death they often find the boy who is really their true love. If he is also dead, there is the suggestion that death might actually offer the opportunity to be together for eternity. The desire for a lifelong passionate romance comes to seem naïve (possibly even unambitious) in light of the possibility of this true, and infinite, love. Yes, dead love might be better than living love. Dead lovers, furthermore, apparently cannot get pregnant or acquire STIs. And they will remain teenagers forever, never aging and never, as it were, dying.

If the beloved boy is not dead, the protagonist is generally able to find a way to have at least one ecstatically romantic encounter with him. She might, for example, have the chance to return to life for a brief period, as in Oliver’s Before I Fall (2011), or she might have the ability to inhabit the body of a living girl and be with her boy that way, as in Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002).

I would suggest that most of these books are actually thinly disguised, or not at all disguised, romances. This raises the question, once again, of how or why being dead can seem like a viable subject position for a teenage girl. What makes dead love so appealing?

Messages for Girls

A strong theme running through these books is that there is nothing like dying to boost your popularity. Whether it is the massive funereal crowds we see in most of the books, or the attention that is paid to Asher’s (2007) Hannah solely because she has killed herself, the message seems to be quite clear: you matter when you are dead. It is here that I see troubling parallels with the media coverage of real-life teen suicides. I think, for example, of Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who was sexually victimized, then relentlessly bullied, and who then committed suicide after leaving a YouTube video in which she detailed the circumstances that had led to her feeling that she had no choice but to kill herself. It was abundantly clear that her death lent urgency and gravitas to the YouTube video that simply had not received the same kind or amount of attention when she was alive. She was by no means the first casualty of what has become known as bullycide and we have seen several well-publicized cases since, but her case marks a trend in increasing media coverage of such stories and demonstrates some of the ways in which social media platforms are being taken up by troubled teens.

An important difference between Amanda Todd (and many other real-life victims of bullycide) and Asher’s fictional Hannah is that Hannah quite explicitly uses her suicide as a form of revenge against those she felt made her life so miserable. Orri et al. (2014) found that revenge is, in fact, sometimes a motive among teens who have attempted suicide. The suicide becomes a violent way of communicating their suffering to others and making those others suffer in retribution. But revenge is most satisfying when it can be savored. Describing their interview with one participant, Orri et al. observed that “it almost appears that she expects to be present to witness the scene” (6). The vast bulk of the dead girl books portray death as exactly that—the place from which they can witness the suffering and grief attending their death.

A further (explicit or implicit) message in many of these books is that death, and even impending death, can free girls from the life-bound constraints on their sexuality. In death, or impending death, they are free to find and express whatever counts to them as true love with absolutely none of the negative consequences, or serious implications that can attend sexual intimacy for living people of any age. Almost all these books are written by American authors and have living characters inhabiting the USA. Given the tremendous strictures American culture places on teen sexuality, discouraging it altogether, often refusing young people sex education or access to contraceptives, and being harshly condemnatory of teen pregnancy, it should perhaps come as no surprise that this genre has flourished in North America. Being dead, or dying, becomes a viable subject position for girls who have no safe opportunities in life to realize their own sexuality. It is not necessary to have a parallel genre of dead boy books; teenage boys are not required to choose between virginity/purity/life, and sexuality/desire/death.

I would suggest that these books are a constitutive component of the larger cultural narrative that renders conceptually possible situations whereby teenage girls are sexually victimized and then bullied about their own victimization until they kill themselves. In these real-life instances a girl cannot survive being sexual, even when it has been against her will. To suggest that she consented or was complicit, is the ultimate, and unsurvivable, insult.

In a time when bullycide is either on the increase or is simply receiving increased media coverage, I find it troubling that a genre of books being marketed to teen girls presents death as both quite appealing and as the best way to have your friends and peers respect you, listen to you, and maybe even regret the way they treated you in life. Teens, of course, are not mindless dupes, and are able to engage critically with popular culture, although they might need to be educated in some of the ways of doing so. Teens are also the creators of their own stories although these are rarely published by mainstream publishers or turned into hit television series. My question is this: Why are adults telling girls this particular story?

I find it interesting, and somewhat alarming, that this genre has come into existence, and is gaining popularity, at a time when North American culture appears to have become incapable of dealing sensibly with teenage girls’ sexuality. It is a sorry comment on our cultural constructions of young womanhood when some of the most appealing romantic fantasies we can offer young women require them to relate to the subject position of someone who is dying or already dead. It strikes me as a failure of imagination, rather than a success, when we have to kill the young women in fiction in order to allow them freedom, agency, and sexuality.

In this sense, it is the culture that is toxic to young women. Of course, there are also many toxicities to masculinity. I would argue, however, that this particular phenomenon, the dead girl books, both reflects and reifies ongoing gender inequalities that affect girls and young women in particularly harmful ways. The solution is not censorship. We, the adults, are choosing to tell these stories to girls and are complicit in the mainstreaming of this narrative. Why? It behoves us to examine the personal and cultural costs and benefits of propagating this narrative of girlhood. Teens themselves should be invited into this conversation.

Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and insights. I am also very grateful to Ann Smith for her careful reading and guidance.

Note

1

These are a sub-sample of the larger genre of dead girl books that includes the following themes: the possibly dying; the definitely dying; the possibly dead; the definitely dead (temporarily); the definitely dead (with a temporary reprieve); the definitely dead (forever); contemplating/attempting suicide; surviving a significant other’s suicide; and non-fiction books by girls who have died. In the larger genre of dead teen books, there are also books about boys contemplating, attempting, or completing suicide, and about boys surviving the suicides of significant others. There are also apocalyptic books in which all the teens are on the brink of certain death. An examination of all these is clearly beyond the scope of this article.

References

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  • Rothenberg, Jess. 2012. The Catastrophic History of You and Me. New York: Dial Books.

  • Sebold. Alice. 2002. The Lovely Bones. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

  • World Health Organization (2014). Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative. http://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/world_report_2014/en/ (accessed 27 February 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zevin, Gabrielle. 2005. Elsewhere. New York: Square Fish.

Filmography

Yorkey, Brian. 2017. Thirteen Reasons Why. USA.

Contributor Notes

Fiona Nelson is an Associate Professor, and Graduate Program Director, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary, where she also worked with the Women’s Studies Program for many years. She is the author of two books on motherhood, Lesbian Motherhood: An Exploration of Canadian Lesbian Families (1996) and In the Other Room: Entering the Culture of Motherhood (2009). Recently she has begun studying and teaching in the areas of gender and childhood/youth. She is currently involved in research examining various subgenres of Young Adult literature. E-mail: nelsonf@ucalgary.ca

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Asher, Jay. 2007. Thirteen Reasons Why. New York: Razorbill.

  • Cox, Suzy. 2012. The Dead Girls Detective Agency. New York: HarperTeen.

  • Davies, Bronwyn. 2003. Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales: Preschool Children and Gender (Revised ed.). New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

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  • Downham, Jenny. 2007. Before I Die. New York: Ember.

  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  • Green, John. 2012. The Fault in our Stars. New York: Dutton Books.

  • Noel, Alyson. 2010. Radiance. New York: Square Fish.

  • Oliver, Lauren. 2011. Before I Fall. New York: Harpercollins Publishers.

  • Orri, Massimiliano, Matteo Paduanello, Jonathan Lachal, Bruno Falissard, Jordan Sibeoni, and Anne Revah-Levy. 2014. “Qualitative Approach to Attempted Suicide by Adolescents and Young Adults: the (Neglected) Role of Revenge.” PLOS One 9 (5): 18.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rothenberg, Jess. 2012. The Catastrophic History of You and Me. New York: Dial Books.

  • Sebold. Alice. 2002. The Lovely Bones. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

  • World Health Organization (2014). Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative. http://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/world_report_2014/en/ (accessed 27 February 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zevin, Gabrielle. 2005. Elsewhere. New York: Square Fish.

  • Yorkey, Brian. 2017. Thirteen Reasons Why. USA.

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