Be Afraid: Killing Girls in American Media

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Two detectives enter the scene of a recent break-in, only to discover the mutilated corpse of what was, not too long before, a pretty young girl, full of promise, her whole life no longer ahead of her. A psychic snaps away from a traumatic dream in which a cold blooded killer wraps his hands around the throat of an attractive blonde co-ed and squeezes the life out of her as she helplessly tries to pry his strong hands away. A teenage runaway is found dead in the trunk of an abandoned car in the middle of nowhere. She has been drowned, but not before she was raped.

These gruesome scenes could make up the beginning plot lines for any number of popular police/forensics/detective/thriller TV programs. What they all have in common as they encapsulate events that are “ripped from the headlines” into a mystery for the program’s hero to unravel, is that their victims are almost always young women.

These doomed girls/women are usually between the ages of 15 and 30. They are, almost always, conventionally attractive. On occasion, these women or girls are secretly prostitutes or have troubled pasts and desperate lives. Sometimes, they have unsavory affiliations with dangerous parties who, we learn, are in some way responsible for their fates.

Just as often, though, our victims are normal, girl next door types who found themselves in harm’s way because they were out jogging alone (gasp!) or were on the bus home from work (oh dear!) or were home alone (tsk tsk). In other words, these girls were victimized because they had the foolish audacity to be female and to be engaged in activities on their own, without male supervision of any kind.

At least that’s the message I’m getting. And isn’t that the point? Ok, well, maybe not overtly, maybe not even consciously. But, with such an overwhelming recurrence of similar plot lines on television and in movies, isn’t the underlying message here that young women should be afraid? That the world is not safe for ladies? That forces await in the darkness whose sole purpose is to choke the beauty, potential, and future out of the blithe wayfaring girls of this world unless they (we) take caution?

Of course, this is not the only motif we see in suspense-driven programming. There are certainly many stories involving the untimely death of, say, an unscrupulous financial mogul, or a freak accident befalling a hospital orderly that turns out not to be an accident after all… There are many ways to capture the attention of the disaster-hungry viewer. Like on the eleven o’ clock news, where if it bleeds it leads, rule number one in prime time programming is just make sure there is a body. And if it is a young, lithe, female body, then so much the better…

More and more, we do see strong female leads in some of the very shows that offer a high feminine danger quotient. And certainly, there is a current wave of television programming that highlights a new pantheon of powerful female archetypes as detailed in Cameryn Frost’s article on the topic.Yes, there is an effort being made to balance and counter the victim-culture of the long reigning dead-girl chronicles. But perhaps, this isn’t so much a disassembling of the narrative as an acknowledgment of it.

Either way, the female body count doesn’t recede a whole lot just because there are some ladies on the case. And audiences don’t seem to be getting tired of watching little-girl-lost become little-girl-dead (or raped, or traumatized) either.  Some of the top shows of the last few years feature the very type of storyline I am talking about.  In the following examples, the chimeric imagery of the dead-girl narrative are enhanced, and the stories are more labyrinthine and sophisticated than many of their predecessors, but the elements are still there:

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1. Award winning Netflix psychological thriller, “Top of the Lake,” stars Elizabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a canny and capable police detective navigating the creepy and disturbing waters of her hometown, an insular Australian backwater. She is there investigating a case of a missing 12 year old pregnant girl whose mysterious pregnancy and disappearance speaks icky volumes about the unfortunate culture of the place. But in spite of Griffin’s strength, resolve, and authority, she must revisit her own victimhood from years earlier at the hands of callous and hurtful men. The character’s history of abuse certainly sets the context for her compassionate and dogged attempts to come to the missing girl’s aid, but left me wondering if it really would take a gang rape and a 20 year absence to get a detective to do their job in similar circumstances.

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2. “The Killing” was a show first produced in Denmark to rave reviews and then adapted for American audiences on AMC. The lead character is another salty, tough female detective haunted by ghosts of her own past who becomes so deeply invested in the missing persons cases she works on that she loses her grip on reality. Don’t worry, though, she is kept in check and kept safe from herself by her dashing and irreverent male partner. The unlikely pair delves deep into an underworld of sex slavery and abduction as they spend season one looking for the killer of one Rosie, a sweet, creative working class girl with a heart of gold and what had seemed like a future of gold, as well. How she ended up in the trunk of a maniac’s car is anyone’s guess, and it is riveting to discover week after week the various twists and turns that took Rosie, eventually, to her death. The show is rife with runaways and teenaged prostitutes. Its gritty contract with reality recalling a dystopian world in which innocence dies the minute it is born.

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3. Patricia Arquette’s long running (now canceled) show, “Medium,” featured the actress as Allison DuBois, a character modeled after the real life police consultant and psychic of the same name. In her role for the Phoenix police department, the medium would dream of the recently deceased who would help her solve crimes or, she might dream of violent crimes before they happened and help the police department deliver the unwitting future victims from their terrifying fates. In spite of her near omniscience, our heroine was, herself, nearly victimized in a number of episodes and her daughters (especially the oldest, prettiest one) were also repeatedly threatened. If Allison had been Al, I wonder if our psychic would have been vulnerable to such threats. Or, if she were a he, perhaps the protagonist would not only have been spared near victim-hood, but instead, maybe we would have seen his wife on the chopping block of such an episode.

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4. And some shows still follow an older model, giving us leads who are men, fighting to protect the women and girls they love. HBO’s most recent blockbuster hit was the eerie and captivating “True Detective,” acted brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and written with creepy exactness and philosophical inventiveness by Nic Pizzolatto. The premise for the show based itself on the compelling relationship between two detectives who devote their careers and lives to solving a vile and particularly grotesque string of rapes, murders and violations spanning decades and involving elaborate, collusive cover ups. The primary victims of the crimes investigated in “True Detective” were, of course, young women and very little girls. The deeply troubling natures of the crimes and their devious, disturbed perpetrators were enough to motivate the sanity-shaking commitment of the cops, but as an added incentive, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust was also haunted by the memory and death of his own small daughter, killed in a less depraved manner some years before, but every bit the innocent victim.

These shows are all smart, well-written and critically acclaimed. They are also all aware, at some level, of the deeply ingrained and even mythic nature of their subject matter. Hence, the addition of the strong female leads, the preponderance of existential philosophizing, and the occasional departure from the formula of ‘young girl is killed,’ law enforcement rallies, regret and outrage are the ruling emotions.

But even though we may take a break from dead girls, more often than not these programs, the bodies we find abandoned in parks and on the floors of darkened kitchens are the young, nubile figures of the American Girl, arguably the most objectified figure in all of media. She occurs like a vessel into which we pour all our dreams, desire, yearning, possibility and potential. And then we smash the vessel.

Apart from the obvious collective psychological issues that may be at the root of such an unconscious but fecund dynamic, this narrative plays out as a device for what is potentially some extremely destructive programming. Certainly, the story itself is not new.We have seen it over and over again as the foundation for every horror movie ever made. But, the mutation of this mechanism is so much more insidious when it creeps into prime time television viewing. There are even many commercials for alarm systems using this very narrative to sell their product. But as they peddle alarm monitoring systems, aren’t they also selling – and buying into –the narrative itself?

It would seem that a great many people are profiting from creating a culture of fear around being young and female. Perhaps this is the motivation for the perpetuation of this culture. But I tend to  think there are deeper powers at work here.We live in a time where “feminism” has become, all over again, a controversial term. In our increasingly digital culture, we are being taught everyday that the internet is not just a wealth of information and opportunity being mastered by a new generation of digital natives, but also a vast shadow network of predators out to entrap our daughters, to sell vulnerable women and children into sexual slavery.

These terrible realities exist, of course. But I can’t help but be reminded of how the rise in media coverage of shark attacks over recent years has given the incorrect impression that shark attacks have been on the rise. In fact, shark attack statistics worldwide have barely changed at all over the last 20 years. Our awareness of them, on the other hand, has grown greatly.

It is ironic that as we gear up to possibly see the first woman president take office in America and, as record numbers of women go to college, take high paying jobs and join the military, that we are simultaneously treated to a daily onslaught of imagery depicting young women being abducted, assaulted, and murdered. Or is it ironic? Perhaps more than ever before, we are seeing the manifestation of a long existing but somewhat latent form of collective gynophobia.

For many people, TV is a trite and vacuous medium for entertainment. While that can be true, I would posit that it is also an apt reflection of our contemporary values and concerns. Television, movies, books – these are our collective cultural mirror. Among the things we we see there are what is hidden in our darkest mind. But, as Carl Jung believed, the shadow is 99% pure gold. Perhaps, what we are seeing on the small and big screens reflects an even more buried desire to work out this homicidal urge toward our feminine nature. That is my hope.

Still, as I write this, I am gestating my own little girl. And I wonder, in spite of my appreciation for the artistry, entertainment and engagement of such shows as Medium, Top of the Lake, The Killing, and True Detective, if I would want her to form her ideas of what life is like for women and girls based on the messages of these shows. It’s one thing to know that sharks live in the water, but it is another to live in the middle of a feeding frenzy.

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