notes towards a theory of the dead girl

[trigger warnings: rape, CSA/incest (mention of film containing), murder (fictional and real), eating disorders, suicide, necrophilia.]

[spoilers: Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Sharp Objects, The Virgin Suicides, Heathers, Heroes]


A girl with an eating disorder goes missing. Posters go up: she's dressed as the girl with the pearl earring. When her body floats to the riverbank, the pro-ana boards are busy. "So she was murdered? Shit man, all this time I was assuming she was suicidal.." Underneath, the poster's signature lists her highest and lowest weights in pink lettering. Girls with 100x100 pixel pictures of hipbones and collarbones as their avatars post links to her Instagram, search for her Tumblr, in starved whispers try to unravel the girl on the riverbank.

glamour shot of Sheryl Lee,
wrapped in plastic
Dead girls are fascinating. Their lives are ripe for unraveling: no longer alive, they no longer have privacy to respect. They are in the public domain. Traces of them are scattered across the internet: in password protected blogs, chat logs, Twitter accounts stretching back to pre-teen thoughts sent out into silence, unfavourited. They are immortal, preserved in tiny packets across the world.

In 1990 a fictional girl washed into the popular imagination in a similar way. "Dead, wrapped in plastic." The question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" reverberated around the country. But the mystery was more about the girl herself than her rapist-killer. Homecoming queen with a taste for nose candy and an advert in Flesh World, Laura Palmer had her secrets. Secrets which, though she took them to the grave, would be prised from beneath her fingernails, from the pages of her secret diary, by the men entrusted with justice.

In Fire Walk With Me, we see her death unfold in real time. It is gruesome, glamorous, electric. HE SAYS HE WANTS TO BE ME OR HE'LL KILL ME, she says earlier. She knows what putting on the ring will do, how protecting her identity and her secrets will mean death. But she goes willingly and whole. Still Laura, still pure. A virgin suicide.


In The Virgin Suicides, the girl-deaths and their immediate circumstances are narrated by a group of boys who want to know the sisters. They steal their diaries, spy into their bedrooms and occasionally infiltrate their home on carefully chaperoned evenings.

The Virgin Suicides
They are the real murderers of the Lisbon sisters; from the beginning of their idealising narrative, death is the only end that makes sense. If the girls had grown old, gaudy, with a list of mistakes and divorces and wrong-shade lipstick, there would have been no story worth telling. The Lisbon girls are perfect because they die before their intrusive womanhood can ruin them.

Trip Fontaine says of Lux "She was the still point of the turning world, man. I never got over that girl, never." But he still left her on the football field in the morning.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was never as popular as the series. I wonder if this is because nobody really wanted to see Laura alive, splayed open, secrets on show. Unravelling a girl's secrets in an act of seduction, all about the chase. Nobody wants to see the woman in the morning light. A woman's worth is in her secrets.

On the commentary of the Twin Peaks boxset, someone says of Fire Walk With Me, "it's showing you why Laura had to die - because she was being abused."

So far, we have two reasons why the girl must die (according to the will of the male narrator/writer/director):
a) The girl is unbroken and must die before she becomes broken.
b) The girl is has to die because she is broken.

In both these cases, girlhood/womanhood are states curated by men. The girl they want is innocent-untouched-virginal-whole. Death is the path to preserving that ideal - or to redeeming oneself from transgressions. Forgive me Father for I have sinned.

iii. WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT THE BEST THING A WOMAN CAN BE IS A DEAD GIRL? Is this why the conceptual space between GIRL and WOMAN is so difficult to navigate?


When I had an eating disorder, a common sentiment on the black-and-white hipbone webpages we frequented was "I don't want to die fat." We were suicidal, fantasising about myriad deaths, but in all of our ghostly visions we were thin. Thin and pretty in our open-topped coffins. The thought of yellow fat living under my skin even in death made me nauseous. We didn't really consider that Dead Girls decay and become very un-pretty in their graves. We just wanted that one moment of frozen perfection. A moment that our living-body tendencies of moving awkwardly and spilling out in the wrong places could never achieve.

What does it feel like to be a corpse before you're a woman? Easier?


Laura goes to heaven, with curled hair and a full face, lit up in blue light.
Laura Palmer goes laughing.

Heather Chandler's funeral
Heather Chandler lies in an open coffin with curled hair and a full face of make-up. The other Heather uses holy water to fix her hair later. In Veronica's funereal dreamscape, Heather #1 says "Is this turnout weak or what? I had at least seventy more people at my funeral."

Funeral as popularity contest. Death as fashion show. Heavenly ascendancy as the prom makeover of ur dreams.

Girls are awfully picky about what they want to be buried in.


It's notable that in Heroes, Claire Bennett's most serious death (she has many) follows her attempted rape. She wakes up on an autopsy table, staring down at her open chest. Dead Girls can't consent to their postmortems.

Ram's thoughts as he prays over Heather Chandler's dead body are still with her fuckability. "Why'd you have to kill such hot snatch?", he whispers to God. The necrophilial forced sexuality of the Dead Girl is the most disturbing aspect of her cultural appeal, and the area I'm least willing to think about. (Some potential avenues: True Blood's Fangbangers, the overt sexuality of vampires, Jennifer's Body.)


In Sharp Objects, the child-murderer inflicts perversely feminine acts of violence on her victims. She shaves and paints them before killing them, applying make-up and nail varnish to their soon-to-be-corpses. It is bizarre but understandable. These girls are transgressors and tomboys (maybe even queers) and forcing them in death to perform the femininity they refused in life is the ultimate act of heteropatriarchal control.

In real life, which is always darker, real mothers do similar things to their queer babies. Queer and trans women go to their graves in gendered costumes they never chose.


Dead Girls are, as a trope, overwhelmingly white. White girls like Leelah Alcorn are remembered in vigils worldwide. Hollywood churns out film after film with another glassy blue-eyed protagonist. Princess Diana gets mourned even on colonised land. Black girls, especially black trans girls, are forgotten. #SayHerName, a movement against the erasure of black and brown women's bodies, forces their remembrance. The importance of a death signals the importance of a life, and the refusal to mourn blackness echoes a lack of concern with black women's lives.

Black and brown girls don't get the same access to girlhood as white girls do. The values that make up girlhood - innocence, purity, a carefree trust that belies a lack of trauma - are steeped in centuries of racism and generally coded as white. Black women are not given access to the virtue of Christian purity that makes white bodies so grievable; black girls are hypersexualised and assumed to carry more responsibility, require less protection. The latter value also intersects with class: the aesthetic of girlhood is not only white, but WASPish. An aesthetic of d├ębutante balls, satin gloves, pale skin and long blonde hair. The white girl is a blank slate in kitten heels. She's unburdened, unscarred, underage.

The Dead (white) Girl is all of this without the complications. She will never age. She'll never get fat. She'll never refuse the hand of a man, whether he has an open palm or a scalpel in hand.

When it comes to performing femininity, Dead Girls do it better.

Suspension, shame, survival

I'm currently sat in the garden of Corpus Christi college, Oxford. As a suspended student, I'm not permitted to enter my own college. While members of the public can come and go, I've been told not to come on campus unless I have an appointment concerning my suspension. This rule is difficult to enforce, but successful in amplifying that feeling, already present in students from non-normative backgrounds, of being unwelcome.

I still have access to the libraries, the facilities - rights hard won by the student union. I can still use the wifi and enter other colleges. I'm still privileged as fuck by having a card that opens doors in this institution. It's hardly an injustice to rival the fact that only 11% of Oxford and Cambridge students are working class or that BME and mentally ill students are less likely to be accepted. But it does make the feeling of exclusion explicit. For suspending students who are already struggling to feel like they belong here, this is the confirmation our thoughts have been seeking.

I wasn't forced out of Oxford by any means - in fact, my tutors have been nothing but supportive and willing to work around the rules as much as they can. But other students are less lucky, have their suspensions arranged between their doctors and college staff without their consent, are told to pack up and leave within a few days. Some students are made to sit penal collections (exams) which they must reach a certain mark in to return, illegally held to higher standards than non-disabled students. Some students have requested their documents from college and found strings of emails making ableist comments about their fitness to study and dark jokes about their health. Sophie Spector recently went public with her documents, which glibly ask, "Yes, why did we admit her?" The process of suspension is often violent, traumatising and self-perpetuating: a process of exclusion which makes it even harder for students to develop the confidence and self-assurance necessary to survive here.

And this place is hard to survive. The city itself seems unstable. At times it is euphoric, wonderful, full of grandeur and wild possibility and molten gold. When I've been well and able to study, the place seems to embrace me; doorways stand open for me, all-nighters beckon and everyone looks sharp-eyed. But when I can't study, the whole city seems built in antagonism, every fucking sunset-lit sandstone wall reminding me how little I belong here. I've hidden in my room too many times to count because I couldn't face all those people for whom this place was working. And then when I finally admitted that I needed a break, those hallowed wooden doors shut in my face. Now walking through the city makes me feel smaller than it did even on my worst days. Now I'm terrified just going to check my post in college in case someone tells me to leave.

In the collegiate system, our colleges are our homes, where all our friends live, and where most of our teaching happens. Suspending means losing the place you've come to know as safe and to instead associate it with shame and transgression. It means being denied access to events held in college or on college owned property, for which you must email the Dean for explicit (and often denied) permission. It means not being able to visit friends or eat dinner with them. When asked why this rule was in place, a member of staff in my college said that it was to prevent suspended students from "dragging their friends down". The message is clear and deliberate: you're no longer a part of this community. You're no longer welcome here. The shame that this creates feels remarkably similar to the shame I already feel for being disabled, queer and working class. It's like all those insecure thoughts have been typed into a contract and signed.

Oxford spends a lot of money on access, but seems to give very little thought to how to support those students once they're here. The suspension process sets the student against the university and forces us into a defensive position. Our time here becomes more about survival - against the odds, against the university, against our own illnesses and insecurities - than about learning and enjoying university. Something as simple as changing suspension policies to allow us in college would change the nature of suspension - to make it feel like rest instead of exile. It would make disabled students feel like valued members of the college community instead of forcing us to skulk in the margins.