The Violently Killed Femmes

From Hemlock Grove to Hannibal, TV just can’t get enough of dead teenage girls.

Sady Doyle

Veronica Mars' Lilly Kane (right) and Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer talked back even in death.

There’s a very reli­able way to begin a sto­ry: with a body. It’s young. It’s dead. And it almost cer­tain­ly belongs to a pret­ty girl. Of course, mur­der mys­ter­ies don’t all hinge on vir­gin sac­ri­fice. But ever since (at least) Twin Peaks, tele­vi­sion series — from Veron­i­ca Mars to The Killing to this year’s offer­ings, Hem­lock Grove and Han­ni­bal—have used dead female flesh to dri­ve the engines.

The shows that know how to tell the dead-girl story right care about who she was before she died. And they allow her to be more complicated than she appears.

It’s not a bad thing, nec­es­sar­i­ly, the dead-girl plot. Twin Peaks and Veron­i­ca Mars are among my all-time favorite shows. Sto­ries need to play on co llec­tive assump­tions in order to appeal to more than one per­son, and as arche­types go — arche­types being, essen­tial­ly, con­gealed mess­es of cul­tur­al prej­u­dice that have tremen­dous pow­er in con­text and are almost always offen­sive when you take them back out — the dead girl is a handy one. She’s young, almost a child, and that means the death was wrong. (You’ll rarely see a hor­ror film in which the mon­ster goes around slaugh­ter­ing 70-year-old retired insur­ance agents.) She’s female, which means vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. She’s both young and female, and that, unfor­tu­nate­ly, means inno­cence. Of course, this is tremen­dous­ly con­de­scend­ing to non-fic­tion­al young women — whose expe­ri­ence is com­pli­cat­ed, and var­ied, and human, and almost always less safe or vir­tu­ous than we’d like to think — but in a cul­ture with flat­tened, dis­tort­ed ideas of fem­i­nin­i­ty, it works.

So, sure. If you want to tell a sto­ry about the world being out of joint, about the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of inno­cence being over­pow­ered by the strength of cor­rup­tion, you start with the dead teenage girl. She’s a potent, if unre­al­is­tic, sym­bol. But the mas­ter­pieces of the dead-girl genre— Twin Peaks , Veron­i­ca Mars—all have some­thing in com­mon. And this key ingre­di­ent also explains why NBC’s Han­ni­bal is a promis­ing show and Netflix’s Hem­lock Grove is a bad one. The dead-girl shows that suc­ceed care about who she was before she died. And they allow her to be more com­pli­cat­ed than she appears. Twin Peak s’ Lau­ra Palmer, Veron­i­ca Mars’ Lil­ly Kane: Each of them, at some point, start­ed talk­ing back. And the first thing they did was to call bull­shit on the sym­bol­ic mean­ing that had been hitched to them and start cre­at­ing their own.

Of the new crop, Hem­lock Grove wan ts most bad­ly to remind us of Twin Peaks . Shots in its first episode a re cribbed direct­ly from the pilot. To be fair, Hem­lock Grove wants to remind us of lots of things: Twi­light , True Blood, the CW, that one time we conked out on coug h syrup and had the weird­est dream. It’s a Net­flix orig­i­nal series, made to be chugged down over one spec­tac­u­lar­ly unpro­duc­tive week­end, and its ethos is mar­velous­ly of a piece with its pur­pose: It looks, and feels, real­ly cheap. It’s the sort of show where char­ac­ters have intense, mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions in a con­vert­ible” while a just-out-of-shot box fan blows their hair limply against a more or less sta­t­ic green screen. And let me be clear here: If this were all there was to Hem­lock Grove, I would love it. There are bared breasts by the first scene and bared intestines by the fourth, and when a cast of coke-snort­ing were­wolf teenagers who fight crime arrived, I was more than ready to ascend to sweet high-camp heaven.

But Hem­lock Grove quick­ly turns thin and sour and unsat­is­fy­ing. And it has more than a lit­tle to do with that dead teenage girl. Like Twin Peaks, Hem­lock Grove starts with a small town, a dead female body, and a few shots of spooky flash­ing traf­fic lights, true. But on Twin Peaks, Lau­ra Palmer mat­tered. She crept into every scene, every character’s back­sto­ry, con­tin­u­al­ly unfold­ing. (When series cre­ator David Lynch even­tu­al­ly tried to res­ur­rect Lau­ra, in the film Fire Walk With Me, the prob­lem wasn’t that he had too lit­tle char­ac­ter to work with, it was that he had too much; all the back­sto­ry didn’t fit into one teenage girl.) Brooke Blue­bell, on the oth­er hand, has pre­cise­ly three pieces of back­sto­ry: She slept with her teacher. She was a cheer­leader. And she was eat­en by a were­wolf, as the show thought­ful­ly informs us, snatch first.”

And that’s it for poor Brooke Blue­bell. She died as she lived: defined large­ly by what oth­er peo­ple did to her snatch. We do even­tu­al­ly man­age to get some per­son­al­i­ty from the dead female char­ac­ters, but only because, by the time the show has run through its first order of 13 episodes, Hem­lock Grove has killed off almost every female char­ac­ter. And that’s only when oth­er trau­mat­ic things aren’t hap­pen­ing to them. This is a show in which the male hero bru­tal­ly rapes a class­mate, eras­es her mem­o­ry, and then uses the moment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for some reflec­tion on his life goal s. It’s a show in which the oth­er male hero bre aks things to intim­i­date his girl­friend, screams at her to do as I say,” then snug­gles up with her and tells her how won­der­ful true love is for them both.

In oth­er words, this is a show that doesn’t give half a damn for young women. The dead female flesh is just that: Flesh. Breasts, snatch­es, a hand­ful of rub­ber and corn syrup every now and then to keep view­ers awake. Which means, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that Hem­lock Grove nev­er real­ly fright­ens. It’s not that misog­y­ny and sex­u­al vio­lence can’t work in hor­ror movies — for a good-taste exam­ple, take Alien ; for a deliri­ous­ly bad-taste exam­ple, take the sec­ond sea­son of Amer­i­can Hor­ror Sto­ry, in which a skin-wear­ing ser­i­al killer chains a les­bian career woman in his base­ment and calls her Mom­my,” which I think is the pr ecise screen­play you’d get if you ever dosed some­one with acid and told them to adapt Andrea Dworkin’s Inter­course. But a vio­lent sto­ry isn’t a hor­ror sto­ry unless we empathize with the vic­tims. If all you want is to be nau­se­at­ed by a bunch of meat, read about the man­u­fac­tur­ing process­es at McDonald’s.

Hem­lock Groves flaws might not have stood out so much had I not just watched NBC’s Han­ni­bal. True, that show starts off with a bland pro­ce­dur­al set-up: A ser­i­al killer is killing young women because he’s got a thing for his daugh­ter, then he tries to kill his daugh­ter, but the heroes save her. Any oth­er show would con­sid­er the sto­ry done, and move on to next week’s monster.

But then the daugh­ter comes back in the sec­ond episode. And the third. She just keeps show­ing up; mak­ing us won­der what she feels, who she is, what she’s capa­ble of. How she came to be on the oth­er end of that knife. She’s unset­tling­ly per­ma­nent, this almost-dead girl, a reminder that all those oth­er dead girls exist­ed and can’t be erased by hit­ting the reset but­ton at the begin­ning of each episode. By the third episode, she’s one of the most com­plex and unread­able char­ac­ters on a show that stars Han­ni­bal eff­ing Lecter. She’s human; she’s a mys­tery; we don’t know how deep she goes or whether we’ll like what we find at the bot­tom. Like any actu­al teenage girl, she refus­es to stay with­in the bounds of her sym­bol­ic mean­ing. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s still breath­ing, she’d look almost exact­ly like Lau­ra Palmer.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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