I wrote it, I finished it, I put it up here for you all to read, and then I tried to go about my business. But for some reason, the topic was still bugging me. So, I sat down to watch some quality television. Like, say, Veronica Mars, the show I've been obsessively rewatching since I saw the movie sequel and then read the book sequel to that (both awesome).
But as I was watching the show, I remembered something. Hey, isn't this show started with a dead teenage girl? Isn't Lilly Kane's death the inciting incident for the series?
And the thought just would not leave me alone. All of a sudden I was hit with a flood of realizations. Terrifying ones. Realizations of what, you ask? Well, the slow and dawning understanding that almost all of my favorite television shows feature in their pilot, and usually as the inciting incident, the death of a teenage (or early twenties) girl.
Like, way too many. I will now commence to list the ones I could think of just off the top of my head: Caprica, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, Hannibal, Supernatural, Pretty Little Liars, Twin Peaks, The Killing, True Detective, Teen Wolf, Hemlock Grove, Veronica Mars, Reign, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bear in mind, these are just the shows that I could think of while listening to a toddler recite the plot of Cars and absently sketching down a list.
That's disturbing. Or, it should be. How the hell did this become so normal? And why did it take me so freaking long to realize that the television shows I love are apparently built on top of a mountain of the corpses of teenage girls?
This is particularly uncomfortable for me to realize, since, in case you hadn't gathered, I've made it my profession to call out shows and movies and books and all kinds of media for the way that they treat women and minorities. It's my thing. I do it a lot. So it's a little terrifying to come to see that I have been massively missing something this big. And, honestly? I feel a little gross right now.
The first category is the largest: shows that start with the death of an anonymous or semi-unknown female character, in this case a teenager or young woman. From the list above, those shows are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Detective, Hemlock Grove, Hannibal, and Reign. In these shows, while the death of the "maiden" is the inciting incident for the rest of the series, we really don't know that much about the girl herself.
In Buffy, I'm not sure we ever really get her name. If we do, then it's certainly not mentioned enough to be memorable, and after that first episode, no one ever mentions her again. Of course, no one ever mentions Jesse again either, so maybe there was some hardcore amnesia going on, but whatever. The point still stands.
In True Detective, Hannibal, and Hemlock Grove, the girls who die in the beginning are named, but only insofar as their names are useful for the audience to know so that we can track the progress of the police investigation. We don't know who they are, but we do know what their names were, so that we know who killed them. All of these shows are most notable for being more concerned with the murderer than the victims. I mean, who actually cares about the scores of dead bodies on Hannibal? We're there for the serial killer.
Oh, and there's Reign, where the death of her taster causes Mary to realize that she is not, in fact, safely hidden away at a convent but should return to the French court where she can at least be murdered more openly. While it is implied that the taster (again, name is mentioned but not enough to be remembered) was a friend of Mary's, she is not mourned after the first episode. Her purpose - the purpose of all of these girls - was to drive the plot forward with her timely death. Everything else is beside the point.
The second category is that of the beloved friend-daughter-sister-whatever who dies either before the first episode or in the first episode, and whose death is the catalyst for the hero's journey. This one is seen in Pretty Little Liars, Supernatural, and Veronica Mars. It's about the mystery of who killed a teenage girl, and the mystery is being solved by someone close to the dead girl in question.
The difference here is that while the girl isn't totally anonymous, her personality is completely defined by the people she left behind. We know nothing about her that they didn't know, and her death still serves to move the plot forward, presumably in a way that her life would not have. She's dead so that the story can happen. Also, she's dead so that our heroes can have a strong dramatic arc. Great.
The third category is sort of a mash of the first two. The dead girl is the subject of an ongoing investigation, but due to the intense manner of the investigation, she is pretty well known by the end. Not as well known as the girls in the second category, but better than the ones in the first. So for this we've got Teen Wolf, The Killing, and Twin Peaks. All three shows start off with the finding of a dead body: Laura Hale's, Rosie Larsen's, and Laura Palmer's. All three are focused around the somehow scandalous nature of the body when it is found. There's something deeply voyeuristic about it.
And, in all three cases, the dead girl was close to someone that the show follows, but not the main character. So, while we do get to know Derek Hale and the Larsen family and Leland and Sarah Palmer, they're not our main characters. And while our main characters may be deeply transformed by their encounter with the dead girl's body/death in general, it's more of a spur for them than an emotional thing. Most notably, however, none of the heroes knew the dead girl when she was alive. She exists solely as a corpse, and, in the case of Twin Peaks and Teen Wolf, a hallucination or fever dream.
All of this brings us to the fourth category, which is really the most interesting to me. The dead girl dies in the first episode, and is still a pivotal character on the show. I'm talking about Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Caprica. In all three of these shows (two of which were notably created by the same person, Bryan Fuller, who also created Hannibal), the dead girl still dies in the first episode, but she doesn't go away. She is somehow still here with us, cracking jokes, awkwardly standing around at her own funeral, and generally refusing to move on.
|Georgia Lass (George)|
Unfortunately, for every Chuck and George and Zoe, there are dozens of nameless female corpses littering the road we call entertainment. And that brings me to my final point.
All of these shows, all of them, are profiting off of the death of a young woman. And most of them are exploiting our weird fascination with death and our voyeuristic desire to see it. We live in a society so sterilized that even though literally everyone dies, most of us have only ever seen a death as acted out in a television show or movie. We've never seen real death, and so we crave the simulation of it.
Now, as to why it's always teenage girls, I don't know the answer. The few vague ones I can come up with argue that it's something to do with a societal perception of innocence, which would explain the popularity of narratives like Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars, where the innocence is actually a facade for lies and sin. But that seems a paltry explanation for the numbers we're looking at here.
I really don't know. I don't know why it seems like every single show I love (except Brooklyn 99) has started off with the death of a young woman. It's disturbing, and uncomfortable, and so incredibly common that we don't even notice anymore. I think that's the scariest part.
But I'll leave you with the question that keeps me up at night: What does seeing all these deaths, deaths that incite the action of the show, do to the mental health and emotional stability of the teenage girls watching them?
Because, believe me, they're watching. And they've noticed.
|Laura Hale. Probably. Maybe.|