by Constance Grady
On that one TV show with the pretty dead white blonde girl, there are two recurring images. The first: a portrait of the blonde girl when she was alive, posed and pretty: she is smiling at the camera, her hair is sleek and shining, and she is the picture of wholesome, youthful innocence. The second: the image of her dead body once it’s found: the blue-tinted skin; the blank, staring eyes, plus the dirt and blood matted into her blonde hair. The camera returns to these two images over and over again, obsessively.
The TV show is Twin Peaks. The TV show is also Veronica Mars. It is also Pretty Little Liars.
These three shows are built around the murder of a pretty white blonde teenage girl. The murder is the inciting incident of their first episodes, and various attempts to solve the murder occupy at the first season of each show. Twin Peaks opens with the discovery of Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped corpse. Each episode’s final credits play over her homecoming portrait, and Netflix uses a close-up of Laura Palmer’s dead, grit-covered face on the autopsy table as the menu icon for the show.
Veronica Mars’s first season begins every “previously on” segment with a shot of Lilly Kane lying dead next to her pool, blood seeping from her head and those enormous Amanda Siegfried eyes wide open, as Veronica narrates, “It’s been over a year since my best friend Lilly Kane was murdered.” But at the Lilly Kane memorial fountain, Lilly gazes beatifically down in a black-and-white portrait, an image replicated in the oil painting of Lilly under which Veronica finds herself standing in the series finale.
And on Pretty Little Liars, Alison DeLaurentis is declared first missing and then dead in the first episode. The show returns over and over to her “missing” poster and the pencil sketch of Alison that dominates the page—and every credits sequence is spent watching Alison’s corpse get prepared for her funeral, with lip-gloss painted on her slack lips and mascara applied over her blank eyes, her hands folded peacefully over her breast.
It is surely not difficult to find dead girls in general or dead blonde girls in particular on television; every crime procedural and horror anthology has plenty of them. (Scream Queens? Check. Law and Order? Check.) Judging by what we choose to put on television, we are as a culture enamored with watching pretty blonde white girls die a variety of ever-more elaborate and inventive deaths. But these three shows are significant precisely because they limit themselves to one dead blonde girl (Pretty Little Liars does have to kill off the occasional extra blonde to feed its relentless plot machine) and explore her death from every obsessive angle. By examining what these shows get out of the trope of the dead blonde white girl, we can begin to see what we as a culture find so attractive about watching the blonde girl die over and over again.
We’ve seen that the dead blonde white girl shows love to juxtapose the image of the sweetly-smiling living girl with the image of her blood-stained corpse, but there’s another contrast they love to make almost as much. Each of these shows features a video or a flashback of the dead girl romping innocently with her sweet, virginal friends, like a pile of adorable puppies: Laura Palmer dancing with Donna Murphy at their picnic, Lilly Kane and Veronica Mars lip-synching to the Spice Girls, Alison DeLaurentis swapping outfits with her giggling girlfriends.
And then each show contrasts the innocence of this scene with a shocking revelation: the blonde girl has had sex. Not just nice wholesome sex with her steady teenage boyfriend, but nasty taboo sex with grown men. Possibly she’s been paid for it. Probably there’s video of it.
And always, always, the sex had by the dead blonde girl is associated with death.
Twin Peaks zooms into squeamish close-up on the unpleasantly moist mouth of a drug dealer as he describes tying Laura Palmer up for an orgy and telling her, “Bite the bullet, baby,” when she screams. Veronica Mars solves Lilly Kane’s murder when she finds a recording of Lilly in bed with the abusive father of her ex-boyfriend. And the Pretty Little Liars gang thinks they’re watching Alison’s murder when they find a video of her crying out and falling to the ground beneath the fiancé of one of their older sisters—until they see the end of the video, when it becomes clear that they’re watching sex.
The dead blonde white girl trope is one of dualities: alive/dead, virgin/whore, innocent/monstrous. In death, the pretty blonde girl is fetishized. She is beautiful and innocent and desirable, and simultaneously mysterious and sexually threatening.
The dead blonde is able to embody all of our cultural ambivalence about the sexuality of teenage girls.
We live in a culture that sets up countdown clocks to mark the day beautiful teenage actresses turn eighteen, and sends girls home from school for dress code violations if they brazenly show their collarbones in class. Teenage girls are exciting to us because now they’re old enough that you can think about having sex with them, and that’s cool, but they’re also scary because they can have sex now, and that’s terrifying. And so what is there to do but murder their avatars, and then avenge their deaths?
However, these shows aren’t bad for relying so heavily on the dead blonde girl trope. Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars are shows that are fundamentally about teenage girls, with teenage girl protagonists, and they have been justly celebrated for their explorations of the teen girl psyche. Twin Peaks is not about teenage girls in the same way, but it’s quirky small town cast is populated with plenty of three-dimensional, well-characterized women. The smart, interesting women of these shows are not invalidated or made null by the presence of the dead blonde white girl trope.
The dead blonde white girl trope points to a fundamental cultural anxiety, one that can be seen most clearly in this three shows but is common to almost every piece of media we consume.
Or it was common. But something is changing about the dead blonde white girl: she is coming back to life. Pretty Little Liars revealed in its fourth season that Alison DeLaurentis faked her own death and that she was never truly the girl in the coffin in the opening credits. Twin Peaks is coming back to TV, and it is bringing Laura Palmer with it. And in what cannot possibly be a coincidence, it is also adding to its cast Amanda Siegfried, whose Lilly Kane was repeatedly described as “the Laura Palmer of Veronica Mars.”
In a less literal revival, the executive producers of Veronica Mars have created iZombie and populated it with much of the cast and crew of Veronica Mars. Like Veronica Mars, iZombie is a show about a sweet, innocent girl whose idyllic life is thrown suddenly askew after the death of a blonde white girl, leaving our protagonist alienated from her former friends, deeply depressed, pursuing a career as a detective, and cutting her hair into a razor-edged bob. But in iZombie, the protagonist is the one who died (and came back as a zombie), making Liv Moore a conflation of Veronica Mars and Lilly Kane, both the dead blonde girl and the dead blonde girl’s innocent best friend.
But this time, as Liv Moore in iZombie, the dead blonde solves and avenges her own murder.
We have spent the past twenty-five years of TV history obsessively murdering teenage girls over and over again for daring to be sexual beings. The resurrection of the dead white blonde girl coincides with an unprecedented amplification of the voices of teenage girls in popular culture, including beyond white or blonde voices. In the YouTube era, teenage girls are no longer passively represented in their media. They are creating the media. When Tavi Gevinson has had her own self-made media empire since age twelve, sixteen-year-old Kayla Newman is single-handedly popularizing the phrase “eyebrows on fleek” across the internet, and eighteen-year-old girls are developing award-winning transmedia webseries, it is no longer enough for adult male showrunners to worry about the threatening sexuality of teenage girls on their own.
Teenage girls are now more than ever the subjects of their own stories, and they have creative outlets if showrunners won’t make shows that display their lives and creativity.
The invention of YouTube doesn’t mean that sexism is over so we can all go home now, or that we don’t need feminism anymore. But the proliferation of new media tends to give more power and more voice to the previously powerless and voiceless, and that teenage girls are following this pattern with the internet. They are making their voices heard and they are making themselves known, and it is no longer culturally feasible for us to pretend that they are unknowable bodies onto which we can project our fears and desires.