Lindsay, Britney, Didion: The Death and Rebirth of the All-American Goddess
Alice Bolin's new essay collection pays tribute to all the fallen idols who give us #life.
Photograph by Astrid Stawiarz for Getty Images.
Around the end of 2012, I suffered an unusually high-grade bout of craziness that far surpassed my typical triannual fits of depression. I was not even not-waving-but-drowning—but sunk. I was also relatively new to writing, and effectively an autodidact, and primarily I wrote about art for a living, even though art criticism is not necessarily supposed to be a fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of discipline. Most days, I went out and walked around in a lot of bleak, bad London weather, and I made a lot of phone calls in which I joked-but-did-not-joke about “losing my mind.”
For what I thought of as “research,” I visited a lot of newsagents and magazine stands—and eventually, for reasons I am still not able to explain, I started regularly buying copies of the National Enquirer. Maybe this is why: it seemed incredible to me that other people’s misery, and sometimes nothing more than the elaborate fantasy of other people’s misery, could be sold so cheaply. In particular, I cared about the millennial-girl-specific miseries of women like Amanda Bynes, and Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan, who had suffered or were suffering grand guignol self-immolations after early hot careers and early promise. What they made me feel was recognition and then tenderness, so that their Mickey Mouse beginnings, their obscene and wolf-like fathers, and their grasping, teenaged-acting mothers moved me. The DUIs, the jewelry thefts, the gurneys, rehab stays, SCRAM bracelets, and the late-night tweets proclaiming things like: “I WANT DRAKE TO MURDER MY VAGINA” all conspired to confirm that stars weren’t simply “just like us,” but like our worst and sickest, meanest selves.
Alice Bolin, whose collection of nonfiction essays Dead Girls will be released in June, is an arts and culture writer and millennial whose interests happen to include the agony and ecstasy of Britney Spears, the death of Laura Palmer, Joan Didion’s downbeat California, Miley Cyrus as a symbol, and the cultural through-line between Lolita and the far-too-adult, new-millennium Lolita, Lana Del Rey. Which is to say—Alice Bolin, c’est moi. “That fall,” she writes about a lonely season spent in Hollywood, “I wrote about new albums by Lorde and Miley Cyrus. I wrote a love letter to Britney Spears. I believed many of my Top 40 sisters spoke about my situation in sad, secret ways. I had no boyfriend and a terrible job and I kept losing my wallet, so I ordered a new driver’s license and accidentally threw it in the trash, and I was sure, for some reason, that these women who had achieved unthinkable success as teenagers and were worshipped for their perfect beauty would understand.”
If my earlier identification with the mad, sad girls of TMZ and MTV had been delusional, it had at least been a folie à deux. While it might be tempting for me to believe that this book happened to have been assembled with the aim of pleasing me, an unknown and profoundly unimportant British stranger, there are likelier reasons for my and the author’s shared obsessions: certain kinds of female pain are ripe for re-appropriation by exactly those young women who experience them, and who furthermore experience daily their ubiquity in cinema, in literature, on television, in the fantasies of certain men, and in the carefully constructed meta-personalities of certain girls—although in order to avoid kidding ourselves, it might be safer to say “certain white girls.” Privileged in my skin, if not particularly in my batshit-ness, I am aware that I have many sick girl icons to look up to, all of whom have been ironically or un-ironically made into saints and symbols for their sickness. Given that Mariah Carey is both bipolar and a lifelong fan of Hollywoodian, excessive glamour, it has always seemed bizarre to me that the internet has failed to make the mid-breakdown Carey of 2001 just as much of an “it me” meme as Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. But then, as Hilton Als insists in White Girls, rising from a “temporary death” to “soldier on” is the preserve of “the remarkable white girl,” and as Carey had insisted until April of this year, her odd behavior had been down to tiredness and the events of 9/11. What Mariah’s memed for isn’t outright craziness, but “eccentricity.” Like getting to be angry, being publically insane is not allowed for every female demographic.
The book’s first essay is a meditation on the role of the passive female corpse in prestige television, so that Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer abuts True Detective’s strippers and sex workers and the dead queen bitches and teen blackmailers of Pretty Little Liars. “Our most basic myth,” the author offers, “would seem to be not Oedipus’s patricide, but matricide and violence against women.” This specific myth is naturally adjacent to a number of the women—some dames, some fatales, and some mere casualties—revered by modern female critics who are savvy about high-low combinations, and who self-identify with girls who peak too soon, and crash. Lana, Lindsay, Didion’s Maria Wyeth, Madeline from Vertigo, Faye Greener, Spears, and Monica Lewinsky all appear within the book’s first half.
“The Dead Girl Show’s most notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women,” Bolin writes. “The first is to cast girls as wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from the power of their own sexualities…The other message the Dead Girl Show has for women is more simple: trust no dad.” In an essay called The Husband Did It, which examines both wife-killers in true crime and wife-killers in fiction, father-figures, husbands, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends are the brutal heterosexual male “other”—something that might just as easily be labeled as the big, bad, overarching “dad.” “Heterosexual relationships are dangerous,” she notes elsewhere. “One must balance the necessity of sex with the impossibility of trust.”
Both hetero-romantic love and pale-skinned Hollywood girl fuck-ups are so familiar as subjects (I myself, lest we forget, am boringly obsessed with them) that there would be no need for these observations if Dead Girls did not succeed in making them incisively. It helps that Bolin has a neat line in dry, very funny prose. “He is the classic male victim,” she writes about Gone Girl’s Nick Dunn. “Even his misogyny is something that was done to him.” “At worst,” she later admits in a chapter skewering the Millennium series novels by Stieg Larssen (you know: The Girl with the Dragon Whatevers), “this essay seems like a Freudian patricidal project to ignore, then obsessively read, then talk shit in print about my dad’s favorite books.”
I already quoted Dead Girls’ Britney Spears text when I wrote here about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. It’s this essay that I think is most effective in Bolin’s book, and most moving—although maybe I mean “most relatable,” and by that I mean most like a perfect, crystalline case-study of the kind of L.A.-pop-chick rise and fall I lived and almost died by when I felt the worst. It is luxuriously, elegantly miserable in the manner of a Lana Del Rey song. “Paul tweeted: my loneliness/is killing me —britney spears,” Bolin recalls (Paul is Bolin’s texting and tweeting confidante). “She sings this over and over: so why had I never heard it?... When we confront it, [her] sadness is so much more dissonant than the sex in her videos… ‘...Baby One More Time’ speaks as keenly about the loneliness of love as any other artifact of our culture: it’s not about losing someone, but about the impossibility of ever really having them.”
It is interesting that Dead Girls cites the 2001 song “Overprotected,” in which Britney—singing the words of two songwriters—bemoans her label’s daddy-like diminishing of her beliefs, her character, and her adulthood, but does not cite “Stronger,” with its self-aware refrain: “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more.” When Bolin notes that “...Baby One More Time” happens to be “that other thing: Art,” she is right on several levels. Spears’s loneliness—its killing, then not killing her—is now a literal artwork. The artist Ohyun Kwon once made a mural out of both lyrics, the minor opener and the major and victorious rejoinder, and nobody who has ever been on social media will have missed it. Ineluctable, indelible, and looking like a relic writ in stone, it is as close as my girl-generation gets to the tablets of the covenant.
The victimhood is one half of the story; then the comeback. Spears is proof there are some deaths you live through, or at least survive. On a timeline of Amanda Bynes’s illness and arrests mapped out by MTV, my own ultra black fugue stretched between “kicked out of a Hollywood gym spinning class for wearing lingerie and acting erratically…[then] locking herself in the bathroom of a cupcake shop in New York 10 days later,” and “fired off a slew of tweets [calling] people ‘ugly,’ starting with Jay Z, and later including Drake, Zac Efron, Jenny McCarthy, President Obama and Courtney Love”—which meant between September and December 2012. By the start of the New Year, I felt cornily and coolly reborn, so that the previous few months felt like a thing that had happened to somebody else: like gossip in a magazine.