The Problem with Dead Girls

While browsing through a bookshop at the weekend, I noticed a new Young Adult novel called Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls. I want to be clear, before I write anything else, that I know nothing about this book beyond that title, and I'm not making any value judgement about it in particular. It could be a fantastic novel. It could be a powerful exploration of all the issues I'm about to discuss. But Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls is a punch in the gut of a title, because it evokes that far-too-common trope of the tragically beautiful dead girl.

A couple of years ago, young adult fiction had a major problem with Dead Girl covers. In some instances, the image was relevant to the plot. In others, the image was simply used to create a sense of the ethereal. But in they were united by the presence of an Ophelia-like figure, young, usually pale-skinned, in a floating (probably white) dress, floating underwater or lying dead on the ground. These novels weren't tragedies, but paranormal stories. Sometimes, they were even stories where the girl depicted on the cover had powers of some kind, yet the image used to sell the stories was one of ethereal passivity.

Because that, in the end, is what the dead girl trend really shows -- female protagonists in the ultimate position of passivity. If they're dead, they cannot take any action again -- they cannot fight back, cannot assert themselves, and can only be defined by others. We love the idea of a beautiful young girl poetically succumbing to death, as Ophelia does, embracing the peace and simplicity it provides.

This trend of putting dead girls on covers has faded recently, but the desire to put dead girls in novels has only seemed to increase. Readers of genre fiction should be used to the idea of a female character -- probably the male protagonist's girlfriend -- dying so that the protagonist is motivated to act. But the Dead Girl trope has become a really popular element of realistic YA as well, especially in the currently booming sub-genre of "suicide fiction." Because, it seems, there's no better mystery than a dead girl -- the why of her death, the how, the who she really was behind her mask. She can no longer speak for herself, so she becomes abstract, a puzzle to be solved, if only the protagonist can gather all the pieces. She is only seen through others' eyes, but she also loses any privacy along with her agency, and narratives built around piecing together a dead girl have a voyeuristic feel, as we pry into the girl's life and uncover all her secrets and dark sides.

But, like the paranormal girls in the books with the Dead Girl covers, these female characters are rarely shown to be helpless. Although the trope often invokes the Ophelia aesthetic, these stories often work to deconstruct the idea of these "nice girls." They are so wrapped in tragedy that they must take their own lives -- because rarely is the reason simply "depression" with no further explanation -- and often probing that tragedy reveals all sorts of darkness that no one noticed while they were alive. It plays into the duality of those book covers again -- the sense of ethereal, beautiful passivity of death, but also the threat that these girls are somehow deceiving people, that they are not so pure and good and passive after all. This could be argued to be adding depth to the characters, but when paired with this dead-girl passivity, it's less depth and more duality, dancing into the other familiar trope of the hidden temptress, the witch in innocent clothing.

And so we come to Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls. In five words, this book invokes every problem discussed above. It's about "suicide letters," so the girls killed themselves, and have left a mystery behind in their letters to be solved (or else, why mention them?). These aren't just girls, already a weaker and more innocent descriptor, but beautiful girls, girls so beautiful that that's the first thing we learn about them. Their deaths are all the more tragic, because they were beautiful, one word evoking that Ophelia trope so that the cover image doesn't have to. And it's important that we know these suicide notes were from beautiful girls, because that changes how we view them -- they become more poignant, almost ethereally so, but they also become slightly more dangerous and potentially deceptive. We have a lot of expectations in mind for suicide notes from beautiful girls.

And those expectations are, indeed, how the book describes itself -- "sexy, dark and atmospheric." The book's description suggests that it doesn't feature any suicide notes, probably isn't about a suicide, and is only about one dead girl (her beauty unspecified), but that hardly matters, does it? Beautiful suicidal girls are too evocative a title opportunity to pass up, and the tone they create, like all those girls lying dead or dying on covers a couple of years ago, is all that matters. And girls are far more powerful in imagery when they just happen to be beautiful, and just happen to be dead.