thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Feminism and Victim Subjectivity in “Dead Girl Shows”: How The Killing Succeeds . . . and then Fails

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2014 at 8:08 am


Sarah S.

Note: This post includes spoilers for seasons 1-3 of The Killing. It also includes violent images after the jump of a type allowable on cable television and so may not be SFW or appropriate for all readers.


Recently, GLG’s Phoebe B. has been writing on white male violence, discussing television’s problematic obsession with white men committing and fixating on the murders of white women and how, further, these tropes can be read as constant infantilization. A while back, I wrote on how depictions of rape in critically-acclaimed Hollywood films function as body genres that foreclose empathy and activism. This post builds on these discussions with a reading of the representation of dead female bodies in the AMC/Netflix show The Killing, which begins in a compelling, even feminist vein before devolving into tired, exploitative modes in later seasons.


Who killed Rosie Larsen? This question drives season 1 (and, alas, season 2) of The Killing. The show also quite consciously evokes its predecessor Twin Peaks, the ur-“Dead Girl Show,” to use the terminology of Alice Bolin in her discussion of this genre. However, The Killing—like counterparts The Fall, Top of the Lake, and Pretty Little Liars—complicates this core narrative by putting a woman in the role of detective and mystery solver. Mireille Enos plays Detective Sarah Linden, a complicated woman, haunted by her past and obsessed with discovering who murdered 17-year-old Rosie. Because of its female-centric perspective, I argue that in season 1 The Killing takes a divergent path in the representation of the murdered female body.

Feminists including Martha Nussbaum have long articulated the problem in objectifying people, most commonly women. A common feature of said objectification involves chopping up the female body into parts or otherwise denying the subjectivity of a woman, for example, by obscuring her face or head.

I add that, often, Dead Girl Shows similarly objectify female bodies through dehumanization and bifurcation. The goal in these shows is less sexual titillation and commodification than to evoke a repulsion aligned with body genres, a la Linda Williams.

But that revulsion and horror negates the subjectivity of the dead woman and, instead, situates our empathy with the crime-solver—usually a white, male—and away from the killer—almost always also a white male, even in shows with a female protagonist like The Killing. For example, consider the opening murder in True Detective, which extensively shows the staged corpse of a young woman, naked with a crown of horns on her head, which fascinates and horrifies the audience and the central characters both even as the murdered woman is granted no subjectivity herself.

However, in season 1 of The Killing, the show upends this tendency to bifurcation and dehumanization. It relentlessly humanizes Rosie Larsen in various ways, including showing pieces of her dead body in a manner that builds sympathy and emphasizes her snuffed out subjectivity. As Nussbaum clarifies, “the kind of apparent fungibility that is involved in identifying persons with parts of their bodies need not be not [stet] dehumanizing at all, but can coexist with an intense regard for the person’s individuality.

The first glimpse we see of Rosie’s body comes alongside her parents’ realization that it is their daughter in the trunk of the car that’s just been removed from the pond. They cannot see her, but the audience hears their suffering even as it sees Rosie’s body. The agonizing cries of Stan and Mitch Larsen (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes) make the glimpses we get of Rosie poignant rather than titillating. It is not just a dead girl whose murder needs to be solved by our heroes but a real person who’s death shatters the people who love her.

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The camera then zooms in on her necklace, the defining evidence that this is Rosie and not some nameless other girl.

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In general, in season 1, we only see Rosie’s body in pieces and see the whole Rosie, alive and vibrant, in videos and photographs. In this instance, the bifurcation serves to resist fetishizing the corpse in order to evoke repulsion and instead highlights the humanity of the dead girl. In another segment, The Killing juxtaposes shots of Stan and Mitch coming to identify their daughter’s body with a morgue worker preparing her for this viewing.

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Here the unseen morgue worker gently removes Rosie’s shoe or takes her fingerprints, while the nail polish highlights the real girlness of the body in question. And in the closing shot from this montage, we see Rosie’s dripping hair before someone covers her with a sheet. Again, the care of the worker, the personalized details, and the switching back-and-forth to the grief-stricken parents layers poignancy into the situation. By refusing to show her whole body, no doubt grotesque, the show uses bifurcation as a means to humanize Rosie rather than objectify her.

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Season 2, however, rejects the wrap-up of season 1, and turns the “Rosie Larsen murder” into a whirlpool of conspiracy that strains credulity. It also begins to revel more overtly in the horror of Rosie’s body. By season 3, almost all pretense of victim humanization is gone. We are treated to shots such as the one below, a graphic depiction of a mangled female corpse. Our only emotional connection to this woman is through others’ relationship to her, notably her husband, wrongly accused of her murder, and her son who witnessed the killing.

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The exception in season 3 appears with the, again, limited glimpse we get of Bullet’s (Bex Taylor-Klaus) body and the complete absence of Kallie’s (Cate Sproule). I allow that the show humanizes these street children prior to their deaths at the hands of a serial killer (another example of how The Killing “turns up the volume” on the Dead Girl Show after season 1). However, I submit that by leaving Bullet’s death—and body—largely off-screen (or entirely in the case of Kallie), the emphasis falls on the trauma inflicted on the detectives as they attempt to solve the murders. These girls and their deaths become plot points, not tragedies in and of themselves.

Furthering the decay of the feminist glimmerings of season 1, Bullet’s death functions as a cheap emotional pull and an opportunity to build the character of Linden’s male partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Further, Linden—always damaged and complicated but also formidable—becomes another victimized woman. She gets kidnapped by a suspect and, in the finale, is emotionally violated by the reveal that her lover is the serial killer.

In sum, season 1 of The Killing is not perfect. It still falls solidly within the genre of Dead Girl Show via its fixation on the murder of a beautiful, white female and it has other development issues that make an intriguing first season to a show that then fails—spectacularly—to live up to its promise. But it does resist the reduction of the female victim to mere plot device by the poignant depictions of Rosie (both dead and alive), the ongoing exploration of her family’s grief, and the complicated drive of its female protagonist, Linden. The potential exhibited in season 1 only makes for greater frustration and disappointment when the subsequent seasons (with potential pre-apologies to season 4, which I have not seen) decide to fall back on tired thriller tropes.

Related Posts:

Violently Inclined: On TV’s Obsession with White Male Violence

Forever Young, Forever Violent: Imagination, Sadism, and Once’s Peter Pan

Hollywood Rape and the Foreclose of Empathic Activism; or Musings on the Limits of “Body Genres”

Feminist Fabulists: Telling Stories, Changing Perspectives, and “Pretty Little Liars”

  1. […] true many murder victims IRL turn up naked, the overrepresentation of female bodies (especially white female bodies that are somehow still beautiful and poised and even, ugh, sexy) on screen is waaaay OTT. (See the […]

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