Death Becomes Her: On Mad Men, Sharon Tate, and the Dead Girl Trend Piece

Sharon Tate

Over the weekend, the New York Times asked the question, “Does Sharon Tate Hold a Clue to the ‘Mad Men’ Finale?” Simply put, the answer is “no, because she’s dead.”* So, case closed? Unfortunately, no, because Alex Williams of the Times did not think the question so easy to dismiss, and instead wrote a thousand-plus-word trend piece about a woman who was brutally murdered almost 45 years ago. Trend journalism, you guys. Is there anything it can’t trivialize? 

But so first, some thoughts on trend pieces in general, and New York Times trend pieces in particular. When I started writing professionally, one of the things I learned early on was the maxim “two’s a coincidence, but three’s a trend.” In other words, as long as you’ve heard about something more than twice, you’ve got the material to craft a trend piece of your very own. But a corollary to that is, even if you’ve only heard of a thing twice (or even once! or even, it seems, not at all!), you can make it into a trend and reach that magic number of three by asking friends to participate in your “reporting” or even, for example, by fabricating events wholesale. The sad truth is that there is a real, driving force propelling lifestyle and cultural journalists to discover things that most people don’t know about and then to declare those things as verging on ubiquity. This is how we learn about things like, you know, the great monocle craze of early 2014 or the shocking frequency with which wealthy young families move to the suburbs or about how the “Brooklyn beard has gone mainstream” or, oh, any number of things that may or may not be currently prevalent but are generally only dubiously able to stake any sort of claims as “trends.” And the driving force that propels these trend pieces? That’s pretty self-evident, isn’t it?  In case it’s not, I’ll spell it out for you: the driving force is the potential to monetize viral content no matter how pandering and hacky and full of misguided (sometimes willfully) generalizations that piece might be.

But none of this is exactly new, right? We all sort of know that trend pieces are depressing and more than a little shameful, both because of how rarely they are done well, and how frequently they are nothing more than bullshit essays that are built around a rather suspect thesis. But they’re also going to remain commonplace because of how much we like to consume these easily digestible essays, and because of our own worst tendencies to turn even well-written and thoughtfully researched trend pieces into reductive jokes (see: normcore). It’s dispiriting, yes, but it’s also a journalistic phenomenon from which it is easy to have some detachment, if only because there are so many other good things to read out there.

And yet, every once in a while, as is the case with the supposed renewed popularity of Sharon Tate, it feels important to examine the root of certain trend pieces, and call them out for being more than just frivolous and forgettable, and for being emblematic of larger problem in contemporary media, and perhaps especially in television, namely, the fetishization of “the dead girl.” Last month, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alice Bolin wrote about the “theory of the dead girl” and its historical prevalence in art (dating back to the ancient Greeks), most clearly seen today in popular TV shows like True Detective, Pretty Little Liars and, dating further back, Twin Peaks. Bolin tackles television’s propensity toward exploring the “confusion” and “chaos” that surround the deaths of characters like Laura Palmer, and determines that rather than simply exploiting the deaths of fictional women, the best writers manage to avoid the sexist tropes that ordinarily accompany “dead girl” story lines (specifically, the misogynistic “journey instigated by a Dead Girl body toward existential knowledge”) and instead wind up reflecting “the mess, the calamity, and the obscurity that are the consequences of misogyny.”

All of which speaks to a certain sensitivity and, even more, a specificity when it comes to the narrative of a “dead girl;” all of which was completely missing from the Sharon Tate trend piece in the Times, which managed to display not only everything wrong with trend pieces, but also everything wrong with the fetishization of the “dead girl.” In the piece, Williams manages to call Tate “the hot, new thing in Hollywood,” a “sun-dappled Denueve,” “a star-spangled Bardot,” and speaks of “her saucerlike hazel eyes and once-in-a-generation ability to fill out a minidress”—even Evan Dando weighs in via Twitter, saying, “so pretty, so pregnant, so pointless.” In effect, Tate is reduced to little more than a popular choice for people’s Pinterest boards, rendering her nothing more than a prop—a possible plot line in a TV show that employs symbolism with the subtlety of an anvil falling from the sky. Trend pieces have a tendency to be reductive and simplistic, and while sometimes that’s fine (how much nuance is in a man bun, after all?), when the subject of the piece is an eight-months-pregnant young woman who was brutally murdered decades ago, it reeks of callousness and sexism when that woman is fetishized for the dresses she wore and the way she filled them out. I never thought I’d see the day when I longed for a patented Alex Williams “hipsturbia”-esque trend piece, but at least with something like that, you know that the bullshit being manufactured is somewhat inconsequential (oh, beards are popular? you don’t say!), whereas the flippancy with which the resurgence in popularity of a woman’s life is written about is actually indicative of a much larger glibness when it comes to addressing the violence against women that is so ubiquitous in popular culture. And that’s an issue that deserves more than to be written about by Alex Williams in yet another stupid Times trend piece.

*h/t Elon Green

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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