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While the Body's Still Warm Illustration by Carolyn Figel.

While the Body's Still Warm

Too often in television and real life, women must die to be taken seriously. Laura Wright on victims as props, not people.

THE SKETCH OPENS WITH IMAGES OF a dead girl overlaid with Golden Oldies music. Detective Logan, a sarcastic and arrogant renegade cop played by comedian Nick Kroll, is hunched over the body. “What do you see?” his partner asks. 

Kroll Show is in its third season, and the sketch introduces us to a fake cop drama, “Dead Girl Town.” We learn this is the fortieth such case in recent weeks. 

While examining the body, Logan notices glitter on the girl’s neck. His partner asks, “You think she’s a stripper? 

With an indignant look, Detective Logan replies, “She’s a dead girl, isn’t she?”

The only surprising thing about this parody is that it took until 2015 for someone to make it.

You’ve probably seen this unfold on television before: a beautiful young woman is found dead. She’s been murdered in an unusual, maybe ritualistic way. A gruff male cop with world-weary eyes is called in to investigate and ends up uncovering uncomfortable truths about the town and its residents. The victims employed in this formulaic, exploitative device are almost exclusively young, female, naked and “troubled” in some way (a stripper, prostitute, addict or all of the above).

This kind of death is the bread and butter of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). A study in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture analyzed SVU’s plots and compared them to crime statistics in New York, where the show is set. It found that the show’s victims are usually upper-class white women, even though the majority of victims in New York are not. (Female criminals are over represented, too: in the show, they commit one-third of sexual assaults and murders, while in reality, they commit just 5 percent.) The dead girl also crops up in highbrow television. She’s the starting point for critically acclaimed shows such as True Detective, Hannibal and Twin Peaks.

In the first season of True Detective (which was roundly criticized for its milquetoast female characters), police find a woman’s body kneeling in a prayer position in a field. Her skin is covered with mysterious symbols and she has antlers tied to her head. We learn the victim was a prostitute who followed a cultish leader. The camera lingers on her body, but doesn’t dwell on her life—not when our emotionally tortured hero is dispensing snippets of half-baked nihilism.

Similarly, in Hannibal’s first season, a young woman’s body is impaled on a stag’s head. Another is later found in a similar position (someone in Hollywood must know a good antler guy). We don’t learn much about these women except that they unwittingly caught the killer’s attention. And, famously, police find Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped body in the first episode of Twin Peaks. Laura’s death inspired two seasons, a feature film and now, twenty-five years later, a reported revival of the franchise.

Dead Girl Town(s), indeed.

SHOWS SUCH AS THESE ALLOW us to take in the “scandalous” female body in its most defenceless state. “We really like to think of the body as testifier and talk about, you know, ‘What are the marks on the body? How does the body look? How beautiful is the body? How young is the body? How terrible is it that the body is dead?’ And we kind of look to that for testimony,” says Sarah Marshall, an instructor at Portland State University who writes about true crime narratives. Viewers can play along with the detectives to determine what happened to the poor dead girl and feel like her saviour. But instead of saviours, Marshall says the word “bystander” is more accurate—we’re all part of the society that didn’t protect her.

The problem isn’t necessarily that all these fictional dead girls keep piling up, it’s the misrepresentation of reality that contributes to misunderstandings of violence against women. A look at the numbers reveals some gaping differences in what we see on television compared to real life.

In 2013, the rate of homicides committed by a stranger was about one in ten: the lowest it’s been in Canada in forty years. Despite this, Marshall says television has a tendency to focus on premeditated sociopathic crimes committed by strangers.

Marshall identifies three problems with this trope: it inflates the idea that serial killers are everywhere, it ignores the far more common reality of domestic violence and it also values dead women over live women. It draws our attention to the sensational (but statistically rare) crimes and away from the insidious reality of domestic violence, thus deflating its significance. This portrayal leads to the perception that women need protection, when it’s the “protectors” who are most likely to do harm. According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, nine out of ten homicide victims were killed by someone they knew. Women make up 82 percent of the victims of “intimate partner homicides” in Canada (homicide committed by a current or former spouse, common-law partner, dating partner or other intimate partner).

EVEN WITH THESE BLEAK NUMBERS, domestic violence is statistically underrepresented on television. Dr. Katreena Scott is a domestic violence expert at the University of Toronto and holds the Canada Research Chair in family violence prevention and treatment. Scott suggests that we don’t see these crimes on our screens because “when we are portraying violence we want to make it something that is other ... an experience that’s not close to us. And so the way to do that is to make it this horrible psychopathic external experience,” she says. “Family violence is messy. It’s not a black and white issue ... in the majority of cases, there is love and harm.”

Marshall says another problem is that we tend not to listen to women when they’re alive. Instead, we wait for a body. “People don’t try and discredit the dead girl,” she says. The dead woman on television is often beatific but unfortunate. She is put on a pedestal, while women who survive sexual assault are often ignored or vilified.

“If a woman implicates a powerful man or if she suffers in a way that suggests there’s something wrong with society—that suggests that domestic violence is widespread, that sexual assault is widespread, that women aren’t necessarily safe in situations that we want to regard as safe—we tend to discredit her and to quiet her because it’s difficult to entertain those notions,” says Marshall. “It suggests that women can only really find justice by dying.”

It’s all too clear in the treatment of Cindy Gladue, Rehtaeh Parsons and incidents of sexual assault and misogyny on university campuses. Many of these victims have been accused of being solely responsible for their fates, while their perpetrators avoid jail time. For women on television, the binary of angel versus whore remains strong and nuance is often missed. The discourse around violence against women seems to have reached a peak this past year with high profile cases involving Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi. Television is slow to catch up.

“As long as we hold up this view of the domestic violence perpetrator as somebody who is a psychopathic killer or the domestic violence victim as somebody who is a passive recipient of beatings, it prevents us from recognizing violence when we see it and then from doing something,” says Scott. If television insists on inundating us with poor dead girls, then for the love of the medium, it can do better by inserting a little reality into the genre.