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On Aging Out of Being a Dead Girl and How "The Night Of" Failed Us

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | August 26, 2016 |


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This weekend I have a transition of sorts; I am turning 30. This is not something I dread in and of itself. After all, living successfully means getting older. But it made me realize that for at least the last decade of my life, and if I’m being honest a few years beyond that, I have seen women in my age group most frequently portrayed on television as victims. Literal victims. Some of this has to do with my choice in television. I suppose I could watch a very carefully curated list of five shows per week and nothing else, but the constant reruns of Law & Orders, CSI, or Criminal Minds are a kind of modern lava lamp. A lava lamp full of abused and murdered young women.

There is a part of me that is getting very tired of seeing young women who look an awful lot like me consistently displayed on screen dead and in various states of undress. I am tired of the way the camera lingers on their coordinated underwear, the close ups of the wounds and bruises, and finally the tight focus on their lifeless faces staring off into the distance. I’m tired of being invited to gaze over flat tummies, shapely legs, and perky breasts covered in blood, sexually charged images made “appropriate” by the suggestion of violence, somehow. I am tired of TV and movies essentially telling me that the most interesting thing I can be is dead, and that my life is only noteworthy as a way of figuring out how I ended up dead. They are high school seniors, college students, grad students, women early in their careers just starting out on their own, women who have bright futures ahead of them. They have followed me through the last four major life transitions.

I think this is at the bottom of a lot of my initial frustration with The Night Of. The title made me think it was an examination of the events leading up to a crime, not another procedural in miniseries form. I thought we’d revisit a lot of the events from Andrea’s point of view, get a sense of her beyond the standard “beautiful but troubled” that seems to be the character description for almost all women in their 20s on TV. The sad details of her life are only valuable in what they can tell us about who murdered her and why. We are not meant to know her for her, we are meant to know her as a victim. And so it goes for thousands of other young women who cross our televisions every year.

Andrea Cornish is played by Sofia Black-D’Elia who, it seems tried to understand her as a person and make it clear that she wasn’t just a victim. But in the end, of course, she was. Which is easier, in a way. Alive, we might have to struggle with the idea that vibrant and loving people can also be addicts or just manipulative. Alive, we might have to parse out a complex relationship with her mother, and how she felt at being orphaned with a predatory stepfather looming over her shoulder. Alive, she is complex. Dead, she is simple. Her flaws are not used against her, they are used against others. She doesn’t have to justify her decisions, or her presence. Others speak about her, and for her. Some people say that there’s a “culture of victimhood” rampant among millennials. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but with more care paid to the bodies of dead women than the wellbeing of living women in our television and movies, I wonder sometimes if it’s just how some of us have been trained to see ourselves. Given the way Chandra’s character has been developed, perhaps Andrea did end up with the stronger story of the two.

I am aging out of the “dead girl” demographic. Post-30, I expect to see myself more on TV in the form of somewhat harried mothers or stupendously accomplished 32-36 year olds, because the plot requires they be at a certain career level, but obviously they can’t be OLD. These portrayals are drifting further and further away from my personal reality, and so they likely won’t resonate as much with me. My birthday is Saturday. The Night Of ends on Sunday, at which point I will put to rest the last dead girl of my 20s.


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