by sof sears, natalie waite, & shirley jackson

are we all natalie waites? are we all laura palmers? 

I want to think about Jose Esteban Muñoz’s theory of disidentification:

Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture. (31)

Muñoz’ concept is most frequently used to apply to queerness——all the ways we might internalize and simultaneously identify against & with representations of queerness, specifically those that are laced with homophobia and stereotype; how we might find a subversive “disidentification” with what is disempowered and marginalized and mocked. But I want to think about the theory in regards, now, to girlhood, and, specifically, to disappeared and murdered white girls. I mean that I know girlhood is a socially constructed and culturally conditional experience, a site of “ontological liminality,” (Cohen) and, enfolded into its marrow is a constant but mostly unacknowledged or downplayed endangerment; girlhood is also less gender itself than the continuous proximity to annihilation, to violence, to disappearance. Thinking about “girlhood” as a liminal space, as ontologically liminal and tenuous, might be a new way to destabilize essentialist conceptions of growing up “female.” The gendered (”girl’d”) body and presence is always fraught in some way, always atmospherically dense and uneven, cold to the touch but warm-blooded. So what if we think about girlhood as a verb, as an enforced and always-uncanny experience? 

To return to Muñoz: when you grow up socialized as a girl, the options for identification are usually limited, especially if you grow up as a girl of color, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized and rendered, culturally, “non-normative.” These options usually include fetishization, sexualization, and all kinds of constricted patriarchal tropes and archetypes, and so this unsettling and perhaps fundamentally self-destructive dynamic occurs: we begin to identify with the gone girls, the disappeared girls, the dead girls, the Laura Palmers and the Paula Jean Weldens and the rest. There is never a dearth of these girls—myths, ghosts, paper-thin roles—to choose from. There is a form, I’d argue, of disidentification that happens here, as a means of self-definition or self-possession, as a survival or coping mechanism. We relate to these girls and it becomes difficult to detach our own lives from theirs. We lean towards worshipping them, fetishizing their disappearances or deaths and romanticizing their lives and images, or towards forced detachment, as if we could never end up wherever they do (or don’t). This process “scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications” (Muñoz). 

We absorb and perhaps internalize the “encoded messages” within representations of dead/missing girls: we metabolize the tropes, archetypes, the Madonna-Whore dichotomies, the “perfect victim” vs “deserving slut” complexes, the language of true crime and the newsroom. We learn that there are proper ways to be a girl but even then you might end up dismembered in a dumpster somewhere or disappeared from your life entirely. We learn that there are signifying words, dog-whistles, phrases like “She lit up a room” and “She was always such a sweet girl,” that you will be reduced and flattened to once you enter that infinite archive of gone-girls. We witness and learn whose disappearances and murders are worthy of primetime news, of headlines, of storylines and mythologization; we see that white girls are almost always the ones depicted as worthy of sympathy, that Indigenous and Black girls, all girls of color, are negligible, their disappearances naturalized. But still. Still we pick through this uncanny valley of gone girls and we do see some grain of ourselves in them, enough to disidentify, to feel the pull of their representation, even as we realize the metallic taste it leaves in our mouths. We cannot merely say “stop with the dead and missing girl stories” because those stories contain something of us within them, something complicated and thorny and not entirely aligning with our politics. We try to refuse the role of “victim,” of helpless or violated, of femme existence with fear or horror, and yet. And yet there is also the fact that we are victims, often, and that horror, fear, is a structural foundation of our existence, not thanks to us but thanks to patriarchy, white supremacy, all of it. And yet we still watch these portrayals of dead and missing girls because at least, at least, we’re actually getting to hear their deaths or disappearances acknowledged, recorded, listened to in a way that the police and judicial branches certainly never do; these depictions are almost always nauseating in some way, reliant on fetishization or misogyny or an unquestioned faith in some mythical justice system. But stil. Still, we take what we can get. Still it can feel like the only possible valve to open, the only graspable and severe-enough expression of the horror we experience and carry and try to soften day to day, so that we might survive somewhat intact.