Murderous Schoolgirls

Mary Zaborskis

While little girls may be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, in fiction the teenagers they grow into are anything but. We are drawn to stories where girls are scandalous, promiscuous, and even—or especially—murderous, where a sinister drive emerges from beneath facades of propriety and innocence.

The dark underbelly of female adolescence and the intensity that charges girls’ social dynamics have become a recognizable trope across media. The 1954 Parker-Hulme murder and the 2014 Slender Man case of attempted murder are true stories of teenage girls gone very wrong, the former immortalized in the film Heavenly Creatures (1994), the latter in a recent Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode entitled “Glasgowman’s Wrath” (2014). But the recent history of depicting adolescent girls crossing the line from vicious to homicidal is even more extensive, ranging from Heathers (1988) to Gossip Girl (2007–12), Jawbreaker (1999) to Pretty Little Liars (2010–). In films, books, and (often book-based) television series, teenage girls and their psychology are popular subjects, whether satirized, dramatized, or glamorized.

Most of these murderous girls seem to embody a contradiction: violent criminals who are overwhelmingly white, middle-to-upper class, and well educated, whose stories largely take place in elite educational institutions or well-manicured suburbs. Their capacity for criminality surprises us; we don’t anticipate blood-spatter on starched school skirts, deadly weapons alongside neatly stacked SAT prep books. The proliferation of these narratives tells us a good deal about our expectations regarding girls along class and racial lines. The more privileged the girl, the more shocking her venture into violence. Girlhood innocence is coded as white and wealthy. Poor girls and girls of color are excluded from these cherubic, carefree images; their criminality is incapable of surprising us as it does in their private-school counterparts. Robin Bernstein has explored the historical roots of this trend in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, arguing that narratives of childhood developed differently for white and black children in postbellum America. White children, and girls in particular, were vessels of innocence, while black children were not only seen as lacking innocence but also unable to experience pain. The legacy of slavery meant that in mainstream fiction by white folks, black girls, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), could only hope to acquire innocence via proximity to little Evas, the white girls identified as gatekeepers of virtue and purity.

These racialized and classed narratives of girlhood continued to be reproduced throughout the 20th century and extend into the contemporary moment. This is why, in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (2013–), Piper’s imprisonment is a story in and of itself. Audiences are supposed to wonder, “What is she doing there?” The experiences of poor women and women of color in prison aren’t newsworthy stories for public consumption until that space is inhabited by a privileged white woman. Our curiosity is piqued by girls who violate our expectations, not by those who fulfill them. Would the Gossip Girl franchise have been as successful had it taken place in Harlem instead of on the Upper East Side, Pretty Little Liars in West Philadelphia instead of along the Main Line?

Put differently, how do we respond to a murder that takes place in a boarding school versus one that takes place in an inner-city public school? Preconceived ideas of who does and who does not get to be innocent determine responses to these questions. While the books, films, and television series of the genre may set out to upend expectations, the narratives’ persistent ability to shock and intrigue suggests they may actually be bolstering common preconceptions.

<i>Pretty Little Liars</i>, Season 1, Episode 1

Cue Tana French’s The Secret Place, her 2014 novel set at St. Kilda’s, an elite girls’ boarding school in Dublin. The story pivots on the close friendship of four teenage girls: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Becca. While French’s novel is certainly part of the genealogy outlined above, her narrative structure, distinguished by shifts in tense and perspective in alternating chapters, interrogates and challenges some of our beliefs regarding girlhood among the upper crust.

When the story begins, we learn that Chris Harper, a boarder at a nearby boys’ school, was found dead a year before on St. Kilda’s grounds; despite extensive questioning, Detective Antoinette Conway was unable to make an arrest. A year later, St. Kilda’s student Holly brings Cold Cases Detective Stephen Moran a possible lead. A bulletin board at the school where students anonymously post their secrets—known as the Secret Place—has turned up a potential clue: a photo of Chris accompanied by the message, “I know who killed him.” Moran and Conway team up and return to the school and find that Holly, her friends, and their enemies are embroiled in a knotty tangle of lies surrounding Chris’s death. The key to untangling the truth, it turns out, lies in dispensing with ideals about what girls at a boarding school (run by nuns, no less) must be like.

Conway, the female detective, has already abandoned these beliefs, but her male colleague Moran is a slower convert. Both detectives are outsiders in their profession, in part because of where they came from (“Dublin, inner city”), a fact betrayed by their accents and mannerisms. Conway’s outsider status is doubled as a woman in a male-dominated sector that functions like an old boys’ club. While not a part of the world cultivated in the bubble of St. Kilda’s, Moran initially looks upon it with admiration, seeing the school and what it represents as both “beautiful” and aspirational. Conway, on the other hand, has no illusions to lose: recounting her first round of interviews at St. Kilda’s, she describes Holly as a “snotty little bitch,” following up immediately with “all of them are, in that school.” When Moran later remarks, “You’re talking like these are girl gangs from East LA. Razor blades in their hair,” Conway replies, “Close … Close enough.”

Early on the text invites us to strip away our ideas about teenage girls based on socioeconomic status. In fact, Conway’s stance implies that girlhood is universal, but that all girls are, at their core, rotten; that essence isn’t determined by race or class, but rather by gender and age. Anyone who’s seen a production or film adaptation of The Children’s Hour or The Crucible knows that this premise is old news, and generalizations should give us pause, but Conway’s iconoclastic view also helps us to see girlhood in an alternate light.

French’s narrative structure interrogates and challenges some of our beliefs regarding girlhood among the upper crust.

The Secret Place oscillates between two narratives as it lays out and solves its mysteries: one told in the past tense from the perspective of Detective Moran, over the span of a day; the other told in the present tense about the four friends via an omniscient narrator, over the span of the year leading up to Chris’s murder. This structure illustrates French’s view of the crucial difference between childhood and adulthood—each has a fundamentally different understanding of temporality. Childhood and adolescence are liminal spaces, where time is partially suspended because of a belief that “this is forever,” a belief enforced by the cloistered world of the school. Adulthood involves forgetting that time can function that way and becoming a part of the “great big world” that dwarfs the worlds of childhood. The past tense of the adult narrative shows how time marches forth in a linear fashion; actions and events are ephemeral, happening then becoming past. The present tense of the girls’ chapters, as well as its expansive temporal frame in comparison to the compressed single day of the adults, alters time’s pace. Girl time is lasting and enduring, never collapsing into the past or future, refusing linearity.

Observing the girls, Moran is painfully aware of the expiration date attached to their temporal understanding of their universe: “When you stop being a kid, you lose your one chance at that too-tender-to-touch-gold, that breathtaken everything and forever. Once you start growing up and getting sense, the outside world turns real, and your own private world is never everything again.” Conway is less sympathetic: “They’re not gonna be this age forever. When it hits them that there’s a great big world out there, they’re gonna get the shock of their lives.” The more Moran realizes there is a stark difference between his and the girls’ conceptualization of time, the more he realizes that one of the girls could have committed murder. The temporality of girlhood as experienced by these teenagers undoes his belief that St. Kilda’s is “lovely and safe.” He was “starting to see it, out of the corner of my eye: the shimmer in the air that says danger.” He fully understands the cause of this danger when he is reminded of how they see time: “You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away … That was when I really believed it, not a detective’s solid theory but right in my gut: a teenage girl could have killed Chris Harper. Had killed him.” His reacquaintance with a childish and queer understanding of temporality shatters the illusion of childhood innocence and renders the impossible possible: “some cute little rich girl. From a beautiful school like this,” killed Chris Harper.

While Moran gets a grip on the temporality of the girls, he and others still struggle to find the truth because of the enigmatic dynamics of the four’s friendship. The girls’ intimacy is decidedly (and disappointingly) platonic, another feature of French’s novel that separates her from others in the genre like Heavenly Creatures and Pretty Little Liars, where lesbianism figures prominently for the ingenue dabbling in murder. It even defies what we expect from this particular institutional setting, given how important 18th-century boarding schools were to Foucault’s development of his history of sexuality; more recently, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz has shown how those overseeing institutional spaces for young women were preoccupied with monitoring the dangerous homoeroticism the spaces may inadvertently encourage.

Observers in The Secret Place often wonder aloud whether there is a homosexual dimension to the girls’ friendships, only to deny its possibility in each instance. Peers describe the group as “weird,” and when pressed to more precisely articulate what that weirdness is, one girl says, “People said all kinds of stuff about why … Like they were gay … But we thought they were witches.” The detectives agree that “they’re weird,” but when they wonder if “they’re gay,” they decide that “the odds say no. They’re a close bunch, though.” French dangles the lesbian schoolgirl stereotype in front of us elsewhere in the novel—the nearby boys’ school talks about “how half of Kilda’s is dykes”; a prefect at Kilda’s hears noise in the hall and tells the girls to “stop lezzing it up”; and there were “no locks on the bedroom doors, in case of fire or lesbians”—but she declines to go there with the girls, instead trying to articulate their intimacy as something other than homosexual.

The latest installment of the Dublin murder Squad series gives us a new vision of innocence and girlhood.

While the girls’ intimacy is not sexual, it follows in large part from a discovery about their sexuality in relation to the world around them. After Julia is assaulted by a boy (not Chris, but one of his classmates) during a “snog” session behind the local shopping center, the girls feel a “mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them: this is something new.” Julia’s experience is a painful acquisition of knowledge, knowledge from which neither her class nor her status as a St. Kilda’s student can protect her. The pain is felt collectively and physiologically; what happened to Julia impacts them all and is experienced in their “cells” as a “crawling understanding” of their bodies in the world. In response to the assault, the girls make a pact to not date any boys for the remainder of their time at St. Kilda’s. While they realize their classmates might “say we’re some kind of lesbian orgy cult,” they proceed with the vow: “Never, never ever, never never never again. Break that open the way superheroes burst handcuffs. Punch it in the face and watch it explode. My body my mind the way I dress the way I walk the way I talk, mine all mine.”

As readers, we don’t know if the words—a radical reclamation of ownership over their bodies and selves—are imagined or uttered, chanted in unison or brainstormed together; the effect is a haunting one that permeates the chapters about the girls, whose subjectivities often feel like they are melting into one another. Although each of the four girls is characterized distinctly from the others, these moments when they blend together give us glimpses into what Moran is seeing: something about their dynamic transcends bodies and time. This capacity is their strength and their undoing: it allows for a profound intimacy but contributes to an impetus for murderous feelings.

The Secret Place gives us a new vision of innocence and girlhood. While the murder at St. Kilda’s is shocking, and the fact that teen girls might be at the heart of it tantalizing, French works to show us why this shouldn’t surprise us. Her participation in the genre of murderous schoolgirls effectively posits conditions for violent criminality in girls that are not race- or class-based but rather a relatively predictable outcome of the particular temporal schema of girlhood combined with the experience of sexual assault. The girls are at the heart of a criminal investigation and become further entangled in it because of the intensity of their intimacy. This intimacy emerged out of a violent act committed against one of them, an act that isn’t intelligible to them as criminal and is instead apprehended as an “understanding that now their bodies belong to other people.” Their attempt to protest this violence takes the form of a vow that causes them to protect one another at any cost—even if the price is more violence. The girls’ actions and motives are rendered convoluted and illegible to an adult eye—yet, among themselves, completely rational and legitimated by their friendship. French’s focus on girlhood violence, then, asks us to interrogate what happens when we sanction, implicitly or otherwise, violence against girls, a focus that redirects our gaze and unsettles beliefs about girlhood innocence.