Tragedy Girls: The Work of Art in the Age of the Young Girl Blogger Murder Spree*

By Johanna Isaacson |
Tragedy Girls (2017) is a film that follows two best friends who go on a murder spree to draw attention to their true crime blog called “Tragedy Girls.” Right off, we see an uncompromised refusal of empathy and caretaking, two primary requisites of feminized labor. The film begins with Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) unenthusiastically making out with a boy in a car. It turns out that she and her best friend McKayla (Alexandra Shipp), have been channeling their affective/sexual labor in order to lure out a local murderer and use him as their “Yoda” to begin their own murdering enterprise. (“Do you know how many hand jobs this girl had to give? Like, thirty!”) After the murderer, Lowell (Kevin Durand), slays their bait, the girls handily capture him and blow off his grotesque threats — “I’m going to cut your insides out.” Refusing any of the appropriate emotional responses–fear, shock, offense–the girls laugh back in Lowell’s face. Their only regret is that the taser they use on him is malfunctioning — “fucking Amazon.” The girls’ consumerism and casual cruelty sets us up to think this film will be a satire of social media, and it is. But the intense friendship and rebellion against masculine repression that bonds the two girls points to the fact that they are not only the objects of satire, they are actively satirizing a world that expects automatic and naturalized compliance to a regime of nurturing, feminized care work.


Refusing the gendered role of victims, they proclaim to their would-be-killer, “We’re on the same side” and immediately prove their ice-cold competence as they finish off the boy that Sadie was recently kissing. The light tone and the pop sensibility that accompanies this slaughter points to late (feminized) capitalism’s often ignored Achilles heel. There is a built-in knowingness to affective labor. Feminized workers have learned that our emotions are not natural, and are definitely commodifiable. At the same time late capitalism is the era of media saturation, what Jameson calls “the cultural turn.” So not only do the Tragedy Girls know how to manage and manipulate their emotions, they know how to theatrically inflict pain. For instance, they have learned to dissolve body parts in industrial lye by watching Breaking Bad. By seizing the means of production (their own affective state) they are able to refuse the emotional life of the precariat, including such feeling states as doubt, guilt, shame, or remorse. Sure, these are the qualities of sociopathic murderers, which the Tragedy Girls are. But this sociopathy can here be seen as a tool to denaturalize and unravel the emotional chains that harness contemporary workers to their places, paralyzing them in inaction.  

Toxic masculinity, the flip side of compliant feminized labor, is also refracted through this campy high school murder romp. As we can see in the aftermath of the recent horrific school shooting in Florida, talking heads go out of their way to avoid touching on the root causes of this now ordinary phenomenon: alienation, misogyny, racism, homophobia, poverty (both financial and social), etc. When the Tragedy Girls utter these same, deliberately empty “thoughts and prayers” platitudes to draw attention to their blog, the true hollowness of our public discourse rings out — “Praying for Craig… Death is just an inevitable part of life…”. The earnest high school teacher who consoles “If you need anyone to talk to, I’m here” offers about as much emotional authenticity as the girls themselves, and her placement in front of a “Women in History” poster completes the satirical picture of a bankrupt world without meaningful solutions to real problems of gendered violence and exploitation. At once the worst part of the problem and its solution, the friendship between Sadie and McKayla is at least charged and desirous. They don’t blink an eye at murder but show real feelings when there is any intrusion on their intense relationship, as with potential boyfriends.

Part of the girls’ bond is mutual admiration that leads to a satire of meritocracy. Ambitious and spunky, the girls both refuse to participate in the perky bought-in vibe of their fellow cheerleaders, but they do definitely want to win (perhaps through the Wanda Holloway method). The film mimics the comedy genre wherein teens find ingenious ways to distinguish themselves and get into college –“With your brains and my charisma we can do anything! We could kill the juice bar guy!” It is this ambition that leads them to steal the identity of the serial killer they have captured and accelerate their own killing spree, taking literally the chant of their fellow cheerleaders “Be Aggressive! Be Be Aggressive!”


This exaggerated aggression is a swipe at meritocracy and lean-in feminism but at the same time it offers a satisfying reversal to the Heathers-like satirical teen movie, where the murderous bad boy is always, well, a boy. Enjoyably played by The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson, McKayla’s ex-boyfriend Toby appears briefly with a motorcycle and a black leather jacket to send up the sensitive, “meta-masculine” type. It turns out this “bad boy” is trying to steal the girls’ blog idea (and seemingly McKayla’s heart). Despite McKayla’s attraction, Sadie easily convinces her friend to choose blows before bros and slay her ex for another dose of blog fame: “To make an omelet we have to kill some ex-boyfriends.” The friends are fiercely protective of their BFF relationship and find the boys in their life attractive but disposable. While watching Sadie attempting to finish off her boy crush by stabbing his heart, McKayla’s only comment is “You’re just hitting bone, dude.” This, just minutes after she was lost in a swirly haze of love for the dying boy.

This casual callousness constitutes not only a rejection of romantic love, but of the tortured state of “cruel optimism,” Lauren Berlant’s term for the ways we wrestle with the impossibility of a satisfying life in an era where all of our affections and efforts are harnessed to the tormenting logic of capitalism in crisis. The scenario of two young girls, best friends, gleefully killing and getting publicity for it, represents this optimism at its cruelest. And yet, the very thing that makes the girls monsters makes them resisters against cruel optimism. This state is necessarily marked by a tortured ambivalence. The Tragedy Girls ignore this ambivalence, affectively withdrawing from the state of doubt and self-recrimination that is central to a regime of enforced contingency. The knowledge that the besties in this film could kill each other at any moment allows them to cathartically act out the tragedy of cruel optimism: that the very object of attraction that sustains a person is that which also will destroy them and block them from “attain[ing] the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving…” [1] The Tragedy Girls give this striving an insouciant gloss, using the weapons of affective labor against its tragic dimensions, as was maybe the point of queer camp all along.


The queer camp horror of Tragedy Girls is the refusal of glum reconciliation. Instead, attachment is staged as unhopeful from the start. Rather than adjust to the impossibilities of meritocracy, they represent the sociopathic completion of this adjustment, showing the rest of us where we’re heading if we do, indeed adjust: “The extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something in the works, a labile boundary at best, not a slammed-door departure.” [2] And at the same time, their extremity and sure-footedness on their evil path shows a way out. They breezily sweep all of the anxiety, contingency, hesitancy, and precarity of our present impasse aside. Here cynicism is more empowering than optimism; abandoning that cruel temptation to keep playing by the rules is rewarded with uncomplicated fun.

The Situationists gave us the stark contrast of life versus survival, in which survival is the dead weight of obedience and tradition that keeps us from revolt (life). Feminized, crisis capitalism clearly can only offer survival, and then barely that. The competitive, petty, faux-meritocracy of high school as a training ground for a life of scrambling for bare existence is upended when survival is literalized, and the bright red spurts of life are available to any girl brave enough to pick up a knife, a gun, or even a circular saw. That death becomes the sign of life in this film is an indicator of just how attenuated any possibility of survival is in an era of crisis capitalism.

Fun, for the Tragedy Girls, is blog fame. Daniel Kurland is right that the film’s primary satirical target is commodification and social media (as seen in the girls ingenious recognition that the most successful serial killers have compelling brands). Stopping there, though, could just confirm the surface-level criticisms of celebrity which are always tied to the misogynist assumption that the “young girl” is a symbol of this shallowness. Mass culture and reproducibility has always been feminized and denigrated, but now in an era of feminized labor this takes on a whole host of new resonances and dimensions. The growth of communication as a mode of labor means that feminized skills of loquacity and expressiveness are increasingly exploited, controlled, degraded, and monetized. At the same time this raises fears of the potential potency of these skills. As they perfect them, feminized laborers could gain the ability to wield their communicational prowess against capital itself. Thus the monstrous figure of the girl murderer/blogger highlights the motivations behind capitalist moral panics surrounding youth and social media. As Walter Benjamin notes of capitalist technological production, it has the ability “not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.” [3]

In its present state the blog really does suck, but it is also the opposite of what Benjamin calls auratic art. The blog turns its withering glare on  reactionary concepts such as “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery — concepts whose uncontrolled… application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense.” [4] More than just a satire of blogging and social media, Tragedy Girls points to the gendering of these social media and the moral panics about these forms that are in line with a generalized misogyny and worship of the singular, masculinized “genius,” along with what Sophie Lewis might call the “bad materialism” that goes along with fantasies of authenticity. That way lies the road to TERFdom. 

Even the fatuousness and violence of the Tragedy Girls blog has a utopian pole. It is the latest iteration in a potentially revolutionary process, the withering of art’s aura, the shattering of tradition “which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind… the cathartic liquidation of traditional value and cultural heritage.” [5]  By showing this liquidation and reproducibility as monstrous, Tragedy Girls does not only point to the blog’s degrading and alienating aspects, but also its threat to social order. This fear of a revolutionary army of girl bloggers is everywhere in the culture, and especially in Japanese horror movies featuring monstrous young people haunted by/haunting technological innovation such as in The Ring, Pulse, and Tag. A perversely democratic technological dystopia transforms the human sensorium itself, creating uncontainable monsters who may buy more of your products and work harder for less in the gig economy, but who also might murder you in your sleep no matter how well you ensconce yourself in your gated community, as in the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation” in which hacked social media voting sends electronic wasps to explode an unwitting victim’s brain.


The collective desire for universal equality haunts the very modes of communication used to harness and divest the masses of our living labor. And no one shows such dexterity at navigating these media as the young girl (in this case an African American and a working class girl).  Thus, she must be seen and disavowed as a monster. If we squint, we can see the Tragedy Girls’ pop murder spree as the awakening of the feminized masses from the thrall of aura, that crystallized authenticity and power that robs us of all agency and activity. In the spirit of monstrous refusal of bourgeois ritual, the Tragedy Girls, for instance, reenact Carrie’s pyrotechnic destruction of prom, literalizing the whole preposterous ritual as a fiery hell.

The Tragedy Girls are trash. Their creation, their blog, has no artistic merit. It serves only to reproduce itself and to reach as many people as possible. The Tragedy Girls don’t care how people comment on their blog or retweet one of their tweets. They only care that they do comment or retweet. It’s a numbers game. And yet who knows? Once the work of art is completely divested of its artiness, what is left? “By the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value [rather than its quality] the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.” [6] The girls’ pure, contentless drive to reach people, to be close, to transform themselves and others from consumers of media to producers of media, can be read as the monstrous desire for a communication that will exceed the spectacle and its ritualized, containing, passivity-enforcing, function.

Tragedy Girls have no positive politics, but they do bust free from authenticity and authoritarianism. And they are seen as monstrous, at least partially, because of their liberation. For these girls, literally nothing is sacred. Instead of the pompous sentimental disciplinary bourgeois dreck we are forced to line up to see as a lead up to the Oscars, with the promise that we will feel deeply (read practice affective labor during our “time off” of work by joining Frances McDormand in “leaning in” to sympathetic identification with racist cops in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), I’ll take the annihilating glee of the Tragedy Girls, holding hands in the prom apocalypse, dancing wantonly in lurid, poptastic flames as all the boyfriends of the world granulate and turn to ash.


* In this analysis of Tragedy Girls and in future pieces on contemporary horror film, I want to bring together two concepts which have heretofore been kept apart. The first is the idea that postmodernism, as framed by Fredric Jameson, represents a shift in logic that extends and creates homologies among the realms of everyday life, work, political formations, and aesthetic/cultural representation. That is, every part of culture and life is structurally tied to the current capitalist mode of accumulation. The second is the concept now being thought through in dialogues surrounding Social Reproduction Theory, that feminized affective reproductive labor is the lynchpin through which to conceive of an intersectional politics heretofore either praised or dismissed as “identity politics.” While Jameson acknowledges that this postmodern logic is indexed by a shift away from the conception of “work” as male, blue collar, waged work performed at the point of production, and that this impacts all realms of culture and representation, and while Social Reproduction theorists note that the contemporary moment is marked by an extension of reproductive labor from the household into every realm of waged and unwaged work, and can be especially well gauged by the forms taken by affective labor, still I have not found many discussions of how a Marxist view of culture itself should take into account this feminization of labor. Marxist cultural criticism is still marked by an imagination of gender as “identity politics” and what Jameson calls “groupuscules.” Social Reproduction Theory seems wary of representation and culture as critical categories, perhaps because of the ways cultural criticism seems to be reductive in the areas we hold dear. And yet, if we believe that a Marxist feminist mode of thought is the correct political stance to take, then everything, including the forms of representation that mold the desires and terrors of everyday life, should be seen and criticized through this lens.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011. 2.

[2] Berlant, 10.

[3] Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1968. 217

[4] Benjamin, 218.

[5] Benjamin, 221.

[6] Benjamin, 225.


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