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(Un)Making Sylvia Likens: Towards a Theory of Femicide Narratives

Gendering in Research talk by Anne Bettina Pedersen, Department of Culture and Globale Studies, Aalborg University

2018.07.02 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

Date Thu 29 Nov
Time 11:00 13:00
Location IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, Building 1483-312, 8000 Aarhus C



My study concerns the depiction of dead female bodies in Western cultural production and focuses specifically on various texts inspired by or based on the 1965 torture and murder (or femicide) of sixteen-year-old Sylvia Marie Likens in Indianapolis, Indiana. In my dissertation, I trace the trope of “the beautiful dead girl,” often seen in stories belonging to the genres of true crime, detective/mystery/crime fiction, and horror (espec. the subgenre torture porn) from the (still) popular so-called Dead Girl Shows back to a number of texts that have contributed to the establishing of this trope. I suggest that the concepts of victim-blaming and the sexual shaming of females have been written into the fabric of stories of femicide (murders motivated by misogyny) and that these concepts are closely linked with Eurocentric ideals of beauty, heteronormative views on gender, sexuality, and virginity, and sensationalism. Further, I account for how the dead/dying/tortured bodies of young, white girls and women are continually sexualized and aestheticized. I analyze existing texts on/about Sylvia Likens, which together form what I refer to as “the Sylvia Likens Archive” (inspired by Halberstam’s “Brandon Archive”), and I suggest that most of these narratives follow a specific “structure of unmaking,” a term borrowed from Elaine Scarry’s 1985 study on torture, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. I argue that in the creation of the Sylvia Likens femicide narratives (and perhaps also femicide narratives in general), the victim is made (created) and unmade (killed/destroyed) by artists and murderers alike. I propose that it is possible (and necessary) to produce narratives (of various forms) about victims of femicide in a caring and responsible manner that does not replicate acts of violence. By utilizing a caring ethics of (re)mourning, grounded in queer feminist ethics, I will produce my own Sylvia Likens narratives, through the writing of fiction and the production of embroidery. My dissertation is interdisciplinary (involving fields such as cultural studies, gender studies, and death studies, for example) and combines academia, activism and art.

About the speaker:

Anne Bettina Pedersen, PhD Student, Aalborg University