The Autonomy of Jane Doe: Reassigning Agency to The Dead Girl

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). Jane Doe, a young, pale white woman with long brown hair is lying on a morgue table upside down. Her brown eyes stare right into the camera and she is bleeding from her nose.
IFC Films

The Dead Girl is an infamous trope that has rattled the brains of male detectives and audiences of all genders within the American zeitgeist for decades. She is beautiful, young, and thin; she is usually white; and most importantly of all, she is dead. We have seen the Dead Girl as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, most of the Heathers in Heathers, Alison DiLaurentis in Pretty Little Liars, Lilly Kane in Veronica Mars, and in countless other examples. Americans love to romanticise and fetishise the death of women for the sake of entertainment. While this genre can provide women an outlet for our fears, the image of the Dead Girl is looming over our vision of an idealised American society, further desensitising us to the reality of the mass amount of violence against women. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (directed by André Øvredal) works to fulfil the narrative of a revenge film from a different angle, giving agency back to the Dead Girl, without her ever moving a muscle. 

Our titular Jane (Olwen Kelly) is introduced in the typical manner: her body is found by detectives, pale and somehow still beautiful. She is discovered in the basement of a house where a brutal family murder has occurred upstairs. Jane is completely naked, buried in dirt with one breast exposed, which should be expected in most horror films at this point. The film is reminding us that this scene is familiar; we have seen it in films past, but there is something different about this case. 

We follow her body as it is wheeled into the morgue of father and son team Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch). Tommy is taking the time to guide Austin through the process of an autopsy, showing him, as well as the viewer, what we are about to experience. We are being invited in to this invasion of privacy, as if we are now being asked to consent in joining the team. The Dead Girl cannot function without a spectator, and here we are, taking a front row seat and buckling in for what we can only assume to be a very bumpy ride.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). Tommy, a mortician who looks to be in his 60s with thinning grey hair and a scruff of beard, poises to write something on a large chalk board diagram of a woman's body. He is wearing blue protective clothing, surgical gloves, and a brown apron. Behind him, a second board lists: "R Lung, L Lung, Spleen, R Kidney, L Kidney, Liver"
IFC Films

The internal misogyny present in both Tommy and Austin is quite obvious from the beginning. This leads to dangerous territory, as they are tasked with identifying the cause of a dead woman found buried with no clothes on. It is clear that the Tildens are not aware of the implications of finding a woman in this state. They do not have the experience or awareness to recognise the existing trauma present in Jane, despite this being Tommy’s lifelong career, and their ignorance only becomes more noticeable throughout their process. 

The first mistake of father and son duo Tommy and Austin Tilden, is identifying Jane as “a female,” notoriously lazy language in reference to a woman. They then spend the remainder of the film invading this woman’s corpse. Though it is their job to find the cause of death, the initial finds of broken joints and vaginal trauma indicate that this woman was brutally violated, yet they still speak of her in a clinical manner, mentioning sex trafficking as a possible lead without a flinch. The Tilden men are desensitised to violence and brutality in their field of work and are unable to empathise with Jane. The men also represent the audience here: consumers of violence who are so easily able to separate themselves from the trauma of others that we can violate them in the deepest way possible and become immune to the consequential feelings.

Clues begin to pop up as the men begin cutting into Jane that she is still with us. The radio changes on its own, compartments in the morgue open themselves, and each piece of evidence found in her body is read as a piece of a bigger puzzle. We see repetitive close-up shots of her face, an acknowledgement to us that Jane is fully aware of what is being done to her. After an examination of the first few clues, Tommy declares that she was killed by someone who wanted her to suffer. Jane has tried to get them to stop examining her with each piece of evidence, but all of these signs are ignored and she takes it a step further to make her presence known. 

The Tildens hear a knock in the hallway, and when Austin goes to investigate he sees a figure in a mirror. Jane has taken to a physical form, threatening the livelihood of the morgue. When Austin suggests leaving the remainder of the autopsy until the morning, his father insists they finish in a threatening tone of finality. Despite every warning and method of communication, Tommy refuses to listen to Jane, who at this point is begging them to leave. “‘These bodies are not just, CODs, dad.’” says Austin, “‘This happened to her for a reason.’” Where Tommy refuses to recognise the humanity of Jane, above her function as a clinical subject, Austin urges him to consider the reason why she was tortured. Austin continues later saying “she is more than just a body,” a phrase with a double meaning: she is a spirit, but she is also a person. He refuses to acknowledge the damage he is causing her, forcing her to re-acknowledge her past suffering, in pursuit of his own goal of finding an answer. 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). Tommy and his son Austin, a young white man with brown hair, wearing a red plaid shirt, are standing in the darkened morgue. They are staring at the body of Jane Doe on the table, which has burst into flames which rise up to the ceiling.
IFC Films

As the haunting becomes more brutal, Tommy and Austin kill what they believe is one of the demonic creatures. The figure turns out to be Austin’s girlfriend Emma, in another signal to viewers that their internalised misogyny is not just a flaw, but it is deadly. Their microaggressions and failures to support these women, in life or death, are a threat to all of the women around them and Emma is not an exception. In this case, the patriarchy represented here is directly responsible for the production of Dead Girls, it’s only when the woman has a direct link to their lives that they are emotionally impacted by her death. While stuck in the elevator, the men recount the suicide of Austin’s mother, with Tommy stating that he could not see her pain, but based on their treatment of Jane, this was most likely due to negligence. In a culture that upholds violence against women, masculinity will always pose a risk. 

Jane becomes more violent, proclaiming to the men each time that, although they view her as a lifeless object, she is the one with agency here and she is out for dead. Once the men come to their senses and stumble upon the final clue, it leads them to the conclusion that Jane was tortured in 17th century Salem as an innocent girl accused of being a witch. Tommy speaks to the pain she felt, and warns that she wants them to feel that pain too. While the men are proclaiming that they finally understand the concept of women’s oppression, this is where we get to start cheering “yes, bitch!” as Jane takes action against her violators. By the time the men are able to recognise her pain, it is far too late. In a subversion of the Dead Girl trope, the typical advancement of the protagonist’s plot is flipped on its head, and their narratives are cut short. 

In the end, Jane kills both Tommy and Austin, leaving authorities to believe the men died under mysterious circumstances. The corpse reseals itself and she is shipped away to her next location. She fights for her right to agency, never saying a word, but communicating clearly that all they needed to do to survive was leave her and her body alone. They never asked for their fate, yet, neither did she. And neither did any woman whose traumas and fears have been turned into a trope for mass consumption and the advancement of the male protagonists’ plot.  

by Taylor Hunsberger

Taylor Hunsberger is an essayist, poet, comedian, and writer of children’s theater who resides in Brooklyn. During the day she works as a Site Assistant for an afterschool arts program where she teaches music classes to elementary school students. She has previously written for Manor Vellum and The Broadway Beat. You can find her work here and on social media @tayparade. Taylor is also an avid Carly Rae Jepsen fan and really needs you to know this.

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