I'm sure many of you have already seen Rachel Stark's article on the prevalence of dead girl images on YA covers. (If not, go read it now.)
Rachel Stark discusses how both men and teenage girls are fascinated by the glamorized death of women. She attributes this to the way society romanticizes violence towards women and how, in death, the female body turns into an object of passive sexuality. I'm not exactly disagreeing with this, but I want to offer another analysis.
To better discuss the topic of beautiful dead girls in fiction, I first want to discuss a fictional living girl. In my Spanish Literature class, we read a story called "Fatima de los naufragios" ("Fatima of the Shipwrecks") by Lourdes Ortiz Sanchez. In the story, Fatima is a Moorish immigrant who lost her son on the voyage to Spain. Every day, she goes out to the beach and waits for him to return to her. After a while, the village grows to love and romanticize her, and she becomes a symbol of beauty, goodness, and virginity. (Yes, virginity. Even though she's a mother. God forbid we place any value on a women who has sex.)
Anyway, the aspect of this story I found most problematic (other than the virginity thing) is that Fatima never becomes a character. She has no personality, and I don't think she ever speaks. (It's been a couple years since I read this story, so I don't remember it perfectly.) She is a symbol, only there for the purpose of being romanticized.
In other words, Fatima is no different from the countless numbers of beautiful dead girls on YA covers. The reason that many teenage girls fantasize about dying, I think, is that in death, they become an enigma; people look at them, admire their beauty, idealize them, wonder about them. Can any girl pretend she doesn't want this?
No, I'm not trying to label all teenage girls as attention-whores. This phenomena is the inevitable result of centuries of treating fictional women as beautiful treasures for brave men to seek. (Remember the part in Pirates of the Carribean where Jack Sparrow says "Not all treasurer is silver and gold?") Even badass women are often shuffled into this role. (Ginny Weasley is often criticized for this.)
I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be that girl--the one who's beautiful and who inspires curiosity everywhere she goes. However, that isn't the end-all-and-be-all of my existence. Unlike Fatima and hoards of dead girls in prom dresses, I do have a personality. I have goals, and dreams, and flaws, and habits, and ticks--and so do my characters.
So yes, Rachel Stark, we are in agreement. Death dehumanizes girls. (Actually, death dehumanizes everyone.) And I'm all in support for women who exist as more than just lust objects.
ETA: I just remembered that I recently reviewed Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman. A perfect example of a book with a personality-free dead girl who exists for no reason other than to spur the protagonist into action.