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As the country waited for the other shoe to drop (somewhere, that is, besides Kenya, Moscow and Bali), it had to do something with all that surplus anxiety. The news and entertainment media were happy to oblige. Stories of random shootings and disappeared and murdered girls were everywhere, from the increasingly graphic, grisly prime-time franchises of CSI and Law & Order to the orange DANGER!-DANGER!-DANGER! graphics of Connie Chung Tonight and the rest of its cable-news cohort. (Curiously, from the news media's perspective, little girls miraculously stopped being abducted as soon as the Washington sniper drew his first bead.) Some dozen-and-a-half cop shows dominated prime-time series TV, not counting the numerous cable crime series and a steady stream of increasingly popular reality shows like Forensic Files. The result was a feedback loop of fear in a society that was not experiencing any crime wave except this virtual one: crime news begat crime curiosity, which begat crime dramas, which begat more crime curiosity, which begat more crime news.
It's not much of a stretch to see all these investigations and authority figures as a kind of shadow 9/11 drama. (Who is stern-talking Oprah protege Dr. Phil, after all, but a more down-home John Ashcroft?) Hollywood's crime stories were neither uniformly authoritarian nor bleeding heart. FX's cop drama The Shield introduced Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a crooked, brutal--and extremely effective--L.A. cop, and left it up to us to decide whether his results justified his means. HBO's The Wire used the story of a single Baltimore drug investigation as a parable for the crisis of confidence in American institutions. Its conflicted, bureaucracy-ridden cops could just as well have been wearing priests' collars or Enron workers' pinstripes. And in Minority Report, we learned that a futuristic, omniscient crime-fighting system involving government-enslaved psychics and near total surveillance is actually kinda neat--at least until it targets Tom Cruise.
The dead-girl motif surfaced most poetically in publishing's surprise sensation of the year, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. In its bravura opening, the narrator, Susie Salmon, lucidly describes her brutal rape-murder at age 14, then goes on (telling the story from heaven) to show us the slow journey of her family and friends to recover from her loss. (This is not only a 2002 phenomenon, of course. The Sixth Sense and Crossing Over with John Edward both indulged our need to believe that our lost ones are still aware and, more important, still aware of us.) Women's nonmortal distress also got its share of attention, in two novels--The Nanny Diaries and I Don't Know How She Does It--that comically examined mothering anxiety (at least among affluent, educated white women), even as Sylvia Ann Hewlett was warning young women, in Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, that they had better get married pronto if they ever wanted to have children. With bad men on one side and indifferent men on the other, biological and career clocks hammering in both ears--and with Oprah no longer serving up female-positive fiction to her book club--what was the stressed-out career woman to do?
She watched The Bachelor.
THE PAST AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE