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The stuff of legend: T/selling the story of Reena Virk.


This essay looks at texts that tell stories that claim to be "true," "based on," or "indebted to" the murder of Reena Virk. Girls in these stories are value-laden symbols that frame and reframe the story of girlhood identity within the Canadian nation in particular ways. I argue that these framings often obliterate the particularity of girlhood identities through which the nation might be understood as mired in histories of racialized and sexualized violence, through the creation of universal girl subjects whose identities better meet the needs of the publishing industry and its desired audiences. The texts in question--the play The Shape of a Girl (2001) by Joan MacLeod, the teen novel The Beckoners (2004) by Carrie Mac, and Under the Bridge (2005), a true crime novel by Rebecca Godfrey--explicitly reference Virk but their key characters are primarily white, Anglo girls. The stories are written in such a way that the experiences of second-generation immigrant youth in Canada are displaced onto universal girl subjects, disconnecting the murder from colonial oppression, misogyny, and white supremacy.


Cet essai porte sur des rapports d'histoires qui pretendent etre <<vraies>>, <<basees sur>> ou <<redevables>> au meurtre de Reena Virk. Les jeunes filles de ces histoires sont des symboles a fortes connotations qui cadrent et recadrent l'histoire de l'identite feminine adolescente de facon particuliere au sein de la nation canadienne. Je soutiens que les cadrages de ces identites effacent souvent leurs particularites chez les jeunes filles, alors que c'est par celles-ci que l'on peut comprendre la nation, telle que refletee dans des histoires de violence racialisee et sexualisee, et ce, par la creation d'exemplaires de l'adolescente universelle dont les identites repondent mieux aux besoins de l'industrie de la publicite et des audiences visees. Les textes en question - la piece de theatre The Shape of a Girl (2001) de Joan MacLeod, le roman pour adolescents The Beckoners (2004) de Carrie Mac et Under the Bridge (2005), l'histoire d'un vrai crime par Rebecca Godfrey - font explicitement reference a Virk, mais leurs personnages cles sont avant tout des Anglo-saxonnes blanches. Ces histoires sont ecrites de maniere a transferer les experiences de jeunes immigrant(e)s de deuxieme generation a des personnages de jeune filie universelle, en deconnectant le meurtre de l'oppression coloniale, de la misogynie et de la suprematie blanche.

"You're going to let them get away with this?" Leaf started pacing. "You could be dead! They could've killed you! You want to be another Reena Virk?"

--Carrie Mac (The Beckoners, 2004, 198).


In 1997 Reena Virk, the fourteen-year-old daughter of South Asian (2) immigrants who were also Jehovah's Witnesses, was murdered in a largely white suburb of Victoria, British Columbia. The press suggested that she faced peer group, family, and social struggles, but, as Tess Chakkalakal (2000) notes, Virk did not behave like someone cowed by her peers: "she acted as if she had power, as if she could do things that a girl of her size, colour, and ethnicity was clearly prohibited from doing" (163). This perspective, in which Reena Virk is presented as having agency, is absent from most accounts of her murder in favour of a view of Reena more in line with that of other stories of "teen bullying" or "girl violence" in which victims are overwhelmingly represented as shy, awkward, immobilized, and silent. But this universalizing impulse must be resisted in favour of narratives that "open the possibility for agency in the Reena Virk case;" Chakkalakal suggests that one way to start doing this is "by calling it [the Virk murder] by its proper name: a Canadian 1ynching" (165). Invoking a term so highly charged with racialized (and gendered) histories would potentially create a space flora which it would be much more difficult to evacuate the material body of Reena Virk than has been the case in most existing storytelling efforts.

On November 14, Reena was invited to "party" with a group of teens--lured as retribution for, by various accounts, stealing a phonebook, a boyfriend, and spreading rumours--where she was swarmed and badly beaten. As she tried to go home, Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski, two teens who, by all accounts, did not know Virk, beat and drowned her. Six teenage girls were convicted of assault in 1998 and received sentences ranging from sixty days to one year. Glowatski was convicted of second-degree murder; he received a life sentence and was granted parole in 2007. Glowatski's mother was an alcoholic, and during 1996 he lived with his father, eventually ending up in a trailer park. When his father moved to Southern California, Glowatski stayed on his own with some minimal financial support. (3) Kelly Ellard claimed that she was framed. Her defense focused on her middle-class femininity and close family ties. Although convicted of second-degree murder in 2000, a second trial, granted in 2003 by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, was declared a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury. During that trial many witnesses came forward to testify against Ellard, who was back in custody due to unrelated assault charges. Ellard's new trial, the third one, began in 2005. She was convicted, but appealed. Her appeal went to the Supreme Court of Canada in the spring of 2009. The Supreme Court upheld Ellard's conviction in June, 2009. (4) Virk would have been twenty-seven; she was fourteen when she was murdered. As Mythili Rajiva (2010, 323) notes, "[t]he number of trials held for Ellard was almost unprecedented in Canadian legal history, thus suggesting an underlying desire on the part of the justice system and, by extension, Canadian society, to absolve this white, middle-class schoolgirl of her part in what was an undeniably vicious and violent crime." (5)

This essay looks at texts that tell stories that claim to be "true" "based on," or "indebted to" the murder of Reena Virk. As Karim (1993) notes"[t]he power to publicly interpret cultural and political symbols is key to achieving and sustaining equality." Reena Virk and the other girls who form the core of this "story" are the cultural symbols at issue here. These are not "neutral texts." In order to meet the demands of the publishing industry, even "nuanced narratives" must circulate discourses that appeal to as wide a readership as possible (Burwell et al. 2008, 64, 68). The texts in question--the play The Shape of a Girl (2001) by Joan MacLeod, the teen novel The Beckoners (2004) by Carrie Mac, and Under the Bridge (2005), a true crime novel by Rebecca Godfrey--were chosen because they share certain characteristics: they were written by educated white women from British Columbia; their narratives are authorially situated as critical observations of Canadian girl culture; they explicitly reference Virk; their key characters are primarily white, Anglo girls. (6) These narratives highlight the perceived impossibility that authors, publishers, and readers could come to terms with Virk's claim to space and citizenship. Thus, they orient their stories so that the experiences of second-generation (7) immigrant youth in Canada are displaced onto universal girl subjects, disconnecting the murder from colonial oppression, misogyny, and white supremacy. Keeping this in mind, I ask how these texts help construct Canadian girl subjects.

Amita Handa (2003) notes the particular pressures related to hybridized identities placed on second-generation South Asian girls. It is precisely these pressures that are omitted from both the press and juridical accounts of the Virk case. These stories refuse to locate the murder within the context of Canadian colonial histories and ongoing realities of racialized violence. Rather, the news media, like the judiciary, set their sights on a narrative that offered far more universal appeal: girlhood violence. Critical feminist scholars like Sheila Batacharya (2004) and Yasmin Jiwani (1997, 2000, 2006) have documented such omissions, noting that within a neoliberal context this strategy offered a way to contain the risks of disruption gendered and racialized murder potentially presented to myths of Canadian multiculturalism and tolerance. Racial-sexual violence, these articles suggest, could not happen "here," not outside Canadian urban spaces, where violence is mediatedly linked to racialized populations, and especially not in pristine white spaces like Victoria (Razack 2002; Wortley 2002; Lee 2006; Teelucksingh 2006). The Virk murder pointed to a gendered, racialized, and classed relationship between violence and girlhood in Canada (Bell 2002; Faith and Jiwani 2002; Chesney-Lind and Irwin 2004; Aapola et al. 2005). However, this gap in the fabric of hegemonic discourse was contained through the invocation of a universal, neoliberal girl subject, who is also invoked in the works under discussion in this essay. This girl, who is called upon to tell a story of her self as a rational subject, offers a displacement from a focus that might require an acknowledgement of Virk's murder as an indicator that racial-sexual difference and racial-sexual hatred are ongoing colonial and white supremacist projects.

A multiplicity of discourses that straddle representational and "real" spaces labour in the construction of publicly legible identities and narratives in cases like Virk's. In this essay, I draw on the work of critical scholars who have studied judicial and journalistic responses to the murder, taking their analyses in new directions by looking at the way fiction writers use the Virk murder as a keystone in the production of stories that they insist are critical--of girlhood violence or bullying--but that replicate the public refusal to acknowledge racial-sexual hatred as a motive for this murder. I work from a post-structural perspective, drawing theoretically from the work of Michel Foucault (1990, on knowledge/power/pleasure), Judith Butler (2005, on performativity), and Guy Debord (1983, on the "spectacularization" of everyday life). My understanding of terms crucial to the analysis provided here emerges from this theoretical space, one in which each is defined as socially constructed. Identity, for example, is understood to be multiple, hybridized, and constantly shifting; at the same time, identities are understood to emerge from particular spaces and histories that shape commonsense understandings about their meaningfulness and value. Youth identity is considered within the more specific context of girl studies, which interrogates possibilities for resistance within contested spaces of girlhood. As Jiwani et al. (2006) write in their volume on Canadian girl cultures, girlhood "is always a gendered, raced, sexed, and classed space, inscribed by particular behavioral dictates, social norms and mores and ways of seeing the world. It is also context-bound; rooted in language and the politics of location" (x, emphasis in the original). That means addressing the intersectionalities of girlhood identity produced in the process of (re)telling the story of the Virk murder, asking how the discursive construction of girlhood in stories about or based on Reena Virk's murder produce subjects that are raced, classed, and sexed. As Sofia Lakhani (2008) notes, Canadian citizenship cannot be separated from social constructions of identity as a gendered, raced, classed, and sexed project (87-88; also see Jiwani 2006; Lee 2006).

The terms "ethnicity" and "race" must also be problematized within the context of nation. Where such usage is possible, I prefer the terms racialization/ethnicization. This is not to evacuate the material reality of different bodies, but to recognize that their meanings are socially constructed and thus contextually contingent. In the relatively contemporary period--particularly since World War II (Iacovetta 2006)--ethnicity has, in the Canadian context, been related to European immigrants who retained distinct community ties and cultural traits, but who were easily assimilable into dominant Anglo-Christian cultures by virtue of their racialized status as "white." "Race" came to signify members of those communities who were positioned outside this easily assimilable space. Today, when "defining face and ethnicity is no longer easy" (Miller 2008, 47)--these terms are increasingly seen as overlapping, complex, and ambiguous--it remains crucial that we include "whiteness" as a multifaceted category through and against which all Canadian identities are constructed and managed (Mackey 2002). As Karim (1993) notes, we use a vast number of terms for racialized and ethnicized identities, terms that describe "symbolic constructions, deconstructions, and reconstructions [which have] serve[d] to include or exclude specific types of people" from the Canadian citizenry.

To be "Canadian" has, historically, been tied to the colonial project of Canada's "founding nations" Britain and France. That social difference was part of Canada from the early days of colonization is elided, as is the presence of Aboriginal peoples. Despite the entrenchment of contemporary state-sanctioned multicultural policies, myths of Canadian nationhood are still tied to the image of a quintessential Canadian who is "white, Anglo-Celtic or Anglo-Protestant" (Higson 2000, 9). This exposes a "startling disjunction between the common self-perception that Canadians are white, and the reality that Canadians are multicultural" (Ash 2004, 399). These contradictory views help to consolidate different classes of citizens and non-citizens: "ordinary" or "Canadian-Canadians" whose rights are unquestioned and Others whose claims are incompatible with dominant national narratives (Mackey 2002, 20-2). (8)

My work involves a discursive or deconstructive analysis that underscores the rootedness of texts in historically entrenched structures and systems of domination. I want to understand how Reena Virk becomes the foundation upon which the legitimacy of fictional stories about universal girl subjects is built. To do so, I offer a close reading of primary and secondary texts (largely interviews and reviews). This reading rejects the binary between the hegemonic narrative presented by the press and the self-proclaimed critical narrative each author suggests she offers. Instead, I explore the way these stories move across a variety of discursive registers that ultimately privilege dominant narratives about Canadian identity and citizenship. This does not preclude the possibility that readers will read these texts "against the grain"; however, spaces of potential contestation are problematized through the evacuation of social difference. The close readings I undertake here owe a debt to the conception of the mediated text as something that labours (Gray 1995, 2005). The text cannot be delinked from the material conditions of its emergence, but is also continually open to being re-read through various nexuses of knowledge, power, and pleasure (Foucault 1990). This requires a complex understanding of textual excess and ambivalence, representational persistence, and the historical rootedness of media spectacles (Shohat and Stam 1994; Gray 1995; Walters 1995; Dow 1996; Mahtani 2001; Parks 2003; Byers and Krieger 2005).

In the pages that follow I situate the murder of Reena Virk and the subsequent production of a small set of texts about her murder within a broader context of national myth-making and the neoliberal logic which drives the publication and distribution of particular types of texts. I examine the production of subjects in the broader context of mediation, which provided the ground upon which the narratives available about Reena Virk emerged for public consumption. I then turn to the primary texts, offering a reading of them as individual and intertextually linked narratives that sometimes resist but ultimately recapitulate in the covering over of the ground upon which they were constituted (as Judith Butler would say). In so doing they offer performances of violence and universality within which there is no room to explicitly mark Canadian girlhood as embedded in historically specific systems of oppression. Each story perpetuates the violence enacted upon Virk through the erasure of racialized violence.


The press coverage of the Virk murder and ensuing decade (and more) of litigation demonstrates what Guy Debord has argued is the "spectacleization" of everyday life; a particular type of political economy in which spectacles are defined not by images but by "social relation[s] ... mediated by images" (1983, par. 4). In our increasingly globalized world, mediated images exist in a problematic tension emblematic of the intersection of neoliberal and neoconservativism (Brown 2006). Neoconservativism drives the containment of media images, while their proliferation through the rhetoric of free market choice is associated with neoliberalism. Proliferation is itself contained by the vertical integration of media industries; many products come from the same producers indebted to the same stakeholders and ideologues (ibid.). (9) Counter-discourses are deployed, but people learn what will sell; we see this again and again in the fictionalizing of the Virk murder. If Virk, or someone "like her" is the hero of a book--or anything made subsequently from it--its potential as a consumer product becomes, potentially, marginalized.

Debord observes that the form and content through which a spectacle is enacted "are identically the total justification of the existing system's conditions and goals" (1983, par. 4). Thus the performance of the murder, of the many trials associated with it, of the stories told in the media, all participate in justifying a system in which the erasure of racialization, gender, and class are paramount to the maintenance of congratulatory notions of national selfhood. The spectacle of Virk's murder and the spectacles marked by her always incomplete erasure from the narratives of her own life (and mostly) death are acts which participate in the maintenance of systems of oppression and hegemony. They are performative in that they cover over the conditions of their own emergence (Butler 1997), the way the murder cannot be delinked from "racism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the legacy of colonialism as foundational to Canadian society and the power relations that structure it" (Batacharya 2006, 184).

I am struck by the way the texts in question here both evoke--as a spectral figure upon which salable cultural narratives could be produced--and erase Reena Virk. The movement between invoking Reena as "truth" and refusing to acknowledge her materiality as an embodied subject demonstrates Judith Butler's paradox of subjection as the "simultaneous struggle to submit and to master" (Davies et al. 2006, 16) which produces the ambivalence of subjecthood. Davies and her coauthors note that the simultaneous necessity of mastery and submission is what "give[s] flesh in the analysis of our embodied stories" (17). But what happens when the embodied subject is (r)ejected from her life story? The answer appears to be an "omnipresent affirmation of [a] choice already made" (Debord, 1983, par. 6, emphasis in the original). The choice to fictionalize the Virk story by erasing her struggles as a particularly embodied subject affirms earlier refusals to examine the inherently racist, classist, and sexist nature of the nation. That is, when the authors who wrote these stories made the choice to make their stories about white Anglo "universal girl subjects" (Batacharya 2006, 182), this affirmed earlier discursive choices made by journalists, lawyers, judges, pundits, and readers.

In all these stories, Reena Virk is the inaccessible space from which point no account can be given (Butler 2005), not because she's dead but because she only exists as a spectre that these narratives are "haunted by [but] for which [they] can devise no definitive story" (40). In order to create a fertile space within mainstream public discourse, the 'T' that might be called Reena Virk must be covered over. If she is made the hero of these stories, they would have to engage with the shadowy margins in, through, and against which dominant understandings about Canada as a tolerant multicultural nation are constructed (Anderson 1992; Bannerji 2000; Mackey 2002).

As I read Under the Bridge, The Shape of a Girl, and The Beckoners--and read about them--I was struck by their many similarities. They are all rooted in one very particular place. They are all told by similar women. They all appear to want to offer critical analyses of the way racism and misogyny impact violence in the lives of girls. And yet, they do not make these narrative interventions in their stories. Rather, each sidesteps the issues by placing a character at the centre of her narrative with whom a broader audience will likely be able to relate: a relatively generic white Anglo girl: not the bully, not the victim, but the highly intelligent not entirely savvy enough girl in-between that "we" should all like to imagine ourselves to be--and upon which a mini-empire of self-help/personal reminiscence books about girls was launched in the early 2000s (e.g., Coloroso 2003; Simmons 2003; Wiseman 2003).

Angela McRobbie (1994) cautions that "[y]outh is not a stable undifferentiated category: it is cut across by ethnic, gender, class and other differences" (172). Similarly, violence perpetrated by and against girls cannot be conceived of as stable and undifferentiated, that is, untouched by legacies of power and oppression through which "girls" as a generic category with little power in terms of gender and age intersects with girls' particularities as subjects occupying specific if always shifting positions of social power. In the mediated text, universalizing the girl subject is limiting, but also potentially lucrative; texts are not fully constrained and yet neither are they free from the anterior knowledges we bring to our readings of them (Foucault 1990). Carol Stabile (2006), in her historical treatment of gender and racialization in American crime news, offers the story of a seven-year-old African-American girl (Sherrice Iverson) who was raped and strangled by a white man in May, 1997. Unlike JonBenet Ramsay, Polly Klass, Elizabeth Smart, and other white girls, "Iverson never became a household name or the impetus for legislative change. Nor [was her killer] the subject[s] of endless debate about a potentially violent and psychotic white culture" (1). (10) Two central points can be drawn from this discussion. One has to do with the relative worth of victims based on particular articulations of social identities within the nation, the other with the complicity the "ordinary" citizen might feel if the crime and criminal are in any way explicitly sutured to themselves and to the political and legislative histories of a nation to which they feel they have rights of citizenship. Canadian performances of national self-definition are often perceived to be different from those of Americans, but the biases or frames are not always so (Jiwani 2006). As Scot Wortley (2002) notes, in the Canadian news media "white crime is almost always attributed to individual pathology or immorality," while crimes committed by racialized individuals are presented as rooted in "cultural origins" (55; Bannerji 2000; Fleraz and Kunz 2001, chap. 4; Jiwani 2006).

News stories about the Virk murder display the same ambivalence found in other stories about girlhood, violence, and racialized crime. This creates a point of intersection too dramatic to be completely buried in the Canadian context. The Virk story keeps getting caught on the white, middle-class femininity of Kelly Ellard and on the need to refute racialized violence, especially that perpetrated against marginalized (by white) youth, as a reality within the Canadian nation (Jiwani 2006). In the more than ten years since the murder, there have been many attempts to make Ellard into a monster, but she "fits" a model of collective, not individual, pathology: the average teenage girl in the late 1990-2000s is a monster. These stories appear to desire to erase the universality of Ellard and the particularity of Virk, but fail, to some extent, at both. "Killer Kelly" is an expression of a broader discourse on "bullying," which participates in creating unmarked neoliberal girl subjects, just as surely as Reena is far more than simply another average girl who didn't fit in (Baumgardner and Richards 2000; Driscoll 2002; Aapolla et al. 2005; Gonick 2006; Jiwani et al. 2006).


... [M]any radical journalists in the media ... tell exactly the same stories: they construct events with the same kinds of language as the people who disagree with them profoundly. So there's a kind of stabilisation in the institutions and in the available discourses which are sustained in a set of known practices inside those institutions. Those stories, or rather those ways of telling the stories, write the journalists.

--Stuart Hall (in O'Hara 1983, 7)

Despite what is often an explicitly expressed desire to be critical, the authors of The Shape of a Girl, The Beckoners, and Under the Bridge recapitulate myths about universal girlhood and violence so prevalent in the journalistic and juridical accounts of the Virk murder (Batacharya 2006, 182), and the broader literatures of girlhood violence and bullying. This places these narratives within the same power/knowledge/pleasure nexus as self-help texts. Indeed, they might be read as continually constrained by them because they recreate similar pleasures in observing "truths" about girl subjects one "knows" and, in so doing, offer the power of those "knowledges." But by refusing to particularize girls and the way national legacies of racism and colonialism act as script-writers of the types of violence particular girls experience, these books miss an opportunity to open up discussions of Virk's murder beyond "bullying" or "girl violence." In so doing they erase racialized violence from the story of Virk. As they strip Virk from their narratives, they also strip them of explicitly racialized identities and delink violence from colonial and white supremacist histories. In making young white women the centre of each of their stories, the tellers reiterate a dominant fantasy found also within the press accounts of the Virk murder, one in which Ellard--as the embodiment of white middle-class girlhood--becomes "the only retrievable adolescent subject" in the story (Rajiva 2010, 300, emphasis in the original). In these fictions, white girls stand in for the racialized subject, white girls who "[hold] out the most hope precisely because of [their] location in the hegemonic story of Canadian girlhood" (ibid.).

The Shape of a Girl (Joan MacLeod 2001)

MacLeod's award-winning play is essentially a monologue delivered by sixteen-year-old Braidie to her absent older brother, Trevor. In it, she ruminates on the media coverage of the Virk murder in relation to her own group of girlfriends and the bullying that occurs within it. The play has been translated into several languages and produced with much success. Most reviewers laud it for precisely the universalizing qualities under scrutiny in this essay. Most note the play's indebtedness to the Virk murder, but suggest it goes beyond "a simple dramatization."

Consider the New York Times review of the production at The Duke on 42nd Street in Manhattan in 2005. The title of the first article, "When Mean Girls are not Stopped" (Zinoman 2005), explicitly links the play to a film released the previous year and the 2003 book it was based on (Wiseman 2003). Zinoman's review focuses on Braidie as "average," her situation as "familiar," and the play as confirming "the growing consensus in popular culture that 'sugar-and-spice and everything nice' might have been overstating the case." While the review suggests that "we" can easily slip into a position of identification with Braidie--like The Beckoners' Zoe and Syreeta, a secondary "character" who gets a lot of attention from Godfrey--MacLeod's bullied girl, Sophie, is seen as "innocent and awkward." While also describing the bullied girl--April/Dog--in The Beckoners, these terms do not adequately--to return to Chakkalakal--describe Virk--even if "we" might like them to. Like the term "whiteness" which is elided in these narratives in order to create a sense of continuity between Virk and Sophie/April, the terms "awkward and shy" activate a universalizing discourse about bullied girls, refusing social difference and specificity in their experiences.

MacLeod's play relentlessly revisits the Virk murder. Braidie is obsessed with the clues she will find in the pictures and stories the press offers about who the killers and victim were, what they did, and whether they were normal. She is, of course, asking who am "I"; am I like them? The play offers one critical moment when the issue of Virk's racialized body is explicitly addressed. Braidie:
   But this girl, this regular girl and one other girl are waiting for
   something else ... they've called her out. Because she is big,
   because she likes that boy. Because she is brown and she lost their
   book; because she doesn't fit and she lies. Because they can
   (49-50, emphasis in the original).

Note the way "brown" is slipped in among the other qualifiers of Virk's lack of fit: her size, her sexuality, her criminality, her abnormality. At the same time, all of these things are positioned against the regularness of the killer, who needs no descriptors (of her smallness, her sexuality, her whiteness, her transgressions--aside from the killing).

Virk is different, but the play makes a reading of her difference as racialized very difficult. Consider: "... when I look at the picture of the dead girl in the paper, part of me gets it. And I hate it that I do" (33-34). It is left to us as readers to understand just what it is that Braidie might "get" from looking at Virk's often reprinted school picture--not the story--in the paper (Batacharya 2006). The suggestion in Braidie's self-analysis--for those "in the know"--is that she is racist, but it's not something that can be said aloud because, once spoken, everything else might fall apart; it might take over the play.

The play twice invokes a cigarette that was put out on Virk's forehead during her initial swarming and beating. Braidie remarks: "The only real story is the one told by her body, silently. This bruising beneath her eyes, the black nose and cheeks. The broken arm and the star burnt into her forehead" (59). For MacLeod there is a true story of the Virk murder, and this is the story of her dead, silent body. We can assume, however, that her body was not always silent, but silenced, and, in fact, we might read against this image of silence as dead, one of Virk screaming in rage. The purple bruises, the black eyes provide markers of racialization displaced from Virk's living, embodied self, just as the "star" displaces the racialized specificity of marking a "bindi" on the forehead of a South Asian Canadian teen in brunt flesh and ash.

Macleod's play has been used for educational purposes, and a variety of study guides have been produced. The ones I found did not make racism a significant issue, although the play is explicitly linked to Virk's murder in each case. The Sudbury Theater study guide offers a one-page synopsis of critical work by Yasmin Jiwani (MacMenemey 2006, 3). This is followed by one mention of racism on page 4: "In the complete article that Yasmin Jiwani wrote, she disagreed with the statement, 'The motive was not racism.' Why might she believe that the murder was also a racial issue?" (ibid.). A second study guide, produced for the Sydney Opera House in 2008, includes a link to Jiwani's article "Reena Virk: The Erasure of Race," but then never frames any of its questions based on the article around the issue of racialization (14). Twice though, a link is made between the play and the murder of Australian teen Eliza Jane Davis (ibid. 3, 7), a popular blue-eyed blond killed by two schoolmates. A second New York Times article discusses the educational "town meeting" held after the play's last performance at The Duke in January, 2005. Among the panelists invited was Rachel Simmons, author of the 2003 bestseller Odd Girl Out. The article ends this way: "... those who do see the play will realize, as Braidie does, that a killer, a 'monster in the shape of a girl,' may have a human, very recognizable face" (Graeber 2005). But neither the article, nor the study guides, nor the play really gets us closer to seeing the face of Reena Virk and, in that face, a story of racialized violence against girls in the Canadian nation.

The Beckoners (Carrie Mac 2004)

Carrie Mac's award-winning young adult novel The Beckoners has been published in France and was optioned for film by Slanted Wheel Entertainment (Toronto). Reviews of the book have been positive, and Mac's identity as a queer, tattooed local (raised in Abbotsford, British Columbia) woman is often highlighted. Mac explicitly acknowledges the Virk murder as having motivated her to write this, her first novel ("Spotlight on Bullying" 2007; "Beckoners' Author Visits" 2008). The novel follows Zoe, a lower-middle-class white teen who relocates from Prince George to Abbotsford with her mother and baby sister, Cassy. A self-imposed recluse in Prince George and in Abbotsford, Zoe falls in inadvertently with an eclectic group of "mean girls," referred to as The Beckoners, after their ringleader Beck. Zoe spends the novel trying to extricate herself from the group and their increasingly violent targeting of a quiet, awkward classmate (April, whom they call Dog), while trying to find a voice, and a life, of her own.

Despite references to Virk, the way racialization plays out in this story is highly problematic. First, "race" only figures in ways that appear completely meaningless to the overall social identities of the characters. That is, the teens are a fairly diverse lot--racially, as well as in terms of class, subculture, and sexual orientation--despite some acknowledgement of the overwhelmingly white, Anglo, Christian nature of Abbotsford. But with the exception of class, these are attributes of secondary characters who seem strategically crafted to diversify the landscape of the novel, without asking the reader to consider how they might be implicated in the violence these girls witness and experience.

Zoe, April, and Beck--the bystander, bullied, and bully--are all highly articulate lower-middle-class or poor white, Anglo girls. (11) The Beckoners are fairly diverse, but Zoe's description of each character is stock: Beck--"stocky, about Zoe's age, short auburn hair stuck up all over the place on purpose, olive green cargo pants, black tank top, a cigarette pinched between her first and second fingers like a joint" (Mac 14); Jazz (Jasvinder) "a tiny South Asian Girl with hair down to her bum" (ibid. 19); Heather--"a supermodel wannabe.., long legs ... strawberry blonde curl[s]" (ibid. 23); Janika--"was black, with a mass of thin braids held away from her heart-shaped face with a red bandana" (ibid. 24); and Lindsay--a "chunky blonde with harsh eyebrows" (ibid. 19). Early in the novel, Zoe befriends Simon, "a pale, slender boy who towered beside her, dressed all in black" (ibid. 20), and his boyfriend, Teo, "the most beautiful creature Zoe had ever laid her eyes on. His eyes were dark green, his skin the color of strong tea, muscles humming all over the place, and a walk that absolutely demanded you stare at his ass" (ibid. 23). Later, she also develops a love interest in the editor of the school paper, Leaf, "a wiry guy with rock star yellow-tinted glasses, black hair with blue tips hanging in his face, cuffs of his black jeans folded up, a dark gray work shirt undone over a black Ramones T-shirt" (ibid. 65), and his purple-haired sister, Wish, "the most pierced person Zoe had ever seen" (ibid. 70). Ali of these characters are positioned in contrast to Zoe's observations that the general population of her high school "looked like factory-fresh Christians, with perfect haircuts and preppy clothes" (ibid. 17). April is a scraggly version of these kids: "[A] skinny girl with limp wheat-colored hair ... a gold cross at her throat, a WWJD bracelet slipping down her wrist" (ibid. 19-20).

I include all this because Mac clearly wants to draw our attention to the existence of difference in the diegesis she is creating. But it's not clear what end this serves, especially as she continually falls back on stereotypes: Janika is good at basketball; Jazz is exotic and ends up sexually exploited; Teo, queer and third generation Puerto Rican-Canadian, is exotic and gorgeous; Heather is wealthy, beautiful, and mean; Heather's boyfriend, Brady, is a homophobic rapist football player; Beck, the ringleader, is poor and grew up in an abusive family. In fact, the inclusion of difference reinforces bullying as a form of universalized girl violence. As Jiwani (2006) notes, "[t]he insistence that racism was not a factor in this [the Virk] case was often predicated on the fact other girls of colour were involved in the first beating" (78; also see Purvis in Batacharya 2004, 61).

The most complex characters in the novel are Zoe, April, Simon, and Leaf, who are white Anglo youth to whom a broad audience will be able to relate. Racialization and other forms of difference have little meaningful connection to the narrative development of the story. April is bullied because, as was so often remarked about Reena Virk, she "doesn't fit in" (Jiwani 2006, 69). But April is never really marked as different, not, for example, as ugly or obese, just as odd, and thus easily redeemed at the end of the novel: (12) "It was as if that cafe ..., was a chrysalis, and April was transforming into a new version of herself" (ibid. 215-16). This type of transformation is very common in stories told to children. It reveals an existing privilege that Virk could never tap into; her body, unlike April's, could never simply transform like a caterpillar into a butterfly.

In her review of The Beckoners, Joan Marshall (2004) observes that "there are Zoes in every high school in Canada." She then asks: "Why is it that some students have V for 'victim' engraved on their foreheads?" (2). This question is deeply problematic. Just as "Zoe" is a generic elide the privileged specificity of what it means to be a "Zoe" "some students" equally elides the specificity through which young people like Virk come to have those Vs "engraved on their foreheads." The "why" that opens the question fails to "address how racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism place girls in dominant and subordinate relationships to one another as well as contextualizing the violence they commit" (Batacharya 2004, 61-62). The reference to the forehead takes us back to the bindi, because while MacLeod references Virk, Mac explicitly appropriates what some claim was the first move that occurred "under the bridge." Jiwani (2006) argues "that to butt a lit cigarette out on Reena's forehead [is] to stamp her cultural identity as a South Asian girl indelibly--and forcibly--on her" (78). In The Beckoners,
   April kept her eyes open, until Beck finally touched her burning
   cigarette to her forehead.... There was no smell. Maybe the soft,
   icy wind carried it away. Maybe it was the wind that took away
   April's voice, too, because through it all she was silent. Beck
   ground the cigarette into the burn and then pulled it away. The
   burn smoked like a gunshot wound (190).

The marking of April's forehead explicitly links her to Reena Virk, and yet refuses the specificity of the murdered girl's identity. Jiwani (2000) notes: "the issue of why a lit cigarette was stubbed out on Reena's forehead was never considered or framed as a sign of racism" (4). In Mac's act of appropriation, the racialized aspect of the violence disappears altogether. As Chakkalakal (2000) notes, "[a]cts of racial violence, in Canada, tend to disappear from the public mind" (167). Mac, like MacLeod and Godfrey, reiterates and legitimizes the force of this disappearance.

Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk (Rebecca Godfrey 2005)

Under the Bridge is an award winning and bestselling true crime novel by Rebecca Godfrey, based on the Virk murder, published by the Canadian arm of Harper Collins in 2005 (see note 8). The publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, Evan Cornog (Godfrey 2005, back cover) compares the book to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). Van Jensen (2005) notes that Capote changed the face of both literature and journalism, but that even in the 1966 New York Times review, Conrad Knickerbocker refers to the book as a "superbly written 'true account;" noting the quotes around the last two words (Jensen 2005). This juxtaposition of truth and fictionalization has potentially serious implications for the reader's acceptance of the story, as well as for the impact it has on the lives of those narrated.

Mary Agnes Welch (2005) opens her review of the book in this way:
   About three-quarters of the way into this blow-by-blow account of
   the beating death of Reena Virk ..., there's a startling photo of
   Virk. Not the geeky, big-nosed school picture that has run next to
   countless newspaper articles ... [,] but a photo of her as a chubby
   toddler in a prim coat, flashing a genuine smile. It's the biggest
   jolt in Canadian author Rebecca Godfrey's Under the Bridge, and
   it's the culmination of a book that seeks to humanize the murderers
   and the murdered (B8).

The photo is not entirely unfamiliar from the Virk press coverage. A similar picture appeared at the front of Sid Tafler's article in Saturday Night (1998, 15). But it is interesting that the picture so captivated Welch and that she explicitly asks us to superimpose this vision of Reena's childhood innocence with that of the teenager she became. It suggests that, for Welch, the infant Reena holds all sorts of possibilities left unrealized, and that empathy for Virk is to be found only in the child. A related point is found in the last sentence of the quote: why should we be concerned with humanizing the murderers in this case and why does Reena Virk need to be humanized if she was, in fact, just a regular girl who never quite "fit"? What is pointed to here is the way the nation never allows girls "like" Reena to be completely humanized subjects/citizens. (13)

Littered throughout the reviews of Godfrey's book are terms that reinforce the disjuncture between its purported critical authenticity and the way it reiterates many of the dominant themes of the press coverage. Amidst the repeated allusions to girl violence, youth in crisis, and broken homes, two statements stand out. First, "[t]he circumstances leading up to the murder seem completely trivial" (Under the Bridge 2005, 775). Is this all the author gleaned from Godfrey's novel? If so, this effectively erases "the reality of racism as a form of violence" as one of those circumstances (Jiwani 2006, 69). Second, this is a "heartbreaking story that gives new meaning to the cliche of 'a senseless act of violence'" (Ganshorn 2006, 63). The author writes "senseless," but I think she really means "tragic" because if one sees this type of violence as an expression of systems of privilege and oppression that structure social relations in Canada, it is hard to say that these acts do not make sense. Godfrey cannot completely avoid questions of racialization and social power, but these observations about her book point to how she reiterates dominant narratives of nationhood and citizenship in which neither nation or citizen can (or is asked to) account for its own privilege (Butler 2005).

Godfrey's character descriptions provided me with a real sense that a dominant reading was on offer by the author. Kelly is described as "cute and awkward and seemingly ordinary" (2005, 10), "a pretty good girl" ... who "would 'actually listen to her parents and stuff'" (ibid. 35). Warren's girlfriend, Syreeta, "was so startling to strangers, with her full lips and dark hair." Josephine, whom Godfrey pegs as the true mastermind behind the murder, is described thus: "her features were as classic and delicate as those of a new doll. Her eyes were round and icy blue; her lips resembled a full and perfect heart" (ibid. 10), "a girl so slim and mercurial, so blonde and white" (ibid. 33). Josephine and Kelly's friend, Nevada, was "long-legged and gawky, and her face was framed by ringlets the color of flames" (ibid. 9). The most compelling description is saved for Warren:
   Never has a boy looked more like he wandered out of a fairy tale.
   His eyes were immense, and his eyelashes were long, and his
   expression was earnest and longing and always, always hopeful....
   Warren G. appeared neither manly nor mean, and [,] in fact, his
   soft beauty suggested he might really need to be saved (ibid. 19).

Syreeta and her friends "were the prettiest girls at Shoreline, though they did not see themselves as possessed of the greatest beauty or perched atop a hierarchy" (ibid. 24). Although Godfrey (in LaBruce 2005) describes the key "girls in the true story [as] much more the 'popular' girls," Kelly and Josephine are not part of this rarefied group:
   The Five did not consider themselves more popular, but would
   acknowledge that, in comparison, girls like Josephine and Kelly
   "didn't get much attention.' ... Syreeta felt a little sorry for
   Kelly and Josephine ... their mothers hadn't taught them to be
   ladies. Kelly and Josephine wore baggy pants like boys. Their
   lipstick was dark and garish (ibid. 44).

Godfrey has less time for other secondary characters who are explicitly racialized: Donovan and Khalil who were "minor celebrities" because "to be black in Victoria was to be infused with an aura of indescribable glamour" (ibid. 36); Eve who "should be a model. She was tall and black and her cheekbones were so high" (ibid. 78); or Margie and Chantal, tough girls from the Songhees Reserve (ibid. 71).

True crime stories often focus on victims and villains, but Reena and Kelly are both sketchily rendered in this book, whose focus stays on characters the author seems to find more compelling. Despite her stated desire to tell some kind of objective "truth," Godfrey's ambivalence comes through in statements like, "I've never known girls to be that vicious.... They laughed after the murder. Some came from bad families, but one had a hot tub and five cars" (Mar 2005, 96). Similar contradictions are revealed in the racialized language she uses in Under the Bridge--constant references to whiteness and blackness, to hip-hop, and gang culture. Yet a reading of the murder as a racialized crime is not explored. Godfrey suggests that racism as a motive was impossible because these young people lived in a world of social difference. Maybe, having so strongly identified with these "characters," this is what she--like the trial judge who said, categorically: "the motive was not racism" (Jiwani 2006, 77)--wanted or needed to believe.

Reena gets relatively little attention in the book. Ahhough Van Evra (2005) says that "the book gives us a real sense of Reena," Godfrey (2005) herself admits that "Reena was a difficult character to write about. She had no close friends, no one who knew her well." The most constantly cited aspect of her identity is the fact that she wore blue nail polish (Maslin 2005, E4; Van Evra 2005); in the book both her grandmother and uncle remark upon the color (Godfrey 2005, 30-33). Godfrey ruminates that Reena chooses to wear it in order to emulate the "blonde and white" Josephine (ibid. 33). In a passage that describes Virk's memorial (ibid. 241-43), her former counselor Amy considers that while Reena is and has been misrepresented she is now "emerging, as if she no longer wanted to melt into the walls behind her, as if she was ready to be.... She was not awkward or shy, not anymore.... She was trying to be a girl who would belong somewhere, not yet, but soon" (242). These are strange words. They try to align Virk with the bullied girls in stories like The Shape of a Girl and The Beckoners--stories in which these subjects are ultimately good, and saved.

They are disturbingly romanticized, especially because Reena seems to have often refused to be awkward or shy--which would have been proper behavior for someone accused of being "'ugly,' 'East Indian,' 'a bearded lady, 'a freak'" (Chakkalakal 2000, 163). Rather, she behaved in ways "improper for a fat, ugly, dark complexioned girl" (ibid. 164), that is, like a universal girl subject. Reena Virk was not emerging at that memorial, or in the pages of the book writing about her emergence.

Under the Bridge: The Movie (optioned by Type A Films, Reese Witherspoon)

Since there is little known about this project, I just want to speculate about what might happen if this book is made into a Hollywood movie. What kind of story would such a film tell and who would be its star? Can someone whose highly particularized identity was reviled in life become a cultural icon? (14) This was asked after the story of Brandon Teena, a transgender youth murdered in Falls City, Nebraska in 1993, was told in the award-winning film Boys Don't Cry (1999). (15) Hilary Swank, who portrayed Teena, won an Oscar for her performance. According to Pidduck (2001), the answers to my questions are to be found in the "underlying (extra-diegetic) guarantee of Swank-as-Brandon's delicate features and fragile female body underneath the cowboy garb" (98, emphasis in the original). That is, the universality of the subject performing the role allows the particularized (and reviled) identity being performed acceptability. Ott and Aoki (2002) read the murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 similarly. They note how important it was to the press and public reaction that Shepard "looked like an all-American nice kid next door" (Levin cited in Ott and Aoki, 489). In The Laramie Project (2002)--a film based on the aftermath of the Shepard murder--no one "played" Matthew, but his picture was prominently displayed. As embodied subjects Teena/Swank and Shepard were recuparable because of the images of young, white masculinity (or femininity) they could offer--at least in death--the public.

Virk is linked to Brandon and Matthew through the evocation of a "heartland" motif (Sloop 2000), as well as the way their stories' narrative trajectories are traced via "class [but never racialized] pathology" (Henderson 2001, 303; also see Lee 2006). But the framing of those murders was and is significantly different, which is perhaps why, unlike Virk's murder, both of these were eventually admitted as hate crimes (Bhandar 2000; Batacharya 2004, 2006). Readers/viewers may not be drawn into Reena's story the way they were in the examples above, where they were given slim, attractive white fe/male bodies with which to identify. As countless stories about Virk remind us, she didn't "fit" (Jiwani 1997, 2000, 2006; Bhandar 2000; Batacharya 2004, 2006). If Reena's story is made into a movie, how could she be included? She cannot be played by a delicate, white, Anglo girl; there is no photo to make her seem like the girl next door.

Putting Reena forward for public scrutiny is problematic. In the stories discussed in this essay, she isn't; she, as a person, her life within the nation, is only a half-life. I suspect that this is the same spectre she will be in any film made about her murder. A film that will likely be about the "mystery ... not only [of] what happened but why it happened" and the "universal issue" of "bullying" that is "everywhere" involving "kids [who] can be anyone's kids" (Godfrey in Canadian Press 2006).


I cannot say with certainty that different narratives--those emerging from, let us say, some place called "the margins"--would tell this story differently. The closest possibility of such a reimagining of the fictionalization of Virk, in my view, is offered by Tess Chakkalakal's suggestion that we consider this murder an example of Canadian lynching (2000, 165, 167). Again, I'm not sure what this would look like, but to begin a story from a space that inherently recognized racial-sexual violence and hatred as rooted in particular histories and places within the nation, and as articulated within the context of girlhood particularity rather than mythic universality, would have to create something quite different from what we see in the stories discussed here.

In many ways, these three writers, working in very different genres, came up with stories that never "get at" the particularities of girlhood and violence within a national context that refuses to acknowledge its rootedness in structures of privilege and oppression. As outlined in the quote by Stuart Hall (O'Hara 1983) that appears earlier in this essay, there is a tendency towards stabilization even in radical and critical discourses. Critical work cannot ever entirely escape the pressure of the marketplace, nor can it extricate itself from the nexus of dominant discourses available within a particular socio-historical context, which have for some time, in many parts of the world, been dominated by neoliberalism and neoconservativism. The story of the Virk murder told in these texts does not foreclose on other possible interpretations available to readers and authors. But in their "spectacularization" of this story (to go back to Debord), what is enacted is a process through which the Other is immolated, leaving a name but often not even the slightest residual trace of herself as a (once) embodied subject.

I began this inquiry by asking how fictionalized accounts of the Reena Virk murder participate in the construction of very particular types of racialized, classed, and gendered narratives of girlhood and violence that occur within the Canadian nation. What I found is that even critical authors have a hard time telling a story that disrupts myths of nation and subjecthood. As such, the mythic universality of a Kelly Ellard and the particularities of a Reena Virk are too slippery to stick to the paper. The violence that girls in Canada often have to navigate because of their racialized and ethnicized identities is erased as a mundane aspect of "everyday life in Canada" (Chakkalakal 2000, 167); it appears to have little currency in popular fictions about girlhood.


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(1.) It had originally been my intention to study both texts and those who produced them in one article. However, given the amount of data this generated, I split this work into two distinct essays. The companion piece to this article is: "Putting on Reena Virk: Celebrity, Authorship, and Identity" (Byers 2010).

(2.) The designation "South Asian" is not unproblematic. As Amita Handa (2003) notes, "the term's construction as an identity (as opposed to geographical description) is in some ways relevant only in the Canadian context" (as opposed to Trinidad, Britain, or the U.S.A.) (172, 5).

(3.) While there is no room for a fun examination, in prison Glowatski learned be was Metis. Rajiva offers some discussion of this in her chapter in Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder, ed. Sheila Batacharya and Mythili Rajiva.

(4.) For a fuller timeline that includes links to articles relating to each stage of this case and its various trials, see

(5.) For a sampling of articles addressing the Virk murder and subsequent trials, see Brunet (1997), Chisholm and Harnett (1997), Byfield (1998), "Girls and Violence" (1998), Martin (1998), Paape (1998), Taffier (1998), Greenfield (1998), McGovern (1999), "Remembering Reena" (1999), and Wood (1999).

(6.) The concept of "whiteness" is extremely problematic; see, for example, Frankenberg (1993), Dyer (1997), Brodkin (2000), and Wray (2006). On mediated "Anglo-American" girlhood, see Bavidge (2003).

(7.) In the Canadian context, "second generation" refers to "a demographic group that includes both children born in Canada to immigrant parents and those (often referred to as the 1.5 generation) who immigrated to Canada as children" (Kobayashi 2008, 3).

(8.) Mackey notes the links between ordinariness and the rise of neoliberalism and neoconservativism in countries like Canada and Australia. The ordinary subject "is neither raced, nor sexed, nor classed" (Brodie 1995, in Mackey 2002, 20), which usually means "he" is a white male who isn't poor (see Wray, 2006, on the way class modifies whiteness). I would argue that there are ways in which "ordinariness" can be sexed to produce an ordinary or universalized girl subject (see, for example, Gonick 2006).

(9.) For instante, Under the Bridge is published by HarperCollins Canada Ltd., an imprint of the American HarperCollins. HarperCollins is a subsidiary of US-based News Corporation that owns dozens of newspapers, magazines, film and TV companies, and Internet sites (including MySpace) ( News_Corporation).

(10.) See also her notes 1-3, including references to Wood (2005) and Sedensky (2005).

(11.) Class in the novel is marked by parental employment status and where and how one lives, as well as by family violence and addiction, and is not linked to racialization.

(12.) Mac has said that her original ending was changed because it was too dark, and, if a film is made, it will include the original ending (Correia 2006).

(13.) Anthony Swofford (author of Jarhead) is cited on Godfrey's website as saying that "[t]he principals are all victims ... and perpetrators" (

(14.) I focus on these examples because of their similarities as true crime stories. Virk could also be considered in relation to other narratives about, for example, racialized girls.

(15.) Drawn in part from the true crime novel All She Wanted (1996) by Aphrodite Jones.

MICHELE BYERS is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Saint Mary's University. She has published widely in the areas of television, media, culture, and identity and has held several grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for the study of Canadian television, the most recent of which focuses on television and ethnicity.
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Author:Byers, Michele
Publication:Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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