(Author’s Note: Another essay from my Sex on TV class. This time, we picked a television show and analyzed its presentation of gender and/or sexuality.)
“I’m never getting married. You want an absolute? Well there it is.” Whose voice is behind the narration from the opening shots of this already neon-drenched neo-noir? No, not Phillip Marlowe, nor Sam Spade. Actually, the precocious, balanced voice comes from one self-described Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), spinster, the titular character of Rob Thomas’ short lived teen mystery series. Giving his protagonist agency and a mind of her own is hardly the tipping point of what makes Veronica Mars such an excellent show. Thomas steeps his series in a world filled with economic discrepancy, gender inequality, and other button pushing aspects of life that make such a short lived television show so memorable. IN particular, Thomas brings two important things to the table: an incredibly smart protagonist who, nevertheless, is flawed and imperfect, making her all the more real, and a vilifying look at contemporary rape culture and the way it bleeds into how people treat sexuality and sexual assault. Veronica Mars remains one of the most fascinating shows for tackling these issues, even more so for being able to in the tiny window of time of three seasons.
More Like Sam Spade Than Nancy Drew
Something’s rotten in the fictional city of Neptune Valley. As aforementioned, the female gumshoe begins the pilot episode with an ultimatum, an incredibly counter-hegemonic statement that gives the audience a bitter, yet enticing, taste of what the show’s lead character will be like. Although Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro in the documentary Miss Representation (2011) and Paul Hodgkinson in his essays in Media, Gender, and Sexuality would argue that the depiction of women on television is often relegated to submissive roles, or roles in which sex plays a large part (Hodgkinson notes Sex ond the City), the character of Veronica Mars is almost the complete opposite of what one expects from a female character. Veronica is not overtly feminized in what she does, nor overtly masculinized. She seems, for lack of a better word, “normal”. Her wit and intelligence only stand out because so few portrayals of female characters have been allowed to fall into this box. That is not to say that smart female characters are rare on television, but female characters that aren’t gendered and smart are indeed rare. There is, generally speaking, from The Big Bang Theory to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, an element of the character which makes them specifically female. Those characters end up being primarily defined by their gender, not necessarily by their personality. Were one to merely look at a description of Veronica Mars’ personality, a profile basically, there would be very little evidence that would inherently give away her gender.
However, she’s not totally neutralized either. She has been in a relationship Duncan Cane, one who abruptly broke up with her. She seems, in the pilot, appropriately bitter, but, again, no more bitter than any other person who had been unexpectedly broken up with. The occasional coldness that she gives off seems better attuned to the characters which have informed her creation and less by being an archetypal “bitch”. Such characters, such as Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon or Phillip Marlowe from The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye traditionally used their masculinity as a point of coldness and subsequently a point of entry. Mars does the same, making her slightly masculine appeal surprising to characters within the show. That she gives off a slightly masculine personality, neutralizing the character a bit instead of gendering her more, is constantly subverted within the show in a bit of a self-aware way. She is constantly being hassled by the school principal and the school security for having things in her locker or for being in trouble, and these authority figured are continually underestimating how intelligent she is. When these authority figures check on what she is doing and how she is doing it, she always has something up her sleeve. When nothing is found, she spits clever dialogue back at them.
This dialogue is reminiscent of the Lubitschian and Hawksian screwball comedies of the 1930s, and similarly, of the hardboiled dialogue from the film noir cycle of the 1940s. A marriage of wit and objective is what Veronica Mars needs to make an impact within the show. What is interesting about how dialogue is used within the show is how it can be read in multiple ways depending on whom the audience is. “I can be your girlfriend” is something Mars shoots at the resident gang member Eli (Weevil) Navarro: he hears it as a young woman questioning his position within the power dynamic of that scene (he is standing up, threatening and domineering; she is sitting at a lunch able, calm and vitriolic). We can hear it as Mars asserting her position within the conversation. Another person, still, could hear it as a way to masculinize and equalize the playing field. Susan Douglas presents Lt. Van Buren in Law & Order as an exemplary female character who is powerful and witty, and Veronica Mars fits similarly, without falling into being “stony” with ‘no sense of humor” (Douglas 282). Hodgkinson notes that Mars, as both a character and a show, fits into the category of “ ‘progressive’ mainstream representations of women in recent decades that have [not] entirely fitted into the wealthy, consumerist (hetero)sex-oriented stereotype”, noting shows like Cagney and Lacey, Prime Suspect, and Juliet Bravo (Hodgkinson 226). The comparison to Prime Suspect is apt; Helen Mirren’s iconic Jane Tennison works in a world that is dominated by men and must make her way through it, not by using her “female wiles” as is often the case in mainstream adaptations of “women working within a patriarchal system”, but by masculinizing her character and thus becoming almost gender neutral in her presentation. Mars does the same, oscillating between the two when necessary.
That Veronica Mars maintains this fairly masculine, or neutral, presentation becomes a point of interest throughout the series. Either that there are characters underestimate her abilities within the show by assuming that because she is female she must therefore be incompetent and, more interesting, her dynamic outside of her work. What separates Veronica Mars and other lead female protagonists on procedural shows is that her personal life, though not a focal point of the show, is, for all intents and purposes, fairly uneventful, unless it ties directly with her line of work. She and her best friend, Wallace Fennel (Percy Dags III), share a dynamic that is actually more typical of a “bromance”. It essentially throws away the heteronormative question of “Can men and women be friends?” that was raised in the film When Harry Met Sally… and so often reoccurred on shows like Friends and sitcoms of that ilk. Instead, the two get along both like best friends and like sidekicks. She holds the power in the relationship, but her ability to “manipulate” him is not as localized in her femininity as one would think. There is little to no sexual tension between the two, and Wallace is able to do these favors for Veronica, from bugging a high powered office to gaining access to confidential files, out of obligation to his best friend, regardless of Veronica’s sex.
It does sound like the show washes the character clean of any gender characteristics within the show, which is not entirely true; there are elements where Veronica’s action and vulnerability seem more distinctly feminine than masculine, such as the case of her sexual assault, but the point is that Rob Thomas and his team of writers never overplay that point and do their best to make the character as nuanced and flexible as possible without making the gender of the character a crutch for any characteristics or personality traits that would be used in the show. She is not overly sympathetic towards people nor is she completely cold; she is able to approach all of the cases with a singular, and refreshing, objectivism that is evident within the voice over. When Veronica does not approach cases with objectivity, the bias, again, does not inherently give away or rely on Veronica being female.
Is her fairly gender neutral personality the product of cynicism or jadedness? She is, after all, dealing with a lot on her plate, from the murder of her best friend, to tracking her missing mother, to her own rape. A credit to Bell’s portrayal and Thomas’ writing, Mars is a character that can perfectly tune into personality traits either when they best serve her or when there is needed nuance, without allowing her gender to be a crutch for the storytelling, thus going against many of the criticisms that Hodgkinson and Newsom make.
Rape, Redemption, and Realism
That a show whose primary demographic is teenagers is not only to handle the subject of rape head on but actually write and depict it in a realistic way, as far as drama goes, is intriguing and brave. In the pilot episode, we learn that Veronica was handed a drink at a party, Mars explaining saying, “It turns out it was your basic rum, coke, and roofie.” Element upon element is added onto this scenario, a story arc which has a major impact on the entire series and on the character as a whole, and as the audience learns more about the situation, the situation becomes more and more real. Mars was at a party, was drugged, and wakes up the next morning unsure of what happened to her beyond that she had been assaulted. Such a depiction of date rape is very rarely an empowering one, and more the province of melodramatic recreation than a balanced, nuanced presentation.
In the series, Veronica is almost empowered by this event, however atrocious it is; she is so determined to find her rapist and what happened that she spends, incrementally, the whole of the first season investigating what happened. Her investigations take her to very archetypal, all too real groups of men who get their jollies by being misogynistic.
Just as important are the nods at victim blaming and the system’s inability to deal with rape cases (at least, within the universe of the show). When, in the pilot, Veronica goes to the police station to report her rape, the present police officer, Sheriff Lamb (Michael Muhney), does nothing to help her, and instead uses the leverage of the “most important families within the city” as a way to convince her not to press charges. She is nonplussed, and instead decides to investigate herself, going above the system’s head. It is telling that this sequence, and that character in particular, is run by a man in the context of the subject matter: there is nothing more deadly than condemning rape culture by portraying a male character purposely choosing to undermine a female character who has been raped by recalling economic advantages of those who raped her. It plays with gender and economic dynamics. Sheriff Lambs continues to be an antagonist throughout the series, one of the primary characters to frequently undermine Veronica and her gender.
There is redemptive quality to Veronica’s investigation of her rape. The show never blames her, even given the situation she was in where it is so easy to victim blame. Instead the show spins it so that it observes victim blaming and rape culture, with Veronica interrogating witnesses up to the season one finale, “Leave It to Beaver”. In these interviews, many of the characters blame her for stumbling around drunk, regardless of the fact she was handed the drink by another person. It is almost terrifying, therefore, to realize how real such accusations are and how the culture continues to operate, despite the fact that the first season of Veronica Mars aired in 2004. Although it is initially revealed that her former boyfriend, Duncan, date raped her, the actual revelation does not come until the second season finale, when it is revealed Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas, the younger brother of bully Dick Casablancas, actually gave her the drink and raped her, as a way to compensate for his own abuse as a child.
In the third season, Veronica is transported to college, where she must deal with the ever powerful Greek system of fraternities. Throughout the campus she is attending is a series of mystery date rapes, ones that involve the victim’s hair being cut off and kept, almost like a trophy and used to taunt the victims. In the ninth episode of the third season, “Spit and Eggs”, Veronica investigates a frat party using coasters that can detect whether there are drugs in a drink. This is set up against a backdrop of political fear, where attempts to shut down the Greek System are hindered by political interests within the show.
The depiction of the men on campus, though, is jarringly accurate: men shouting “Woo hoo!” and turning an intentional blind eye towards the rapes is overwhelming, but accurate nonetheless. One only need to take a look at comment pages discussion boards to see that rape culture is alive and well. But these men are portrayed as pigs, unworthy of our admiration, more comparable to monsters than to anything else.
Veronica Mars has a cult following, but it somehow fails to be recognized for how quietly groundbreaking it could be. Although The Atlantic published a very brief article, aptly describing Mars as “no damsel in distress waiting to be raped” (Duhaime-Ross), very few other articles have been written about the show and the approach to its protagonist or its handle on rape and rape culture. Thus, let it be known that the world’s most famous marshmallow is also one of the best written female characters in television history, without allowing the character to be subject to common television tropes or stereotypes. As good ol’ Veronica says, “Here’s what you do: you get tough… you get even.”
1.01 – “Pilot”
1.22 – “Leave It to Beaver”
2.22 – “Not Pictured”
3.09 – “Spit & Eggs”
Douglas, Susan J. “Women On Top… Sort Of.” Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done. New York: Times, 2010. 282. Print.
Duhaime-Ross, Arielle. “‘Veronica Mars,’ TV’s Realest Depiction of Rape, Is Going to Be a Movie.” The Atlantic. N.p., 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
Hodkinson, Paul. “Media, Gender, and Sexuality.” Media, Culture and Society: An Introduction. London: SAGE, 2011. 282. Print.
“Leave It to Beaver: Veronica Mars.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
“Miss Representation.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
“Not Pictured: Veronica Mars.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
“Pilot: Veronica Mars.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
“Veronica Mars: Spit & Eggs.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.