Push(back) at the Intersections: Veronica Mars and the Straw Feminists

On to another work by a male creator that is sometimes treated as feminist: Veronica Mars, which aired on UPN from 2004 to 2007. While I don't think creator Rob Thomas set out to make a feminist show, there are definitely some feminist messages in the show. There are some shockingly anti-feminist ones too.

For those who haven't seen it, Veronica Mars revolves around a teenaged detective. The show starts with her in high school and concludes with her in college, allowing her to grow up a bit over the course of the series. Like Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars is no shrinking violet. She's creative, she's tough as nails, she's aggressive, she's a good investigator, she has complex relationships with other people.

A promotional image for the television show Veronica Mars, showing the characters Veronica, Duncan, Logan, Eli, and Wallace.

She's a pretty strong female character, although one of the things about the show that irks me is the way she see-saws between partners, as though she is somehow incomplete without a boyfriend. There are other great women on the show, like Mac, who is delightfully nerdy but also has a tough streak, and Parker, who is initially depicted as a vapid blond but turns out to have hidden depths (like Veronica herself).

The good things about the show: It depicts sexual assault and rape, exploring what happens when you are ignored when you try to report it, and depicting the fallout of sexual assault for survivors. Veronica Mars also explores class issues, forcing people to confront the divide between rich and poor as we see it play out between the characters. There's also some interesting racial stuff, including non-white characters who are allowed to be something other than stereotypes, are interesting, and talk to each other about things beyond the white characters.

The bad things: Well, there's the revolving door of Veronica's boyfriends. There's also the 'feminists' in the final season. Veronica herself never IDs as feminist and we don't see the F-word thrown around much at all until we meet an aggressive women's group at the college that's like your worst stereotyping nightmare. They're man haters, they're willing to frame people for crimes they didn't commit while they themselves commit rape, and they ride roughshod over numerous other characters.

I have a hard time calling this show feminist, given that. Yes, it depicts some strong women doing awesome things and it challenges some oppressions, and, to be blunt, it is one of my all time favorite television shows ever. But the fact that the only feminists we see are gross caricatures is really frustrating. Even though they are understandably angry, given that the campus has been plagued with a rapist over multiple semesters and nothing has been done about it, even though I think there is a place for violent, aggressive resistance, this was not the place to show it. People didn't consider the fact that the feminist group was justifiably enraged, and went over the line, they took away the idea that all feminists are irrational people who overreact and actively participate in oppression.

You could consider it a meta-criticism on feminism, but I doubt Veronica Mars was delving that deep, you know?

I feel like people watching the show who haven't really been exposed to feminism were internalizing some feminist messages until they got to the actual feminists, at which point they learned that feminists are bad. What's more important, the delivery of the message, or naming the ideology that goes with it? I'd rather that people be doing feminist things and not recognizing them as feminist than doing nothing at all, or doing actively anti-feminist things (and sometimes calling them feminist), but I also wish that depictions of feminists in pop culture were not uniformly awful. Few shows are even willing to call characters feminist at all and positive depictions of feminists and feminism are thin on the ground.

I don't know if Thomas really thinks that this is what feminists are like, or was trying to make a commentary with the caricatures that just didn't resolve itself, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Surely, a criterion for considering a show feminist is that if it contains feminists, they shouldn't be caricatures.

Right?

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Comments

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I'm so glad to see this

I'm so glad to see this posted because Veronica Mars is definitely one of my favourite all time shows but it has a whole host of unfortunate and offensive storylines some of which you addressed! I'm currently rewatching the show and working on my next vlog about it.

The feminists raped people?

The feminists raped people? When did that happen on the show?

Season Three, Episode Eight,

Season Three, Episode Eight, 'Lord of the Pi's.' The women of Lilith House (the 'feminist' group in the third season) penetrate Chip Diller with a foreign object after drugging him, and leave him out in the quad for everyone to find. This is actually treated as a bit of a running joke, with 'keister egg' references, because apparently male rape never happens, or is just hilarious.

My wife and I said the same thing about the "feminist" group

I can't remember a feminist org in any movie/tv show that wasn't depicted as man-hating,anti-sex, full of "ugly" women,etc. Sadly, 'Veronica Mars' wasn't an exception.
The first season was great, I don't know if I'd call it

Season 3 sucks, the campus feminists rapists were just the cherry on top of the "fuck you" sundae.

Veronica also suddenly got more stupid that season,putting herself into unnecessary danger. One episode, she's drugged, and decides to walk to her car all by herself in the dark. Of course this is after she'd been roofied and raped in Season 1. In one episode she's nearly killed by mob thug Liam Fitzpatrick, in Season 3 she goes into Liam's bar all alone and unarmed. Stupid and out of character.

I would agree that the

I would agree that the season 3 feminists were over-the-top and probably fueled a few stereotypes. But I don't think that Thomas was necessarily out to create a purely feminist show. One of the things I love so much about Veronica Mars is that EVERYONE is depicted negatively. No one is exempt from moral ambiguity, including our heroine. Lots of people get riled up about the way Latinos are depicted on the show: as thieves, criminals, and gang members, but forget the real villains of the show (the murderers, the pedophiles) are usually the richest and the whitest. Veronica straddles the fence between groups and classes because she knows she can't trust anyone, regardless of how good they may seem. Similarly, in season 3 when she starts at Hearst College, she immediately identifies with the feminists because they hate the frat boys and want to catch the rapist as badly as she does. But Veronica is unwilling to compromise the truth in order to "take down the patriarchy" (in this case, the frat houses) and is in turn ostracized from the feminists as well. If Veronica became a crusader for the feminist movement, it wouldn't have been the same show, because the minute she became a member of a group, she would be a different character. I think Veronica brought feminism to TV simply because she is a girl and she kicked ass. But you can't expect the show to favor any group or political movement over another. That's just not what it was about.

I agree that, for me, one of

I agree that, for me, one of the things I love most about Veronica Mars is that there are no good people on this show, there are no clear moral rights/wrongs, there are a lot of shades of grey and ambiguity, and that forces viewers to confront some things. Unlike a lot of shows that moralise by telling, this one makes people think about what they are watching and how they respond to it. (It's one of the things I also like about Mad Men, where many of the 'hero' characters are really, fundamentally, awful people.)

'you can't expect the show to favor any group or political movement over another. That's just not what it was about.'

I found this statement completely baffling. Where did I say that the show should do this?

Should we not talk about how shows depict different groups and political movements, especially given that most do indeed favour certain groups and movements over others? Should we not talk, specifically, about how feminists and feminism are often depicted in pop culture, especially, uh, in the context of a publication billing itself as 'the feminist response to pop culture'?

Like I said, the feminists

Like I said, the feminists on the show are clearly unlikable characters and I think your opinion is totally valid. All I mean is that absolutely no one is depicted in a completely positive light on the show. If the Lilith House was depicted as horrible and man-hating and demonic while the frat boys were depicted as victimized college kids, I'd be pissed too. But they're actually depicted as womanizing, brainless assholes, and I'm sure that real-life fraternity guys aren't thrilled with that stereotype either. Veronica Mars finds the bad in everyone.

And I might be reading too much into things, but I don't think that the Lilith House is really meant to represent the feminist movement as a whole. Veronica clearly believes that men and women are equal and acts on that instinct on several occasions. I think it has more to do with labeling and groups. The second Veronica steps into a "group," she ceases to be an outsider. But if Rob Thomas were anti-feminist, Veronica wouldn't be such a strong character.

Unfortunately this sentiment

Unfortunately this sentiment is all too common. A feminist is a mysterious creature than one rarely ever sees but you hear about these anti-men oversensitive bitches all the time in the news!

This exact idea is why, when I mentioned that I frequent feminist blogs, my males friends sigh and say, "Ew, feminists." And of course when confronted with the idea that I am, in fact, a feminist, they respond, "Well you're one of the good ones." Like "good" feminists are hard to come by?

I love this show SO MUCH, but...yeah.

I rewatch VM, my favorite show of all time, frequently...by which I mean, I rewatch the first two seasons. The third was alienating as a start, what with the sudden location-and-format changes, but the content was uninspired and just offensive at a lot of points. When they brought in The Feminists -- I think sarcastic capitalization is appropriate here -- I was pleased at first, thinking, "Oh good, they're (overtly) acknowledging that Veronica is a feminist herself." Then, they did what you've discussed, along with faking rapes (ugh, don't get me started) and refusing to associate with girls who have friends in sororities. I'm all for analyzing and critiquing mainstream sorority culture, but assuming all women in a group fulfill a stereotype and are thus the enemy? Ain't soundin' feminist to me.

I also hated the ways in which Veronica was posited as "the good kind of feminist" or perhaps even the "not a feminist, but" for not going along with the plan to frame frat boys instead of imprisoning an actual rapist. Soon afterward, Veronica makes comments about how girls always eat frozen yogurt and discuss guys, and teases Wallace for watching chick movies and enjoying chick drinks. (Both brief moments, but obviously they hit me in the gut and stuck there, especially in context.)

Having said all this, I feel obligated to reiterate that the first two seasons, while not perfect, are more than worth it. (The second, though derided by some as two complicated or two dark, remains the best thing I have ever seen on TV.) It's perhaps a shame that the show didn't end there.

'Feminism' on mainstream TV in a positive light

I know this comment might be slightly off the topic (since it doesn't have to do with VM), but I totally agree with the statement that feminists/feminism aren't concepts that are shown on mainstream TV in a positive light very often, if ever, which is why in my quick run-through of the first five seasons of How I Met Your Mother (which is, of course, full of issues that go way beyond Barney Stinson) pleasantly surprised me in one of the episodes from the first few seasons. Robin and Lily are having a conversation about career and love, and Robin makes a comment about how some of her recent decisions make her feel like a "bad feminist," and Lily reassures her that it isn't true. I thought it was great to see a character calling themselves feminist like it was a normal thing, and instead of their feminism being scary it was just a natural part of their identities. I wish more shows were able to just drop it into conversation like that, instead of using The Feminists to illustrate antagonistic plot lines.

!

Wonderful! I just started the second season, and have been told that the first season remains the pinnacle. That said, I'm still invested in Veronica's trajectory, even if she doesn't self-identify with the "f"-word.

I'm totally with you about the Duncan-Logan-Veronica triangle suggests Veronica dependency on men, and also suffers further in my estimation by involving a dull suitor and a noxious one.

But I do love Veronica's homosocial bonds to characters like Mac, as well as her complex relationship with Lily Kane, who seemed fickle but cared a great deal for her friend. Also, I like her friendship with Wallace.

However, I thought it was interesting that you listed the show's depictions of sexual assault and rape as one of the show's positive attributes. Some of my feminist friends' noted it as a negative aspect of the show. Though I haven't gotten there yet, I've heard much of this criticism in relation to the final season, when it seems to serve less as an exploration of how the legal system disenfranchises survivors and how those survivors work through the trauma, and more as a narrative crutch. So this discourse makes me especially interested to get through the series and come to my own conclusions on the subject matter.

Alyx Vesey

Yeah, the depictions of

Yeah, the depictions of sexual assault and rape were, I thought, strong in seasons one and two, and fell apart in three--as, indeed, the show itself started having serious problems in the third season. Honestly, sometimes I wish I had stopped at season two and just...not gone on.

I've been rewatching

I've been rewatching Veronica Mars these past two weeks, and I am so glad I saw this. Agreed to n'th degree...but I have to say I was shocked when I saw this line : "on-white characters who are allowed to be something other than stereotypes"

????????

Seriously? No. Hispanics are universally shown to be working class, gangbangers, homophobes, or as sex objects. There is not one or two plots in which a latino man is used by white women to taste "the dangerous side" and the only latina to be shown in the show at any length is involved a sex scandal.

No latino is shown to have gone to college with the group, even though, y'know, it's based in SoCal. Eli Navarro is allowed to be redeemed, so long as he didnt get to graduate high school (of all the host of morally questionable males, Eli is the only of the main men in Veronica's world that actually has to pay for his actions, he gets arrested when he was about to walk to get his diploma).

Oh, all the black characters have dissapearing fathers (though to be fair, in Veronica Mar's world all fathers except hers kinda suck). The female characters of color are dissapeared/killed/were secret teenage mothers who lied about their background and finished highschool to go back to waitresss after their parents abandoned them.

The main black character is plays a male version of the "sassy black friend" who plays basketball.

Season three? All the females of color that had any central connection to any plot were evil - either part of said angry feminist group or made their freaking roommates ABORT by slipping them an abortive pill.

I dunno guys, maybe the latina in me was overtly sensitive about this, but somehow I dont think so.

Heh, yeah, we never see

Heh, yeah, we never see feminists making false accusations of rape in order to demonstrate rape culture or get another group blamed.

never. happens. ladies. does it.