Rape on Mars

Tristan’s been suggesting that I watch Veronica Mars since Patti introduced him to it and he roared through all three seasons in a remarkably short amount of time. Which is pretty much exactly what I did after I finally started watching it. I’ve got to give Tristan props; his television recommendations are rarely wrong. And he knows that I like television which deals with social issues and forces me to think, which Veronica Mars most definitely does. And you, gentle readers, know what happens when television makes me think: I write about it.

I’m assuming that readers have a passing familiarity with the show. If you haven’t watched Veronica Mars, you should probably stop reading this and go watch it, because it’s a fantastic show and I would highly recommend it. It features a strong female character, and I will probably be talking about that and other issues in the future, and it’s just sharp and generally awesome. And this post is going to contain a number of spoilers which would probably make the show less enjoyable for you than it would be if you approached it cold. The show sadly only had a three year stint, from 2004-2007, which means you don’t need to spend that much time catching up with me. It was (and continues to be) critically acclaimed, and with good reason.

On a lot of levels, Veronica Mars follows some pretty predictable lines. It’s a teen drama, with a cast of beautiful young people, set in sunny Neptune, California, a fictional town with a seamy underbelly. Veronica, our eponymous hero, is plunged right into that underbelly, as her father used to be the sheriff and is now a private detective, and Veronica assists him with cases in addition to pursuing some of her own. The main premise of the show is that each episode involves a mystery, and each season has an overarching mystery arc which needs to be solved. But there’s a lot more going on than that. The show is often compared to Buffy, and not just because it has a young blonde woman as the lead. It’s smart, it’s funny but also dark, and it’s complicated. Veronica Mars often treads grey areas, and it deals with a lot of very real world issues like class differences, cultural clashes, and sexuality, which aren’t masquerading as vampires or demons.

One of the issues which becomes a thematic element in the show is rape, which kind of surprised me. It’s not really what you would expect from television, period, and especially not from a teen drama. But it becomes a critically important part of the show, whether one’s talking statutory rape of Veronica’s classmate and friend Lily, or the series of rapes which occur in seasons two and three. Art doesn’t always imitate life, nor is it required to, but when it does choose to deal with serious social issues, I tend to pay close attention, because I am curious to see how they are framed.

I think that the creative decision to include rape and the reality of rape was a good one, but it wasn’t always followed through in a positive way. Veronica Mars definitely made some false steps which made me cringe as a viewer, but it also struck some very honest and resonant notes. I am inclined to say that the overall treatment of rape was quite strong, actually, and it was very nuanced, although sometimes I think that the creators and writers could have benefited from thinking things through just a tad more.

Rape is introduced at several different points in the story. In the first season, one of the mysteries of the season is what, exactly, happened at Shelly Pomroy’s party. The fact that Veronica was drugged and raped at the party is introduced in the very first episode, as part of Veronica’s story, and in the very same episode, we are introduced to a very real problem which faces many rape victims: lack of support. Seeking help, Veronica goes to the sheriff to report the crime, and is dismissed because she can’t remember anything, her father is an enemy of the sheriff, and the sheriff fears the power of the wealthy people Veronica is accusing of complicity. While a real-world sheriff’s department shouldn’t send off a woman filing a complaint of rape without providing any assistance at all, as happened to Veronica, there are definitely varying degrees of seriousness when such cases are handled, and Veronica’s treatment was a sobering reminder to viewers that police are not always your friends. Veronica’s case might be a bit extreme, but she wouldn’t be the first victim to fall through the cracks. Or, sadly, the last.

The rape clearly haunts Veronica, as it would any victim, and in “A Trip to the Dentist,” she tries to track down the truth. Viewers are taken through a series of recollections of the party, all from different points of view, as different pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. Each viewpoint provides a different version of the story, which is also true to life; witnesses rarely agree on anything. And, eventually, Veronica thinks she has found resolution, although we later learn that she hasn’t. The truth of her rape is actually much more complex, feeding into the second season plot. The false resolution is also a great play on reality: the truth is rarely simple, and even a skilled sleuth can reach a conclusion which later turns out to be very, very wrong.

I was initially really infuriated with the way in which the rape was resolved at the end of the first season. The version of the story which Veronica arrives at has her “having sex with” her boyfriend, who was also under the influence of a date rape drug. This is a fundamental problem in the media as a whole, entertainment or otherwise. Rape is rarely specifically identified as rape. It’s all “had sex with,” as in “teacher had sex with 11 year old student” or “these characters had sex,” even when the event described is specifically, unequivocally, a rape. And this is incredibly damaging, because it underscores rape culture. Rape is just “having sex,” not a fundamental violation. And if you “have sex” under the influence, it’s not really rape, especially if it’s with your boyfriend, because this is a society in which a relationship implies consent, even if you never had sex or discussed sex in the relationship before you were raped while under the influence. I gave the show a big fat raspberry with this resolution, because I think it sent some bad messages to viewers. Fortunately, it redeemed itself in other areas.

One of the things which marks Veronica Mars as different from the media is that despite this serious slipup, the show calls rape rape. It doesn’t pussyfoot around. When Veronica finally realizes the truth of the matter and screams “you raped me” at her actual rapist repeatedly in the season two finale, it is a very raw and emotional scene. And it kind of, though not entirely, makes up for the way in which the rape is “resolved” in the first season. I think that they might have done some disservice to her character in the interest of driving the plot; for example, she doesn’t get a rape kit or see a doctor, two things you might expect, especially from a private detective, because the creators wanted to conceal the identity of the rapist and use the STI she got as a result of the rape as a plot device.

The real resolution of the rape in season two was, I thought, incredibly powerful. Veronica’s rapist was, it turns out, a classmate who was a victim of molestation as a child. He’s not just a rapist, it turns out, he’s also a murderer. And one might think that he’s a pretty repulsive and horrific character, but one is also forced to have some sympathy for him. Cassidy Casablancas was made into a monster by the things which happened to him, and that made the story far more nuanced and grey than it would have been otherwise. This is a consistent theme in the show; it’s not enough to tell a story, the story must also be complicated, and must raise uncomfortable issues.

Does being molested excuse Cassidy? No. But it does humanize him. The scene in the season two finale in which Veronica finally learns the truth and Cassidy commits suicide by jumping off a roof after (he thinks) blowing up the plane carrying Veronica’s father was heartwrenching, as Veronica and Logan stand by helplessly when Cassidy makes the decision to jump. Sure, it’s melodrama, but such is the nature of really good television, and being melodramatic doesn’t detract at all from the intensity and, to some extent, reality of the story. People really do get molested and later become rapists and murderers, and inside many villains is a victim.

I do feel like there could have been a way to allow Veronica to be a little more true to her character in the first season without spoiling the second season. For example, she could have gone to a doctor and gotten a rape kit with inconclusive results. Or results which couldn’t be compared to anything, since there were no suspects. And the doctor’s visit could have been too soon after the event for signs of an STI to be present, with Veronica failing to attend a followup appointment because she’s trying to bury and suppress the memories, something else which would be true to life. But this criticism is primarily creative; I wish it had been handled a bit differently, but I can see why they chose to handle it in the way which they did, and while their framing was sort of problematic, it wasn’t necessarily totally wrong. Had the resolution in the first season been the final resolution and the real story, I think we would have seen it explored more than it was.

Veronica’s rape also sets her up to be a sympathetic character when she meets a college girl who has been drugged, raped, and shorn of her hair in the second season. This rapist returns to plague Veronica in season three, and provides a great chance for a snappy line when someone mentions a “date rape” and someone else points out that when someone has been drugged and shaved, it’s “not a date,” which was a nice snap in the face to the term “date rape,” which I loathe. Veronica ultimately determines the identity of the rapist and his accomplice, a man who worked as a Residential Advisor and a Safe Ride Home driver, demonstrating the fact that in the real world, not everyone who appears to be safe really is.

It’s a bit unfortunate that rape in the show primarily takes place in the form of a drugging and raping of women. I think it’s unfortunate because most rapes are actually acquaintance rapes, and such rapes are much less rarely reported than rapes which involve a stranger or the use of date rape drugs. Again, television is not required to be true to life, and I like that the show repeatedly stresses, for the most part, that when people are not able to consent, it’s not having sex, it’s rape, but I also wish that we could have seen an acquaintance rape and the aftermath as well.

The show also struck at a lot of stereotypes. One of the season three rapes is Veronica’s friend Mac’s roommate, who is portrayed as kind of a slutty party girl initially. Viewers are lured into the position of writing her off, and just like Veronica, they regret it. Veronica isn’t responsible for the girl’s rape, of course, although she actually witnesses it without realizing what is happening, but the show reminds us through her that making judgments about people can result in making a bad judgment, and that there’s more to a supposedly slutty party girl than meets the eye. Thought it would have been nice to reminded that even slutty party girls can be and are raped, and that they deserve respect too.

Of course, the show plays into some stereotypes. Season three features a band of militant feminists who pretty much give feminism a bad name, and that’s really unfortunate. The members of Lilith House do some good things, like picketing events and educating people and providing coasters which can be used to test drinks for drugs like GHB, but they also run around being generally wildly inappropriate. At one particularly low point in the third season, they are accused of faking a rape for publicity, which plays into a number of pernicious stereotypes about both feminists and rape. It’s unfortunate that the “feminists” in the show are basically set up as antagonists to Veronica and portrayed in such an unflattering light, because Veronica herself is a very feminist character and she has something in common with the women of Lilith House: she wants women to be safe.

Having the women of Lilith House commit a rape of their own when they kidnap, drug, and rape a frat boy was pretty horrific, and was another major false step for the show. It was a big disservice to feminists, most of whom don’t actually subscribe to the idea that raping someone is a good method of administering punishment or enacting vengeance. It also made light of male rape, which is a really serious topic. The double standard about rape in the show clearly plays into generalized social ideas about women, men, and sexuality; taking a male rape seriously was, apparently, too daring for the show’s creators.

Another of the most egregious areas of the show’s treatment of rape was rape jokes. My jaw actually dropped the first time I heard a prison rape joke, given that I’d been raving to Tristan about 30 seconds earlier about how much I was loving the treatment of rape on the show. Alas, rape jokes were also a running theme on the show, and were one of the things which I found most off putting and puzzling: how could the creators of a show which is so sensitive and so tuned-in be so boneheaded? The rape joke as episode title in season two was especially galling. The use of rape jokes in the show really illustrates, I think, how far many people still have to go: the creators can recognize rape as something awful which needs to be treated seriously and framed with care, and yet they can’t make the leap to understanding how rape jokes normalize rape culture and are also awful, and also not funny.

The fact that rape was dealt with at all in a popular teen drama is nothing short of amazing, and I applaud Veronica Mars just for making the effort, even if it fell short sometimes. As always when I critically evaluate shows I love, I am in awe of the creators who did such a good job, and it makes me all the more disappointed when they fail to think things through, or when they dilute the message of their show in the service of plot. Rape rarely comes up on television in any form, and to have such a primarily strong and resonant presence was excellent. The rapes were not just a plot device, they were an important thematic element in the show, which is more than I can say for the depiction of rape in pretty much any show on television right now.

Missteps like those I identify in Veronica Mars are particularly glaring in a show which is otherwise right on. I can think of many really terrible treatments of rape and feminists on television, but they aren’t that surprising, because they appear in the context of a generally bad and often offensive show (like, say, Family Guy). It is when our heroes fail us that we become most bitterly disappointed, because we have low expectations of the ignoramuses of the world, but high ones of those who seem to have a grain of sense.

3 Comments on Rape on Mars

  1. Anna Winter // 17 August, 2009 at 11:43 pm //

    Came here via the Hoydens.

    This is such a good post, but my interpretation of the not getting the rape kit was a bit different. It was “long-haired” Veronica who was raped, when she was a carefree, popular kid, not the wise-cracking private detective. So I sort of saw her not getting the kit as part of the old Veronica who didn’t know these things?

    Also, with the on-campus feminists. I agree that they didn’t do a great job of it in practice, but I thought they were attempting to portray the kind of un-thinking “activism” that often happens at college. People jumping on a bandwagon to stir up trouble, and not really considering how the ideas they’re promoting actually work in real life. A subtle difference, sure, and one that I still think they kinda failed in, unfortunately. I think they could have fixed that by having other self-identified feminists who weren’t arseholes doing the activist thing as well. But I saw it as a theme throughout the show – with the pro-lifers and the anti-crime folks also getting a serve – of the dangers of unthinking ideology that can’t see nuance.

  2. meloukhia // 18 August, 2009 at 6:24 am //

    Hm, that’s an interesting read re: long haired Veronica. I still feel like knowledge about rape kits is something she might have absorbed through her father’s work, but she might not have had the initiative at that point to try and collect one on her own. (Not that it would be easy or pleasant to do so, or that rape victims should attempt to collect their own if law enforcement ignores them; it would actually probably invalidate the evidence due to chain of evidence issue, etc etc.)

    I suspect you’re probably right that Veronica Mars was trying to address unthinking ideology and how damaging it can be to society. But I still think they failed, especially with the feminists. Their characterization really left me with a sour taste in my mouth, since there wasn’t a single reasonable feminist in the lot, and they were in opposition to Veronica. I think it probably frustrated me more for the reasons I stated at the conclusion of this post: the creators did a lot of things so well, to have them muck some key issues up really smarted!

  3. Anna Winter // 18 August, 2009 at 6:27 pm //

    I agree. When they did over the pro-lifers they had the minister/dad who turned out to be a very good and forgiving man. So I too was disappointed that they didn’t have at least one of the on-campus feminists turn out to be decent and thoughtful, too. It bothered me a lot.

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