Mac on Veronica Mars presents a fascinating character in a show already riddled with them, and she’s a particularly interesting case study when it comes to the way the creators handled class. One thing I love about Veronica Mars is that class is actually part of the narrative, instead of being ignored or glossed over as it so often is in pop culture, and it’s heavily explored, although not always perfectly; one place the show really falls down is in the intersections between race and class, and the questionable depiction of characters of colour.
Mac is poor. It’s made readily apparent to us as viewers that she has a pretty bad home life, she’s low-income, and she hates the irritating things that come with being poor. What’s interesting to me as a viewer is what she does about it; she gets enterprising, finds ways to make money, and manages to sock away a good chunk of change. Enough to buy herself a nice car, which becomes an important part of her class narrative. She’s gone from being poor to being able to buy trappings of wealth, passing into a state of consumerism to outwardly signal her change in class status, even though her social status remains more or less the same.
A simplistic view of this is that Mac becomes a model of aspirational capitalism. It has all the trappings, as she becomes an entrepreneur to pull herself up by her bootstraps; while she may not have the social standing of the students from wealthy families, she’s willing to go head to head with them economically. In this sense, Mac is kind of a tragic character, because she becomes trapped inside this capitalist system, perpetuating it with her own actions rather than challenging and examining it. In the course of fighting the system, Mac becomes the system.
But this doesn’t quite ring true with Mac’s character, because she’s more savvy than that. She’s aware of the oppressive systems around her and I find it hard to believe that she’d naively engage with capitalism. As a character, she knows exactly what she is doing, and the simplistic reading doesn’t give her enough credit; it also presupposes that the writers weren’t very nuanced in their depiction of class, and I argue that they were, and that Veronica Mars has some extremely subtle and delicate embedded notes about class for people who dig below the surface.
It’s particularly intriguing because she was actually switched at birth with a baby from a wealthy family. A quirk of fate made Mac poor when she was actually born into wealth and power. The essentialism involved here, the suggestion that she’s aspirational because of her origins, rubs me the wrong way, but it still stands as an interesting comment on class and hereditary power.
She works within the system and plays the game because she is tired of being poor.
And this is pretty evident in the way she presents her change in financial status and behaves; yes, she buys a car, but for the most part, she doesn’t buy into consumerism as much as someone else might, and that self-awareness leads me to suspect that she’s making a bit of a devil’s bargain here, which changes her narrative. Rather than being a model of aspirational capitalism, she’s a critique of it. She knows that the only way to get ahead and the only way to function is to make money to support herself and give her a better chance at life, and cynically, she works the system to get there, but she’s also aware to some extent that capitalism is broken, and ultimately isn’t going to serve her.
Low-income people in Mac’s position are stuck in a difficult place. While people with more financial clout might tell them to resist and step outside of capitalism and make a political point with their decisions, they also need to think about the present, here and now. Being poor really sucks. People need to survive now, and you can’t eat theory.
And some people make the decision to make that tradeoff because it’s the right decision for them. Some even do so with the hopes of changing the system from the inside, for whatever those hopes are worth, but others are more cynical about it; they become investment bankers or entrepreneurs or whatever else because they’ve been poor and it’s grinding and shitty and they want to be something else now.
Mac’s financial activities are a comment on the class inequality at the high school, but they’re more than that. They’re also a commentary about being poor in the United States and the choices people have to make; she savvily takes advantage of wealthy students to earn money for herself, hitting them at their weakest point. She sees the system, recognises how it works, and figures out how to twist that to her advantage, because she’s well aware that her life will go nowhere if she ends up trapped in poverty.
There are a lot of things about Mac’s narrative to discuss, but writing her off as a convert to consumer culture for being entrepreneurial would be a mistake, because it’s about much more than that. Her activities provoke more questions than answers, especially among viewers who have been poor and understand where she is coming from when she makes the choice to use her talents in an attempt to not be poor. If you read her characterisation as simple bootstrapping, you miss the undertones going on there, because Mac is anything but a bootstrapper.