Rape in Veronica Mars: Part 1

Veronica Mars, in its short life, has dealt an awful lot with rape. It has also received a lot of criticism for its approach during the first 9-episode story arc of the third season, which followed Veronica arriving at college and trying to solve the mystery of a serial rapist who drugs and shaves the heads of his victims. Recently, an interview with VM creator Rob Thomas was posted on Television Without Pity [article removed], in which, among other things, he responds to the accusations that he is anti-woman or anti-feminist based on his portrayal of the “Take Back the Night” women in that series of episodes. The women in question are a bunch of humourless, aggressive, man-haters who go so far as to fake a rape in order to get revenge and cast suspicion on the frat boys.

I’m going to comment in two separate entries on the problems with his defense of this storyline. The most problematic aspect, to me, is the fake rape, which Thomas justifies first of all because no one comes off clean and shiny and morally unambiguous in a noir universe, so even rape victims and feminists can behave badly, and second, by saying that Veronica herself is one of the best feminist icons currently on TV, especially given her age, and that he therefore should have the “feminist cach锝 necessary to avoid accusations of misogyny.

In my opinion, he does not have that caché, not because Veronica isn’t awesome (I’ll deal a little more with Veronica’s strength as a feminist character in the following post), but because I won’t let anyone portray a fake rape on television without raising a stink. In the world of TV, fake rape seems to be more common than actual rape. It’s happened a hundred times on L&O: SVU, on CSI, on Dawson’s Creek; you name the headline-seeking thought-free TV show, I’ll find you the woman who faked a rape. Sure, it’s a more interesting story. The reality and ubiquity of coerced date rape with very little physical violence is completely banal. That doesn’t mean that Rob Thomas or anyone else gets to contribute to the perception that women the world over are crying rape in order to manipulate, get revenge, get sympathy or initiate a lawsuit and expect not to face criticism for it. That attitude bleeds into the real world, and survivors of serious sexual violence face disbelief and accusations from friends, family, and authority figures, and contributing to that judgment will never be acceptable no matter how much of a feminist icon your title character may be.

(Part 2 to appear this evening)

Posts in this Series

  1. Rape in Veronica Mars: Part 1
  2. Rape in Veronica Mars: Part 2
  3. Rape in Veronica Mars: Third (and final)

Comments

  1. says

    The most problematic aspect, to me, is the fake rape, which Thomas justifies first of all because no one comes off clean and shiny and morally unambiguous in a noir universe, so even rape victims and feminists can behave badly

    Which would be a pretty ok argument, really, if there was plenty of evidence of rape victims, feminists, and members of all sorts of other groups behaving not just badly, but well on the same show. Showing a group of characters as consistently bad isn’t making them morally ambiguous – it’s making them bad people.

  2. says

    I actually wrote a whole post on this awhile ago. I’m also pissed because the show doesn’t draw a direct line that says Veronica Is A Feminist, though it’s clear that she is, but for people who don’t know much about feminism, or who already buy into negative stereotypes, it becomes Veronica (not identified as a feminist) fighting against a bunch of man hating stereotypes who are identified as feminists. Sigh.

    There are a lot of shows where I’d overlook it with only mild irritation, thinking that the creator just hadn’t realized what he’d done, but Rob Thomas is someone who I really think does put a lot of thought into his story archs, so he doesn’t get the free pass.

  3. says

    In the world of TV, fake rape seems to be more common than actual rape. It’s happened a hundred times on L&O: SVU, on CSI, on Dawson’s Creek; you name the headline-seeking thought-free TV show, I’ll find you the woman who faked a rape. Sure, it’s a more interesting story. The reality and ubiquity of coerced date rape with very little physical violence is completely banal. That doesn’t mean that Rob Thomas or anyone else gets to contribute to the perception that women the world over are crying rape in order to manipulate, get revenge, get sympathy or initiate a lawsuit and expect not to face criticism for it.

    Yes, but in all due fairness, false rape accusations are are only one in a series of ways that TV shows portray crime inaccurately in order to avoid banality. Not only do lots of women fake rapes, but middle-to-upper class whites commit the majority of the murders in New York and the policemen are often stymied by legal technicalities, rather than just deciding to pile on a dozen extra charges until the defendant agrees to plead out.

    I can see why people would be concerned with TV shows portraying women faking rapes, but for detective shows that want to go with the feel of realism (e.g. L & O as opposed to Monk), there is no way they could avoid portraying crime statistics inaccurately unless the episodes were fairly banal (or unless the crimes were just background and the real story was about the interactions between the leads).

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Reb, that’s a good article you wrote. I’ve never seen the show, but from your description I can feel how you initially sympathized with Lilith House… only to discover that they really just hate hate hate the frats. That’s a very familiar vibe in TV, and it sounds to me like the producer’s doing a complex dance around the blame, and you summed up exactly why in your comment here.

    Glav, that’s all true if we were talking about false rape accusations and how much more common they are on TV than in real life (which I also take issue with, but never mind for now). But what we’re talking about here is the man-hating feminist sterotype, and your argument proves the reverse on that. Why do middle-to-upper class whites commit most murders in TV New York? Because the shows don’t want to portray mostly minorities committing murders, since that’s the stereotype. The producers don’t care if that’s the statistical reality; they’re avoiding it to avoid offending minorities (and furthering the unfair assumptions people make about ALL minorities being prone to criminal behavior).

    But the reverse happens on TV. In reality, most feminists love men in general as much as they love women, and have some men in their lives that they love in particular. But TV ignores that reality to perpetuate a stereotype: the woman who claims to be a feminist because she believes in equality, but really just has a beef against men.

    If your argument is that things are parallel because both are cases of producers selecting a more dramatic un-reality because reality is boring, I disagree. There is nothing dramatic about the TV shrew anymore. It’s been done to death. What would be really be dramatic is seeing women bring rapists down and get justice. Publicly expose and humiliate rapists before locking them away for years. Maybe a character getting a chance to kill her rapist in self-defense as he decides to silence her forever.

    All far more dramatic and interesting than yet another re-telling of how hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

  5. says

    If your argument is that things are parallel because both are cases of producers selecting a more dramatic un-reality because reality is boring, I disagree. There is nothing dramatic about the TV shrew anymore.

    I was only suggesting parallels to the “great white defendant” in terms of false rape accusations, not to feminists being portrayed as misandrist whackjobs.

  6. MaggieCat says

    I totally agree that the fake rape storyline is overused in general. Just last week CSI:NY did it, and that show generally treats its female characters a lot better than Original CSI.

    I haven’t seen every episode of VM (I’m addicted to House) but I saw several of the ones relevant to this arc and read the TWoP recaps of the ones I didn’t. I didn’t really care for how the feminists were portrayed in general, but I thought the frat guys came off looking worse (not that that’s an excuse) and was pretty disgusted at the fake rape being used when there was so little progress being made in the real ones- it makes it too easy to push the real victims under the rug.

    That said, after we found out about the girl who had been driven to suicide by the guys in the frat using her in a hazing ritual, it read a little differently to me. These girls had a very specific reason to believe these specific people needed to be punished for what they’d done, and there was no way to lay her suicide at their door. She was the best friend of the girl who was the fake victim. Was it a good idea? Definitely not. It was irresponsible and counterproductive. (Not to mention illegal.) But I could see where they were coming from, being that hurt and angry about how their friend had been torn apart.

    That’s from a character perspective though. From a writing perspective I think the show would have been better off finding a different way, or might have been able to salvage this storyline by simply showing some normal girls who were both rational and self-identified feminists. Like Revena said, I think the most glaring error is not that they were behaving badly, but that no one was doing the right thing to show that they were wrong and that they were not acting with the support of the every feminist everywhere.

  7. Ide Cyan says

    There’s another point worth mentioning about the portrayal of the Liliths on VM: they committed sexual assault by shoving an Easter egg in that frat boy’s rectum. And then the episode had Veronica crack jokes about it…

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    There’s another point worth mentioning about the portrayal of the Liliths on VM: they committed sexual assault by shoving an Easter egg in that frat boy’s rectum. And then the episode had Veronica crack jokes about it…

    Ew. Reinforcing the idea that rape on males is not something to be taken seriously is even more irresponsible than misrepresenting feminists as militants.

  9. Purtek says

    I wish I had had more time to reply to a number of these comments this week, but briefly…

    Reb, that is a great article, and I feel totally comfortable saying that given that it’s rather a lot like the stuff I’ve written on the subject. :) I also agree that it would actually be easier to let someone off the hook if they were just clueless or a lazy writer, so Rob Thomas should be held to a higher, not lower, standard based on what he showed us before.

    That said, after we found out about the girl who had been driven to suicide by the guys in the frat using her in a hazing ritual, it read a little differently to me. These girls had a very specific reason to believe these specific people needed to be punished for what they’d done, and there was no way to lay her suicide at their door. She was the best friend of the girl who was the fake victim. Was it a good idea? Definitely not. It was irresponsible and counterproductive. (Not to mention illegal.) But I could see where they were coming from, being that hurt and angry about how their friend had been torn apart.

    This is where the interview suggests that we’re supposed to sense some moral ambiguity, I think. In my opinion, there’s nothing remotely ambiguous about sexual assault, ever. Revenge is a complicated question, morally speaking, though I’m pretty solidly in the “no revenge” camp. I think part of the reason I don’t feel sympathy for them for faking the rape, even given this, is that they weren’t written for me to feel sorry for. This layer of “complexity” was tacked on after they had already been set up as irredeemably two-dimensional. And as BetaCandy says above, regardless of their reasoning, they’re still being portrayed as feminists simply because they have a beef against men, and they’re certainly not looking at the issues/their actions from the “big picture” angle.

    Finally, I was going to make this paranthetical, but it’s a really important point, so: BetaCandy, I absolutely agree that reinforcing the idea that rape against males is not to be taken seriously is reprehensible. I frequently have a difficult time explaining to those threatened by my self-identification as a “feminist” that I do believe sexual assault/domestic violence is a sexist issue, but that at the same time I think in the situations where a man is assaulted, he’s often left even worse off than many women. There’s a lack of support systems, there are additional psychological effects driven by cultural standards of masculinity, and on top of all that, he’s getting the message (and he’s probably right) that if he speaks out/anyone finds out, he’ll be mocked openly. It makes me want to vomit.

  10. says

    I know I’m years behind on this, but I just finished all three seasons on DVD and have been looking for some feminist takes on VM, especially the third season.

    I was disgusted by the portrayal of the Lilith House feminists in the third season. I wanted to support them and I tried to empathize with them, but they were just all bad characters with ill-explained motives doing mean things to spite the men they didn’t like. It’s no wonder feminism has such a bad rap in mainstream media with unquestioned portrayals such as this one. I agree that the revelation of the suicide added some depth and complexity to the feminists, but I also agree that this complexity and depth doesn’t do away with the overarching sense that these women are spiteful and irrationally angry, so angry that they spend more time doing illegal “activist” things (egging, vandalizing, etc.) than being real activists (driving drunk women home). That’s not a house I’d join, and I don’t blame people for not wanting to assume the label of “feminist” if these women represent that label.

    There’s another point worth mentioning about the portrayal of the Liliths on VM: they committed sexual assault by shoving an Easter egg in that frat boy’s rectum. And then the episode had Veronica crack jokes about it…

    She did make jokes about it, which was terrible, but when she was scolding the Liliths for faking a rape, she said something like, “Has anyone *really* been raped except Chip [the frat boy]?” I thought that was important, and I’m glad she said it. This does not, of course, make up for or counteract the jokes she made in that episode and in later episodes where she interacted with Chip.

    But while I think it’s important to recognize that men are also raped and to create structures that support male victims as well as female victims, I felt that this naming of rape in stark, side-by-side contrast with the fake rape of one of the women toward the end of the story arc detracted from the seriousness of the other rapes that *had* occurred to the women on the show. I felt as though it wasn’t until VM was drugged, right before the rapists were caught, that women (despite the one fake rape) were recognized as the larger group of victims again. This is not responsible writing, in my opinion.

  11. Kate B says

    Veronica Mars was raped by Cassidy Casablancas
    Sarah Williams was raped by her stepfather
    Dawn was raped by serial rapist Mercer Hayes
    Stacy Wells was raped by serial rapist Mercer Hayes
    Nancy Cooper was raped by serial rapist Mercer Hayes
    Parker Lee was raped by serial rapist Mercer Hayes

    Cassidy Casablancas was molested by Woody Goodman
    Peter Ferrer was molested by Woody Goodman
    Marcos Oliveres was molested by Woody Goodman
    Tommy “Lucky” Dohanic was molested by Woody Goodman

    Lilly Kane technically was statatory raped by Aaron Echolls
    Susan Knight technically was statatory raped by Mr. Rooks

    You might be right about “fake rape being more common” on television. But this clearly isn’t the case with Veronica Mars.

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