Square Peg, Round Hole: Veronica Mars Season 4
Remember how I said I wasn’t gonna watch Veronica Mars Season 4?
My good friend came for a visit and she doesn’t have Hulu. After I caught her looking longingly at the Hulu promotional ad for VMS4, we ended up bingewatching it over the course of a couple days. I’m pleased to report for those who read my last piece and were shocked, shocked I tells ya, that I had the unmitigated gall to write about something I hadn’t watched, we BOTH hated it (and I kept my mouth shut and didn’t ruin anything for her -- she hated it all on her own).
My original instinct to not watch Veronica Mars S4 was spot on. The mystery was somehow both boring and rushed, the bad guy was obvious, and the twist on a twist where you thought there was a different bad guy but then it turned it was the first guy all along was equally obvious. Helpful hint, when you cast three famous people in guest starring roles, it’s OBVIOUS they are involved in the mystery somehow even if it seems like they’re only doing a cameo. While the Veronica Mars writers had pulled that trick off well in the past, the plotlines were interesting enough to make up for it. Not so this time. Nothing that happened was in any way surprising; no big reveal made me gasp in surprise. Seems to me by the time you get to multiple incarnations of ‘the most famous guest star did it’, it might be time for another approach.
There were plotpoints that came not from any VM show, but from a book series -- and virtually no explanation of this was given onscreen. It was apparently, and bizarrely, a prerequisite that you’d read an extraneous Veronica Mars book series to know why Veronica and her old frenemy Weevil were angry with each other, a situation that was critically important to the plot.
Many of the characters you cared about or loved to hate from the original series, like the aforementioned Weevil and Veronica’s friend Wallace, were clumsily shoehorned in and/or barely present, and others like computer hacker Mac weren’t there at all. While some of this has been chalked up to “scheduling problems” rumor has it that some of the actors (particularly Tina Majorino, who played Mac) were less than pleased by a very limited amount of screen time. Giving Veronica a teen sidekick who ate up massive amounts of time you would have rather spent with the characters you already like was the most trite ploy since that Scrappy Doo and Cousin Oliver crossover event.
During the same visit, my friend and I also watched Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, you may recall, was a bit controversial in that it was supposed to be some feminist extravaganza starring a woke actress, and some people don’t like being preached to about feminism. As we all are sadly aware, that’s enough to launch a kerfluffle in 2019.
Anyway, the interesting thing I noticed by having VM and CM so nicely juxtapositioned, or is it juxtaposed IDK whatevs, is that they have the exact same fatal flaw to them. Since it’s one of my fave fatal flaws, I couldn’t resist writing about it.
You can’t just plunk an actress down in a story that is inherently about men and make no changes to her character or motivation and call it feminism.
Some of you are groaning now because you know I’ve written about this in the past, like in pieces about Wonder Woman and Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler and Skyler White from Breaking Bad and in several other places besides. But since repetition is in a thinkpiece writer’s job description, I’ll say it again -- you CAN’T just plunk an actress down in a story about men and make no changes to her character or motivation and say that it’s feminism!
Women don’t always or even usually have the same character flaws or motives as men do and it’s not anti-women for writers to take that into consideration. I find it’s actually pretty darn misogynistic to pretend that women are basically the same as men, only crazy, and if only they’d shuck off their cultural brainwashing and realize they were exactly like men and think and feel and behave exactly like men and realize their interests and desires are precisely the same as what men want, then maybe they wouldn’t be so crazy any more.
And that is exactly where both Veronica Mars S4 and Captain Marvel went wrong for me. Treating female characters exactly like male characters and pretending you’re striking a blow for women’s rights as if female characters written as women and not beboobed dudebros are somehow less compelling than male ones, is to my way of thinking a form of sexism. It may not be as overt as some other forms of sexism, but it’s sexism nonetheless.
You may recall that at the end of VMS4, Veronica’s brand new hubby Logan got exploded by an unexpected car bomb. After some thought, it occurred to me that at least part of the reason why Logan got so unceremoniously blown up was because we’ve all seen lots of hardboiled detective shows where the detective or whoever meets an awesome girl and settles down and then his lady love is murdered right on their wedding night. It’s a trope. So, they were doing that thing, because doesn’t it suck that no one in the history of #feminism ever turned that trope on its head before??
I maintain that the primary reason Logan was killed off is because the showrunners wanted Veronica to have “will they or won’t they” romantic relationship(s) with new love interests because the writers were feeling lazy and it’s an easy cheat to add manufactured drama to an otherwise boring episode. But “will they or won’t they” is only part of it. I think VM writers are obsessed as many writers are these days, with having female characters act like the worst stereotypes of men as some sort of nod to #feminism. They wanted Veronica free to have sexual relations with lots of other people because that is what a male character would do if his wife got blown to smithereens and the critics at The Mary Sue seem to like that sort of thing.
VMS4 seemed to confirm my suspicion as fact not only with Logan’s vaporization but also with a really peculiar scene in which Logan’s friend Dick does a striptease in a crowded club where women are groping him (I would happily post a link to a video so you could see what I mean, but I’m terrified of the search results I would find under “Dick striptease” so you’re on your own). Veronica takes drugs and drinks herself sick several times, which is completely out of character for her. Then she has a really involved, borderline X-rated erotic dream about a recurring character named Leo that apparently needed to be shown in exacting detail.
Now, maybe you consider most of that simple fan service, but here’s the thing. My friend and I represent a pretty wide swath of the target audience of Veronica Mars. We’ve been watching the show for quite some time and were once loyal Marshmallows. At the same time, we are both fairly staid and prudish people. We don’t take drugs. We have never attended a performance of The Thunder Down Under. I find stuff like male stripping and graphic sex scenes pretty cringeworthy unless they are of critical import to the overall plot (trust me, they weren’t) and my friend is even more staid and more prudish than I am. I don’t know what fans these scenes were meant to service, but it sure as hell wasn’t us. We liked Veronica Mars for other reasons -- the intricate mysteries, the characters -- 75% of whom were missing or barely there in VMS4, and yes, even the romance (by which I don’t mean soft core porn).
Above all else, I loved the original iteration of Veronica Mars because felt like it was made for ME. Veronica had problems that male detectives didn’t have -- she’d been drugged and raped, her friend was murdered by an intimate partner, and she was treated like a pariah by the community because of it. She was a victim, but she wasn’t a victim. She picked up and went on like so many of us have to do and in doing so, she carried a banner for a lot of women doing the same in a way that I’ve never seen before or since. She didn’t become a nun, she didn’t become an emasculating bitch, she was still courageous and strong and powerful despite her trauma.
Just as all women do, Veronica had to find a way to navigate in a world where people could and did perform violence against women regularly. She had to seek some semblance of a normal existence despite knowing from brutal experience that when it comes to men, you never know if you’re getting Veronica’s dad or Logan’s dad, or if Veronica’s dad could actually just be Logan’s dad in disguise.
And she had to decide where her love interest Logan fit on this continuum. Watching Logan wrestle with his demons gave me a weird hope that maybe men weren’t always all bad, even as I learned about men who I thought were ok like Bill Cosby and Louis CK who turned out to be very f*king far from ok. Watching Veronica wrestle with Logan’s demons gave me a weird hope that it was ok to have a weird hope that men weren’t always all bad, to not give up on that guy you see something in even if you sometimes have to squint and use a lot of imagination.
This mattered to me. It was important to me that VM was revealing the truth of the world as I saw it -- that men could be your biggest supporters, your cheerleaders, your saviors, even, and simultaneously your worst nightmare. Sometimes a man who seems like a friend can be revealed to be a murderous creep infected with chlamydia. The truth of the world is that the human male is the most dangerous animal who ever lived, and most of what they kill is smaller and weaker than they are. Half of all the women who are ever killed are killed by their intimate partners, and many more of us are hurt physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually by guys who say they love us.
And yet we keep coming back for more.
Veronica was a gal like me, trying to exist in that dangerous world all women inhabit without having superpowers, without friends (at least at first), without a functioning legal system, without even having a mom to protect her, to warn her. Against this backdrop she was irresistibly drawn to Logan, someone who had real potential to be a bad guy, who on many occasions WAS a bad guy, and yet despite knowing better than most that men could be Actual Bad Guys, she succumbed to the inclination. At the heart of Veronica Mars stood the quintessential female problem -- that women still want to be with men despite knowing that they can literally kill us and very well may. It’s way more likely than dying of toxic shock syndrome, just saying. Girls who stay well away from tampons have boyfriends. I don’t know a single other show besides Veronica Mars that touched upon this problem, but it’s the defining problem of many women’s lives.
Romantic relationships from a woman’s perspective are akin to being a lion tamer, the kind that sticks her head in the lion’s mouth. Why would you do that unless you wanted to be bitten, just a little? We’re just as messed up as the dudes are, in ways no one really wants to discuss since it’s more convenient to talk about men instead and blame everything on them, and Veronica Mars at its best poked that hornet’s nest with a stick relentlessly.
My husband has a theory that sometimes creative people are just touched by God. They don’t know what they have, they don’t understand the deeper subtext or social meaning of the story spilling out of them, it’s coming from someplace beyond rationality, almost as if it’s been sent from a higher power. And as I’ve watched Veronica Mars degrade from the first two seasons of sheer perfection to the just-ok Season 3 to the lukewarm movie to the awful Season 4, I think that must have been true for VM creator Rob Thomas and his fellow writers. They thought they were making a hardboiled detective show with a girl in it and they didn’t know they were making a girl show that happened to be about a hardboiled detective. So now they want to keep on making that detective show only more harderboiled-er and have the girl act like a dude because that is a popular trend, but I preferred the girl show. The girl show was what I wanted to watch. The girl show was what was extraordinary and unique and meaningful to me. But it apparently came from God and not from Rob and God has moved on now.
That brings me to Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, unlike the apparently accidental genius of Veronica Mars, is clearly a deliberate attempt to create something that MEANS SOMETHING. Captain Marvel is meant to impart a Very Important Message and it bludgeons you over the head with it repeatedly until you cry “aunt” which is the 2019 #feminism version of crying “uncle”.
The linchpin of Captain Marvel is to take that trope where the Chosen One has to learn to reign in their emotions in order to harness the Force or whatever, and turn it on its head. Captain Marvel has to embrace her emotions to use her powers. Since women are often told we’re too emotional and we need to be more logical and rational, it was a strike for feminism (not just #feminism, but the real deal) to have Captain Marvel’s powers hinge on her emotions.
It was a clever twist. I enjoyed it. It actually pissed me off that I didn’t think of it first.
What I didn’t like about Captain Marvel was how shallow it all felt. It was mostly #feminism, even including a cringey scene where Captain Marvel kicked some butt to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” which had every eye in the room rolling.
Captain Marvel very much demonstrated what I hated about the latest incarnation of Veronica Mars. Rather than create a character who is a woman and has some problems that are possibly gender specific (gasp, the HORRORS) and thus relatable, they wrote a male character and then cast an actress in the role. Supposedly their entire raison d’etre, according to CM writer Nicole Perlman, was to avoid making Superman with boobs, and then they totally gave us Superman with boobs. Rather than stop for the smallest moment and consider what it might MEAN to the character and the story for the lead to be a female person rather than a male one, they just went with the tried and true (by which I mean to say boring and totally overused) “loose cannon” script even though women are generally more risk-averse than men and on the whole, we don’t tend to be loose cannons.
We’re expected to believe, because we are told at the start -- fortunate, because they cast an automaton in the role and do precisely zero character development -- that Carol Danvers’ problem is that she is overly emotional -- but she never really displays any emotion other than supposedly being a cocky hothead (aka Tom Cruise in Top Gun) -- mostly a male characteristic.
Just to use the most utterly stereotypical example I could come up with, let’s imagine for a moment instead that Carol tended to cry or panic when she got upset and that people didn’t take her seriously because of it. You may say this is somehow anti-woman, but if you say this, YOU are anti-woman, because I AM a woman and I’m telling you crying and becoming easily flustered when upset an actual problem for me, or at least it was when I was younger and still cared about anything. It didn’t cease to become a problem for me because I saw a movie where a woman gets angry and punches a wall (a thing I have seen 1435 men do IRL, and zero women) and I felt a surge of testosterone or possibly empowerment, which Hollywood seems to be telling me are the exact same thing. Emotional crying ceased to be a problem for me because I worked hard to overcome it and gradually learned that people’s temporary opinions of me really just weren’t that important and I could handle a lot more than I thought I could. I would find much greater meaning in a woman overcoming a legitimate problem that I have actually experienced -- even if it’s somewhat stereotypical -- and finding power within it, than having a proto-dude overcome a cocky hothead problem I’ve never personally had, despite being relatively feisty.
A fictional portrayal of women overcoming actual problems many women experience is not sexist. Thoughtless and limiting stereotypes are sexist, sure. Knee-jerk descriptions of damsels withering in the face of distress because they don’t have the wherewithal to withstand it are sexist. But stereotypes are not overcome by simply pretending that women are men and we don’t have problems we actually do have, any more than menstrual cramps are cured by watching a movie about a woman who doesn’t have them because she was in a secret government program where Midol was inserted right into her DNA.
Some things are real. Some things are true, even when they’ve been used to justify diminishing or dismissing women in the past. Women face challenges that men don’t and vice versa. This isn’t wrong or bad, it’s just reality, and I find female characters who are subject to reality a heck of a lot more inspiring than the shenanigans of superpowered superheroes.
Much was made over the deleted scene where a man asks Captain Marvel to smile, and then she proceeds to kick his ass and steal his car.
Can anyone explain how exactly seeing a woman embrace the worst stereotype of male behavior is empowering? Is this not just continuing the message of “he who has the gold, makes the rules” -- whoever is strongest gets their way, and those who are weaker should take great care never to say the wrong thing because “To the moon, Alice, to the moon!”
If so, I humbly submit this approach doesn’t work out too well for women, the vast majority of whom were never exposed to a piece of the Tesseract and don’t have phenomenal cosmic power. We mostly just have itty bitty living space, and adopting Captain Marvel’s mouthy approach outside of a movie screen is a good way to get seriously hurt. Because as I mentioned above, when it comes to men, you never know if you’re getting Veronica’s dad or Logan’s dad, or if Veronica’s dad could actually just be Logan’s dad in disguise.
You’re probably thinking “Golly Kristin, it’s just a movie, it’s just a TV show, get over it” right about now and you’re right. Fiction is, well, fictional, it doesn’t have to accurately represent reality, nor does it have to speak truth. But one real live truth that Marvel has always gotten right is that with great power comes great responsibility. The creators of shows that purport to be empowering to women, that purport to be carrying the banner of feminism and imparting a message have a greater responsibility to keep it real then let’s say, Weekend at Bernie’s 2. If Veronica Mars and Captain Marvel don’t live up to that responsibility, hey, maybe it’s ok to point that male characters and female ones are not interchangeable, is all. And so, I point.
Veronica Mars and Captain Marvel have sold themselves as feminist representation. And their creators have financially benefited by doing so. These shows don’t claim to be merely #feminism, but the real thing. Real feminism entails a celebration of who and what women are, and even an implicit understanding that by virtue of biology, history, and culture, women may be in need of protections that men are not in need of. Not because we are inferior, but because we are different. And to deny those differences and act as if physical strength and male values are the default setting, seems to me to be a step in the wrong direction, away from real equality towards a new and improved form of sexism in which femininity is equated with weakness and masculinity is just how people ought to be.