“Anti” matters — “Veronica Mars” had to answer its own call for complex female leads

Veronica Mars: The Movie

Kristin Bell as “Veronica Mars”

The Veronica Mars movie makes its debut in theaters (and for instant streaming) this Friday, March 14.

Fans of the show, many of whom contributed to its record-setting funding on Kickstarter (the project reached its minimum $2 million goal in under 11 hours and had raised almost $6 million by the end of the funding period), couldn’t be more excited — including me!

In preparation for the big day, I’ve been rewatching the series with my boyfriend, who’s never seen it before. And it is still excellent.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, “L. Hamre” on IMDB summarizes it thusly:

The murder of high-school student Lily Kane shook the seaside town of Neptune, California to the core. For once popular girl Veronica Mars, it meant the loss of her best friend, and being ousted from the affluent crowd that she once thought were her friends. Her father, Sheriff Keith Mars, found himself voted out of his job after making some unpopular accusations about the murdered girl’s family. In response, Keith opened his own private detective agency. Now, Veronica, with her sardonic wit and a few new friends, works as his assistant while also navigating life as a high school (and later college) student.

We’re about halfway through season 1, which aired on UPN in 2004-2005, and we’re both loving it.

For me, it’s especially fun to watch it with my significant other because he’s a filmmaker who’s actually dealt with actors, scripts, lighting, editing, all that good stuff — and, most fun of all, he’s a fan of classic noir (which I knew little about when I first watched the show).

Veronica Mars sits squarely in the noir genre — it’s got the traditional dens of corruption, questionable authority figures, greed and excess at the expense of the downtrodden, extreme wealth disparities, long dark shadows, rainy streets (sometimes — I mean it is Southern California), snarky private investigators and seedy underbellies.

There’s one major element that makes it different from most noir stories, though — its protagonist.

Can you guess? Here’s a clue – below is how tvtropes.com describes the main character in noir:

“The Anti-Hero is the most common protagonist of the Noir — a man alienated from society, suffering an existential crisis. Frequently portrayed as a disillusioned, cynical police officer or private-eye and played by a fast-talking actor, the Anti-Hero is no fool and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He faces morally ambiguous decisions and battles with a world that seems like it is out to get him and/or those closest to him.”

Yep, in Veronica Mars, our anti-hero ain’t a “he”.

Unlike the majority of noir stories (think of The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, anything else written by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler), Veronica Mars features a female lead as its hardboiled detective.

And this is pretty cool — not only because there’s still a dearth of shows with female leads (even more so back in 2004), but also because of the roles women are normally confined to in noir — the “femme fatale”.

The “femme fatale” is a villainous woman who may pretend to be a damsel in distress, but actually uses feminine wiles to ensnare, manipulate, and harm male characters. This traditionally included the anti-hero, who sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t, resist her charms — but even if he does become entangled with her at one point, he always repulses her in the end.

From the beginning, Veronica Mars upends this convention simply through the gender-swapping of the protagonist. (And no, they didn’t swap Femme Fatales out for Phallic Fatales, either — though it’d be fun to say). Rob Thomas, the series creator, knew this going into it:

“Thomas initially wrote Veronica Mars as a young adult novel, which featured a male protagonist; he changed the gender because he thought a noir piece told from a female point of view would be more interesting and original.” –Wikipedia

But what makes this switch so successful is that, in every other way, Veronica truly embodies the traditional anti-hero. She isn’t a typical female character given a different label but with the same ole’ character traits still clinging to her.

Veronica certainly fits the cynical, disillusioned bit — she was abandoned by her mother, unraveled a murder mystery involving some of Neptune’s most “upstanding citizens”, saw her supposed friends abandon her in a time of need, and is now determined to see the world in black & white — and refuses to forgive.

Veronica does things no well-adjusted, reasonable person would do. She isn’t above running a background check on her father’s girlfriend, asking her best friend to risk expulsion for swiping students’ files from the school office, manipulating her new police officer boyfriend for access to evidence, or stealing her ex-boyfriend’s medical history from his doctor’s office.

And yet, we still root for her. She’s still the protagonist and viewers can still empathize with her. But we can also tell that her life — one that’s lived with gritted teeth and with a chip on her shoulder — isn’t something we’d really want to be living.

In fact, her father — the “official” private investigator who, on the surface, perfectly fits the noir protagonist role — is often a voice of stronger caution & morality. He’s the one who cautions Veronica that there are boundaries she shouldn’t cross, that there truly are shades of gray, and that most people still have some good in them. Veronica, of course, doesn’t listen.

Veronica has problems, and sometimes makes bad decisions. A lot of us would be justifiably leery of being her friend or dating her. In addition to smart, resilient, insightful, and funny, she can be weak, vindictive, petty, and foolish — like any male anti-hero (just think of Sherlock, Dexter, Tony Soprano… even Tony Stark will do).

But boring? Clichéd? One-dimensional? Most definitely not.

Veronica is an anti-hero first, and a female lead second. But this is why it’s important that she’s a “she” — Veronica Mars proves that a character doesn’t have to be simplified, flattened, or dumbed-down because the character’s a woman. Veronica doesn’t settle for being the “Strong Female Character” trope (she’s more than a princess who knows kung-fu). Instead, she’s still just as complex and flawed as the traditional male anti-hero.

Rob Thomas didn’t decide to have a female lead and then pick what her character could be from the existing pool of “women’s roles”. Instead, he started with a nuanced, complicated, challenging role, and then challenged its tradition by casting a woman in that role — to see what would happen. He thought it would be more interesting & original, and it was.

Unfortunately, few writers seem to have believed him & stepped up to the plate.

In fact, I tried to come up with more examples of female anti-heroes, and this is what my google search turned up:Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 9.29.18 AM.png

Though there have been a sprinkling of post-Veronica female anti-heroes (Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Olivia Pope on Scandal, anyone from Girls [though their anti-hero traits are largely reviled]) this list is cosmically dwarfed by the crop of complex male anti-heroes who have appeared since — just think of the likes of Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Dr. House… or the male lead of pretty much any HBO show. (Did you even need the names of their shows, by the way? Probably not, because they’re insanely popular).

The desire for these characters is clearly there, as is the frustration with their still-miniscule presence.

But ten years after Veronica Mars first aired, one of the most exciting anti-heroines to succeed her is, well… herself. The relative dearth of suitable successors is likely one of the reasons fans have clung so fiercely to the original, and why they were so eager to support her return to the silver screen.

Veronica Mars the TV show proved that the character could be built, and built to last through hundreds of storylines. Veronica Mars the movie, whose crowd-funding was so successful that Zach Braff shamelessly swiped its strategy for his own film, proves that viewers will pay to see them.

So, screenwriters: step up your game. Rob Thomas already showed you that it’s possible to cast a woman in a complex role. $2 million in 11 hours showed you writing her can pay well. So, what exactly are you waiting for?

.

References & Further Reading:

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