“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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Valar Morghulis: Images of Death in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Valar Morghulis: “All men must die.”  All of human culture grapples with this unavoidable fact, from Game of Thrones to millennia-old world religions.  Death looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Wars, executions, gods of death, and even the walking dead  all play key parts in the drama.   Martin’s  infamous for killing off beloved central characters, which instills a unique sense of realistic danger into his fantasy.

But Martin is definitely not the first to seem to fixate on death in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  The genres have a preoccupation with death.  This is seen most clearly in the sub-genre of apocalypse.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the modern era, sci-fi took over the religious genre of apocalypse to give us pictures of global disaster that come not from divine wrath, but from human hubris.  The Day the Earth Stood Still and Terminator 2 are classic examples.  But the fear of death is most perfectly reflected in the sub-genre of zombie apocalypse.  The living are pursued by the rotting corpses that they will inevitably become.  In succumbing to the zombies, our heroes become death personified.  In defeating them, they defeat death itself.

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The Walking Dead

Fighting death itself provides a world of thematic possibilities.  Dawn of the Dead shows us how human will can be deadened by consumerism; The Walking Dead asks us to examine what makes life worthwhile in the face of hardship; farces like Zombieland provide us with the catharsis of seeing death defeated in increasingly bizarre and sadistic ways.

“All men must die,” the zombie apocalypse reminds us through a  horrific vision of  the rotting corpses that we are all destined to become.

But another fantasy genre asks, “Must they?”

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True Blood

The vampire is the other side of the coin.  It personifies our fear of death not by showing us a horrifying, walking corpse, but by fulfilling our death-denying fantasies.  The vampire is eternal youth and beauty.  And the vampire is always seductive.  They tempt us because we too have a desire to cheat death.

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Dracula

Yet vampires are horrific because their immortality and beauty is ultimately a lie.  They have not escaped death, but in fact thrive on death.  In order to live forever, the vampire mythos tells us, we must become death.  There is still no escape from the reality of mortality, and to attempt escape is to become a monster.

This is all quite grim, and makes it seem like sci-fi and fantasy don’t have a very healthy relationship with death.  But I would argue that the genres also provide us with beautiful pictures of the inevitable. “After all,” says Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter does not give us answers to what lies beyond the veil, but it shows us that the preoccupation with escaping death leads us to miss out on life.  In the wizarding fairy tale “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” we see that it is impossible to escape death, but that we can find peace in being able to “greet Death as an old friend” when our time comes.

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The Lord of the Rings also provides beautiful imagery.   In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf says:

The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

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The Return of the King

But for my money, the most creative picture of death comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  In his graphic novels, Death is personified as a friendly goth girl.  

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This unlikely picture of Death fits so perfectly because she is both older than the universe and as young as today, she simultaneously personifies the final End to all things and a mysterious beginning to what may or may not be Beyond.

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In volume 7 of the series, Brief Lives, Death encounters a man named Bernie, who has magically lived for thousands of years.  She tells him something that gets to the core of her character, and  humankind’s experience of her.

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“You lived what anybody gets.  You got a lifetime.”

Death isn’t something to run to, or to run from.  But she’ll be there for all of us.

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Sandman doesn’t give us easy answers about death, but it shows us that it’s not something to be afraid of.  She greets us not with a hood and scythe, but with black eyeliner and a friendly smile.

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All men – and women – must die.  But first, we get what everyone gets.  We get a lifetime.   

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.

Salvation from the Outside-In

As much as I claim to love sci-fi in all my geekery, my exposure to it is almost exclusively through comic books or video games. I don’t have much exposure to the “classics” and genre-makers outside of Star Wars/Star Trek.

But a few years ago I read the first Dune book by Frank Herbert. It instantly became one of my favorite sci-fi stories of all time.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s about Paul Atreides, the heir to a governing family who is betrayed and ousted from their throne on the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis seems to be a clear allegory for the middle-east. We learn very early on that Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy for the “spice” Melange. The spice is used by the spacing guild for interstellar travel. Does that sound like the oil industry to anyone else?

Anyway, the Atreides family is not native to Arrakis, but had been moved there to rule over it by an imperial edict. During the coup, Paul and his mother escape into the desert and are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of Fremen, who are the desert-dwelling natives of Arrakis. In a relatively short amount of time, Paul joins the Fremen under a new name Muad’Dib (the name of a desert mouse respected by the Fremen) and becomes their messiah, Lisan al-Gaib, who will make their desert planet more hospitable.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the 1927 film Metropolis.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who is the captain of industry in the Metropolis where the truly wealthy, who live high above the ground in the city’s buildings, have attained their wealth on the backs of the truly poor, who live and work on machines deep in the bowels of the city. Freder is shown the conditions of his “brothers” in the working class and is overcome with compassion. He meets a woman, Maria, who has become the spiritual leader of the working class.

Maria preaches a sermon (which Freder overhears) that compares the Metropolis to the biblical Tower of Babel. She says that those who built the tower (the “hands”) couldn’t communicate with those whose grand design the tower was (the “brain”) without an intermediary (who she calls the “heart”). To make a long story short, Maria believes Freder is the “heart,” the mediator, for the Metropolis who will ensure communication between the workers and the industrialists — but this is only discovered after the workers start a violent uprising that results in cataclysmic flooding of their homes, threatening the lives of their children.

I noticed after a little bit of reflection that these two classic works share one very obvious thing in common — both feature a privileged hero that enters into an underprivileged community to “rescue” them from their plight.

Chani, a Fremen girl with whom Paul falls in love, from the David Lynch’s 1984 Dune movie. Note her characteristic blue eyes.

Whilte Dune’s native characters seem to have a variety of skin colors (except in film, where they are white), their entirely-blue eyes are a distinct visual quality that comes from prolonged exposure to the Melange spice. But since their culture is so clearly based on Earth people of color, the Fremen are often assumed to be brown-skinned. In Metropolis, the entire cast is white, and it’s primarily clothing and demeanor that distinguish the classes. Both films, however, have an element of the White Savior trope. (Before I go on, I want to interject here and say that just the fact that a story leans on a trope doesn’t make it a bad story. I think both of these works are excellent. Or at least very important.)

The White Savior trope is found in stories where a privileged outsider (usually literally white) encounters an indigenous group who has been oppressed (usually literally non-white), joins them, and then is the catalyst for the ultimate improvement of their lives. This is typically in the form of leading a rebellion against the White Savior’s previous oppressor-group, or providing the indigenous group with some sort of wisdom (like teaching them their value).

These are nowhere near the only works that make use of this trope. More movies than I can count fit the bill, along with plenty of video games, and plenty of novels. Many stories like this have earned a solid pedigree as “classics” because arts and entertainment have long been the domain of white men.

Stories that use this trope are often quick to point out culpability. “Of course white men were responsible for oppression. But that was in the past, and it’s only a few white men that are still oppressors. See look at how good we can be!” is the premise of many of these films.

The issue with these stories isn’t necessarily that premise. It could be perfectly true and the trope would still be a problem. The issue is that the white savior trope implies that without a white savior, none of these groups could “save” themselves. In Metropolis, it seems like the writers of the story had this problematic thesis explicitly in mind. When the poor workers began their uprising without the guidance of Freder, their savior, they are caught up in a furious mob that nearly brings about the death of all of their children.

Maria tries to save the children of the Metropolis during the flood caused by their parents. Again, without Freder, the children would have died.

Dune’s white savior, Paul-Muad’Dib, was foretold in the mythology of the Fremen people. But we find out in the story that their mythology had been manipulated by a secret matriarchal religious group, called the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother is a part. The Fremen people were conditioned to believe that their salvation couldn’t come except at the hands of an outsider.

Recognizing the role that geek culture has played in forming this particular trope, what is it that we geeks (but particularly white male geeks) take away from that discovery?

White males are in the unique cultural position of having agency in every situation. Except in very intentional situations, white men always have a voice that people in power are more likely to listen to than if the voice had belonged to a woman or person of color.

Is the lesson we learn from this trope that privileged people shouldn’t use their voice on behalf of the unheard?

I don’t think so… But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. One of the biggest pitfalls many “charities” encounter in their work in underprivileged communities is making the assumption that they know how to “fix” all of that community’s problems. They begin to act without taking time to ask the community members themselves what they need.

We who have power tend to assume that we know best. We’re not wrong to think that we should help when we can, but we need to recognize that help can only be defined by those who want it, and often listening is much more beneficial than speaking out.

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P.S. I couldn’t think of any geeky stories that explicitly resist the white-savior trope. This might be a problem of my cultural location – I’m a white man who falls easily into patterns of “favorites” and therefore doesn’t actively seek out stories created by persons of color. There are myriad works I can think of that don’t rely on this trope simply by virtue of having an all-white cast, but that hardly seems helpful either. I’d be really interested to hear from any readers that know of a story where an indigenous group advocates for themselves, or where a white-savior isn’t the sole protagonist, or where no attempt is made by a white protagonist to join and lead a closed indigenous group.

Friday (Late Night Double) Feature: Kids!

If you’re a loyal reader of our Friday Features, I hope you’ll excuse the lateness and brevity of this week’s – sometimes you over-commit your Friday and life’s great passions get pushed, briefly, to the back burner.

Since this is our last Halloween-special Friday feature before the day itself, I wanted to focus on the kid-friendly side of Halloween. It’s a well known American tradition to carve open innocent squashes before we go around a dress up in costumes and beg for candy from strangers (ordinarily not a good life-retention strategy). What may not be as well known is that these practices are extraordinarily silly.

So it’s in honor of Halloween’s outright silliness that I feature two really fun Halloween-y things that are appropriate for all ages.

First and foremost, this movie:

ParaNorman is a movie I really can’t recommend enough. It’s a stylized animated feature about a kid who can see dead people. It’s definitely fun, kid-friendly, and has a good heart, but it doesn’t pull any punches with the intensity of the story. Everybody can find something to love about this film!

I have to confess something about my next recommendation in this last (Late Night Double) Feature – I haven’t actually read it.

Whoops!

But oh well, I’ve hear some really solid recommendations for it, flipped through it in my local comic book store, and I did learn that the artist is from nearby! Buy local, am I right?

In any case The Halloween Legion: The Great Goblin Invasion is a kid-friendly comic (which are rare enough these days, more on that in another post) about a team of heroic Halloween-costume-stereotypes (a ghost, a witch, a skeleton, and a devil) that pop up to save the day.

Since I haven’t read it, I can’t really divulge any more details about the story, but I’m given to understand there are goblins involved.

All kidding aside, I hope you pop over to your local comic book store and check it out! I hope I’m able to soon.