“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?

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References & Further Reading:

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Panem: A Land Without Sexism?

Extremely few spoilers — really, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’re gonna be fine.

Have you seen the latest installment in the Hunger Games film adaptation?

I caught it on Sunday, and hot damn, was it worth getting out of bed even while I was sick! It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was poignant, it had great action sequences and acting, and the special effects were top-notch.

But what I think is most important about “Catching Fire” is what it’s missing.

I’ll explain in a moment.

First, an explanation for those of you who aren’t familiar with the series:

In Panem, a post-nuclear-apocalyptic rearrangement of North America, a dystopian society reigns. The land was divided into 13 districts and the Capitol, and 75 years ago the districts rebelled against their government. After regaining control, the Capitol instituted an annual competition to remind the districts of the price of the peace they now “enjoy”; each year 24 teenage tributes (a boy and girl from each remaining district) must fight each other to the death. Only one is supposed to win, but in the first installment Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from coal-mining, poverty-stricken District 12 outwitted the Game Master and managed to win the Hunger Games together, by play-acting a sympathetic love story.

The residents of the Capitol, extraordinarily decadent and oblivious to the despair and poverty most of the districts live with, consider the pair their darlings, and they are forced to act out their romance even after the Games end, much to the chagrin of Katniss’s childhood companion Gale, who harbors his own romantic feelings for the heroine. The people of the districts, however, don’t buy the love story and see their defiance of the Hunger Games as inspiration for a rebellion against the capitol — the manipulative President Snow then must try to turn the pair, and all other previous winners of the games, into a warning instead of a symbol of hope.

(On the same page, now? Great!)

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Gender-Neutral War

On the surface, this series could be very similar to a lot of action movies with female leads. We’ve got a love triangle. We’ve got an oppressive government trying to keep whole sections of the populace down. And we’ve got a woman warrior.

But in “Catching Fire”, there’s a notable absence that distinguishes it from many of these “Strong Female Character” films:

Katniss’ gender is not one of the film’s fixations.

“Catching Fire”, therefore, becomes refreshing in one of the same ways that “Parks & Recreation” is: yes, Katniss is very different from most female characters (even protagonists) we see today, so it’s a big deal to us. But her casting-off of feminine stereotypes (and the complementary peeling away of men’s as well) is not an issue within the film itself at all.

It is not startling to anyone in Panem that she is a female who behaves this way. She does not have to prove to people that she deserves to be taken seriously (as a hunter, as a warrior, or as a rebel) despite her gender. She is not held up against a bar of femininity that she must either measure up to or karate-chop out of the way.

Yes, the people in the Capitol want to mold her into something she isn’t, but the mold is based on classist perspectives, not gender stereotypes.

It’s nice to see that even Gale, the brawny, more traditionally masculine type in the film, doesn’t expect Katniss to do anything especially feminine (by our standards). Nor does he try to change her to be so. He never begs her to stop getting herself into trouble, nor is he frustrated that she won’t let him protect her from the harsh world (ahem, Twilight).

Pleasantly, the inverse is also true: men in Panem don’t seem to be held to any traditionally masculine standard of physical strength, aloofness, or anger.

Gale does not express any embarrassment at being physically rescued by Katniss. No one mocks Peeta as being “soft” or “girly” because he’s a mediocre fighter, bakes shortbread cookies, and is essentially Katniss’s movie girlfriend.

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I’ll take a pass on saucy wenches, thank you.

Not even the slimy, nefarious types like the career tributes, President Snow, or Game Maker Plutarch make any easy jabs at Katniss’s femininity or stereotypes of women or men.

And this is what makes “Catching Fire” stand out — it would have been so. friggin’. easy. to just follow that tradition. A script hatched in the more traditional bowels of Hollywood would’ve taken many more cliché opportunities:

Career tributes could have made some snarky comment to Peeta about being protected by “his girl”, and then we could’ve spent part of the film worrying that it was going to bother him and that he was going to do something foolish in an attempt to prove his masculinity. (Bo-ring).

Or we could’ve seen President Snow, in the scene where he taunts Katniss in her own home, say with a sinister smirk, “You’ll be much more content as a happy wife and homemaker back here instead of stirring up trouble.” He could’ve tried to put her in her place not only as poor person from District 12, but as a woman, too.

Of course, then Katniss could’ve made some saucy retort… which would have gotten laughs, but would be trite and insipid compared to what the absence of such an exchange signifies.

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What a b****?

The absence of cheap sexist pandering is carried even farther in a notable absence in the villains’ treatment of Katniss:

No one ever calls Katniss a “bitch”.

It would even have been easy for people to disregard this gender-based slur if it had been in the dialogue. Had the writers tossed it in, I doubt many people would have commented on it, and those who did would have been quickly shut down: “Of course they called her a bitch; they want to kill her! That’s the least of her problems.”

But the decision not to use it means so much more than its presence would have meant.

“Catching Fire” makes the choice to pass on the opportunity to drop this word, in even the villains’ speech. To use it would have been a cheap way to convey their hatred to the audience, and implied that her gender inspires part of their hate. No one, not even President Snow, considers her gender when evaluating her, whether as a threat or a hero.

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A sexism immunity incubator?

But even if someone did try to hurl “bitch” at Katniss, I don’t think it could have carried the weight it usually does.

Because, in order for such an insult to wound, there must be a fear within the victim that it might be true.

Calling a female character a “bitch” can be a harsh, wounding thing to say in most stories — because the women in them have learned to harbor fears that they really are nothing more than “some bitch”. This fear is often deeply-ingrained in both fictional and real women, and it’s this fear that makes us vulnerable to that word’s power to do harm.

Yet, Katniss harbors no such fear or self-doubt. Katniss has such a sense of self-worth, of identity, and of strength that she could not be stricken by such a ridiculous attempt to hurt her. There are of course other things that can hurt her, or make her doubt herself, but it takes much more than sexism to do it.

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Catching on?

By never even considering how her behavior, decisions, or actions would be viewed through a sexism-supporting paradigm, I think Katniss does much more for women’s self-esteem and confidence in their individual identity than a character who constantly brings up how stereotype-defying she is. As in “Parks and Recreation,” it’s the absence of sexism that makes the loudest statement.

(And the men in the film do much for this goal as well, though as secondary characters this absence cannot be as strongly felt).

Katniss is a character that’s invulnerable to sexism. Not because she had to choose to fight it, but because what it entails is so absurd to her that she could never be vulnerable to it. Even the villains treat her as an individual, rather than as a tired stereotype. There is no part of her that could worry that sexist critics (if they existed) would be right about her or about her value as a human being.

This lack of sexism, both internal and external, is perhaps the only redeeming quality of the dystopic Panem society, which otherwise turns a magnifying glass on the rest of our own society’s flaws: extreme wealth disparities, a lack of resources for the mentally ill, willed ignorance, consumerism, gluttony, and the inescapable cycle of poverty.

So while people are out and about getting excited about Catching Fire-themed makeup selections (ugh), the part of Panem I think we should really apply in our own world is the characters’ invulnerability to the pressures — and sometime cruelty — of sexism and gender stereotypes.

And who knows, maybe one day Hollywood can actually make money off that.

(Oh wait, it did).

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For further reading:

NPR: “What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend.”

RogerEbert.com review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Ms. Magazine blog: “‘Catching Fire’: Positive Fuel for the Feminist Flame”

Reel Girl: “‘Catching Fire’ torches Hollywood’s gender stereotypes”

(BTW — don’t read the comments. They’re dumb).