Monday, May 12, 2014

It Is Always, Always Personal (Veronica Mars vs. Game of Thrones)

We're going to talk about the awesomeness that is Veronica Mars in a minute, but before we do that, I'm going to tell a story. It's not a very happy story, I'm afraid, but it's important.

I teach a creative writing class for teenagers at my local homeschooling cooperative. I have twelve students, all of varying skill levels and interests, and for the most part our classes are kind of silly, kind of wild, me trying to get everyone to calm down so they can actually learn something, and the most interesting discussions happening when we go on a tangent. This past Thursday we hit one such tangent, but it wasn't the fun kind. It was the important kind, because it reminded me of something I think I forgot somewhere along the way here. And it's something very simple on the surface.

Teenage boys have no idea what it means to be a teenage girl.

Like, right? That's super obvious and I should never have trouble remembering it. And to a large extent, I don't. In this class I do a lot of translating back and forth, and a huge amount of that translating has to do with the genders not understanding each other. So this isn't exactly new new. But I'd forgotten the really basic ways this influences their realities.

What I mean is this: In class we were discussing a student's story, a girl student whose name I will not share because privacy and all that stuff, and in that story, her character, who is also a girl, is motivated to become a vigilante superhero because when she was a kid she had a babysitter who was a pedophile. She was never his victim, because of her powers, but she knew something was wrong with him. That he was bad. And it's not until years later, when she's a teenager that she realizes what he was and that he's still out there, hurting people. And so she resolves to use her power to hunt him down and stop him. Because even though she was a little kid, she let him get away, and he hurt more people.

Great story, right? Seriously, my students are super talented and I love them.

The point is that we were talking about making her story more airtight, when one of her male classmates came in with a comment. He didn't understand his motivation, he said, because it wasn't personal. She wasn't hurt. Shouldn't she be more relieved and grateful that she was never hurt? It doesn't seem like a strong enough reason for her to become a vigilante, since it never affected her personally.

And to this, I have to admit, I responded kind of ungraciously. Because I didn't get how he couldn't see it. How he didn't understand that this is a freaking amazing motivation, that I feel this motivation. It took me a minute to realize this really simple thing: This boy, who is a perfectly nice and good person, for the record, doesn't know what it's like to live in fear. And that, for the record, is awesome. I'm very happy he doesn't know that. But it did create a problem.

Because here we are in class, and half the class is totally on board with the story, while the other half doesn't get it. Now, this might have been a great moment to go into the fact that, when you get down to it, no story appeals to everyone, but for me it was actually a better teaching moment, and a moment for me to realize something I'd never put words to before. 

It's always personal.

It is, isn't it? That was ultimately what I came up with. That for me, and I watched as all the girls in the class, including the parent who monitors it and takes attendance, nodded their agreement, rape is never distant or abstract. And if I got superpowers tomorrow, I know without a shadow of a doubt what I'd do with them. More than that, though, I know how much hope it would give me if I heard about someone else doing it.

So let's talk about Veronica Mars

The reason I bring up Queen V here should be pretty obvious if you watched the show, but if not, allow me to explain. Veronica Mars, a show ostensibly about a pretty high schooler private eye who investigated murders and secret societies and shady dealings in her hometown, was pretty much a show entirely about rape and rape culture. And aside from some missteps and weirdness along the way (see the entire Straw Feminists subplot from season three), it did a damn good job talking through the issue.

When I first started watching the show, I was a bit nonplussed by the writers decision to make their heroine, Veronica (Kristen Bell), a spunky blonde with a chip on her shoulder investigating the murder of her best friend, a rape victim on top of everything else. It made the show feel more soap operatic and ridiculous. And when, through the course of the season, this became fuel and fodder for this whole thing about whether or not Veronica slept with her biological half-brother while roofied...It was kind of a mess.

But the topic just kept coming up. Enough that it stopped feeling forced in and started to feel like, maybe just maybe, the writers were doing this on purpose. Were making some kind of statement about what it means to be a teenage girl. Like, in season one, there was also a storyline about a teacher (played by Adam Scott, and oh was the confusing for my Parks and Rec loving heart) accused of having sex with a student (played by Leighton Meester). Turns out she was making it up, but only to cover for her best friend, who really had been seduced by the teacher.

Again, tawdry, feels like a soap opera, but also not. It was a storyline about fake rape accusations, sure, but the root of it was the truth. And for me it also rang especially true, because, well, that's what happened with my sophomore English teacher. Allegedly, at least. He disappeared two weeks before the end of the school year and the girl transferred. I wish I'd been a better friend to her.

Then, in season two, the show dealt further with Veronica's rape, and her attempts to find the identity of her rapist, while also dealing with a further subplot about sexual abuse and the long term consequences of that. In season three? The arc plot of the season dealt with a serial rapist targeting girls on a college campus. And the whole inciting incident of the show, Lilly Kane's murder? Was the murder of a teenage girl by the adult man she had been sleeping with.

I'm just saying, this show is totally about rape. Even the movie was about rape, albeit more obliquely. When Veronica goes to confront Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter) for killing her friend, Gia reveals that she's actually been blackmailed for years, and part of that blackmail has involved being forced to have sex with her blackmailer. 

In contrast to all of this stands another show, a more recent and unfortunately more popular show: Game of Thrones. I would argue that Game of Thrones is just as much about rape as Veronica Mars is, but with a considerably different end. Here, the point is not that rape is pervasive and deadly and destructive, nor is it that rape takes years to recover from and leaves a permanent scar etched on your mind. Nope. The point here is that rape is about power, and the rapist has the power. Game of Thrones would like to argue that your rape isn't about you, it's about your rapist.

I mean, how many female characters on this show have been threatened by rape at one time or another (spoiler alert: all of them). And how many times have victims of rape been treated with compassion or shown to be going through the normal and reasonably stages of traumatic recovery? Approximately zero. Because rape isn't about the victim on Game of Thrones. It's about the rapist and what being a rapist says about him.

I could give tons and tons of examples here, but I don't want to because it makes me sad. Suffice to say, Jaime Lannister raping his sister Cersei isn't seen to be a storyline about Cersei. It's a plotline about Jaime. And that's messed the hell up.

I don't tell you all of this to bum you out, though I have very successfully bummed myself out, have no fear, but to make a point. Namely that Veronica Mars as a show figured this whole thing out years before I did. Rape is personal. It is never not personal. It doesn't matter if it happens to someone else. It's still personal.

And I could go into the psychology of that, how years of rape culture and the indoctrination of fear, the idea that we are always responsible for our own bodies as women but that men are never responsible for theirs, has given women a sense of sisterhood and extended community with each other. I could talk about how many women I know who have talked to me in confidence about being sexually assaulted, and how freaking many of them refused to report it because they knew they would be blamed.

But that's not the point. The point is this: for every Game of Thrones, I want a Veronica Mars. Game of Thrones is notorious, to me at least, for showing scenes of rape as backdrop, for raping characters and never showing them dealing with the emotional repercussions. For using sexual violence as a terrorist weapon, but refusing to show its aftermath. Veronica Mars on the other hand almost never actually showed the rape. It only ever showed the aftermath, because the aftermath is the part that matters if you're actually concerned about the victim.

In Game of Thrones, and most movies and shows like it, let's be real, the focus isn't on the victim, it's on the rapist. It's to show us what a bad guy he (or very very occasionally she) is, and to show us how high the stakes are here. But in Veronica Mars it's all about the victim. The rapist ultimately doesn't matter. It's the people left behind who do.

I don't really have a larger point here. I just needed to talk about that. To talk about how for me, rape is never abstract, because it is always personal. It could always be me. And media that tries to make it not about the victims and about the rapists instead strikes me as being not just harmful, but actively wrong. Because in the end, I don't care why the rapist did it. I really don't. I care what the victim did after. Rape is always personal. And it is never a joke.


  1. Queen V, y'all. Just sayin.

    Sidenote that is somewhat relevant: this is directly related to what I was trying to say in my Horrordork posts. Granted, I like the aftermath to be gory as hell, but I am also (obviously) satisfied with Veronica's methods as well.

    Actually... There's an eerie argument to be made for Veronica being one of my favorite lady monsters. I don't think of her that way, what with her 'trying to be good' and all. But still, one could be made.

    1. Yes! This is totally like your horrordork posts. I'll admit that I still haven't seen those movies (they sound scary!), but that yeah, Veronica fits pretty well in the framework. I considered writing an article about Veronica and her rape revenge monster-ness for another website, but I never got it together in time.

  2. I don't have anything to add. I just want to think you for writing this article! I love your blog. I found it a few weeks ago and on that day read as much as I could! I check back everyday for new posts :)

  3. I've never seen Veronica Mars (which I somewhat regret now) - but a similar comparison could be made between Game of Thrones and Orphan Black, which if not rape exactly has subjected the clones to most other sorts of bodily violation. But it's all about them and what it means to them.

    For using sexual violence as a terrorist weapon, but refusing to show its aftermath.

    The difference between a series that proudly calls itself unflinching - which happily shows rape or violation happening, but flinches when having to show that it *has* happened - and one that really *is* unflinching.

    1. There is definitely a strong comparison to be made there. I think it's a huge part of why I like Orphan Black so much, and also why Game of Thrones is really grossing me out these days. It's unflinching, yeah, in its view of life from the perspective of the rapists and those in power around them. It flinches hardcore when asked to do any soul-searching or change the narrative structure. Hmmph.

  4. It flinches hardcore when asked to do any soul-searching or change the narrative structure.

    And in the case of Cersei, it'll keep doing so, because the showrunners don't seem to think it was a rape scene at all. (Which means, in a gross coda to the whole thing, that we're being asked to disbelieve Lena Headey's performance).

    1. Why cast an amazing actress like Lena Headey if you're never going to give her any material to work with that doesn't have her just being a bitch?

      Way to mismanage resources.

  5. I've linked this post in something:

    (Of course, this is totally not me plugging my own post *shameful sideways glance* but I am happy plugging the site I wrote it for, because it's a good site).

  6. That story from your class reminds me of something from my family. One of my uncles was a pedophile/rapist that sexually assaulted at least half a dozen family members and another half a dozen other kids. I don't know the specifics on how he wasn't in prison but he wasn't and my late grandma didn't believe it was true despite her youngest daughter being one of the victims and it was something that was known by most of the family. But somehow nobody blamed him because he had schizophrenia. I couldn't be in the same room with him because it made my blood boil. I just felt so much revulsion and hatred towards him, knowing the people it happened to.

    There was this one incident that I've been thinking of writing as a play titled The Uninvited Guest. When I was in my late teens the family moved into my grandparent's house to take care of my dying grandmother and afterwards to wait for the house to be sold. During winter he showed up on the doorstep needing a place to stay. And everyone else in the house agreed since it's what my grandmother would've wanted and they still saw it as her house even though she was gone. They made him food to eat and had me put a movie in for him to watch and my mom was going to give him one of my blankets to sleep with but I told her she could burn it after because I would never use it again. They were making small talk with him and I was so disgusted even being in the same building as him that I was almost shaking. I couldn't take it anymore, especially not when I heard he might stay a couple of days instead of one night. I went out into the backyard and said I wasn't coming back in until he was gone.

    They told me I had a "black heart" and "no heart" and that I was being ridiculous and causing problems. That he was technically still family and that you are supposed to forgive people and he was mentally ill and my mom (one of his victims) said that since it didn't happen to me I shouldn't be this upset over the situation. I remember saying something like, "It doesn't matter it didn't happen to me! It still happened. And that should never happen anywhere or to anyone. And it's always personal because we should care about every single kid that it happens to in the world. He's a child molester!" Hearing me say that last part triggered my mom (somehow more than actually having him in the house) and she nearly attacked me, my sister had to pull her back before she hit me. I remember even asking my dad how he can be near him, not want to kill him, knowing what he did to his wife and he just said the same that they were saying, "It's not our place to judge. Hating people is wrong." Well, he ended up only staying the night and that was the last time I ever saw him.