Rape on The CW: Veronica Mars and Sexual Assault

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Veronica Mars

Image Credit: The CW

“You wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I.”

And so, less than 21 minutes into the pilot episode of the show’s first season, we know this about Veronica Mars (played by Kristen Bell): on top of being a whip-smart, hard-working (daughter of a) private investigator, she’s been raped at a party. And despite having been drunk, drugged, and unconscious at the time, she’s nonetheless ostracized, mocked, and even laughed out of the police station for trying to report it. She can’t even hate her rapist. She has no idea who he is.

It will actually take us (and her) another 40-some-odd episodes to find the answer. After being told she had somehow consented with her equally drugged boyfriend, Veronica learns during the finale of season two that Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas (Kyle Gallner)—a shy, unsuspecting tech geek—is the assailant. Then, at the hands of rapists on her new college campus in season three, Veronica is almost raped again. That’s pretty serious stuff for any series, let alone a teen drama carried by The CW, the same network behind Gossip Girl, a show that ignored an attempted sexual assault of Jenny (Taylor Momsen) by Chuck (Ed Westwick) in season one to make room for his romance with Blair (Leighton Meester) in season two. For 2004—an era ripe with reality soaps like Laguna Beach and glossy, scripted teen dramas like The O.C.—the choice to repeatedly represent rape was brazen.

While the seventies helped bring the problem of sexual assault into the television spotlight with series like All in the Familywhich saw Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) survive an assault then seek out the necessary psychiatric help to move past her subsequent PTSD—later shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) and CSI delivered the realities of sex crimes from a police standpoint. Very Special Episodes of shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Degrassi also helped make sexual assault a talking point, but after the 60-or-so episodic minutes, that was it: rape went away, as if the aftereffects could tidily disappear to make room for new narratives.

That is, until the late 2000s and into the 2010s. With the rise in popularity of series like Criminal Minds (a show that Mandy Patinkin left because of how often its female characters were brutalized), the one-hour-drama formula began to change. After SVU‘s Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is sexually assaulted while undercover in a women’s prison during season 9 (2007), she works through its effects well into season 10, and confronts her PTSD again in season 14 when she is kidnapped by serial murderer/rapist William Lewis. (She escapes, don’t worry.) Benson’s ongoing trauma is similar to Veronica’s own trajectory: after being raped before the first season, she is nearly raped again (and almost killed) in season three. Significantly, Veronica’s story occurs three years before SVU began exploring the long-term effects of sexual assault through a main character—which is surprising, considering SVU is a show exclusively about the experience of victims.

From the pilot, Veronica’s voiceovers and flashbacks to the party where she was raped tell us this: she is more than a Sexual Assault Survivor™. She is more than an accessory to a man’s storyline and also more than a tool to make a villain seem worse. In Veronica Mars, sexual assault isn’t a mere plot device. It’s a reality that one in six women have experienced before, and the feisty, unflappable Veronica is among them. She is smart, determined and powerful—but she is not invincible. And because she’s a human being, she can’t simply shake off the effects of her attack. That’s why she channels her pain and experience into helping the people around her: after years of searching for clues, she exposes her own rapist. Then, after high school, she crusades against the men who have been raping drunk women at her college. All while talking about her own rape when she wants to talk about it, plain and simple.

Which is actually one of the most important aspects of Veronica Mars. In addition to using the word “rape,” sexual assault—in all forms—is something that’s openly talked about throughout the series. When the roommate of Veronica’s best friend Mac (Tina Majorino) is raped in her dorm in season three, it’s not “the incident” or a “thing” that’s passed off with a few embarrassed looks, and it lasts more than a single episode arc. Though they hear their new friend having sex in the dorm, Veronica and Mac don’t stop what turns out to be the rape because they assume it is consensual sex. Mac’s roommate had slept with a few men already, so they—yep, Mac and Veronica—inadvertently slut-shame her. But with the rape comes accountability, and not just for the abuser. Mac and Veronica are called out for their knee-jerk assumptions, they are yelled at for their slut-shaming, and when they eventually apologize, Mac comes to tell her own story of rape (she too has been assaulted by Beaver). It’s complicated and messy and upsetting because that’s what rape is.

Veronica Mars is the story of one girl’s survival manual—nobody else’s. Veronica Mars isn’t a PSA on how to “handle” sexual assault and rape. After she’s laughed out of the police station for failing to recall the details of the night she was assaulted, Veronica begins taking justice into her own hands using her private investigation skills. If the system that’s supposed to protect her won’t, she will. This means that from the pilot, we’re thrown into an all-too-common reality of sexual assault, one that sees its survivors left to pick up the pieces and cope on their own. But at no point does Veronica stop, look at the camera, and say, “This worked for me! It’ll work for you!”

Instead, the show presents the realities of sexual assault as they are: horrifying, intrusive, shattering, and also, survivable. No two characters react the same way to rape because no two people are the same. The show acknowledges the messiness and singular experience of what it means to be forced into sex. The way Veronica copes with being a sexual assault survivor (crusading for justice, often alone) and the way Mac’s roommate chooses to cope (surrounding herself with friends) are entirely different, and neither is better or worse than the other. Meanwhile, characters around each survivor are left paralyzingly unprepared, often trying to help but bumbling around a reality they aren’t familiar with. (Lest we forget that in season three, Veronica’s boyfriend Logan [Jason Dohring] repeatedly attempts to protect her. However, instead of trying to understand why she wants to find the college rapists, he ends up getting angry when she won’t back down.)

It’s these disconnects between characters—between coping, helping, and screwing up—that make Veronica Mars all the more engaging. After all, the series is a show about humans who both can and cannot process the reality that sexual assault is as common as it’s depicted in these three seasons. It’s about survival, strength, and everything you’d associate with a confrontational young woman who goes after her own rapist and the rapists of others. If Veronica Mars were to have debuted in 2015 instead of 2004, it would still be just as necessary and just as groundbreaking.

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and/or person from Cambridge, Ontario whose work has shown up in sites and magazines like The Guardian, Refinery 29, Cosmopolitan.com, HelloGiggles, and NME.

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Anne T. Donahue is a writer and/or person from Cambridge, Ontario whose work has shown up in sites and magazines like The Guardian, Refinery 29, Cosmopolitan.com, HelloGiggles, and NME.