FEMINISM AND LOSS: THE SHORT CIRCUITS OF VERONICA MARS
AN ESSAY BY HILARY NERONI
Feminism hasn’t always seen psychoanalysis as an ally. There’s been a general suspicion that psychoanalysis privileges the male in its account of the formation of subjectivity, however, I believe that psychoanalysis and feminism are part of the same emancipatory project. Psychoanalysis makes evident that the disjunctions within identity are more powerful than identity itself, and this is crucial to any feminist struggle. While the call for better representation of women (on movie screens, in the business world, in government positions, and so on) is important, feminist contestation solely on this ground leaves the structure of the social order as it is. This is where psychoanalysis can be a productive part of feminism. Disjunctions can through psychoanalytic interpretation become the site for a feminist politics that aims at transforming the social order.
A surprising number of recent television series have made the importance of the disjunctions of identity for feminist politics apparent, and these series have been an ongoing concern of my work, especially in my recently completed book entitled The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis, Biopolitics, and Media Representations, which centers on the relation between violence and subjectivity. I’ll focus here on a series that I don’t address in the book,Veronica Mars (2004-2007), which features a heroine who solves various mysteries and at the same time embodies the ethical core of the series. This series is part of a group that includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2000),Alias (2001-2006), and Orphan Black (2013-present). These series depict the emergence of the female action heroine, a figure that has become more common beginning in the early 1990s. Veronica Mars is exemplary because it highlights specifically feminist issues while ostensibly just presenting a detective solving crimes. In doing so, it shows how loss constantly subverts identity and disrupts the smooth functioning of the social order. Loss provides the foundation for the series, and it produces disjunctions that shape its formal structure through its excessive narrative strands and their intersections.
The series is about the high school student Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) who moonlights as a private detective, both in her father’s detective agency and on her own in school. Despite being only a high school student, she functions on the show as a hardboiled detective in the tradition of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. That is to say, she solves cases not through deductive reasoning but through personal involvement and engagement. Both detective show and teen drama, the series depicts Veronica investigating crimes that eventually lead her to search for the more illusive truth about the loss that animates both her own subjectivity and that of those around her. The series links her investigations of various crimes to her investigation of her own identity, and this path reveals disjunction rather than a stable ground.
Ultimately, the show is built around loss, a loss that begins before the series itself. The series starts after the murder of Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried). As acting sheriff at the time, Veronica’s father, Keith Mars (Enrico Glantoni), led the investigation and charged Lilly’s father, Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), with the murder. Jake Kane appealed to the town through the media, and the town demanded that Keith should step down as sheriff. All Veronica’s friends at school stopped talking to her as a punishment for her father’s actions. In addition, immediately after Keith was forced out as sheriff, Veronica’s mother left them. The series opens eight months after these events, when Veronica is an outsider at school for standing by her father but living happily with him despite the absence of her mother.
What is extraordinary about Veronica Mars is the substantial amount of loss required to start and motivate the series. Even before her best friend’s murder, Veronica’s boyfriend, Lilly’s brother Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), broke up with her without giving a reason. Following Veronica’s several losses — the murder of her best friend, the loss of the remaining friends and her mother’s abandonment — the series also explains that Veronica lost her virginity when she was raped at a party a couple months after Lilly’s death. Veronica had gone to the party hoping to overcome the split between her and her friends, but while there she was given a date rape drug (GHB) and became victim of rape. The losses in Veronica’s life occur at every level, from the most personal to the most public. They are something that links her to her clients, a form of commonality. For example, in the third season she spends many episodes investigating women who have been raped after being administered date rape drugs.
The extreme loss around which the show is structured has parallels in all the narrative strands of the series. All these narrative strands also relate to each other as they are woven throughout an episode or throughout the series. The privileging of loss in a series centered around a hardboiled detective is not unique to Veronica Mars, film noir began this type of structure. In classic noir, it is not uncommon for the detective to be investigating his own death (as in D.O.A., 1950) or some memory loss (as in Somewhere in the Night, 1946). Not surprisingly, the non-personal mystery almost always reveals something important for the personal mystery. Veronica Mars continues this tradition but updates it to reflect contemporary feminist questions and tensions. As a feminist noir detective, Veronica begins her investigation by interpreting points of disjunction created by loss.
Putting a woman in the role of the hardboiled detective is certainly not completely new, but substituting rape for death in the noir narrative marks the point where the series departs from the traditional noir universe. With this gesture, the noir universe collides with contemporary feminist struggles. The constant is amnesia, and amnesia is for psychoanalysis not just an accident of a particular subject’s narrative trajectory. Instead, it is the result of the fundamental loss that inaugurates subjectivity. Every subject has a kind of amnesia because no subject can know its origin. There is a traumatic loss at the origin of subjectivity, but this loss is itself lost for the subject. The fundamental crisis that defines the existence of every subject revolves around its inability to know itself but this enigma of subjectivity is also its point of possibility and creativity.
In Veronica Mars, Veronica’s investigations seem to hold out the hope that they can locate truth in some outside place: why her mother left, who raped her, whether her father is her biological father, and so on. Each narrative strand, each investigation, ends with a resolution, but this resolution never provides any insight into the ultimate loss that haunts her and defines her as a subject. Each investigation begins and ends with a sense of loss and the grounding nature of trauma in relation to identity. In storylines that involve female behavior, Veronica is not just investigating a crime but rather how femininity produces existential awareness. In this way, the series makes clear the decentered nature of both subjectivity and femininity.
In the first season, the show makes it clear that Veronica went to a party and woke up in the morning with no recollection of what had happened to her and the realization that she had been raped. The ambiguity behind this event allows the show to present multiple feminine reactions to rape itself. Initially, the show depicts Veronica as a young woman shamed by this event. We see flashbacks of her attempt to involve the police, who suggest that detecting the rapist would be impossible and that they even doubted it was rape. Some episodes later, however, the show changes the image of a shamed woman into that of a defiant and politicized woman as she approaches those involved and demands that they recount what happened that evening.
Season one, Episode 21 (out of 27) is where Veronica investigates the particulars of her own rape. Finding out clues from each person who might have seen something, Veronica begins to piece together what happened that night. She interviews ten people throughout the episode before she can come up with a plausible answer. Each person gives their version of what they saw and each version is accompanied by a visual flashback, which at times tell different parts of the story and at other times retell the same part of the evening in different ways. The differing nature of the versions reflects the different motivations of the persons telling them. Veronica and the viewers assess the interviewee’s honesty by their relationship to Veronica and what was at stake for them (including how they were depicting themselves). In this way, the flashbacks are both fact and fiction, both what happened and an interpretation of what happened. Visually the flashbacks are presented as a cohesive group: they all have a blue tint to them in order to signify that they happened in the past.
This storytelling technique is often called the Rashomon technique (named after Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon ), and it manifests itself in other films such as Courage Under Fire (1996). In these stories, a woman’s behavior is also under scrutiny, and every flashback tells a different version of that behavior. In Rashomon, the question is whether a woman was raped or had consensual sex, and whether this woman was chaste or behaved sexually. The film asks the question in order to pass judgment on the man accused of rape. In Courage Under Fire, the question concerns a woman’s capacity for being a military leader. In both cases, there is an outside judge and jury. InVeronica Mars, however, the judge and jury is Veronica herself. Each flashback is told to Veronica and after each one the viewer sees her response. Thus, the lacuna in this text lies not in the question of female desire (as in the film versions) but rather in the impossible nature of loss and in the ways in which a female character’s femininity can be redefined by this loss. A loss that encompasses her experience of rape but that also refers to the many other losses that occur before the series starts and which motivate the arc of the narrative in the first season and beyond. Even when Veronica discovers the truth to her personal mysteries, her relationship to loss as such doesn’t disappear but becomes more integrated into her understanding of the world. In other words, she doesn’t revert back to her former identity pre-loss (being part of the popular crowd and so on) once some of the mysteries are solved. The series shows that this loss leaves her identity out of touch with itself, but this disjunction holds the key to Veronica’s emancipation from patriarchal structures.
By the third season, Veronica has solved Lily’s murder, and the murderer is dead. She has also found out that on the night of the party during which she was drugged she both had consensual sex for the first time with her ex-boyfriend (who has left the country by this time) and was raped by another classmate (who has committed suicide). All of these past traumas that were attached to mysteries are now solved, but the lingering effect of these experiences continues to make its presence felt through Veronica’s way of being in the world. Because she grasps that loss is integral to her subjectivity rather than an obstacle to overcome and solve, Veronica inaugurates a contemporary paradigm of feminism. The series thus reveals that there is no such thing as a world without loss and feminism can detect the disjunction that this loss creates as a means for transforming the patriarchal order.
Artwork © AGATA CARDOSO