"You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I." — "Pilot," Veronica Mars
It was pure coincidence that I decided to make the cult teen noir show Veronica Mars the subject of my freshman composition course at Berkeley this past fall, just as news broke that as many as 19 employees were charged with sexual harassment and that the administration had probably failed to fulfill its Title IX obligations. Later that fall, they nearly botched an attempt to remove a rapist from campus, in events that possessed an eerie resonance with the subject matter of the show.
I'd watched Veronica Mars back when it was on the air, just out of college myself, and it seemed like a group of 20 or so Berkeley freshmen might discuss its lush noir backdrop and smart social commentary more easily (and more readily) than they would the loop-de-looping 18th-century prose of Clarissa or The Wealth of Nations.
It's a convention in the still-active fan forums to describe the moment when the show first sunk its barbs into viewers' mental flesh. Many cite my epigraph above, where 17-year-old Veronica (Kristen Bell) explains how she was raped and drugged at a house party to the town's local sheriff: venal, corrupt, and also the show's consistent symbol of how rape culture works in practice.
"Should I just round up the sons of the most important families in town?" the sheriff sneers at Veronica, who has woken up in an unfamiliar bed with no memory of the previous night and walked straight to the sheriff's office in her virginal, suddenly ironic white dress. As the 16-year-old crying in his office was raped at a rich kids' poolside gathering with the aid of an expensive party drug, right after her father (the town's former top lawman) went after one of their fathers for murder, one wants to scream, "This is not an unreasonable plan, you incompetent asshole."
I (and most of the people who watched the show when it was on the air) am more than a decade older than my introductory composition students at Berkeley, and it's always a surprise what will grab the next generation. For my part, Veronica Mars had me at hello (or, in this case, "I'm never getting married"; I was newly married myself). But my freshmen were living, working, and learning to write on a campus where "wanted" posters with the face of an accused rapist adorned the bulletin boards outside of our classroom.
And their concerns went far beyond any superficial analogy between a TV show and a campus where rapists attended classes with their victims. As they learned to write analytically and precisely, they watched the people who ran our campus cocoon themselves inside a bevy of administrative platitudes in their futile attempt to ignore the reality that the nation's top public university had systematically and scandalously failed to enforce the law.
Veronica Mars, like any longish work of fiction, is about a lot of different things: wealth inequality, celebrity culture, the shrapnel that parental addiction and abuse leaves in children's bones. But the theme that proved most resonant in the minds of my 20 or so freshmen was the one that I suspect was also closest to the hearts of the show's writers, judging by how pervasively they wrote and revised it over the course of three seasons: sexual violence and the way that institutions try their damndest to hide, diminish, or mischaracterize it as something other than what it is.
Sexual violence is everywhere in the show. Just when you think that you and the series' teenage Sam Spade have put it to rest, it rises again, in towering multiseason arcs that convey the lived truth of sexualized trauma: that it confounds any sort of easy resolution, the kind in which even well-meaning fiction sometimes seems to specialize.
At the end of season one, it appears that Veronica — working alone, of course — has solved the mystery of her own rape, and that it was the kind of ambiguous sexual encounter (both parties drugged by their supposed friends and with little recollection of the night's events) that bedevils scenarios of affirmative consent.
My students and I had an interesting but somewhat abstract conversation about California's new yes-means-yes law and what it might have said about Veronica's not-a-rape rape, along the lines of, "If neither party can consent and neither party perceives harm, can you hear the tree falling in the forest?" Most of my students, practical to a fault, thought about this like prosecutors and defense attorneys: How could I sell this to a jury? Would it even be worth my time to try?
In season two, however, shit got real. Like the apparently dead serial killer who suddenly sits up at the end of the horror flick, Veronica's not-a-rape rape transforms itself in a breathtaking second to indubitable rape again, as she realizes that an odd diagnosis of chlamydia — used by a patronizing and misogynist lawyer to invalidate her testimony in a celebrity murder trial — means that her worst imaginings about that night were real after all.
Bell's acting registers the moment with real skill, as we see Veronica forced to revise one kind of trauma into another of a more horrifying and less complex nature as the background swirls around her, Vertigo-style.
Furthermore, the rapist is a victim of sexual assault himself, molested by the powerful county commissioner, his former Little League coach (played in a brilliant bit of casting and with giggling glee by Steve Guttenberg). Veronica and her rapist confront each other on the rooftop of an expensive hotel, where hundreds of graduating seniors party underneath their feet: two victims of the idyllic seaside town's failure to protect its children.
Even before Veronica confronted her rapist, about 50 percent of my class's papers started to concern sexual violence and rape. I was curious about the level of interest. I asked students about it quietly, in office hours. They hedged and evaded, as students do with their elders, until one of them put it to me very frankly: "Do you not know about Omar Pedroza?"
In November 2015, Berkeley's administration found Pedroza guilty of raping another student. In February, the vice chancellor for student affairs nearly granted Pedroza an appeal, which, barring new, mitigating evidence, wasn't allowed under the student charter. In the meantime, there was the serious possibility that Pedroza would walk around campus unfettered.
This case became both a test for the new affirmative consent laws and the many other ways the nation's top public university and an apparent bastion of liberal thought had failed to fulfill its Title IX obligations. I knew about this mostly in the context of the pervasive and sinister sexual harassment of graduate students on the part of astronomy professor Geoff Marcy and 18 others.
Like all graduate students at Berkeley, I also knew victims who had never come forward, or who had tried to come forward and had been told, like the sheriff tells Veronica, that there wasn't a "shred of evidence" on which to proceed.
Except for, you know, emails where professors clumsily tried to explain their conference shenanigans, and a striking pattern of behavior, both on the part of the perpetrators and the administrators who covered their tenured asses for them. Except for the 120 pages that detailed how Marcy had harassed his students for four years (in one bizarrely memorable case, taking a surreptitious photograph of her with a lollipop in her mouth) before he resigned under pressure: not from Berkeley's chancellor, but from colleagues in his own field.
The only real consequence so far has been not a massive administrative exodus among those who mishandled complaints but a mandatory online "sexual harassment prevention training course" where faceless cartoon people in soothing shades of gray and turquoise inform us that "although we all know sexual harassment is wrong, it continues to happen." As if sexual harassment is a meteorological event, with no connection to the administration's laissez faire approach to handling allegations. The first vignette in the series is adorably alliterative: "Dreadful Doctors."
In season three of Veronica Mars, a serial rapist stalks the halls of the small liberal arts college where most of the cast matriculates.
The buffoonish scoffing of the prior two seasons' sheriff's office turns into the harried semi-meddling of a college administrator, equally arbitrary and unjust, even though the dean of Hearst College is someone even the cynical Veronica admits is a good guy. He eventually caves to pressure from a wealthy donor alumnus to allow a fraternity that awards pledges points for sleeping with prospective freshmen to remain on campus, even though the board has voted to remove them.
Every woman academic has a story about the professor who takes off his wedding ring at academic conferences because he thinks this makes it okay to proposition grad students who depend on his recommendations to secure them increasingly difficult-to-find employment in our field. Good people are always in charge of these investigations. It never really matters.
I'm no Jaime Escalante, and one more illusion from which I have liberated myself is that any single class makes much of a difference in an 18-year-old's life. I have no anecdotes about tearful students telling me on the last day of the semester that the show or my class gave them the courage to speak up about their own rape or sexual harassment. Statistically, at least one of them is already a victim, and I hope whoever it is felt less singular and less alone as we watched the series together.
But I'm grading final papers now, and I see that some of them got it about Veronica Mars and the way it refuses to flinch from some of these harder truths about sexual violence. "Real rapists rarely monologue," one of them remarks dryly about the third season's college rapist and his supervillain-ish explanation for why he's assaulted and shaved the heads of at least five strangers.
He gets tired of listening to them blather about their high school boyfriends and their unicorn collections, he explains … right before Veronica emerges from her hiding place to stab him with the horn of a unicorn statuette, in one of the otherwise lackluster season's subtly exceptional moments.
One of the hardest things to teach students in introductory composition classes is how to be specific and particular: to stop using the euphemisms, circumlocutions, passive constructions, and supposedly universal statements of truth that ring "academic" in a high school class ("Since the beginning of time, there have been problems of people having intimate contact").
These are also — and not coincidentally — the tools of those who have sought to cover up or minimize the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and rape at Berkeley. They are the tools of power.
("Leadership transition," announced the email from our chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, when he finally fired the provost who may have traded a golden parachute academic appointment for covering up the law school dean's longtime harassment of his assistant. "These things all happened," Marcy impatiently brushes off a complaint resolutions officer who asks about the multiple times he kissed an unwilling undergraduate.)
But there is a countervailing superpower in naming things correctly, I try to teach my students as we watch Veronica confront her rapist. He has also taken down a whole busload of students to prevent two of them from outing him as a weak, supposedly unmasculine victim of another man.
Veronica, however, minces no words. "You raped me!" she howls, the subject of the sentence performing the action, the receiver of action likewise obvious, the verb strong.
As the semester wound down, I attended a rally at which Stephanie Nicole Garcia — a Berkeley student and activist with BAMN who has spoken out on numerous occasions about her rape case against Omar Pedroza and her suit against the university for its handling of it — took the mic, leveled her eyes at the small crowd gathered underneath the blisteringly blue California sky, and said, "Omar Pedroza raped me."
This is a clarity for which we should all strive.
Shannon Chamberlain is a PhD candidate in English at Berkeley, where she writes about the influence of literature on Adam Smith and, in her spare time, novels about middle school supervillains. Her previous work has appeared in Vice, the Atlantic, and Slate. Find her at sfchamberlain.com or @shannonissima.