Women are from Mars? Part 2

by: Lynne Joyrich / Brown University

Veronica is attacked

Veronica is attacked, “Spit and Eggs”

In part one of “Women are from Mars?”, I detailed the striking–and, arguably, quite stupifying–stories of rapes that have occurred across Veronica Mars, focusing in particular on a plot earlier this season in which a series of campus rapes were revealed to have been committed by, not one, but two groups of “rapists:” a pair of college men as well as a collective of feminist women, the latter of whom staged some (I believe unclear number of) “fake rapes” to call attention to the problem of sexual violence. Perhaps needless to say, such a plot–in which these women did, in fact, use sexually violating means to “get back” at harassing frat boys and created turmoil (if not trauma) for some women on campus (who, along with the show's viewers, might not have realized that some of this was “fake”)–risks only multiplying the problems. This was the case both within the diegetic world and, maybe even more so, for viewers of it, since, of course, the very attempt to mark a distinction in this way between “real” and “fake” rape, between the “true” and the “false” assault, hazards participating in the same logic and ethos of sexual violence that the program seems to be trying to critique.

I would like, in this part, to go on to elaborate how this televisual confusion about what counts as “real” vs. “not-quite-real” rape mirrors a confusion in our wider cultural as well legal discourses about what counts as “real rape.” Further, understandings (or misunderstandings) of rape seem intimately, if not necessarily legally, linked with understandings of gender–which is why Veronica Mars's exploration of what it means to be raped (and/or to be a rapist) is, I believe, so paradoxically interwoven with its exploration of what it means to be gendered. Most people–and most TV shows–seem to have the easiest time seeing something as “real rape” if it involves a clear-cut, violent, physical attack with penetration of a woman by a man with whom she is not friendly (precisely what first appeared to be the situation as described by prosecutors with a case explicitly referenced by Veronica Mars: that involving Duke lacrosse players in Durham, NC, which seemed to promise the clarity of not only explicit violence and gender difference, but explicit domination and subordination as defined by race and class as well). Situations involving acquaintance rape, same-gender rape, “virtual reality” attacks, sexual assault involving things other than penis-in-vagina, and so on often seem to elicit much more confusion and ambivalence. Yet as the enormous complications, social double binds, tragic paradoxes, and mishandlings (by both legal system and the media) of the Durham case reveal, rape–even the supposedly “clearest” form of rape–is never that simple. In fact, from a legal standpoint, the “clearest” and “simplest” form of rape is one that might not seem all that “real” to some people or in some cases: statutory rape, in which sexual contact occurs with a person who is stipulated, by law, as unable to agree to sex (such as a person below the designated legal “age of consent”), thus evacuating the need to determine whether or not force occurred and whether or not the contact was “willed” (with the inverse situation involving people who are stipulated by law–such as slaves and, until shockingly recently in the U.S., both wives and prostitutes–who are presumed to be unable to do anything but consent to sexual contact with designated subjects–their “owners,” husbands, and/or perhaps men in general). That is, statutory rape laws presume that certain categories, or genres, of people do not really (or do not yet) have “will,” full consciousness, choice and/or desire, and so “consent” is, definitionally here, impossible. (1)

By contrast, understandings of all other (i.e. non-statutory) rape depends on a notion of will, consciousness, intention, and desire–on a conception of subjectivity and selfhood, a sense that the “mind” (or “spirit” or “emotions” or “consciousness”) might differ from the body, internal intention from (at least in theory) externally observable bodily events, so that evidence that the body was involved in sexual contact need not imply that subjective consent was wanted and/or granted. Thus, rape cases in both legal and media discourses typically involve competing narratives of the self, in which the person charging rape states that s/he did not will the contact–that it was not self-controlled or subjectively authorized–while the person denying a rape charge may likely state that s/he believed that consent was given–that the contact was consciously desired and intentionally chosen. Given this connection between the definition of rape and narrational possibilities of the self, perhaps it is not surprising that rape has been linked, textually, to particular cultural forms that themselves are focused on the narrational and relational possibilities of consciousness and the self (with, for instance, representations of rape historically tied to the rise of the novel and still central to such genres as soap operas that emphasize the affective dynamics of inter- and intra-subjectivity). The prevalence of rape stories in these forms can certainly be troubling (for instance, there was a big outcry when the first central daytime lesbian character, Bianca Montgomery, was raped on All My Children, with some arguing that this amounted to a “punishment” for her sexuality)–but, paradoxically, one might also wonder if, through such narratives (depending, of course, on the specific construction of the text), the possibility of explorations and assertions of typically subjugated subjectivities can be offered (which I would argue was, at least to some degree, the case with All My Children, in which Bianca's rape further integrated, rather than segregated, this lesbian character into the complex world of the soap opera, where, in order to have any narrative centrality, characters must, in some ways, be threatened with trauma–with rape unfortunately still being perhaps the central articulation of this in the soaps in general, and with the assault, in this particular case, tying Bianca to a detailed family story involving multiple generations of women dealing with the threat or trauma of sexual assault and thus to a detailed, multi-generational critique of patriarchal and violently heterosexist sexual politics).

Obviously, this is very complicated terrain, about which there is much ambivalence and debate (and, to be totally clear, I certainly am not arguing for the “positive” value of rape, even as a narrative device). But the discourses of rape in our culture often have ambiguous effects, with, for instance (and as previously suggested) “clear” cases of rape, such as those depending on statutory/generic definitions, sometimes operating to deny the very selfhoods and “vulnerable” subjectivities that they are designed to protect while, conversely, “competing narrative” rape stories sometimes presuming an equality of subjectivity (or at least an equal ability to assert subjectivity) that denies the social dynamics and hierarchies which always impact (if not, in fact, form and determine) “the self.” Indeed, the serious problems and devastating consequences that can ensue from these discourses, and from the gaps between them, are more than evident in the Durham case, in which the competing narratives of the accuser and defendants have been reductively measured by the media as either, on the one hand, only individual, subjective accounts–to be weighed by the “integrity” of the selves involved, as if those selves exist in isolation of social factors–or else, on the other hand, as nothing but social emblems, with the complexity of subjectivity evacuated and erased.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between these conceptions of rape, some feminist theorists and legal scholars (most notably, Catherine A. McKinnon(2)) have suggested instituting rape laws that have as their basis an understanding of gender as the determinant of sexual violence, so that the crime is not just against a self but against a sex. By thus marking gender as the category that fully defines both subjectivity and sociality, it is also asserted as the generic category that fully defines rape (so that, prototypically, men rape women; women are socially constituted as those who are available to be raped; and, when rape occurs between members of the same sex, it operates quintessentially “as if” it were male-on-female violence, with the rapist, of whatever gender, assuming the position of a “man” so as to treat the rape victim, of whatever gender, as a “woman”). There is a certain elegance and simplicity to this formulation–but it also, of course, has a great many problems, perhaps most importantly involving its monolithic view of gender as the essential aspect of society and self and its ensuing blindness to other (I would argue equally significant) determinants, such as race and class. In effect, this approach makes all rape “stipulated,” or we might say “generic,” rape, as explained above, with, here, gender (rather than age of consent) as the determining category–and, as a consequence of this substitution, with the potential and paradoxical effect of infantilizing and disavowing the subjectivity, desire, and will of all women (all of whom are seen as unable to have any real, meaningful “consent” in this culture) despite its stated feminist goals.

A drugged Veronica

A drugged Veronica, “Spit and Eggs”

But what does any of this have to do with Veronica Mars? As previously detailed, Veronica Mars is not quite generically a soap (though it has “soapy” elements) and not quite a detective show (though it has mysteries); it is framed by a female voice-over (thus suggesting an exploration of female consciousness) but, engaging many elements associated with “men's genres” and spaces, it's not a “girly” show; indeed, Veronica Mars (both program and character) can't be classified as “masculine” or “feminine” (or, for that matter, any other stable, stipulated category). It obviously then involves quite a different vision of self and society than the one offered by the MacKinnonesque view outlined above…which perhaps helps to explain its particular treatment of rape. In Veronica Mars, rape might be “real” or “staged” (and then what's the difference?); it might just as likely be perpetuated by women as men, against either women or men (and then is there a difference?); its “feminist” (or is “anti-feminist”, or “post-feminist”?) heroine (or anti-heroine?) might just as often “protect” the boys as the girls (and does this make a difference?) even as she tries (not always successfully) to protect herself. What are we to make of this? Does this re-vision of gender and of rape (and of the relationship between them) open up the program, and its viewers, to more “liberating” possibilities (and how would we even define this “liberation” if it involves equal-opportunity sexual assault more so, at least in narrative time and emphasis on Veronica Mars, than equal-opportunity success)? Or–even though the program, I would argue, creates a vision of gender multiplicity rather than gender neutrality–does it dangerously evade still very pressing questions of gender (and other social) determination? As all of my embedded questions indicate, I don't know. To be honest, much as I love the show, I'm not sure what to think about this program's representation of rape, and I am hesitant about stipulating an answer. As mentioned, I do not believe that (however over-the-top my plot summary might seem to non-viewers) Veronica Mars evacuates the import of the issue of sexual violence; rather, I think that it announces this importance precisely by the way in which it is palpably caught in the contradictions of our discourses of rape. I thus find the show very thought-provoking (which is, perhaps, the best thing we could want from a television program)…but, as to whether these stories of rape might “provoke” more sexism and violence because of their disruption of the usual alignments, or whether, through this very disruption, they might work to discourage such offenses, this jury, for one, is still out.


(1) I take this term “stipulation” from Frances Ferguson's brilliant article, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” Representations 20 (Fall 1987), 88-112, to which I am indebted for many of the thoughts leading to this essay.

(2) See, for example, the essays in Catharine A. MacKinnon's books Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1989) and Sex Equality, University Casebook Series (NY: Foundation Press, 2001).

Image Credits:
1. Veronica is attacked, “Spit and Eggs”
2. A drugged Veronica, “Spit and Eggs”

Please feel free to comment.


  • It will be interesting to see how “the contradictions of our discourses of rape” play out concretly in the court of law.

  • I agree that tying rape to gender would be problematic because not only is that gendering the victim, it is also gendering the rapist. Furthermore, this puts the rapist in a position of power, one that s/he has already gratified through the instantiation of rape. One television show that I thought thoughtfully handled the issue of rape was Felicity, in which Julie experiences date rape. At first, she is unsure about whether or not she has even been raped. I think her uncertainty is very important to understanding that rape is not cut and dry as Ms. Joyrich was pointing out. The man who raped her was also unaware that what he had done was rape. This episode essentially played on the “no, no, Yes!” version of sexuality frequently displayed on TV. By this I am referring to the female characters who “have to say no” when they really mean yes to maintain purity. Although there is a problematic example of male saving- Ben beats up the guy who raped Julie and then stop when the guy says, “no” and “stop.” Ben then says, “see that’s the difference, when you said stop, I stopped.” While I think that the show is good at reinforcing that no means no, I wish that Ben had been left out of the issue, as that reinforces the trope that women need saving.

  • One of the things I love about “Veronica Mars” is that it sets-up an envirnoment that we are all familiar and comfortable with – complete with stereotyped characters and a bright, sunny seaside setting that creates an illusion of superficiality – then proceeds to wittle and outright defy all these elements to find deeper, often darker meaning and truth in everyday existence.

    The rape stories were overdone, in my opinion, but they at least made me think about my pre-existing notions of what constitutes a rape both legally and societally. As you said, any show that makes me think – whether I agree with the outcome or not – is heads and shoulders above the rest of the tripe on tv.

    I also think the character of Veronica Mars is one of the strongest female characters in tv history. I haven’t liked every direction the show has taken with this character this season, but I feel it has demonstrated a lot of growth for our heroine – even if it did come with some pain. I just hope we get a season 4 so that we can see the results of Veronica’s growing pains. Oh, and having LoVe reunite would be really nice, too ;)

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