The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2006, Pro-Youth Pages

Veronica Mars:

Actually, the Cultural Revolution IS Being Televised

I finally had a chance to watch "Veronica Mars," and I am blown away! After watching the complete first season on DVD, I now see what all the fuss is about. This show breaks many boundaries that never should have existed in the first place.

Veronica Mars season 1 on DVD

The main character is a teenager, but she is not the Bill & Ted stereotype. She is smart enough to maneuver around some of television's smartest characters of all ages. Usually, the entertainment industry demands teenaged characters be non-threatening, always shown as inferior to older people, dim-witted and weak. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a young detective who could hold her own against older fictional detectives from Sam Spade to Sherlock Holmes. Finally, Hollywood is giving young viewers what it has given older viewers all along.

One of the best episodes begins with Veronica and other members of the school newspaper staff discussing possible topics to cover in the next issue. One student suggests covering the drug scene. Their journalism teacher responds, "I'm sure your parents don't want to read about drugs at the school where they send their precious little ones."

Veronica responds, "I thought the newspaper was for the students."

This makes an excellent point, not only about school newspapers, but about various forms of entertainment that are ostensibly aimed at youth. TV shows for teenagers are usually created by people more concerned with pleasing the viewers' parents than with pleasing the viewers themselves. "Veronica Mars" is not part of that problem. In many ways, it is part of the solution.

Veronica is not only smart, she is strong. Elsewhere in fiction, teenagers bow down to their elders. "Veronica Mars" is the exception. This young heroine solves mysteries, sometimes at her father's request, but just as often against his wishes. In either situation, Veronica takes orders from only her own conscience. She loves and respects her father, but she is nobody's puppet.

The creative artists behind this show respect young people, both as a subject and as an audience. With its multiple story lines and sophisticated dialogue, this show requires viewers to be smart and attentive. Entire dimensions of characters' personalities are often revealed in one subtle line of dialogue. Many in the entertainment industry assumed a show like this could not work, that young viewers could not follow such a show. From my experience teaching high school and middle school, I can report "Veronica Mars" is quite successful with young audiences, thank you.

Another form of respect is the way this show does not try to force "good role models" and ageist "lessons" down the viewers' throats. On any other show, if someone younger than 21 takes a sip of beer, you can be sure the episode will end with a drunk driving tragedy or some other horrifying consequence. If a female character under 18 even thinks about sex, there's a good chance the episode will end with heartbreak as she learns the guy was just using her, or it will end with a pregnancy scare. Older characters can enjoy wall-to-wall sex and booze with no consequences, but the young must always be punished by fate if not by adults.

On "Veronica Mars," teenagers drink alcohol as freely as older characters, and the consequences they pay are no more severe than those paid by older characters on other shows. In the pilot, Veronica Mars does get raped after drinking a rum and Coke that has been drugged. But the show never portrays this as punishment for drinking; the rapist could have drugged a soft drink just as easily. In other episodes, Veronica and other teenagers drink with no problems, just like older characters.

References to drugs and sex on the show are as casual as they are in shows about older characters. Indeed, "Veronica Mars" is one of TV's racier dramas; only high quality keeps the content from seeming like cheap titillation.

"Veronica Mars" does not pander to fretful parents. It entertains viewers young and old.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) at her computer  
Veronica hard at work

This breakthrough show does not succumb to moral double-standards, but it is highly moral and Veronica is a great role model for anyone. She models self-respect. She models courage. She models working through a problem instead of just waiting to be rescued by luck. She also models responsibility.

Teenagers are usually stereotyped as ducking responsibility. Not here. Veronica Mars, for all her brilliance and sophistication, makes her share of mistakes, and she takes full responsibility for them.

In one episode, a young woman accuses a teacher of sexual misconduct. Veronica joins others in assuming she is lying. The truth of his guilt is finally revealed in a scene where Veronica talks to a minor character. This character then says of the victim, "She told me the students were mostly supportive of her."

"They weren't," Veronica says.

Then Veronica catches herself. "We weren't."

She then promptly goes to work on setting things right. This show tells young audiences what they have long needed to hear: that being great (cool, respectable, heroic, etc.) does not mean never making a mistake; it means admitting your mistakes and working to correct them. Veronica Mars seems to do that every week.

  Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) - a shoulder to cry on
Veronica offers a shoulder to cry on

The next time you hear someone bellyache about how teenagers watch too much TV and don't read enough, ask yourself this: when is the last time book publishers offered young audiences this much respect?

I once took a stab at writing a Young Adult mystery novel. It was roundly rejected by publishers, but not because of the writing quality. (Anyone who's read a "Fear Street" novel knows literary quality is a low priority with these publishers.) Editors said my novel was "implausible" because the teenaged protagonist was "too smart." One publisher actually cited a scene where the hero uses the word "incriminating," insisting a real teenager would never know such a big word. (Anyone who didn't know such big words could never follow the dialogue of "Veronica Mars," yet millions of teenagers — and millions of pre-teenagers — watch this show religiously. I feel vindicated.)

The book Rediscovering Nancy Drew by Carolyn Dyer quotes the top editor of the modern Nancy Drew novels explaining what she looks for in a manuscript: "Do we have any scenes where the teen characters engage in teen activities? For example, do they go to the mall, eat pizza ...?" Insisting fictional teenagers eat pizza is like insisting fictional blacks eat watermelons. "Veronica Mars" proudly avoids these clichés and even ridicules them. In one scene, Veronica is on the phone with her father while she's doing detective work at her computer, and we get this dialogue:

  "Don't forget — you're a high school girl. Do some high school girl things now and then."
  "Relax, Dad. I'm cutting pictures of Ashton out of Teen People as we speak."
Most viewers know Veronica is not putting down teenagers who read teen magazines nor teenagers who cut out pictures. She's gently putting down people who expect age to be the sole determinate of behavior, people who think in terms of "high school girl things" or as the Nancy Drew editor put it, "teen activities." At last, we have a fictitious teenager whose age is not her defining characteristic, but just one characteristic among many.

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