Over the last few months, I’ve been enjoying Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on YouTube. This series of short videos identifies female stereotypes, explaining why they are offensive, in general with intelligence, insight, and clear language. On the whole, I find myself agreeing with Sarkeesian, but her “Straw Feminists” episode is an exception. In fact, the episode seems a cautionary tale about how even experienced critics can sometimes have an off day when they take a critical stance at the expense of what is actually happening.
Much of “Straw Feminists” is to the point, with examples from Powerpuff Girls, Rugrats, and other popular shows. However, when she added a mystery on the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars to her examples, I began to have some doubts. I hadn’t watched the series for a while, but Sarkeesian’s analysis didn’t match my memories except in the broadest outlines.
Sarkeesian was talking about the first nine episodes of the season, in which the title character hunts a rapist at large on her college campus. The episodes’ cast includes the women of Lilith House, feminists who are using the rapes in their efforts to shut down the misogynistic fraternity houses. During the course of the mystery, the Lilith House members are founded to be less than scrupulous in their campaign, faking a rape and egging the dean’s car and office when he overturns a motion to eliminate fraternities on campus.
According to Sarkeesian, this portrayal shows the college feminists as villains and militant revolutionaries – as “irrational, pig-headed man-haters.” She also implies that the series is careful to separate feminism from the strong female lead, and considers the faked rape as taking the portrayal to an “obscene level.”
All this sounds irretrievably damning. The only problem is, when I watched the story arc over several nights to refresh my memory, for the most part that wasn’t what was happening at all.
To start with, the story does a much better job of portraying genuine feminist concerns than the summary implies. As Sarkeesian herself admits, the feminists’ demands, such as a safe ride program and a campus code of conduct are all reasonable ones. Moreover, while the feminists have a grudge against the fraternity, they never voice any of the anti-male sentiments that are characteristic of true straw feminists.
Nor is the title character distanced from the feminists. The first time she talks to one, she is open and friendly, and just as eager to topple the Greek system as they are. Later, although disillusionment with Lilith House provokes a few comments at their expense, she herself voices feminist sentiments, mentioning in voice overs “the male gaze” and commenting when the local sheriff refuses to take the situation seriously, “rape humor – it never gets old.”
In addition, although Lilith House’s inhabitants may be “hypocrites,” Veronica is quick to help promote their distribution of coasters to detect date-rape drugs in drinks. She is more skeptical about the effectiveness of distributing rape whistles – yet it is a whistle that leads to her rescue when she is held drugged and captive by the rapists. You might even say that, if not for feminism, the rapists would never have been discovered.
True, the feminists on the show are not presented as ideals. Yet they compare favorably with the rival fraternity. Fraternity members are shown mooning passers-by, acting out mock-rapes, engaging in sexual contests and deliberately undercutting anti-rape measures. Veronica describes one of them as “repugnant,” and, in the last episode of the mystery, asks the fraternity leader in tones of disgust, “How do you live with yourself?”
The fraternity’s behavior is never explored, although it is implied that one of them is suffering from the death of his brother and the tax-evasion of his father at the end of the previous season. For the most part, though, the fraternity members are presented simply as spoiled rich boys, and no other motivation is thought necessary. By contrast, the behavior of the feminists is attributed directly to the tensions on campus left by the string of rapes.
Even the faked rape, while suggestive of misogynist’s claims, is given a motivation. We don’t know how many of the 2-8% of rape claims that prove to be false are deliberate rather than mistaken, and no clear idea of what the motivations for deliberate false claims might be. However, from a fictional viewpoint, watching a friend commit suicide after being harassed is surely enough motivation for just about anything. The weakness in the story is that this motivation is not discovered until two episodes after the false rape is.
Admittedly, there is one plot element that proves stereotypical – but that is the anal rape and assault of the fraternity’s leader. In contrast to the sympathy given female rapes in the storyline, his rape is treated as a joke by both the fraternity and the title character. It forms the basis of a single episode, and no attempt is ever made to punish the rapists. By the next episode, the only reminder is the frat leader’s shaved head, and otherwise even he seems to have forgot about it.
The feminists shown in Veronica Mars are deeply flawed characters. However, considering the noir world of the series, in which even Veronica’s lovers and friends are occasionally suspect or dishonest, expecting anything else amounts to an exporting of foreign expectations. Their portrayal needs to be seen in the context of the series, not in the abstract, and it is worth pointing out that, later in the season, one of the feminists becomes Veronica’s allies in publicizing the secrets of a Skull and Bones-like male club on campus. All things considered, far from being straw feminists, the feminists in the series might even be judged one of the better portrayals of feminists in television drama (which wouldn’t be difficult, considering how bad most portrayals of feminists actually are).
In pointing out this alternative viewpoint, I do not mean to condemn Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian produces a surprisingly large number of videos in a short space of time, and almost all of them are high-enough quality that I intend to make an overdue donation to Feminist Frequency when I finish this entry.
However, I have made my point at some length because it seems to me worth making: anyone’s analysis, no matter how experience or skilled, is only as good as the extent to which it considers context. When expectations overwhelm context, the best analyst can slip – and, in this particular case, that includes Sarkeesian.