Nancy Who?: Veronica Mars

Since I graduated from college, I’ve had even more time on my hands to do things like, oh, you know, watch an entire cult-favourite television show that was cancelled in 2007. Thanks to my free evenings and Netflix Instant Watch, I’ve been enjoying the three seasons of “Veronica Mars,” a noir-esque private-eye high-school drama that’s reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show, though more than occasionally uneven, is enjoyable and addictive as crack. 

I’m obviously here to talk about the titular character. Veronica Mars is brilliant, jaded, resourceful, and an unrepentant smart-ass. Having many of these qualities myself, I was instantly endeared to Mars, though her sassiness wins her more contempt than admiration among her television-peers. Funny, mine often did the same. My overly invested sense of self aside, Mars is certainly a strong female character who carries her own in a talented cast. She’s a non-typical girl who isn’t afraid to stand up for her beliefs, even when she stands alone. She’s ballsy and she takes risks, much to the chagrin of her father and the annoyance of… whichever of the two main male leads she’s hot ‘n heavy with. But is she a feminist?

Feminist Frequency notes several elements of the show that count in her favour, namely Mars’ unabashed tech-savvy, as well as the show’s overall rejection of typical cop-show violence in lieu of smarts and wit. Still, Mars puts herself in incredibly ugly and potentially dangerous situations in order to solve violent crimes as well as her classmates’ scrapes, often relying on her very femininity to carry her through. There’s no “sexy cop-itude” (discussed at hilarious length by Erin Gibson of Modern Lady) as Mars isn’t a cop, but she certainly works her angles to get any angle she can on a case.

"It’s so easy to be a woman," Mars says, on more than one occasion, as she dons a dress and breezes past security or interrogates an unwitting witness. Indeed, part of the reason she is able to avoid physical confrontation and use more subtle ways of finding information and achieving her goals is because she flaunts her more feminine wiles: donning a cheerleading uniform, putting on a short skirt, smiling and cocking her head like a small dog, and just generally acting dumb and cute in order to lower other’s resistances. It almost goes without saying that the actress who plays Mars, Kristen Bell, is very hot. But does that really matter? Does that take away from her personal strength, her inner values, her fierce morals?

My biggest problem, as, it seems, with most who view the show through a feminist lense, lies with the portrayal of Lilith House at Hearst College as “those” kind of feminists, the ugly kind, the ferocious man-eating kind, the easily villainized and hateable kind. S.E. Smith at This Ain’t Livin’ discusses this portrayal incredibly elegantly, capturing my frustration with the issue. I really want to claim Veronica Mars as a feminist role model, yet Mars throws her hands up and backs away slowly at any mention of capital-F Feminism.

This is probably because those who do self-identify as feminists on the show are, as Smith discusses, “humourless, sexless, boring, and aggressively militant.” Sexual violence and rape also play an integral role in all three seasons of the show, dealt with various degrees of success. Mars herself is the survivor of such a heinous crime, yet she never bands with the women who are her peers in any way, be it fellow classmates or fellow survivors. Finding kinship and community is not, of course, a necessary healing step for survivors of sexual assault or rape (far be it for me to dictate what those steps should be). But a large part of Mars’ identity seems to be that she is always an outsider, always looking in, never feeling like she really belongs. Lilith House could have been a source of comfort for Mars, or a way to focus her anger, or even just a way to bring interesting friends into her world. Instead, it became a punching bag and a punchline. Those feminists! What a hoot!

Kristen Bell and the show’s creators are vocally vying for a movie, and the fans are approaching Firefly-like levels of voracity, so this might not be the last we see of Veronica Mars. The movie, if made, will focus on an older, all-growed-up version of Mars, and maybe she’ll have dealt with her trust issues and be able to feel comfortable in a joining role. Until then, though, I can’t comfortably or in good conscience deem her a feminist character, since I believe she would reject the identification. We would have loved to have you, Mars. Maybe next time.

Feminist Song Break: “Just A Girl,” No Doubt.

Let’s flash back for a second to 1998. I’m ten years old, it’s summertime, and my family’s going on vacation. I settle into the backseat with a stack of CDs and my discman. First up: No Doubt. The first twangy seconds of “Just A Girl” fill my consciousness. Suddenly, everything changes.

Okay, it would be awesome to actually have a moment like that, a conscious “click” in my thinking from unenlightened to aware of my feminist potential. That didn’t really happen, though. Instead, I had a more little-engine-that-could adolescence, slowly rounding the bases and sliding into feminism like that sexual metaphor I never really got the hang of. But this song. This song. 

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this is some privileged, upper-middle feminism happening. This is a girl who’s angry at her dad who (perhaps rightfully so) seems to genuinely care for her safety. Speaking as someone who has an advanced degree in Angry At Her Dad, though, I can quite honestly say that it is incredibly satisfying to hear. And even more so to watch.

I honestly like this video. I like the concept, I like that there are more than just white dudes and ladies, I like Gwen Stefani’s ska-punk-meets-blond-pompadour-meets-bindi aesthetic. As far as breaking it down to feminist v. non-feminist, perhaps it makes sense to approach it in a list:

Things Gwen doesn’t do:

Things Gwen does:

Though these distinctions might seem simple and easy, and though the strict male/female dichotomy, represented here by public washrooms, is certainly limiting in its binary, I still find it refreshing that there is no “ooh baby, baby”-ing, no kowtowing to stereotypical “male” desire, no booty-dancing or naughty-schoolgirl-posturing. This is a video whose main point is that Gwen, just as she sings, has had enough.

The last few seconds of the video are particularly telling. “Oh, I’ve had it up to…here,” Gwen opines, and for the first time, the assertive anger gives way to doe-eyed, frustrated pain. Gwen stares into the camera and her eyes shine, seemingly near tears. She blinks and glances away, breaking the intensity, and in that precise moment, I love her. I love her for her strength and her weakness, her fight and her flight. I love her for rocking the shit out of her song and her band, while still knowing that her very hotness, her very fierceness, her very womanhood of which she is so proud, is going to divide and possibly destroy all that she’s worked for. (Check the video for “Don’t Speak.” And that’s the LESS painful story behind the song.)

And in the very, VERY last moments of the video? Some unidentified but seemingly male characters (I think they might be fellow band members) stand at the divide between the two sets, breaking the fourth wall and drawing the viewer’s attention to the very falseness of the dichotomy that the video has created. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Bringing the male gaze into the final moments reminds the viewer that this video is aware of the stereotypes it transgresses and upholds, aware of the system it works within. But letting men have the final say is also oddly satisfying, as they turn their backs on the “female” scene and return to their own. One can almost hear them saying, “Dude. This place sucks.”

And isn’t that at least part of the problem? The inability of those who do not identify as feminist to recognize that yes, there are parts of society that make things suck for us ladies, particularly those of us who do identify as feminist? Wouldn’t we all be a little more comfortable if we could receive even that modicum of validation?

Or maybe I’m just a girl, in the world. But when I watch this video, I want to be more. And I feel like, just maybe, this Gwen wants me to be more, too.

Ladies of Lost: Kate

I have been very conflicted while I methodically planned this post (methodically here means “I took a really long time because I was busy,” not the real meaning) about what it means to be a feminist figure in pop culture.  For the world of Lost, I have had particular trouble for reasons that I am not able to pin down at the moment.  What makes someone a feminist if they are trapped on an island?  Is feminism only in actions or also in thoughts and words?  Can someone be a “sometimes feminist” (as cookies are apparently now a “sometimes food”)? Holding all of this in my head, I have decided to look at one of the Lost characters that most interested me throughout the series, Kate.

When we first meet Kate, as when we first meet all of the survivors, we know very little about her.  She slowly lets the story of her life come out, both in flashbacks and in the details she tells other castaways.  She learned to track in the wilderness from her father.  She knows how to hunt and fire a weapon.  She’s not married and is interested in multiple castaways.  She’s a fugitive on the run from the United States government after being implicated in multiple murders, fraud, assault and a variety of other offenses.  You know, the basics facts that all television viewers want to know.

Without going into excruciating detail, I would say that it is at this point that I would say that Kate is unfeminist.  While she is a pretty badass action girl, she is something that I believe no feminist should be, unwilling to accept the consequences of her actions.  Though her own insecurities and neuroses drive her to keep running, she frequently demonstrates that she is not simply running when the police chase her; she can and will commit bank robbery, forgery and drugging innocent bystanders in order to keep far far ahead of her past.

Kate changes during her time on the island though, as all our Losties do.  Though the beginning of the series is still marked with her urge to run, to hide and to keep her secret at all costs, she begins to mature and change.  She still has her run and hide instincts, honed by years and not easily forgotten, but they are tempered by responsibility and, eventually, love. For me, it became clear that Kate was someone I could look up to, someone I would tell my daughter to look up to, is when she took responsibility for Aaron and did not falter.  Even when her desire to run, to escape the world, surface, she has taken the role of mother into her heart and thinks of Aaron at every step along the way.

When Kate returns to the island, she leaves Aaron behind but it is clear that she is thinking and planning rather than reacting. She furthers her growth as she recognizes her responsibility and interconnectedness with others. She has a deep connection with those around her and, importantly, those she left behind.  Rather than running away, she begins to move toward her problems. Such a small change but one that I see as being a key to her case as a feminist character.  Feminism is about a wide variety of things but for me, responsibility is a huge part of it.  We are all part of this world and we all have the responsibility to do what we can to help others and leave the world better than we found it. Though Lost is not the best vehicle for this message, Kate’s transformation is a place where we can see it expressed well.

Hermione Granger, Girl Wonder

(Image taken from The Feminist Underground)

First off, let it be said: Joanne Rowling, I love you. Have my tiny babies. The Harry Potter series has revolutionized the Young Adult genre, getting kids to read again and changing what it means to write (and read!) “kids’ books.” The novels have a following that numbers in the millions, as well as a plot that probes the human psyche and characters with believable development. Suck on that, Twilight. (S. Meyer, we’re comin’ for you later.) Needless for me to say, the Harry Potter series changed the Western (and perhaps even worldwide?) literary landscape.

(Image taken from Broward Virtual Schools)

But is it a feminist text? Some people think not, seeing as it as adventure tale centered around one boy who grows up; bildungsroman, sure! Feminist? Nah. Plus there’s that tricky business about how the illustrious Joanne gave herself a fake middle initial. Her pseudo-pseudonym, J.K., was created in order to better market her books to young boys, lest they believe her book was a sort of Babysitter’s-Club-with-magic. (Ann M. Martin and your team of ghostwriters? Oh, we’re comin’ for you too, don’t you worry.) But I digress, bogged down in the minutiae of my most beloved genre, the YA novel. The fact remains that J.K./Joanne, while writing the first HP, was a poor, single mother on welfare. And look at her now! That in and of itself is a feminist achievement, in that she is a woman who has, almost singlehandedly, achieved a quite lofty goal.

But her characters are also feminist. Though no character ever drops the f-bomb, her heroes (and heroines!) fight for equality, and her villains against it. Moreover, she never pigeonholes her characters by gender (or, indeed, by race, class, or magical ability); women inhabit all walks of life: mothers, friends, murderers, annoying pests, from Rita Skeeter to Fleur Delacour, Molly Weasley to Bellatrix Lestrange.

(Image of these badass ladies found on Photobucket)

It is, in fact, this willingness on the part of Rowling to let the characters be full and whole rather than two-dimensional stereotypes that really puts her series on a pedestal for me. It isn’t fair to call Rowling’s work simply “feminist.” Instead, I see it as illustrative of numerous feminisms, depending on how keen one’s eye is and how femi-friendly one’s heart leans. One character stands out to me immediately: Hermione Granger, of course.

(Image taken from PrettyBoring)

Hermione, brilliant and brunette, could lead the charge for academic feminism in the novel, as she seems to take more comfort in fact than feeling. Many have said that she is a feminist because she isn’t afraid to be smart and because she doesn’t care about how she looks. I take a slightly different spin on this issue; Hermione, as a contemporary female, is completely aware of the ways in which her world is conspiring against her. She sees the Lavenders and Parvartis of her peer group focus on boys and make-up and love spells. She hears the cruelty of the boys in her class, one of whom she even LIKE-likes, as they tease her and put her down. Hermione’s too smart NOT to notice, not to care. It would be all too easy for her to shut up, get a straightening iron, and start “like, oh my god!”-ing with the best of them.

(Image taken from 90swoman.com)

Instead of clamming up and putting out, though, she perseveres, knowing herself. Knowing what it means to be strong. Hermione is, for me, a feminist hero precisely because she is scared to be smart, because she cares about how she looks, because she wants approval from boys she likes, and still goes ahead and is herself to a fault: needy, meddlesome, annoying, know-it-all-y. Refreshing. Flawed. Real. And hey, she sees nearly as much action as Ginny. Well, no one really sees as much action as Ginny, but you get my point.

(Image of this adorable pretend-couple also found on Photobucket)

Actually, I meant to write about both Ginny and Hermione, contrasting their relative positions and making comparisons to contemporary feminist philosophers. I got bogged down in the details instead, something Hermione would probably never do. I’ll get back to that point eventually, but for now, Hermione, I am proud to call you a feminist. (You too, Emma Watson!)

(Image taken from FitCeleb)

(I am indebted, as always, to people who have made similar arguments all over the interwebs, including Feministing, The Hogshead, and BlogHer.)

You get the best of both girls…

The above is an actual line from the intro to the Hannah Montana television show, make of it what you will.                                                                                                                                                                                       

Hannah Montana, for those who don’t watch TV, go on the internet, listen to the radio or talk to other people, is the protagonist of a Disney Channel television program about a girl who lives a double life: world famous teen pop sensation and 8th grade girl. Like Superman’s lack of glasses compared to Clark Kent, the cosmetic difference between the two is minimal; a large, dirty blond wig apparently can fool the vast majority of America.  She struggles to balance these two identities and, of course, wacky hi-jinks abound trying to keep that wig firmly on her head half the time and firmly off it the other half.

from lifelearning.org

from lifelearning.com

Yes, shocking as it is to believe, that is not her real hair.  That’s a spy-worthy disguise wig.                                                                                                                                                                

Thankfully, feminism is not based on wig quality.  Some have said that Hannah Montana is a great role model for young girls; she’s successful, young, smart (depending on the episode), and talented; a pop diva that, fortunately, has not objectified and oversexualized herself.  That seems pretty feminist, right?                                                                                                                       

Alas, my friends at wikipedia brought me some shocking information that caused me to radically change my opinion.  Apparently, in the Hannah Montana movie, the strain of this double life is too much and there is a very dramatic de-wigging during a concert where the main character says that she can no longer live a double life and needs to be true to herself.  That’s a great message: girls, be true to yourself!                                                                                                                             

Unfortunately, the concert-goers MAKE HER PUT THE WIG BACK ON AND CONTINUE HER DOUBLE LIFE!  She doesn’t want to be Hannah Montana anymore, but a large group of people told her that they liked her better with the wig, so back on it goes.  Yes, that’s more like the Disney messages that I remembered from my childhood, not “Be true to yourself” but rather “Be true to what others want from you, even if it’s not what you want.” Especially if there are lots of them and they liked your fake self.                                                                                                                                  

So, while a cursory glance at Ms. Montana may deceive one into labeling her a feminist worth of young girls, she is not a good model for girls or anyone else.  For teaching America’s youth to put up a fake persona if others do not accept their authentic selves, I hereby dub thee, Hannah Montana of the Disney Channel, unfeminist.               

Ms. Frizzle, or, A Very Good Place To Start

(image taken from scholastic.com)

What do we talk about when we talk about The Friz?

If you are unfamiliar with Her Royal Frizzness, she is the protagonist of a popular set of educational children’s books about various scientific concepts (digestion, space, etc.), The Magic School Bus. She, as teacher, leads her merry band of tykes through various topic-appropriate settings with the help of her magical bus.

But you probably knew all that.

(image taken from scholastic.com)

So is she a feminist? We like to shy away from rigorous definitions or checklists of feminism, preferring to see it as a continuum rather than an exclusive club. But the Friz seems to adhere to some basic tenets that put her further along that continuum than one might assume.

Perhaps most importantly, she is an educator. Though most teachers are women, and, I’ll admit, to me, another woman going into a female-centric career doesn’t necessarily seem forward thinking, Guy was quick to change my mind. Yes, she is a teacher. A teacher who doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty, be it how poop is made, or how babies happen. In fact, I wish I’d had her sex-ed curriculum when I was growing up. It probably wouldn’t include the following image.

(kinda weird image taken from a messageboard somewhere)

Moreover, she relentlessly pushes all of her students, male and female, to understand scientific concepts. She reinforces a strong female image, empowering her students to say things like, “Don’t you mean PERSON power, Ralphie?” (Phoebe in “Getting Energized”), and, “Don’t you mean PERSON your battle stations?” (Dorothy Ann, who is my forever girl, in “…Makes A Rainbow”), according to this super awesome fanfiction.net thread. They seem to know what they’re talking about.

Basically, to quote Guy, she teaches people to think for themselves and come up with their own ideas, which we agree is “pretty core feminism.” Plus she’s voiced by Lily Tomlin. So this one was kind of a gimme.

So, Ms. Frizzle, thanks. We salute you and your burgeoning, educational feminism.

(image taken from New York Social Diary)

What is FeministTestCase?

Welcome to FeministTestCase, where we tell you what to think about things you probably love.

WHO ARE YOU?

My name is Claire, and I post under celyse. His name is Guy, and he posts under verymattingly. We are best friends, obviously, because otherwise we would make each other crazy. This blog is based on a conversation we had, about whether or not Ms. Frizzle, of Magic School Bus fame, was a feminist.

WAIT, WHAT?

The thing about best friends is that they make you greedy for more, more understanding, more good conversations, more episodes of L&O:SVU, more people who think they way you do and still push you to think harder. This conversation in particular was one we wanted to keep having, so we decided to have it with the internet.

What am I talking about again? Well, I love a lot of things, but there are two things I love a whole lot: feminism and pop culture. The two have been put in conversation many times in many ways, but what if we approached pop culture as figures to be examined and observed? What if they were test cases for feminism, for different feminisms, for feminist attitudes? What does it mean if Ms. Frizzle is a feminist?

And FeministTestCase was born.