Despite an original run that lasted from 2004 to 2007, Veronica Mars doesn’t feel like a throwback the way some of the shows it aired alongside do—think of relics like The O.C., which now practically screams mid-’00s. We can partly credit this resilience to the genetic gifts that have allowed Kristen Bell to circumvent the aging process, but it is also a result of Mars now being on its second go-round through the revival-o-tron: Just five years after the 2014 movie, this month Hulu released an eight-episode Season 4.
Nevertheless, it’s worth dwelling on just how long ago 2004 really was. The show debuted on UPN, a channel that no longer exists, at a time when the broadcast networks were still powerful(ish) and streaming was but a vision in the distance. During the three original seasons, Veronica used a flip phone and wore the low-rise, flare-leg jeans that were then de rigueur. Mid-aughts tabloid fixture Paris Hilton guest-starred as a fellow high schooler in an early episode. And all of that barely registers in comparison to the biggest difference between then and now: the gulf between the gender politics of 2004 and those of 2019.
In 2004, Veronica Mars crashed into a world that wasn’t at all primed to talk about sexual assault but built a primetime network show around that subject anyway. How did a character like Veronica end up on the air? As a high schooler who was also a rape survivor, a feminist (though a tacit one), and an amateur private investigator with a deep distrust of the police, she was a radical addition to the pantheon of more airbrushed fictional teens of the time. As someone who watched the series as a teenager but was, at the time, way more interested in Veronica’s relationship with Logan than the show’s gender politics, I’ve found myself, during my recent rewatch, marveling at the sly feminism creator Rob Thomas managed to smuggle into a teen show under my nose. It’s really true, as the New York Times recently put it, that the show “anticipated much of the #MeToo conversation.” But to call Veronica Mars simply pre-#MeToo would obscure a host of progressive and gender-related milestones it also preceded: the Obama era; either of Hillary Clinton’s presidential runs; the emergence of the feminist blogosphere; the rise of mainstream feminism after the backlash of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s; and the accompanying rise of feminist television in conjunction with Peak TV. It was also several years before campus rape and sexual assault finally became a pressing issue of national concern and conversation. So yes, the show now seems, as CNN has called it, “eerily prescient to today’s headlines.” And I do mean eerily: In the pilot, when Veronica says, “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I,” she could have just as easily said, “Me too.”
Veronica Mars didn’t feature sexual assault as a “special” episode, and it didn’t just pepper in a few salacious rape plotlines to mix things up. Sexual violence constitutes the inciting incident that kicks off the show and its foundational concern throughout the initial run. Sexual violence is key to Veronica’s arc: Soon after her best friend Lilly is murdered (the show spends all of Season 1 revealing that this crime, too, was on the spectrum of sexual violence), Veronica is raped at a classmate’s party. Her peers slut-shame her rather than sympathize, and the police dismiss her. These events and their fallout profoundly transform Veronica’s worldview, inspiring what becomes a lifelong fight against inequity.
The #MeToo movement has amounted to a cultural reckoning about the prevalence of sexual violence and unequal treatment of women in society, but it has also provided an opening to point out other conditions that allowed that behavior to flourish, including entrenched power structures and deeply ingrained attitudes about gender. Reconsidering Veronica Mars after #MeToo, it’s clear that the show understood this (in spite of a few stumbles, particularly in Season 3’s plotline about campus feminists and rape) and sought to shed light on not only sexual violence but the larger culture that enables it—and this was years before the term “rape culture” was in common usage.
Rape culture is all over Veronica’s world right from the start: A fictionalized version of Girls Gone Wild called Girls Gone Bad comes up in Season 1; an online “purity test” is used to shame Veronica and her female high school classmates in another episode; a frat at Hearst College is revealed to have a points system for assigning scores to women, awarded to frat members for hooking up with them; and so on. And this culture might well be personified by Veronica’s classmate Dick Casablancas, the privileged Neptune High bully–turned–frat boy who seems to live to party and exploit women.
Elsewhere in the series’s dissection of the forces that led to #MeToo, it also took pains to show that our cultural inclination to disbelieve women is so strong that even Veronica is not immune. In an especially prophetic Season 1 episode, Veronica’s classmate Carrie Bishop (played by a pre–Gossip Girl Leighton Meester) accuses Veronica’s favorite teacher, Mr. Rooks (a pre–Party Down Adam Scott), of seducing her and leaving her pregnant. Veronica initially refuses to accept that he could have acted predatorily. We’ve heard it a million times (and it continues to recur in the news): He’d always been perfectly nice to her. Veronica thinks Carrie is just a mean girl, so she assumes she must be lying—even though Veronica knows exactly what it’s like to not be believed in such a moment. Veronica asks her father, who is working for Carrie’s parents, “Do you want to be responsible for taking a good man down?” It’s straight out of #MeToo: A man’s imperiled reputation automatically takes precedence over a woman’s well-being. When Veronica expresses these same concerns to Carrie, Carrie shoots back, “From where I stand, he’s become more popular than ever. I’m the bitch that everyone hates.”
This is another hard-earned lesson of #MeToo, a moment that dredged up so many stories from women who had previously been afraid to say something: Simply speaking out about sexual assault can ruin a woman’s reputation while, it sometimes seems, improving a man’s. Again and again, Veronica Mars’ original run proved that compelling, nondidactic television could be made of stories about women’s lives and the threats they face, at a time when few other cultural works—and certainly no others aimed at teenagers—were raising those issues.
In a recent interview, Veronica Mars’ creator Rob Thomas mused, “I do wonder if, in the current environment, I would have been brave enough to write Veronica as a rape victim in the original pilot.” This strikes me as an incredible thing to say—who would a Veronica Mars who’d never been raped, and who had never wailed at the man who did it to her, “You raped me!”, even be? But Thomas is right that a male writer pitching a show about a rape victim would raise some eyebrows in 2019, and indeed might read as a craven attempt to capitalize on the zeitgeist. The show’s first three seasons are ultimately a product of their time, and 2004 was a time that really needed Veronica Mars. Rewatching these seasons now validates much of what the show had to say at the time, but also seems to prove—and this is rare—that culture has actually shifted, if slightly, in the right direction. If you were to tell teenage Veronica Mars about #MeToo, first you’d have to explain to her what a hashtag was, but after that, I have to think she’d be proud of this progress—but that she wouldn’t want to put down her Taser just yet.