Wallaces Wobble But Weevils Fall Down : Race, Class, and Bias in Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars is racist.
If you’re still with me, let me caveat: Veronica Mars is intentionally racist. It highlights the inequalities perpetrated on persons of color in a world where white persons are predominantly in power and rich. It’s not subtle about it. It wants you to see that these inequalities exist. So, the problem isn’t that VM is racist. The problem is that it’s so intentionally racist that it's easy to miss how it's unintentionally racist as well.
People have written a lot about how VM’ portrayal of feminists, up to and including a faked rape, make it misogynistic in at least some regards. Veronica herself might be a feminist icon, albeit one with apparently a serious hate on for women if you go by how many derogatory quips she makes about them in the third season, but Nish and others at Lilith House, the only explicitly feminist characters in the canon, are caricatures at best, mocking at worst. This doesn’t take away from how awesome Veronica is but it does undermine the message of misogyny = bad that the show is explicitly trying to carry. What hasn’t been discussed is how the same messages play out in regards to racism.
VM is, at its core, a noir and noir is, at its core, a dark genre where corruption, violence, and crime are commonplace. No one, not even the protagonist, comes off clean in noir where moral ambiguity is the rule and a pure heart an exception. One need only look at the final episode, “The Bitch is Back”, to see that Veronica herself is ruthless and vengeful. Even Wallace, a predominantly good guy, gets roped into lying, cheating, and stealing in the name of Veronica’s mission. Therefore, if the majority of characters of color in the show are criminal, corrupt, or both, it seems only fitting in the genre and true of white characters as well. How can it be racist when white characters come off just as bad or even worse?
The answer there is complicated.
Within the show only a handful of characters of color have names and even fewer have any significant number of lines. Despite being set in a racially diverse area Wallace, Weevil, Jackie, Thumper, Felix, Alicia (Wallace’s Mom), Nathan (Wallace’s dad), Terrence (Jackie’s dad), and Clarence Wiedman make up almost all of VM’s minority population. They’re the only characters of color who have, in multiple episodes, more than a few speaking lines or significance to the plot. That, in and of itself, is both problematic and unfortunately common on television.
It becomes more problematic when one examines how these characters of colors are portrayed not just as shady or criminal but stereotypically so from Hispanic gang members to black sports stars to black women getting pregnant as teenagers. Like many stereotypes, these are grounded in reality, a reality Rob Thomas could be argued to be drawing on. Yes, many poor Hispanics living in barrios in Southern California are gang members as it’s nearly the only occupation in which they have hopes of earning any sort of significant money. Yes, many formerly poor black men are athletes because of the opportunities and wealth offered by a professional sports contract: like gangs sports offer a way out of poverty. And yes, unfortunately, poor women of all colors are much more likely to have children as teenagers due to a lack of access to and knowledge of proper birth control or abortion. In the end, however, they are stereotypes and Rob Thomas chose to pull from these stereotypes instead of the reality that many persons of color, the majority, are not these things.
But, again, this, in and of itself, would be slightly uncomfortable but not necessarily a problem. VM contains many stereotypes of both persons of color and Caucasians. Dick Casablancas is a prime example of stereotyping Caucasians within the text. It isn’t until one starts to make comparisons within the text that the pattern becomes explicitly clear.
In Season One (S1) one can easily make the comparison between Weevil and Logan Echolls. As Veronica describes him, Logan is the school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass”. Weevil is a violent gang member. At the end of the pilot episode we even see their actions mirrored: after Logan takes a crowbar to Veronica’s car, Weevil does the same to Logan’s friend’s. Unlike Logan, who stayed a jackass thorough the first half of S1, Weevil quickly has a redemptive moment when he willingly takes the fall for credit card theft he didn’t commit in order to keep his grandmother out of jail. Logan’s redemptive arc comes later, with the death of his mother, but, unlike Weevil’s, it sticks. While Weevil has moments of clear empathy and good intentions, he has many more moments of ruthless and continuing violence. In S2 alone we see him: orchestrate the beating of Logan, burn Logan’s house down, make numerous threats of violence, orchestrate the murder of a man in cold blood, and enlist his young niece into helping him commit a felony.
Meanwhile Logan has inherited a vast fortune, gotten the girl (at that point), distanced himself from his abusive father, and even his ruthlessness is undercut with the message that he’s just a sensitive guy at heart: despite getting close to her as an avenue to blackmail her father into withdrawing as a witness against him it becomes clear that he has honest feelings for Hannah. What could have been a moment of the old Logan peeking through becomes redemptive, an advantage that Weevil never receives. Instead Weevil is, within the same time frame, arranging a murder.
Season Two (S2) of VM contains three major arcs: Veronica’s search for who caused the bus crash; the trial of Aaron Echolls for Lilly Kane’s murder; and Weevil’s search for Felix’s murderer. In each case there comes a point where revenge is an option and for two characters, Duncan Kane and Weevil, revenge is the choice they make.
Within the text we see this essentially identical act of revenge played out to two different results: In the case of Duncan Kane, who had Kane Industries’ security lead Clarence Wiedman shoot Aaron Echolls in the back of the head, we see Duncan playing on an Australian beach with his daughter when he gets the call the assassination is complete. In Weevil’s case it just so happens that on a dark street in the middle of the night a young boy is looking out a vehicle window at exactly the right moment and able to accurately identify Weevil despite the low visibility and eye witnesses being notoriously unreliable, especially children witnesses. This identification leads to his arrest and the consequential low level employment available to paroles.
To further the disparity in results there’s the textual response. Aaron Echolls’ death is met with relief, primarily on the part of his son Logan, a main and, as established, sensitive character. Thumper’s death, on the other hand, is met with textual disapproval in the form of Veronica unequivocally condemning Weevil’s actions.
Speaking of condemnation: without Weevil's guidance the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) Bike Club descends into violent and destructive criminal behavior. Thumper spearheads the movement of drugs, a crime the PCHers didn't previously commit according to Weevil, and kills Felix along with jumping Weevil out of the gang when he connects the dots. Previous to his ejection Weevil has the PCHers, on his order, kidnap Logan, tie him down, and threaten to shoot him first in the hand then in the crotch unless he tells the truth (as determined by Weevil). These are only a few of the violent behaviors committed by the PCHers within the series.
But what about the other person of color that’s a series regular? Wallace, unlike Weevil, behaves in a primarily moral way. Though he’s sometimes deceitful and occasionally criminal, these actions are motivated by his desire to help his best friend out with investigating wrongs done to innocent, or at least semi-innocent, people. He’s one of the few honestly good, nice people on the show – Keith Mars being the other primary example.
He’s also a basketball star, a fact that is active and pervasive in his character portrayal. All of the Wallace-centric plots independent of Veronica’s investigations involve his basketball skills in some way: the disappearance of Petey the Pirate Parrot and the rival team’s goat. The sabotaged drug test at the start of season two. The hit-and-run perpetrated by Rashard, a teammate from his Chicago school’s basketball team. His near failure of engineering due to basketball practice. And, finally, even his recruitment into Hearst College’s skull-and-bones like society is predicated on his freshman basketball scores. Beyond his identity as Veronica’s best friend and skilled informant (what other word fits his supplying records to her through his office job?) Wallace’s biggest identity is as a basketball player, a sport stereotypically associated with young, black men. Though we’re given the impression that he is at least somewhat intelligent we also see unambiguous canon which condemns that intelligence while reinforcing his value as a sports star. Additionally, all of the players we see Wallace interact with on the court (rather than outside of it, such as the S3 death of his coach storyline) are also characters of color. Continuing that theme, out of the players who are characters of color we also see one of them fake a parrot kidnapping so that he can throw the game and get rich while the other encourages Wallace to cheat on an important exam. And, of course, there's also the Rashard storyline.
There is no question that Wallace is a nice, mostly honest guy with good intentions. Unfortunately, instead of developing him as a full character with interests outside of the sport most associated with black men Rob Thomas chose to limit him to those two roles: informant and athlete.
To add insult to stereotype Wallace’s primary independent plot in S2 is centered around his biological father, Nathan Woods, a man who left their family when Wallace was just a baby. Aside from the issue of a black man abandoning his family – a trend repeated with Jackie’s father Terrence Cook and the father of Jackie’s baby – Nathan’s primary role is dual: on one side he is a decorated cop, on another as the alias Carl Morgan he’s a shady drug dealer and armed robber. The implication given by his ex, Wallace’s mother Alicia, is that during his time undercover he turned into a dirty cop with a drug addiction and a tendency to beat – or at least scare – her. On screen we see him abuse his authority twice: first in using his badge to find out what room Keith and Alicia are in on their trip to Chicago and second in using it as a pressuring tactic on the witness who can identify Rashard.
After convincing Wallace of his good intentions regarding wanting to finally be a father Wallace goes with him to Chicago for a length of time. When Wallace returns he’s running away from being a witness to a hit-and-run only to find out that he is now being framed for the crime by fellow basketball player Rashard’s controlling uncle. It is clearly established that Rashard’s uncle is a criminal willing to stop at nothing to ensure his nephew’s future NBA career including paying off witnesses to disappear. While Veronica and Jackie work on a plan to clear Wallace’s name Nathan Woods tracks down the paid off witness and persuades him – with the heavy implication that his tactics are not police force approved – to tell the truth, a clear abuse of his power as a cop and a sign that he hasn’t changed that much from Alicia’s impression of him. Following this Nathan disappears, referenced only a few times as someone Wallace calls occasionally, once again an absentee father.
The only other person of color we regularly see in the role of father is Terrence Cook, a character who has a past (and current) at least as shady as Nathan Woods. There’s the explicit statement that Terrence essentially slept with every pretty and willing woman who came his way, including Jackie’s mother, during the period he played in the major leagues. When Jackie’s mother got pregnant he didn’t stand up to support the mother of his child and his baby; instead he abandoned them both to poverty. When he does finally take Jackie in – a result, it turns out, of her “falling into the wrong crowd” including doing drugs, crime, and having a baby two years earlier – his capacity as father is limited. He spends most of his onscreen time with Jackie scolding or lecturing her. Then he becomes so preoccupied with his troubles in gambling and being framed for the bus crash that he fails to act as a father at all until he gets shot and has to be hospitalized. But then, in the final episode of S2, he’s again seen scolding her rather than being supportive.
Terrence’s primary time on screen is taken up dealing with a strong-arming and threatening casino owner, suspicion from the local sheriff over his role in the bus crash, and establishing a relationship with Keith Mars in which they bond over Terrence’s major league career. Like Wallace Terrence’s skill at athletics is highlighted not only with the implication that he was a very good player in his day but also the fact that he intentionally threw a game to clear some of his gambling debts. His debts are held by Leonard Lobo, a Native American running one of many reservation casinos prominent in Southern California. Lobo bullies, lies, and manipulates those around him, only providing an alibi for Terrence at the time of the bus crash so that he can cash in on Terrence’s celebrity to get some of his money back.
Though Terrence clearly suffers from the frame job, getting both arrested and shot in the process of clearing his name, it is Jackie we see take the brunt of the consequences. Not only is she left alone to fend for herself in the Cook home but she becomes persona-non-grata to the other students of Neptune High, who blame her father, and by extension her, for the death of their classmates.
When Jackie first arrives in Neptune she comes across as similar to Madison Sinclair – in short, a rich, stuck-up bitch – but as the season goes on we see her first escalate a conflict with Veronica but then sweeten out, gaining redemption through a baptism of sorts. Only this baptism comes in the form of a carnival dunking game in which Jackie bravely goes out to be dunked and humiliated knowing that most of the school has it out for her. After that Jackie is much nicer both in general and to Veronica in particular, despite early hostility between them; she becomes humble as well, no longer flaunting her biological father’s wealth the way she did early in the season.
Terrence is eventually cleared. Additionally, the relationship between him and Jackie is repaired due to his stay in the hospital where she visited him regularly. But Jackie’s life in California is essentially a fairy tale with an expiration date of one year. Once he's back home – and despite connecting with her – Terrence, in a bad mood because of Lobo’s manipulations, pushes Jackie away, encouraging her to leave early. It’s unclear whether he knows she really intends to return to Brooklyn but as he never mentions it and does openly reference the Sorbonne it seems unlikely. Like Nathan Woods, Terrence once again becomes an absentee father in implication, if not text.
Meanwhile canon reveals that Jackie is, in fact, not bound for Paris – as Veronica points out her grades aren’t good enough to gain admittance to the Sorbonne, the first and only reference to Jackie’s intelligence. In fact, not only is she not college bound but she's been lying to everyone, especially Wallace, about her background, who her mother is, and sundry other details. Then she decided to become the parent her father never was; instead of running away from her responsibilities, in particular her two-year-old son then being raised by her mother, she chooses to return to parent him and breaks ties with Neptune, including breaking up with Wallace in the process. In using this plot twist Rob Thomas once again relies on a stereotype rampant in portrayals of young black women, especially those in poverty, rather than coming up with something fresh and less insulting to justify Jackie leaving Neptune.
Then we must consider Wallace's mother, Alicia. When the series first begins with Wallace and Veronica becoming friends Alicia is adamantly against it. Why? Because of the gossip at Kane Software where she works as a secretary. Instead of waiting to reserve judgment until she knows Veronica herself she takes the gossip as fact then attempts to actively push Veronica away from her son. Her mind is changed about the Mars family only when she has a violent tenant who refuses to pay the rent or move out. Unable to handle the man herself she must rely on a white man to protect her by scaring the tenant off.
She later begins a relationship with Keith, one which becomes bumpy after she discovers that Wallace delivered a bugged plant to her office on Veronica's behest, a bug she nearly gets fired over. It's also troubled because of her vocal disapproval about the way Keith has raised Veronica since Lianne left and involved her in his P.I. business. Meanwhile we discover that, like Jackie, Alicia is hiding a whole other life: one in Chicago twenty years before. Instead of telling Wallace about his biological father she hid it deep down so that Wallace grows up believing Hank Fennel is his bio-dad. The only other character we see hiding a background so completely is Kendall Casablancas, played by an actress on the darker side herself with Cherokee ancestors. After the Nathan Woods arc Alicia is then fazed out of the show. Wallace's little brother? Only in three episodes to begin with.
Returning to the main arc, Clarence Wiedman plays a prominent role in the first season of Veronica Mars, a lesser role in the second, and a brief appearance in the third. Within his time on the show he commits these acts: 1. Takes photos of Veronica and puts scope marks on them as a threat to Lianne. 2. Bugs Veronica – which allows him to find Lianne after Veronica does and continue the threats. 3. Covers up the murder of Lilly Kane by tampering with evidence and calling in an anonymous tip to get the police to go after Abel Koontz. 4. Pays off the daughter of Abel Koontz to disappear. 4. Threatens Veronica multiple times. 5. Kills a young man for extorting money from Kane Software. 6. Executes Aaron Echolls on Duncan Kane's orders. Essentially Clarence is Kane Software's fix-it man who commits many unsavory acts on the orders of (the white) Jake Kane.
Clarence commits more dubious acts than any other character save Veronica herself. Yet while she commits worse behaviors than Clarence in some regards (such as bugging the school’s counseling office – a major ethical violation by any standard) she does so over the course of significantly more screen time. Due to the limited amount of screen time Clarence has his actions are far more obviously out-of-line; in fact, until the third season we never see him on screen when he is behaving in a non-criminal manner. In effect the entirety of his character is his criminal behavior.
This is true of the remaining reoccurring characters of color as well: Thumper and Felix. Though we see Felix in a flashback discussing his plan to become a trucker, a decidedly non-criminal behavior, the conversation is steeped in the context of the PCHers, including undercurrents of their rivalry with a local Irish mob. Many of the PCHers, despite being in multiple episodes, are never given names. Felix’s other behaviors greatly outnumber the single positive conversation. Thumper lacks even a positive conversation. He is strictly a villain, one willing to sell drugs to high school students and turn on members of his own gang (a pseudo-family) for personal gain. And although ultimately he is more villainous than Aaron Echolls the text, as laid out above, condemns Weevil’s actions in removing him from power.
Yet these are not the only examples of stereotyping. Many of the one-off characters of color, including apparently all of Wallace’s teammates and the population of Neptune High, invoke stereotypes as well. Just to mention a few:
Veronica is in competition for valedictorian; of the four others in the running two are Asian. In fact, the show repeatedly presents Asians as intelligent or, at least, book smart. While this can be seen as positive it invokes the troublesome stereotype that (a) all Asians are intelligent just by being Asian and (b) other minorities, by default, are not intelligent.
It continues on that train of stereotyping by showing young black men who are not smart or, rather, not as smart as Veronica (and therefore not as smart as the Asian characters in the running for valedictorian). Their schemes are inevitably foiled, generally because of clearly dumb actions such as wearing shoes with their basketball number on them in a ransom video. The fact is all of Wallace’s black team members commit crimes while the single white team member we see is exonerated and clearly not guilty of murder. In “Normal is the Watchword” another black character, a football player instead of basketball, is characterized as a druggie and bully to the point that Veronica is surprised he thought he could pass the drug test. She’s initially unwilling to help him due to his bullying ways.
Other one-off characters include Chardo, who was willing to let his grandmother go to prison for credit card theft when he was the one who stole the credit information so that he could financially keep up with his (white) semi-girlfriend. Arturo, a wannabe PCHer, mugs pizza delivery workers, including beating one so badly he ended up hospitalized. And Carlos Oliveres: father to one of the victims of the bus crash, fabricates evidence in order to be able to sue the school district for harassment and negligence. Oliveres is one of few characters of color that appear outside the context of crime (as he does not go through with presenting the evidence) or basketball; nearly all the persons of color who appear are associated with one or the other. Even those not connected to PCH are often involved in crime. In the third season, for example, one character of color helps his girlfriend fake/perpetuate a false rape accusation. In comparison the one-off white characters that appear are far more evenly distributed between criminals, witnesses, and victims.
Contextually episodes like “One Angry Veronica” (S2) overtly condemn stereotyping and rushing to judgment on the basis of race, class, or profession. This is a good thing. Someone should be asking these questions, showing the sort of disparity and often intense bias present in people from all walks of life. As the Avenue Q song states: Everyone’s a little bit racist. Examining that (often subconscious) racism is something that would be well served if it was present in more U.S. mainstream television. But while VM examines the perils of race bias in explicit detail it also perpetrates the exact bias it’s trying to textually condemn. Ultimately, this essay has covered only a few of the examples present in the series’ 64 episodes. A closer examination finds examples like these – along with the stereotypical characterizations of the characters of color with actual names and lines – pepper the text, present in almost every depiction of minorities within the show’s three seasons.
Now, to be clear: This is not a blanket condemnation of VM. It is not a blanket condemnation of either the show in general or the explicit presentation of class and race. Rob Thomas and his writing team did an admirable job of attempting to tackle the racial tensions and inequities present in Southern Californian coastal towns. I say this from the perspective of someone who lived there the first 21 years of my life, during which I saw many of the issues VM highlights unfold in one form or another.
The fail here, if it can be described that way, is that in the midst of tackling these issues the writing staff seemingly failed to examine their own biases previous to putting pen to paper. Those biases play out in the subtext of the canon like a tangled thread of fishing line running through each episode, each season and, in some ways, undermine the evident and intentional canonical denunciation of racism.
This – not the presence of race – not the act of creating dark, morally ambiguous, and/or criminal characters of race without a noir piece – is the pattern, and thus the problem, of racism within the text. As complex and creative as the show was, as much as it zeroed in on the feelings many of its watchers had, as good as Veronica Mars was compared to much of mainstream television, it does neither the show nor its watchers any favors to ignore its flaw. This is one flaw of the show, one which almost calls to be discussed given the canon’s original aim of invoking conversation about racism.
So I leave it up to discussion now:
Thoughts? Questions? Corrections?