“Veronica Mars” premiered the autumn after I graduated from high school. As a university student, I thought teen shows were beneath me. So I did not discover “Veronica Mars” until I was in my late 20s, in bed with the flu and desperate for a show to binge. Even through the fog of my fever, I instantly connected with the series.
The original show debuted in 2004 and only lasted three seasons, but it has garnered a cult following. Fans donated millions to fund a 2014 movie. On Friday the show returned to our screens for a fourth season on Hulu. While everyone has their own reasons for adoring the show’s protagonist, I love her because, as a rape survivor, she was the role model I needed. Played by the inimitable Kristen Bell, this petite teen girl detective cracked many mysteries on her show, including one that plagued me for two decades: how to thrive as a victim of sexual assault.
I fell in love with Veronica the second she saved her friend Wallace from bullies who duct-taped him to a flagpole. It was the kind of heroic action I wished I had had the gumption to take when bullies stole kids’ lunch money at summer camp. Veronica was still the brave, bold person I wanted to be, the type of person who stood up for herself and others.
I also experienced multiple sexual assaults growing up. At one time, I felt like a victim of sexual assault, not a survivor. It would have been easy for “Veronica Mars” to succumb to bitterness. Instead, the protagonist was a relatable, aspirational hero who was strong as hell and eager to help others. She was sexually assaulted in 10th grade, but her life was not over. So I thought: Perhaps mine was not doomed, either?
Veronica lives in Neptune, a wealthy Southern California town where your parents are either rich, or they work for rich people. Veronica is in the latter camp. She and her dad run a private detective agency where they solve unsavory mysteries for people who can pay. The show’s first case hits close to home for Veronica: Her best friend Lilly, the daughter of a software mogul, is murdered. It is also revealed in the weeks following this tragedy that Veronica herself was drugged and raped at a party. When she wakes up, Veronica’s underwear is missing, and so is her attacker. In Kristen Bell’s signature acerbic voice-over, Veronica asks the audience: “You wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I.”
Veronica’s rape is part of this teen girl detective’s backstory. But as we learn when she stands up to biker gangs and spies on cheating husbands, it is not her whole story. Veronica goes on to solve countless other mysteries, from missing dogs to babies who were switched at birth. In the process, this petite teenager takes down multiple powerful men, including the mayor of Neptune who turns out to be a pedophile. Simply put, Veronica can do anything, including solve cases that even the police cannot crack.
Representation matters. Fiction can reflect reality, but it also presents possibilities for how our world could be. When it comes to TV’s depictions of rape survivors, most are woefully one-dimensional. In “Law & Order: SVU,” for example, sexual assault survivors are often presented as irreparably damaged, women who are alive but whose lives seem over. When TV writers attempt to write empowered rape survivors, they often veer too far in the opposite direction. Case in point: Sansa Stark expressing gratitude for years of sexual abuse in the final season of “Game of Thrones,” the implication being raped somehow made Sansa a better person. The audience is left with the impression Sansa owes some perverse debt of gratitude to her tormentors, as though she evolved into the indomitable Queen of the North because of them, not despite them.
By contrast, Veronica Mars is the only show that ever presented me with a nuanced, hopeful image of what life as a rape survivor could look like. I had spent two decades feeling like the underdog, a damaged girl men had taken advantage of from a young age. Riddled by nightmares and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), for years I did not even bother going to therapy; I assumed I was too broken to sort through the wreckage of my life.
In my rigid worldview, you were either a victim or a hero. Then Veronica showed me victims could become heroes, too. In the pilot episode, Veronica’s sexual assault is a secret. The day she attempted to report the crime, the sheriff’s office refuses to investigate, an experience familiar to many complainants, given that statistics show only about 1 percent of rapes lead to convictions. Traumatized, Veronica isolates herself at school. But as the show progresses, Veronica slowly learns to open herself up again. Veronica does not go to therapy like I did (I doubt her family could afford it). However, she makes herself vulnerable by opening up to new friends at Neptune High School, even telling her boyfriend, Logan, about her history of sexual abuse.
I wanted to embody Veronica’s essence, to become a wisecracking warrior who fights injustice and wears awesome leather jackets. So I bought a motorcycle jacket, attended anti-rape rallies and began speaking and writing openly about my history of sexual assault. Sharing my trauma introduced me to a new community of incredible people who had endured similar experiences. Gradually, I stopped living in the shadow of stigma and shame.
It takes two full seasons for Veronica to discover her rapist’s identity. Despite surviving and being sad, she is freaking furious about the attack. Veronica’s anger gave me permission to feel enraged, too. I had spent so long making excuses for the men who assaulted me. Finally embracing that anger is what allowed me to work through it in therapy.
My favorite episode in the series is the season two finale. The leading lady solves a season-long mystery of a bus crash that killed several of her classmates. She also discovers Beaver, the mastermind of the whole tragedy, is the one who assaulted her. Unlike Sansa, Veronica is in no way thankful to Beaver. She does not credit him with launching her path as an intrepid crime fighter. Instead, she points a gun in Beaver’s direction, contemplating ending his life. Through angry tears, the high school student screams: “He raped me!”
Ultimately, Veronica decides to spare Beaver’s life. She does not want to compromise her morals by becoming a killer like him. Veronica did not let her rape destroy her capacity for sexual pleasure, either. Until watching Veronica Mars, it had not even occurred to me that enjoying sexual intimacy was possible for rape survivors. I gave up on my own pleasure until Veronica’s example motivated me to give my sexuality another chance. To this day, I re-watch the episode whenever memories of sexual violence resurface.
The show’s fourth season has received mixed reviews since dropping on Friday. Regardless, I found it reassuring to watch the adult Veronica Mars, ferocious as ever. Although I could never pull off her motorcycle boots and I cannot even solve the mystery of where my missing socks go, this time, I did not just admire Veronica; I saw parts of myself in her. Over the years, watching Veronica fight for justice — and her own happiness — made me stronger. Sure, it is just a TV show. But Veronica Mars empowered me to be the protagonist of my own life, not a tragic, supporting character.