“Maybe you should handle dinner.”
Food-based domesticity in
Veronica Mars’ regendered
neo-noir trauma narrative
The story of the production of teen mystery noir drama Veronica Mars (showrunner: Rob Thomas) boasts nearly as many twists and turns as its own narratives. The show aired its first two seasons on UPN and its third on the CW, UPN’s successor, between 2004 and 2007, to middling ratings, if critical success. However, the series has enjoyed a particular cult appeal in the years since 2007 that has brought it back not once, but twice, in varying fan-supported institutional contexts. After a fan-funded Kickstarter film distributed by Warner Brothers (the same parent company as its prior networks) in 2014, the series returned in 2019 for an eight-episode, one-case miniseries on Hulu.
The drama centers around titular character Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), a cis female private investigator who learned her trade from her divorced father, and her investigations in her income- and racially stratified, fictional hometown of Neptune in southern California. Given noir’s typical investment in hardnosed male-identified detective protagonists, Veronica Mars does a great deal of work to regender traditional noir tropes through two main characters—Veronica and her primary love interest throughout the series, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring).
The idea of restructuring gender within an already-established genre framework is perhaps more developed in fan-work than in source texts themselves. Fan creators and scholars have even developed an evolving vocabulary to describe this pursuit. Here, I make use of the concept of regendering—i.e., reworking the genders of characters within a gender-deterministic story framework, presumably in order to comment upon the gendering in that original framework—to explore the recasting of Veronica Mars’ fairly traditional neo-noir structure. Traditional noir structure, particularly in its use of femmes fatales and gender in romantic frameworks, reproduces Laura Mulvey’s male gaze and the corresponding narrative anxieties surrounding femininity and its engagement with cis masculinity. Visuality and narrative thus make regendering in noir complex and fraught with traditional gendered expectations to a rather extreme degree while potentially opening space for queer approaches to identity and content.
Whether a series’ use of a female lead interacts with expectations of domesticity, given noir’s devotion to the solitary detective who lives apart from society, usually depends on an instability introduced by the femme fatale. However, while Veronica is permitted to be the hardboiled lady detective within Veronica Mars’ narrative and lay claim to her non-nurturant, nonnormative role, Logan has a harder time navigating expectations of an homme fatal. Hardboiled detectives of the Raymond Chandler mold are tough in the face of tragedy and determinedly solitary, while femmes fatales seek to upend male typage using manipulations and sexuality. Such narrative tropes jostle uncertainly in this series against the expectations for cis-heteronormative romantic and narrative closure set up by its marketing as a teen TV drama. In an intriguing way, an omnipresence of food, mealtime spaces, and kitchens as well as dinner parties in season four of Veronica Mars works to localize domesticity and expectations about it for its feminine-gendered detective through the figure of her homme fatal.
Kitchens and mealtimes in season four of Veronica Mars expose instabilities in the series’ re-gendered neo-noir framework, particularly in the interplay between Veronica’s hardboiled persona and her vacillating, trauma-recovering love interest/boyfriend Logan. Logan served in earlier seasons as her homme fatal in a more traditionally destabilizing way, but in season 4 he attends therapy and seeks a more conventional family life. However, this I contend does not impede his homme-fatal ability to disrupt Veronica’s narrative, but rather enhances it in a way that destabilizes his own position as well as the narrative’s relation to trauma recovery. Producers make consistent efforts (centered by scripting and visual presentation of Logan’s character) using food, kitchens, and dinners to re-inscribe Veronica into cis-heteronormative relationship and family structures as well as traditional trauma recovery modalities. Ironically, instead the show drives the narrative to problematizing trauma recovery and therapy, so that eventually Logan has to leave the series entirely in order to maintain Veronica’s solitary, jaded, ‘noir’ detective status.
Scriptwise, these differing components of the neo-noir narrative, gender, social cues around food, and expectations of trauma structure the fourth season of Veronica Mars in dramatic and nuanced ways. For example, food emerges as a mode of checking domestic gender performance that is rejected or reframed by our titular anti-heroine. In addition, trauma recovery becomes another destabilizing and threatening factor to Veronica’s work and her persona as a damaged-but-strong detective. Both domesticity and recovery get localized in the homme fatal that Logan represents; later these are removed from the equation via another traumatic experience to maintain the “interesting […] sexy” noir mode that showrunner Rob Thomas expects. In his postmortem on the season, Thomas discusses Veronica’s position in season four, especially relative to Logan, his interest in marriage, and his approach to recovery. Thomas says he wanted to present her as a thirty-something woman who has to grow up and choose the direction of her life, something he saw as a traditionally male pursuit.
I present here a detailed analysis of season four’s eight episodes with particular focus on the structuring of gender and recovery through the characters’ encounters with food. What in fact emerges in the show’s narrative and style is a rejection of the norms of family and marital life as well as the expectations of recovery. The producers sought to retain a particular image of the lonely, damaged detective that, despite Thomas’s efforts to sidestep normative gendering, also has unsettlingly traditional, punitive consequences for our view of Veronica Mars.
Queer television and regendering genre
Queerness in mass culture can be discussed at a meta-level as either connotative or denotative, drawing from Alexander Doty. Either a text is queered via historically specific cultural readings and interpretations, often by queer consumers (connotative), or a text represents queerness in and of itself, if queer people are the subject of the text (denotative). Many film and television texts have tended toward the connotative mode because of social strictures and norms, and often legal restrictions; the result has been the prevalence of a descriptive, implicit, and highly coded ‘language’ of winks, symbols, and implication. Queer consumers, seeking representation of their lived experience, unpick the purported dominant reading to reveal negotiated or oppositional plots, characterizations, or implied backstories, and these may or may not have been within the intended narrative put forth by media industry professionals.
Within dominant representational modes, the console—TV—serves as a form of closeting whose discourses shape the available narratives for queer characters, much in the way the concept of the closet restricts and produces knowledges and practices surrounding queerness. Television can be a connotative space to explore queerness, whereas the inclusion of a token lesbian or gay character in a TV series functions as a denotative localization of homosexuality and makes it available for subjection to a more programmatic construction. Changing the genre-accepted genders of characters can—and in the case of Veronica Mars’ season 4, does—serve the connotative purpose of subsuming potentially queer content into cis-heteronormative gender and sexuality structures, diminishing the content’s representative threat to existing power structures. When it is only connotative, queerness in texts can be relegated to the implied and thus deniable or avoidable, rather than overtly denotative and thus subject to reactionary queerphobic response, whether legal or social.
So what exactly is at stake in regendering narratives? Most work in this area has been located in fan studies, where regendering is a key feature of creative fanwork. Lucy Baker identifies regendering within this framework as a form of feminist praxis that seeks to disrupt gendering in conservative media industries, though also it also has a needee function within mainstream media’s liberal model of gender representation. Moreover, much regendering reiterates the extant gender binary, as evidenced by popular terms for the fanwork genre like “genderswap” and Rule 63, an Internet rule predicated on the idea that there exists a counterpart of the “opposite gender” for each existing character. Moves toward terms like “genderbend” and “genderfuck” make a clearer effort to disrupt this binary, but as Alexis Lothian notes, much of the function of this regendering is to heterosexualize what would otherwise be queer romantic narratives, due to the predominance of developed masculine main characters.
Television producers face a pressure to heterosexualize narratives by reframing existing genre tropes with feminine protagonists. Of course, such a demand arises from a media landscape that underrepresents women, but it also works against efforts to address underrepresentation of queer individuals in similar cultural products. This is further evidenced by the tendency in such regendered work to shift the kind of behavior assigned as well as social positioning for regendered characters. In Veronica Mars, homme fatal Logan first exhibits violent hyper-masculinity, particularly in the first three seasons wherein he hosts fights, is arrested for murder, and generally serves as the narrative’s “bad boy.” However, season 4 reimagines his social positioning, playing it against Veronica’s in a way that allows the script to disrupt traditional gender expectations and provide potential for the re-evaluation, destabilizing, and reworking of gender.
In fanwork, whether a reworking occurs or whether systemic gender expectations are instantly brought to bear upon regendered characters’ behavior in largely depends on individual fan creators’ own motivations and social preconceptions. In general, fanwork allows for much more variation (and thus, slippage in the role of the trope itself) than do traditional media modes. However, some exploration of variation still can be found in industrial versions of regendering like Veronica Mars.
Veronica Mars’ regendered (neo?-)noir
While the generic designation of noir refers primarily to an aesthetic structure—dark, dramatic lighting, gritty and severe mise-en-scène, and a focus on the silhouetted, shadowy figures of a storyline—it also draws a character picture that informs the structure of cast and narrative. Film noir has a particular mood, violent and eroticized, built through its titular low lighting and fractured, multidirectional storylines. These are told through unreliable narrators in noir’s damaged anti-heroes and morally corrupt supporting casts. Neo-noir is generally seen to incorporate the structures of traditional noir, often hybridized with other genres, and with more use of color than traditional noir.
Noir masculinity is typically located in the central investigating protagonist and centers “around toughness, honor, incorruptibility and slick, street-smart charm.” Historically, noir is ambivalent about traditional expectations of masculinity, rather “veering away from a masculinity emphasizing control, strength, heterosexual pursuit, and self-mastery and instead finds [the noir protagonist] dissembling, hysterical, fragmented.” The protagonist, however, generally remains focused within this fragmentation on his investigation and on reasserting control. Typically, his masculinity is based on the idea that control, strength, and importantly heterosexuality have been the province of the typically cisgender male protagonist before the case and/or his encounter with the femme fatale. Much of noir sees the protagonist working to retain or regain that masculinity, often by solving a mystery.
Veronica emerged in season one as the jaded narrating investigator, hardboiled as nails because of the murder of her best friend and her own experience of date rape at a high school party. Andrea Braithwaite notes that Veronica is, more than another iteration of the rise of the female detective, a “chick dick” in her dual characterization as teen drama lead and noir private investigator. As noir investigator, she is committed to finding the truth at all costs, in service of a moral agenda that is entirely her own. Mobilizing the “chick” aspect of her character is also key. As Alaine Martaus notes, Veronica is accomplished at leveraging her perceived gender, alongside age and inexperience, in many performative iterations to achieve her end goal—typically the solving of a mystery. Her general characterization has stayed constant throughout the series, including the film, largely through narration and through her interaction with other characters, especially those who emerge as foils. Veronica’s regendering of the masculine detective is accomplished by her hardnosed persona as well as her father Keith Mars’ (Enrico Colantoni) own role as past sheriff and current private investigator. The “wrong body” aspect of Veronica’s teenaged “chick dick” incursion into investigation becomes less pronounced in season 4, however, as she has aged and gained institutional qualifications for her work.
Veronica's position as a private eye was tenuous and implied in the first three seasons of the series, but it becomes institutionalized by her age and law degree in season four, alongside her many years of experience. Again, experience often characterizes the backstory of traditional noir detectives, even as they personally descend into fragmentation. Young, fatherless foil Mattie Ross (Izabela Vidovic) does considerable work in season 4 to showcase the liminal, deemed-inappropriate roots of Veronica’s detective persona. She takes on Veronica’s original series role—a plucky, traumatized teenager left largely to her own devices who is sarcastically and inexorably sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Veronica first rejects Mattie and then takes some apparent responsibility for training her and providing her with protection via her emblematic taser. The narrative never calls upon Veronica to nurture Mattie, however, and in allowing her to provide distanced mentoring and guidance perhaps provides viewers with some hints of the less-normative regendering that Baker seeks in fanfiction.
The writers regularly incorporate jokes that Veronica, in joining the family business, has emasculated her father, who does take a backseat to much of the investigation. Narrative developments imply here that her move to formally embody the position of PI is contingent upon regendering at the expense of another and through her efforts to exert solitary control. Gendered access to the role of detective thus emerges as a zero-sum game, which is further emphasized by Veronica’s interaction with her homme fatal. Within noir plots generally, the detective’s efforts to restore control and masculinity are typically rather successful, if seen at the end with a bit of introspection about a difficulty returning to ‘normal’, especially in hardboiled fiction that is often serialized by following a detective (e.g., the Philip Marlowes and Sam Spades of the genre). Returning to normal often rests on the narrative abjection of noir’s femme fatale, often the root of the protagonist’s psychic fragmentation.