Monday, June 12, 2006

Veronica Mars - Trauma Is Good For You?

I'm about three quarters of the way through my Next Big Teen Show, Veronica Mars (or at least the first season of it), and am really enjoying it. It's as smart and funny and well-acted as everyone says. You should watch it.

The conceit of the show is that Veronica is a kid detective. Not your light-weight Bloodhound Gang-type detective, but your full-on crafty private dick. In the ever-widening spectrum of teen sleuths, she's stylistically somewhere between Nancy Drew and the kid from the recent movie Brick. She's abnormally resourceful, witty, and fearless. She's also alienated and has a terrible reputation at school (not at all uncommon for a teen drama). So what made her this way? Flashbacks reveal that she used to be one of the flighty popular girls (shades of Buffy, pre-slayerhood). Then her best friend was found murdered, her parents got divorced, and she was slipped a mickey at a party and likely raped. And now she's ever so cool!

This seeming contradiction isn't exclusive to teen drama. All drama is driven by conflict and extremes, and heroes are often flawed or damaged or otherwise made complicated and/or sympathetic. The cliche that whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger is at the heart of many a story. But showing trauma as empowering for fictional teens has become quite a trend lately. Harry Potter is basically neglected and abused through his entire childhood, but comes out a lot more well-adjusted than his spoiled cousin. Then, when a friend is killed before his eyes, it gives him the special power to see things others can't.

I hate to be PC about this, but I have some good friends who work with traumatized kids every day, and know sexual abuse rarely transforms someone into a super-intelligent crime fighter (at least not initially). So why is this convention powerful? The kids in these stories are usually drawn in contrast to a community of spoiled and unselfconscious preppies (the rich kids at Neptune High, the blue-blood legacy wizards at Hogwarts, the "newpsies" of The O.C.'s Newport Beach). What makes them strong is whatever makes them different from the kids who get everything they want. It's less a comment on trauma, perhaps, then on contemporary perceptions of youth. So we seem to be back into a phase of: our kids are spoiled and need some tough love. And I was just getting used to the related but more adult-centered criticism: we're too overprotective and quick to medicate.


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