Why Isn't College Dramatic?
During the summer TV slump, I watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars again. Yes, the first season was great, the second was good, and the third was heeeeeeinous. Still. What puzzled me was why the third season was so bad. I mean there's the fact that they moved to a different network, and that they were forced to cut the stories shorter, so there was no season-long arc. The shorter stories turned the show's premise into schlock: high-concept detective TV. Like Hart to Hart.
But what was really the problem with season three was that the show suddenly focused on (young) adult female sexuality, and it totally went to pieces. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) In the first two seasons, Veronica was a nerd male fantasy: hot, smart, smart-ass, ass-kickin', and not at all scary with the sexual confidence 'n' stuff. She was a raped virgin. It was okay for white-hat-wearin' girls on this show to be virgins, or at least not sexually active.
But when she gets to college, it would look weird (i.e. non-normative) for her (and everybody else) to not be sexually active. And that's where the fantasy falls apart. Because for a hot chick who's that kickass to be sexually active, she has to be great in bed, too. And then she's suddenly beyond the nerd-boy's reach, not to mention scary. It's a dilemma, because for her to not be good in bed would kill the fantasy as well.
So suddenly the show has all of these weird sexual politics in it. The first story is about a serial campus rapist who shaves his victims' heads, just to make the power dynamic of a rape more visual. (Of course, it was completely ridiculous, b/c instead of actually shaving the actors' heads, they made them wear totally fake-looking fuzz-head wigs.) It's as if (showrunner) Rob Thomas had to balance out Veronica's suddenly active sexuality with a classic punishment for female sexuality.
Then he introduces what is apparently the only on-campus feminist group (at a private college? in California?) protesting the rapes (as if women who weren't outspoken feminists wouldn't be protesting serial rapes too: welcome to the 21st century you creep) who are a bunch of lying, cheating, conniving -- not to mention humorless -- bitches. He actually opposes da feminists to the lampoonists, two nerdy/misogynist guys who write a bad humor mag. As if the third wave of the most successful social justice movement of the last century -- which represents half of humanity, by the way -- was as trifling as a misogynist college humor mag. The "feminists" actually fake one of the rapes to make a point, an incredibly irresponsible thing to do in fiction in a culture that still blames rape victims and tries to scare them away from the very organizations that are there to help them. Gee, Rob, threatened much?
The second long story is a completely noirish story about the murder of a wealthy college dean, and the affair his young, beautiful wife is having with the hot, young professor. The wife isn't even an attempt at realism. Her hair is done forties-style, she dresses forties-style, and she has no personality, besides breathiness and lipstick. We, of course, never get to see her even kissing the hot young prof, although we do get to see him naked in a hotel room with her. (Why do we only get to see men in states of undress in this show? Could it be a fear of female sexuality?) And, of course, the hot-to-trot young wife is a femme fatale: she turns out to be the one who killed her husband and set up her lover to take the fall.
There's another story about a nerdy college boy whose friends hire a prostitute to take his virginity. He falls in love with her and hires Veronica to track her down, but then gets turned off to her when he realizes that her being a stripper and a prostitute isn't just an abstract concept: men are going to remember her and treat her accordingly. The show seems to think his hypocrisy is only natural, and rewards him for dumping his prosty girlfriend by giving him Veronica's best friend as a new girlfriend.
The problem here is clear: the male creator of the show didn't (doesn't?) understand adult female sexuality, and college is -- for people who go to college -- often or usually the place where sexuality blossoms and becomes adult. To write/create effective, realistic stories about girls becoming sexually active women, you have to understand how this happens.
Rape, usually date rape, is far too often a part of this. But the weird roofie-then-shave-head rape of Veronica Mars is most definitely not the usual way campus date rape happens. (Rob Thomas loves the roofie, by the way -- Veronica was roofied and raped in the first episode of the entire series. But far more often, the intoxicant of choice is simple booze.) And even -- or especially -- when rape doesn't happen, consensual sex in college is a very complicated mishmash of negotiation, persuasion, emotional blackmail, self-consciousness, wish-fulfillment, awkwardness, weird body issues, desperation, and, always always, desire. And that's just the women.
Because the cameras cut away the moment the bodies start getting horizontal, the real substance of a sexual liaison between very young adults is also cut away. There's a weird commitment, in this and all other shows, to making all consensual sex satisfying for both parties. (The first time in the series that we see Veronica in the afterglow, she's complimenting her 18-year-old boyfriend Logan on his sexual prowess by saying he could monetize it. That's not problematic at all.) Thus the weird, exciting, awkward, embarrassing, and above all, loooong sexual learning curve we go through throughout our twenties is compressed into a single encounter, and a whole new generation of late teens is subjected to a sexual inferiority complex.
Nobody ever shows a sexual encounter that is just as awkward and unpleasant as it is exciting and pleasurable. Nobody ever shows the young woman's sexual arc getting cut off before climax again and again as she (very slowly) learns to articulate her desires, and her young man partner learns (very slowly) to satisfy her. Instead of a multi-episode story arc in which Veronica complains embarrassedly and irritatedly to Mac that she's not getting off, and she and Mac puzzle over what they want and how to get their boyfriends to do it, instead we get super hot single girls being roofied, raped, and shaved, while Veronica looks unsympathetic and has sweaty orgiastic rock in a penthouse suite with a mysteriously game 18-year-old.
I remember the spring before I graduated, I and my equally 22-year-old friend took a road trip to San Diego to stick our toes in the ocean. We met two boys on the beach, 18 and 16, the elder of whom was trying to school the younger in picking up girls. We had the usual "how old are you?" discussion, which, at 22, was already becoming not so usual anymore. The boy told us "I'm 18, and I fuck like an 18-year-old, too!" My friend and I laughed and tried to convince him that wasn't a good thing. But beneath our overeager superiority and condescension, there was a very immediate realism informed by the four years of college we'd just been through, and the constant sexual disappointment we'd both experienced, plus our fairly recent awakening to the fact that good sex took a lot of work from both parties.
The highschooler was a veteran of sudden gropes and makeout sessions at parties. He hadn't yet gone through the process we'd gone through, which complicated sex and made it much more interesting, but also more confusing. It was an interesting moment, in retrospect, and meant much more than we thought it did at the time.
I could go on, but I think I've made my point about Veronica Mars (which also applies to Buffy): kickass, hot, young, girl-things aren't necessarily evidence of feminism in their male creators.
But all this got me to thinking about why it is that there aren't any compelling dramas about college life. College always ends up being a joke in popular culture. This came up for me a few years ago when I was a devotee of Yahoo! Answers (where people ask questions and anyone can try to answer them. I was there mainly for the book recommendations.) Someone asked for recommendations of novels about college life, and wondered why this didn't seem to be a genre, in the way that YA high school novels were. People had a hard time coming up with titles (as did I.) The only one that anyone could think of was The Secret History. (I also thought of Brideshead Revisited but I don't really consider that a college novel, since the college part was just a prelude to the midlife crisis part.)
I think part of it is that, similar to Rob Thomas and female sexuality in Veronica Mars, people see and understand the difference between adolescence and adulthood, but don't seem to be aware of, or able to articulate, the process of moving from one to the other. Of course, for the half of the U.S. population that doesn't go to college, the transition between high school graduate and working adult is technically immediate. There's no discrete period of years or distinct set experience that is considered the coming of age moment. That's a large part of why college is considered so important: it's a distinct coming-of-age process that set off from the rest of the world -- age segregated -- and that is opaque to anyone who's not in it.
This opacity is bizarre to me. Half of us go through it. Why is it so hard for us to understand what happened? My boss of four years has a daughter who was fifteen when I started working for her and who was nineteen and coming out of her first year of college when I stopped working for her. I remember the girl being very shy and self-conscious and unable to talk to grownups like me in high school. Then she disappeared for nine months and came back from her first year of college smart, confident, firm, and able to look me in the eye, shake my hand, and ask me adult questions about how I was and what I was doing. The transformation was dramatic.
I remember my freshman year myself. A lot happened, and I came back physically as well as emotionally different. But if I tried right now to narrate the incidents and trends that led me to dress differently, stand up straight, and represent myself with confidence to hundreds of strangers (I canvassed for a PIRG that summer) it would sound trifling and inconsequential. (There was a couple I befriended with a Doberman puppy. There were desperate makeout sessions with a guy friend I wasn't attracted to in a baseball dugout. There was a high-school-best-friend breakup scene long distance on the phone. There were mosh pits and vomit and second-hand clothing stores. There were various physical and emotional transformations happening throughout my family that I was leaving behind. There were certain dreams and desires collapsing, and other ones aborning. Need I go on?)
Why is it that everything that happens in college seems humorous or unimportant, like first world problems? Even when you're talking about the kids who have to work full time during school, or who have to take care of ailing parents, or of their own kids, or deal with illness or disability or abusive relationships, etc. etc. Even then, while the problems aren't inconsequential, somehow they don't seem as serious in narrative as the same problems in teenagerhood or in adulthood.
Maybe it's that the coming of age that happens in college is always triumphal (unless it culminates in someone dropping out.) Graduating from college, in our society, is in effect sealing your membership in the educated classes. Even if you work at McDonald's for the rest of your life, you'll never be less than middle class (whatever that means these days.) And you don't have to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. This is always viewed as an accomplishment, meritorious, a permanent safe passage.
There's also the fact that college life is protected. High schoolers are protected as well, but they're a part of "real life," being part of families of people "out in the real world" dealing with problems in all classes, races, sectors, neighborhoods. Teens are dramatically transforming people half in and half out of childhood, but part of the totality of society. College, however, even city colleges and community colleges in urban campuses, are still physically and psychologically set off from the rest of the world.
This awareness of the special protectedness of college life and the privilege it confers is probably an enormous part of why, in this supremely class-conscious society, we don't take college drama very seriously. Especially not the people who go through it. There's some sort of merit in acknowledging privilege not by straightforwardly acknowledging it, but by tearing oneself or one's own peers down for being privileged.
I think what I just said above is true, but it doesn't feel like the whole story. Any ideas? Why isn't college fictionally dramatic?