Originally published online at Screen Queens. February 21, 2018.
It almost does not need to be said that the history of storytelling is ineluctably intertwined with variations of the “hysterical woman” trope. From Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus to scripted reality shows like The Bachelor, entertainment has always taken the body of woman and made her into a thing to be tamed (or “castrated” a la Freud). The media has so often punished women for wanting successful careers, sexual expression and autonomy. We are always-already in an impossible bind.
I had hoped for something refreshing in American Vandal. Admittedly, a show about a dick-drawing scandal is probably not the best place to look for female empowerment. But as it is a show that sets out to deconstruct so many tropes, and indigts (while also simultaneously feeds) the spectator’s desire to know and to participate in the investigation as it unfolds, I had hoped for some kind of subversiveness related to gender roles. Sadly, American Vandal does not hold back on shaming women. In fact, the lynchpin of Dylan’s supposed innocence is tied to his girlfriend’s infidelity. What’s most crushing is that Christa emerges as the likely culprit by the season’s end.
I wonder, though, could the very fact that we think of Christa–an intelligent, empowered woman and an activist in her own right–as the drawer of the vandal dicks, be the show’s biggest troll of all? Is it the ultimate subversive move that we leave thinking that she is guilty, simply because she may have had the motive to do so, was ambitious and Tracy Flick-esque? I hold out hope that creators Tony Perrault and Tony Yacenda intended for the spectator to criticize every piece of knowledge that they would give us, to distrust the clues they provide and have us ask ourselves why we might hold certain value judgments over the characters, especially when those judgments intersect with gender.
How often, I find, we watch something and love something, only to be incensed by its ending. I find myself feeling that way after watching American Vandal. But I wonder if perhaps endings do not need to serve the purpose of tying, teasing disparate threads together. Certainly, with true crime series and satirizations of the genre, the goal is not for things to come together, but for the ambiguities to haunt and gnaw at us. If we read American Vandal as a relatively straight-forward story where the culprit is all but revealed, then even still we can be satisfied that the more subversive elements of the show–its satirization of truth claims, high school politics, social worth–can exist concurrently with the seemingly neat ending?
That is to say, a neat ending can never be truly neat if the show makes allowances for alternative readings elsewhere. Even if Christa is the culprit, and that one woman’s infidelity all but vindicates another man, is it enough that the show makes room for the possibility that all of the social constructs that have been built inside and outside of the screen–including oppressive gender norms–are as ridiculous as the penises hastily spray-painted in the teacher’s parking lot? Is the spectator the real dick for furthering regressive social codes?