Law & Order: SVU: Reproducing Rape Myths Or Working Against Them?


Shakesville‘s Melissa McEwan has a great piece about the television series Law & Order: SVU. She concludes that the negative aspects of the show greatly outweigh the positives. I’m not so sure.

Almost all of the issues brought up by Melissa can be easily dismissed with the simple excuse: it’s television, and television is ridiculous. She calls Special Victims Unit unrealistic, but in an age where “reality” TV is about as close to real life as an episode of Lost, bemoaning lack of accurate representation seems almost beside the point. The same can be said of her other issues: producers’ ridiculous tendency to put a huge twist into every episode that completely changes the original case? Necessary for entertainment value! The absurdly attractive victims (including cherubic children)? Well, on American TV, even a character named “Ugly Betty” is played by a stunning actress, so what else would you expect?

However, these things that wouldn’t bother me, that would be easy to dismiss in almost any other show, become problematic when pretty much the entire premise of the series is about sexual assault. McEwan notes that SVU has some very good episodes, which deal with surviving and prosecuting rape in a honest and helpful way, but the writers also frequently rely on plot twists that discredit victims and vindicate the wrongly-accused man. She’s right in pointing out that SVU is designed to exploit victims’ stories, but so is the rest of the Law & Order franchise. The fact that SVU deals primarily with “sex crimes” (some episodes are about child neglect/abandonment, not sexual abuse), makes it difficult to enjoy even a single episode without feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the whole thing.

But I do enjoy it, at least for the most part. I’ve seen almost every episode of SVU, and despite some feelings of discomfort, I keep going back. One of the greatest draws of the Law & Order series is that it asks you to think about the moral dilemmas surrounding each crime. SVU has been the impetus for some really important discussions about issues I might otherwise have never brought up, with people who may not normally think about the uncomfortable reality of sexual assault.

But unfortunately, many of the problems Melissa points out have become especially obvious in the most recent seasons. As the series struggles to stay entertaining, it has veered further and further into the realm of gratuitous violence and undisguised voyeurism. The most obvious example of this is an episode from Season 9 titled "Undercover," in which Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) comes terrifyingly close to being raped. The clip at left shows the attempted rape of Detective Benson in horrifically graphic detail. (FYI: the only clip I could find of the scene is a tribute video with a terrible song, so play it with the sound off.) Watching it is extremely unsettling. Even though they get the guy in the end, the prolonged struggle is disturbing. Was it necessary? Does this episode contribute anything to the discourse about rape? I would say no on both counts. If this is where Law & Order is going, I may have to stop watching.

Although McEwan’s main gripe is that SVU does not accurately represent the reality of rape, I think the larger, more interesting issue is the fact that the show exists at all. There is something slightly off about using stories of assault for entertainment value, even if the larger narrative is one of justice and vindication. Which begs the question: is it possible to build a television show around the greater issue of sexual assault without exploiting the real-life victims or commodifying rape? Can the positives (increased discussion about rape, sexual assault, victim-blaming, and the like) ever overcome the negatives?

L&O: SVU [Shakesville]

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