The other night, I was unable to sleep as per usual, so I e-ran over to Hulu and popped in to see what shows were starting back up. Lo and behold, Law & Order: SVU has started back up! Considering it was around 4am and my choices were to re-watch another Daily Show or eat yet another Skinny Cow ice cream bar to keep my mind preoccupied and off my stressful stuff, I opted for L&O. The lengthy two-part season premiere wasn’t great: despite any kind of intensely bad situation happening to the characters, it’s a low risk show at all times since you know the main folks will always be just fine.
But that isn’t why I’ve realized I really, really don’t like the show any longer. And while I was planning on writing this eventually anyway, I was pointed in the direction of “What Is It With Women and Law & Order: SVU?” and I realized just how much I needed to explain my disdain.
Before I appear judgmental, believe me: I have seen nearly every episode of Law & Order: SVU that there is. I used to TiVo every marathon and loved how incredibly addictive it is. I’m a huge Christopher Meloni fan, in part because of his character on Oz and in part because he’s damned attractive. Even though I got sick of every character’s face being partially hidden by lighting that would never be used in an actual police station, I never grew tired of that jawline and the way his eyes always looked like he was debating between hugging somebody or tossing them off a bridge. But I digress.
The fact of the matter is that my anger for Law & Order: SVU goes far beyond the Case of the Missing Meloni. It’s more than the repetitive “Benson is a tough cop with a heart of old, but she’s strong so nuh-uh to relationships for her!” bit. It’s more than the fact that every person seems to be suffering from an incredibly rare illness that B. D. Wong can diagnose after one conversation. It’s about the realization of how horrible the show actually is.
No, it’s the fact that I spent years watching this show while doing the same wrestling I feel when I watch an actor who abused his wife or one of my favorite movies that’s unfortunately directed by a pedophile, except worse. Instead of just feeling like I’m indirectly supporting a terrible person, I feel like I’m directly supporting a morally negative show. Every time I see an increasingly violent introduction — after all, keeping viewers watching after Stabler’s departure isn’t easy — or another quick, painless carrying out of justice against a perpetrator, I get sick. They’ve increased how violent and how long their rape scenes are which, though I believe rape should be depicted in ugly, ugly realism, is obviously stylized and done for ratings and to maintain the interest of people who, let’s be honest, are okay with watching increasingly fucked up rape scenes.
Believe me, I get it: horrifying things are interesting. Rape is horrifying. So by my own logic, rape is therefore “interesting.” It is not, however, entertaining and I think that’s where SVU crosses the line into exploitative.
This is extremely dangerous. Dispersing the association of rape and normalcy among the general public is very, very bad, but we know that already: that’s why rape jokes can be so dangerous, that’s why ads depicting women drunk “causing their own rapes” is dangerous. Pretending it’s normal and entertaining, even, to see people raped and go through that process is nothing short of terrible. Rape is common, but it will never be normal.
The show is thirteen years old (yes, really); shouldn’t it have had some sort of bar mitzvah and grown up finally? Instead, I just feel like it’s evolving into that gross kid who grows a little tinted hair over his lip and starts punching the people he previously only taunted. It’s still using the same formula as ever: finding women’s bodies in parks, getting people riled up and then resolving in a convoluted ending using several misrepresentations of the legal system.
Most industries are given exaggeration on TV, particularly ones about difficult-to-convey jobs that are usually somewhat boring and need to be made exciting for both fictional and “reality” — medicine, pawn shops, living in NJ, bidding on stupid effing storage containers every day… The legal system is no different: it’s slow and arduous and mostly dull. So it only makes sense for Law & Order: SVU to be able to do that, too, right? Wrong. Few misrepresentations of an industry will harm a viewer quite as much as a distortion of the legal system.
How does it do so? By continuously showing sexual assault survivors:
1) Being treated by cops who always give a shit. This isn’t accurate. They won’t always take your case home with them, they won’t always show up to protect you at 3am when they’re off-duty, they won’t adopt your kid because you’re depressed. Although I never pursued any of my rapists, every woman I know who has faced numerous hurdles to jump within their local police departments.
2) Being treated by cops who will give a shit until your damn case is solved. But that’s also not how it is: even with a rape kit , results are slow. Cops don’t usually have time to run around your city, visiting every lead just in case there might be a Houselike revelation lying in between some couch cushions.
3) The legal system’s workers all function together as BFFEs. Again, wrong: the separation between the police and the justice system is often a large one. Even if things work out involving the police department, sometimes people simply won’t try cases. One girl I know, who spoke at a Take Back The Night the same evening I did, had to call in a favor — after being beaten and raped while drunk — just to get her testimony heard by a judge, who promptly threw it out. Why? The evidence had been “lost” and there was no “real” proof and her testimony, which had been taped (the tape was also lost), had been transcribed completely differently than what she said. In the transcribed version, they made it appear that she admitted to wanting to sleep with her rapist and then did so willingly. Case thrown.
On the one hand, I want to not be so pissed about these misrepresentations because, at the very least, they could lead to more people believing our justice system is easy to work with and opting to report rapes they may not have otherwise. But that shouldn’t be necessary, of course: our justice system should make it clear they always give a shit. Plus, ingraining the idea of a specific expected experience for a victim to go through might cause further trauma when they realize their expectations are routinely being smashed by reality.
Personal example: I was assaulted during college, I wanted to get a rape kit because I wanted the option of pressing charges (being an “imperfect victim” steered me away from what might’ve happen, though) and when I called the hospital nearby that did them, I was told I could only go ahead with the exam if I talked to the police, who would then investigate and “likely press charges, pending evidence.” I had just assumed from television for years that you could just drop charges or have the option open if you wanted, but since that decision would be taken out of my hands, I decided not to go ahead with the kit at all. Instead, I drank a bottle of vodka and took a shower — a decision anybody in their right mind would know wasn’t a good one — but I was shocked that I couldn’t even control my own response, let alone what happened legally in response to me.
Plus, the show — which supposedly tries to break down stereotypes — frequently just feeds into them. Though Benson regularly comments on women not “deserving” rape, they so, so frequently make the victims drunk women walking home alone, then comment on that factor. Apparently, women need to feel even more unsafe about walking alone, despite having every goddamned right to do so without fear of being raped. The rape victims who are promiscuous regularly lie to the cop,s while the ones who are “innocent” are shown near-angelically… until they find some deep, dark, repressed sexual secret which “led to” the woman being raped.
It also pretends to empathize with the victims, but in actuality, it creates pity for them. The few survivors shown to be strong and together often wind up killing their attackers because apparently, the writers believe nobody can move on with their lives unless somebody gets murdered. I can’t speak for all rape survivors, but for me and most that I know, pity is not a good fucking feeling. I don’t like feeling as though I’m being looked at with teary-eyed “dawww, poor wittle girl” stares when people hear I’ve been raped.
As the writer of that Gawker article I posted earlier pointed out, “at least someone’s talking about rape.” But I don’t accept that as a good reason. They could have done something really, truly interesting with this show by completely humanizing the survivors of sexual assault, they could’ve created a dialogue about one of the most incredibly huge issues of our (and all) time; instead, the only dialogue between most of us who have seen several episodes are, “Oh my god did you see the one where the identical twin turns out to be a guy and the shrink is making them simulate sex?” or “Oh oh I already know it was the boyfriend, he just looks guilty.”
All of this on a normal show would be expected, but the fact is that our culture still has yet to accept that rape is an epidemic that continues every moment of every day (to be fair, this is how most cultures tend to view most epidemics). Perpetuating misinformation regarding sexual assault, its victims, its legal proceedings, its emotional impact… that’s irresponsible television. It’s not entertainment. It’s just watching several rape scenes and justifying it with, “WELL IT’S FAKE AND LATER THAT GUY GETS ARRESTED.” It’s not Irreversible, it’s not trying to unglamourize rape; it does the opposite and covers itself in false concern.
Yes, my title was not as clever as I would’ve liked, but it is along the lines of what I would like to say to Dick Wolf. I know he won’t read this, I know none of the cast or crew will, and even if they did — could I really change their minds? No. Will angry SVU fans descend upon my e-doorstep and tell me that it’s “just entertainment” and to “not take it so seriously”? Almost definitely. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hope with every piece of me that sexual violence will stop being seen as some sort of fucked up entertainment to be repeated, in increasing levels, over and over.
Images: USA Network, NBC and SeanDenoyer.