Last week I posted this link by Lisa Schmeiser at BitchMedia on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
The post at Bitch provoked a bit of discussion that mirrored the feminist controversy surrounding the show and similar crime dramas over the past few years. Last week I promised to weigh in in greater detail so I’m going to condense the results of some undergraduate research I presented at a conference in 2007 (The same year I tackled heterosexism in March of the Penguins) on representations of violence against women in Law and Order: SVU.
My goal here is not to suck the fun out of a show you like, but to point out why we need to care about the messages we get from popular culture and to encourage reflection.
*Note: some stats may be slightly out of date
Introduction – Why Care about TV Representations?
- SVU first aired in 1999 and is now in its 11th season. It focuses on a team of heroic detectives who solve sexually motivated crimes and child abuse cases.
- Realism on television can impact our perceptions of reality. Law and Order: SVU has over 14 million viewers in the United States alone each week, making it a leading source of information on violence against women.
- Anti: Some feminists have argued SVU puts forward a “postfeminist” view of the world, meaning that it neutralizes feminist issues by praising “girly heroines” and glamorizing violence against women without including analysis of gender inequality.
- Pro: Official publicity for SVU points out the awards the show has received and been nominated for by community-based organizations like GLAAD and the NAACP. The show’s creators also argue SVU raises important issues often overlooked in mainstream media, such as violence against transgendered people. They also point out that cast and crew take an active role outside of work addressing the issues seen on the show. For example, lead actress Mariska Hargitay is a trained rape crisis counsellor and has founded a charity for surivors of sexual assault.
I’d been a fan of the show since its inception, but I decided to take a deeper look at its messages. To investigate the arguments made by feminist scholars and the show’s creators I undertook content analysis of a random sample of episodes, two each from from Seasons 1 through 7, omitting episodes that did not deal with violence against women.
Content analysis showed that both the feminist scholars who critiqued the show and the community organizations who praise it make valid points.
SVU as Postfeminist:
- Violence against women is often sensationalized through visuals and explicit dialogue without accompanying analysis of the gendered inequalities that lead to violence against women.
- Main female characters are archetypal postfeminist heroines. Mizejewski describes a postfeminist heroine as “the savvy woman who no longer needs political commitment…enjoys feminine consumerist choices, and whose preoccupations…involve romance, career choices, and hair gels.” (2005, p. 122). I found there were definitely times when the main female characters came across as more pretty than gritty.
- Case in point – Detective Olivia Benson: Benson is frequently victimized throughout the show, including her being stalked in Seasons 1 and 3, and more recently (after I did this research) she is sexually assaulted while undercover in a prison. Also, throughout the series there are several reference to how Benson pays a lot of attention to her appearance, including in Season 3 where she says she “owns enough hair products to open [her] own salon.” In Season 7 she plays one episode almost entirely in evening wear on the premise she got called into work from a date.
SVU as Progressive:
- However, SVU also does attempt to raise awareness of some neglected issues and often advocates for changes that could be seen as feminist. For example, in Season 1 detectives argue for a stronger anti-stalking statute to protect women. Several episodes have also advocated for a crack-down in trafficking in women into sexual slavery in the United States.
- SVU also explicitly encourages women to report sexual assaults by showing women who refuse to be silenced and feel empowered by speaking out after their attacks.
Law and Order: SVU treads a fine line between postfeminist and progressive representations of violence against women. With at least 1.2 million women raped each year in the US alone, we need to question the types of messages in shows like SVU that focus almost entirely on similar crimes.